Agent Questions Volume Twenty-three: Finding the Right Agent/The Process of Publishing From A to Z (Twitter Series #3)

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How do I find the right agent? I was asked this question by several people and I wanted to spend some time on it. I was also asked the process of a manuscript from being written to getting published, so I plan to explain how to find the right agent in the order of events. Bear with me, this might get bumpy. If I lose you, tell me in the comments and I will try to explain.

First of all, finding an agent is a personal thing. No one can tell you who is right for you. It’s like dating someone and asking friends, “How do I know if he’s the one?” You may get a lot of answers, but ultimately, it is your choice given your own criteria and what you need from the relationship. But there are things you should and shouldn’t do to make the process easier, so let’s get started.

1.Finish your manuscript. Before you query, you need to finish that book. A strong book will sell, no matter the genre, so spend some time getting this right. Think of who the best authors are in your genre. They are your competition. Your book doesn’t have to be worthy of a movie deal to be successful, but shoot for the stars. Self edit, then have beta readers give you suggestions.

Agents will only get your first chapter or so. That doesn’t mean polish your first three chapters and leave the rest. Whatever you change in the beginning, must be repeated throughout the manuscript. A few things you want to do:

–Start with action- that doesn’t mean you have to be in an action scene running away from the bad guy, in fact, I don’t recommend doing that at all because we don’t know the characters yet and we won’t be following or invested, or even care about them yet. But don’t wait too long to start the action, either. It’s a balance.

— Don’t begin your story with an info dump, or pages of exposition

–Have a strong voice. What is voice? Read this post:

–Vary your sentence lengths

–Have a complete story arc. More about that here:

–Look for repetitive phrases

–Avoid clichés

–Don’t start a book with a dream or a character waking up.

–Cut unnecessary words. Here are twenty-eight:

–Steer away from tropes when possible, unless you have a twist for it. Young adult literature is famous for tropes. If you are writing YA, read this post:

–Avoid vague language. When saying “it,” make sure your subject is clear, or replace “it” with the name of the object.

–Know your POV style and stick with it. The same goes for tenses.

–Check your spelling and grammar with a free download of:

–End with a resolution. Even a cliffhanger should resolve some issues in the story, enough to feel comfortable moving on. (Although, I admit, I am bad at this. I tend to leave off during a big scene. :^(

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2. Practice self-editing. There are a ton of books and services that can help with this. Google “self-editing” and you will be presented with a plethora of ideas. Some of them are above, but it is not an exhaustive list. Publishing is a game of chance, but you can help yourself by having a strong manuscript. Prepare your work properly in a double-spaced document, with no spaces between paragraphs; the first line of each paragraph should be indented; keep margins normal; number the pages; put “title/author name” in the header; and use 12pt. font in either Times New Roman or Calibri.

On the first page list: the title, your name, and your contact details. Don’t forget this information with your query sample. Do not worry about copyright—you already own it as soon as you write it and the publisher will help you with this. Bringing it up in your query or the first page is overkill and makes some agents feel like you don’t trust them not to steal your work.

Check your word count, too. I found that many agents will reject a query based on a too-high or too-low word count. Here’s a little chart I go by:

Realistic MG: 25-60K Sweet spot (30-45K)             Fantasy MG: 35-75K (45-65)

Realistic YA: 40-90K (45-75K)                                     Fantasy YA: 50-100K (65-85K)

Realistic Adult: 70-110K (80-90K)                              Fantasy: 90-124K (100-115)

Westerns: 50-80K (65K)                                               Memoir: 70-100K (80-90K)

When you finish the manuscript, put it aside for at least a week, then go back and read it with the eyes of an editor. *Tip: If you change the document, either font, or color, etc. your brain will see it as an entirely new document, and you can pick out mistakes better. I like to mail my manuscript to my kindle and when I read it like a “real” book, the mistakes jump out at me.

Keep reading during this time. Reading good books will help you to see what needs to change in your own and give you the feel of a story-teller. Always read. Besides, you need to know your market, you will need to know who writes like you, these are your comp titles/authors. It goes a long way if you can compare your book to other successful types of stories and/or authors. More about comp titles:

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3. Have your manuscript read by beta readers. These groups are best when they are a mix of readers, writers, strangers and friends. Readers know good books, writers know what makes a good book, your friends will be nice and tell you what you want to hear, but a stranger will tell you what they like and don’t. These are all valuable for feedback. Some companies have “beta reading programs” where you can sign up for beta readers or purchase a list. However, you do it, make sure to get advice that has to do with: filling plot holes, grammar and spelling, what’s implausible, what their favorite parts are. Is the voice strong? Is the POV consistent? Do tenses mix? Edit accordingly.

