Field Guide for the Pursuit of the Elusive North American Literary Agent — Part One

(Part One – The Opening Sequence)

There comes a time in every author’s life when a cruel yet necessary part begins to emerge from the depths of the shadows. It is viewed as nefarious and honored at the same time, a part of the author life that everyone must go through at one point or another. It is… The Hunt for the Literary Agent.

(cue dramatic Russian music)

I spoke with Amanda about this and she agreed that I should blog my experiences as an established author hunting for a literary agent for all to see. So let’s get one thing out in the open first: this is a learning experience for all involved, be it me or the potential agent. For on one hand, I don’t see the need for an agent. I’ve sold 20 or 21 professional works at this point of my career (it’s bad when you can’t remember without looking at the spreadsheet), and have more work under contract than quite a few SFWA members have ever managed to publish. So no, my ego proclaims with much gusto, I don’t need no stinking agent!

And yet…

The other hand knows, for it is not deluded by its success. It is a pessimist and a realist. It knows what darkness lies in the hearts of men (and women, just to be inclusive here). There is a gatekeeper process in publishing. It used to be the editors and the publishing houses themselves who acted in this manner, finding the gleaming jewel midst the mountainous piles of crap. Wearing thigh-high muck boots they tirelessly slogged through the steaming heaps of dung in search for the Holy Grail. You think I’m kidding, but the amount of utter feces and turds of novels (I had to crack open a Thesaurus today to hunt for synonyms of the word “shit”) that editors were forced to deal with.

Somewhere along the road the agent began acting in a similar manner. No more did agents say “I want to represent you, send me your best!” No, agency submissions became as stringent (if not more so) as the publishing houses. In return, the benefit of this meant that publishers had more time to go through more queries. That’s the theory I’m going with, that is. In actuality… I have no idea if this is how it works. See? A learning experience already.

I’ve had exactly one agent over the course of 6 years (November 30, 2010 is the exact date, for those wanting to know) since I broke into this business and while Bob was a pretty nice guy I have no comparison as to how good of an agent he was. Besides, he was an agent for only one book (per the contract) so there was no need to continue working with him if I had any doubts. Again, there’s nothing preventing me from reaching out to him to see about further representation, but at this time I’ve decided to be a research subject and up the search.

The first two days of the search brought me to the Preditors & Editors (henceforth to be known as P&E because I hate seeing that much red in my spell-checker) site, something I used a long time ago when I was a wee lad looking to publish my first book. Unfortunately, the site is not very intuitive, and unless you know the name of the agent you want to search for you’re kinda surfing through thousands of names until you find one that jumps out at you. Now, it’s not an entire waste of time, because I can Google an author’s name and add “literary agent for” and, nine times out of ten, the agent for the author comes up. I use this method because it allows me to find authors who have similar writing styles and voice, and so I know that the agent could be familiar with how I write. Or if you have a desire to be represented by the same guy who represents Stephen King, who knows. Everyone’s wants and needs are different.

Well, once you do that, you can type in their name at the P&E and see if they are a legitimate agent or if they’re one of those bilking clients for “extra fees”. Even though the P&E website looks as if it were built in 1999 it still possesses a plethora of information about authors and publishers alike. It mentions whether or not an agent is recommend3ed, not recommended, and even has some flagged as agents to avoid at all costs. Outside of dropping $29.99 (or however much that book costs now) for a copy of the 2017 Writer’s Market (and oftentimes a few publishers they list have already gone out of business before the book hit the stands), P&E is probably the most complete tool to use for your initial search.

However, I discovered that the guys I write like do not have literary agents. They have such a good relationship with their publisher or are knowledgeable enough in contract work to be able to fend for themselves and be successful authors. I pretty much have nothing to go on except “I know a guy” and “Have you tried…?”

So I started small. I Googled “literary agent” and started scrolling through the long (and I do mean long) list of potential agents. I found lots of agencies who deal with fiction. I start to parse through the names, looking for recognizable without immediately jumping on the “big guns” like Donald Maass. I am looking for the right agent, one who can match me personally with the publisher who would work the best to ensure that my book does well and everyone enjoys the experience. That might be wishful thinking on my part, but I’d like to think that an enjoyable working relationship means that everyone wants to do it again.

The list is long and shows no sign of nearing an end. I decided to make camp for the night and rest as the first few days of my hunt for the elusive North American Literary Agent (litterae procurator americana) come to an end.


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21 responses to “Field Guide for the Pursuit of the Elusive North American Literary Agent — Part One

  1. Laura M

    I tried to find an agent for my first book before I quite understood about indie publishing. One mistake I made was to write to one at a time and wait to hear back before writing to the next one. I was extremely hopeful and optimistic with that first book, and held a deep and abiding conviction that the first person I wrote to was going to agree to represent me, so I didn’t want the pain of de-writing to others. Hah!

