All About Agents

The question I’m asked more than any other is: “How did you get your first book published?” And I always give the same answer: “I got an agent.”

There are, of course, always exceptions. If your mom works for one of the Big Six (publishers), you probably don’t have to do anything but show up and smile to get published. If you’re on a hit TV show, chances are you’ll have a book deal thrown at you. If you have a popular blog with millions of hits and lots of famous online friends, the publishers might come to you. To those people, I’d still say: get an agent. Now.

What Does An Agent Do?
On a nuts-and-bolts level, an agent will take your book proposal or manuscript and sell it to the publishers. You write, turn it in to your agent, and they do everything else. They know exactly who might like your work, how that person likes to be contacted, and will handle the follow-up, feedback, and frequent communications required in publishing. All of this leaves the author alone to do what they do best: write more.

On an emotional level, an agent is your fairy godmother. They bring magic into your life. A good agent will be a mentor, mother, sister, best friend, protector, defender, cheerleader, therapist, and sharp businessperson all in one. They’ll be part of an agency that makes their authors feel like family.
WHCard

Every year my agency sends out a Christmas card featuring a drawing of their building by one of their amazing illustrators (Writers House is actually comprised of two spectacular historical adjacent houses built by brothers William Waldorf and John Jacob Astor III in 1881). The image at the right is from the 2009 card by Gilbert Ford. If you have children, you may recognize his work from the covers of dozens of popular books, including “The Name of this Book is Secret” by Pseudonymous Bosch. His website is wonderful: www.gilbertford.com!

Where Are The Good Agents Located?
There are agents all over the country, mostly on the East and West Coast. The best ones, however, are in New York City. Yes, Los Angeles has its fair share of agents (probably more per capita than anywhere else on Earth). But they are mostly talent agents. You want a literary agent. Hollywood is in LA. Publishing is in NYC.

There are literary agents in LA, but most of them work for large talent agencies in their literary department. It’s exciting to think about being represented by William Morris or ICM or CAA because they also have Tom Cruise and Ellen DeGeneres, but the reality is, they also have Tom Cruise and Ellen DeGeneres. You’ll never get the attention you deserve at a giant Hollywood agency. The best choice is a well-respected literary agency in New York that only represents authors.

Do I Have to Live in New York to Get An Agent from New York?
No. Actors do have to move where the work is. Authors can work from anywhere. And the agents in NYC represent authors from all over the country. In most scenarios, you’ll do all of your agent interviewing and selecting over the phone. I didn’t meet either of my agents in person until months after they’d gotten me book deals.

Can I Have More Than One Agent?
Not at one time, no. Agents are exclusive. To have more than one agent sending out your work is akin to a sin in publishing. A mortal sin. So choose wisely. (Although it can be difficult to get even one agent interested in you. Nicholas Sparks sent out query letters to 25 different agents and only heard back from one who was actually just going through the correspondence of someone he’d written that had recently died!)

You can of course change agents as you develop in your writing career or if you find you don’t have a personality fit, but it’s wise to interview anyone interested in you just as they will interview you. My first agent was a lovely girl, much younger than me, spunky and adorable, but about to get married and thinking about leaving the business. My current agent is a maven of Manhattan. She’s been with my agency for 25 years, before that she was the editor-in-chief at St. Martin’s, and she represents an amazingly diverse roster of talent.

What To Look For in An Agent
Someone who used to be an editor is a gold mine because they can help you perfect your work before you submit it. I believe that the more experience an agent has, the better, because it means they know more people, but that’s not to say a young agent just starting out won’t be your perfect fit.

Ideally, you want an agent who is patient and has time for you. A big name player isn’t always a great idea for a first-time author because you need an agent that can teach you. I cannot overstate how the wisdom of my agent has made me a better writer. A much, much better writer.

Obviously you want someone nice, but I’d say almost every agent I’ve ever met was really nice. They’re in the business of selling talent, so they kind of have to be. Not everyone will love you or your work of course, but there is someone out there who will believe in you! You just have to find them.

How Much Does An Agent Charge?
Hear me carefully: agents shouldn’t charge authors anything. They receive a percentage of an author’s earnings once a book is sold; the standard rate is 15 percent (and worth every single penny!). The publisher will send checks to your agent, your agent will take their commission out, and will draft you a new check. You should never, ever be writing a check to your agent.

If you come across an agent who has any kind of upfront fees–signing fees, editing fees, service fees, whatever fees–run the other direction. They are not trustworthy.

How Do I Find An Agent?
The same way 99 percent of all the writers you’ve ever heard of found one: like this.

>> NEXT: How to Get An Agent