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4. Now that your manuscript is ready, you need to ask yourself, do I need an agent? If your dream is to be published by Penguin Random House, Macmillan, Simon & Schuster, or Harper Collins, generally called the “Top 5,” then you need an agent. These publishers require you to have gone through the slush pile and made it through the selection process. But if you are going to self-publish or take your manuscript to a small publisher, you may not need one. Agents will still get you a contract at a small house if you wish, but if you can submit on your own, you can save the 15% agent commission and negotiate your own contract. There is legal help online for authors, as well. This site offers free legal advice to its members: Some niche markets, that are not going to gain an advance with a Top 5 house, may need to be self-published, like: Poetry, flash fiction, academic/educational works. But with some marketing effort, self-published projects can still do well in the marketplace.

First, what does an agent do?

*They will be your new business partner and have your best interest in mind. They will connect you with traditional publishers and they will be a mediator between the publisher and you. They will hold your hand through the process, if you need it.

*They know the language of the literary world and should have editorial skills to help you get your manuscript ready for the publisher.

*They should answer your questions in everyday language. I advise writing all your questions down and sending them in an email for your new agent to answer. Don’t be afraid, they won’t bite. They should communicate with you regularly about your manuscript’s progress- although some agents prefer not to notify you with every rejection, so decide if you want to know or not.

*They will have things for you to read and do when they sign you, or more editing tips. They should provide help with your query blurb- which is often the basis for the pitch they write to publishers. They shouldn’t use your query, but the blurb may work in their pitch.

*You should be able to Google them and see that they are active; busy with things like attending their social media, participating in online pitch events, attending conferences, writing blog posts or articles, and most importantly, they are listed with an established agency.

*They know what publishers are buying and what they’re not, and they are prepared to pitch your story to the best acquiring editor, getting the most lucrative deal.

*They will negotiate your contract, or they have a colleague who can- my last agency was run by an agent/lawyer, so she negotiated the contracts.

*You should never have to pay them-and agents should take no more than 15% commission. Although, they will manage your finances, sending payments to you quarterly, they will be honest and you can view your financial statements at any time. They should have ideas about marketing and be optimistic regarding your success. They will sell your current manuscript, and help you place your other works with publishers, as well.

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5. So, you have decided you want an agent. Great. Where are you going to find one? And how do you know if they are a good choice?

I would make a spreadsheet to keep track of your agents. is a place where you can do this online.

You can find agents and their wishlists at the following places (in no particular order):

1.– -agents and acquiring editors at publishing houses put their wishlists on their page and often have information on their personal likes/dislikes and how to contact them.

2.–  -same concept as above without a photo


4.–Each agency’s website has their agent’s biographies, many listing what they are looking for.


6.–Literary Marketplace

7.–Conferences, book festivals- check out the agents before the conference and vet them- many agents prioritize the queries from personal pitches. You can rise to the top of the slush pile.


9.–Google- no, seriously.

10.–In the acknowledgements of books like yours

11.–Jeff Herman’s Guide to Book Publishers, Editors, and Literary Agents

12.–#MSWL on Twitter

13.–The Guide to Literary Agents blog-

14.– – for $25/month you can look up agents and see what they’ve sold and to whom. If they don’t have many sales, check to see how long they’ve been working. If they are new, you may have better luck getting them, but don’t send them something they’ve never sold before. They may not have the contacts and you don’t want your book baby to go through trial and error.

When you look agents up, look to see what they are currently publishing (on, and find out if they are accepting queries from their website. On you can read the comments that other authors have given concerning agents they’ve queried. See if your personalities match through checking their social media. And make sure they haven’t been listed on Writer’s Beware or have unsavory comments on Absolute Write.

*There are scam agents out there. How can you tell them apart? First, they are not at reputable agencies. They charge fees for reading or editing your work, or an assessment of your writing, and anything that will get them money. I’ve said this before, but never pay an agent. They might have suggestions or connections for you to use, but they should not get kickbacks. I had an editor friend and I would let people know about her, she gave discounts to the people I sent to her, but I got no kickback. That’s okay, if you choose to use an editor before you go to an agent or publisher, but your agent should have their own edits to give you.