    Learning that the agents themselves did not share my deep and abiding conviction took me months and months. Then I sent it to the three SF houses that accepted work over the transom. There went a year.

    My take away from all this was that one should write to 25 agents simultaneously. Then another 25. I’m not going to, but others may learn from my mistakes.

  2. I did what Laura M. did – write or emailed twenty-five or so at a go – which did save time.
    I did have a close brush with an agent, who was recommended by another mil-blogger who had a book out, and I think must have recommended me to the agent, The agent read a sample chapter on line, asked for the whole thing, and loved it … but said, regretfully, that he didn’t think he could market it to an established NY publisher. He did give me great feedback and a lot of good advice, though, so it wasn’t wasted.

    I put that advice to use when I went searching again when I had my second book ready to go. Alas, some nibbles, but it was a regional novel, and all the agencies are in New York, it seems … Parochial isn’t just for schools, any more…

  3. Cupcakes, crumpets and cookies – …where did the snickerdoodles go!?

  4. Thaaanks, Jason, now I’ve got “Hymn to Red October” as an earworm. 🙂

  5. Uncle Lar

    It’s my understanding that what literary agents have become is the gatekeepers to the vestibule and waiting area for the gate to enter traditional publishing. Double the wait, and at least double the chances for rejection.
    And should you pass both those massive intimidating gates, you as a newbie first time author will be offered a pittance of an advance, 15% of which your agent will be happy to relieve you of, and be expected to do your own promotion on your own dime. All for the opportunity to have your book on bookshelves for a discouragingly short time before being returned for credit.
    Indie publishing on the other hand has no advance, takes more up front prep, but provides relatively immediate feedback on sales and pays monthly.

    • Huh. And here I thought that when the gates began to crumble, they became endangered, heading for extinct.

    • On the other hand (playing devil’s advocate) agents are almost indispensable (there are few exceptions, but they are fewer ever year) to become trad-published and potentially reach a wider audience than most indies (print books are still largely under their control). And they can be useful in selling ancillary rights down the line. Agents are great if you expect to be in the 1% (or maybe 0.1%) of writers who hit it big.

      On the third tentacle, when looking for an agent, authors need to be wary of what kind of agreement they get. Agents have been known to inject some truly noxious clauses, and every prospective client needs to remember that the agents’ interests don’t always coincide with the creators they represent (and often are at distinct odds with them).

      In my case, I wouldn’t touch an agent with a regulation Macedonian pike. If I make it to the majors, I’ll do it Andy Weir-style, and if that happens I’ll hire IP/contract lawyers by the hour, rather than retain agents who’ll drink my blood on perpetuity. Admittedly, my chances of “making it” might be greater if I had an agent, but my cynical self believes that’s like saying my chances of hitting Powerball would be greater if I buy a ticket (true, but statistically irrelevant).

      • Likewise – hire a good contract lawyer who works directly for me by the billable hour, if the gods of massive sales should smile on me.

      • Yep. My non-fiction contracts get checked by an IP lawyer. Academic non-fiction at my level doesn’t have agents (you have to be shooting for the Simon and Schuster-type imprints for the “unagented submissions not accepted” clause to kick in) but bad contracts know no boundaries or borders.

      • Uncle Lar

        Apparently the new fast track, or at least one pathway, to becoming a major author is to go indie and establish a record of solid sales and fan base. Once you have that agents and publishers will come to you.
        And yes, I am very aware that the first bit is the most difficult. But then nobody ever said it would be easy.

        • It certainly has the lowest entry barriers, at the price of having the most direct competition. And it beats waiting for a letter that may never arrive (although those days when the sales chart remains stubbornly at 0 or single digits doesn’t feel any better, either).

        • I have a solid record and a fanbase, and they haven’t come to me, so I don’t know if this is exactly true 🙂

      • I’m doing well enough as an indy that at this point in my career, I don’t think an agent would help my career.

      • Laura M

        I’m a lawyer, but not an IP lawyer. I would hire a lawyer if I were negotiating a contract.

  6. A fair number of agents are now setting up as epublishing houses, rather than just assisting their clients to epublish. The contract terms seem to be iffy, and the conflict of interest seems obvious. Yet a lot of pro writers seem perfectly happy to sign over their copyrights forever and ever, in exchange for not “worrying.”

  7. I contacted a lovely agent who thought my submission was intelligent, imaginative and impressive, but they didn’t love it. However, what shocked me was that the agent expected me to tell them where I saw my novel should be marketed, which I thought was the whole point of an agent – that they would know the markets. Perhaps I’m ignorant and don’t know what I’m talking about, so take what I say with a pinch of salt. However, after reading Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s blog I came to the conclusion that agents are probably not for the likes of me.

  8. Draven

    well, I’d really only be submitting to one publisher…