*There are also “amateur” agents out there. They are not the same as deceptive agents- they’re not after your money. They believe they know enough on their own, and are working the business to the best of their ability, and many just don’t know any better. It’s what they’ve been taught, and they have struggled through the learning process without industry guidance. They really believe they are helping authors, but they haven’t been in the business long enough to have gained the connections in publishing to get you a contract with the big publishers. So, they make deals with mostly small houses; and some of those you could get for yourself. They may refuse to supply a potential author with their client list or sales information because of this. In that case, run away. *A bad literary agent is worse than no literary agent.

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6. Check the agent’s social media. It may have their most recent Wishlist (a list of what they are looking for in terms of manuscript plots). And you will see how they interact with others, as well as if they are dropping hints on what to do/what NOT to do, when querying them. Choose about a dozen names to research, up to twenty-five. See what they like and don’t like- see who their colleagues are. You should be able to tell if they’d like what you’ve written. Don’t spam them, but feel free to like, share, and make comments on their posts. Most of the literary world is on Twitter, so I suggest looking there. Never done Twitter? Afraid of the unknown? Don’t know how to tweet? Or what to tweet? Never fear, read this article on how and why to use Twitter:

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7. You MUST follow their submission guides. If you do not look up each agent’s submission guidelines you are setting yourself up for auto-rejection. Most agents have the same requirements: a one-page query letter, a one- to two-page synopsis, and sample writing. The sample should be the beginning of your novel; however, non-fiction proposals can include writing from anywhere. But there are always exceptions. Some agencies have submission forms, and many are now using Query Manager. In this case, have your query letter written and copy/paste it into the query field. Just because it’s automated doesn’t mean you shouldn’t give them the same query as you would put in an email.

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8. Now we are ready to query. As I said before, it should be one page, single spaced, and formatted correctly. I have a post on how to write a query: And one on writing your bio:

The email subject line for your query is important. Put, “Query for (agent’s name)/ (your genre)/ (your last name): (Your title).” For my first book, I wrote, “Query for Jane Smith/YA fantasy/Haskin: The Key of F.” When going through queries, this makes it easier for the agent to know which query is which and might help them keep track of yours. Don’t sweat it, though, if you query through a submission form. It may not have a subject line, but if it does, keep this format.

Queries have two purposes: to concisely tell your concept or plot, and to intrigue the agent. Tell them why your manuscript is different than every other one they’ve read today. And they can fly through them. You have minutes to grab that agent’s attention, so write well, write simply and concisely, tell them who the main character is and what the “stakes” are, meaning what happens if Janie does not reach her goal of killing the monster? Will the world perish?! Make us care.

Submit each query separately. Personalize it. In the first paragraph tell them how you found them and why you are writing to them. How do you know they would be a good fit for your book? Do NOT carbon copy a whole list of people and put, “Dear agent.” They have names and want to know that you have chosen them specifically for a reason. Besides, no one likes to get form letters. (Yes, their reply might be a form of pre-written communication, but it should apply to you and they don’t have time to tell everyone why they weren’t chosen. It may not seem fair, but that’s how the game is played, so you must play along or get left behind, I’m afraid.)

You should know who comprises your audience. They are looking for books like yours. You need to know these books, too. Look in your genre and find comp (comparable) book titles and/or authors to include in your query. Is your book like The Hunger Games? Do you write like Lauren K. Hamilton? This will help agents and publishers know where to place you and give them an idea of what you are going for with your story. Choose newer titles. They want to know that you are aware of the market and are involved.

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Mistakes people make (This is a paraphrase from one of the sites listed below*):

  • The biggest problem writers have is rushing to the query before their manuscript is ready. Please make sure you have quality, edited, polished work.
  • Sending a five-page synopsis, or too much extra information, like a personal synopsis for a bio, or a marketing plan. If they sign you, they will want to know your marketing plan, but in the query, you are jumping the gun.
  • Sending the whole manuscript without being asked.
  • Telling the agent about your skill. Don’t tell the agent your style or how great you are at writing romance.  They want to make their own decisions, and they will when they read your sample writing.
  • Comparing yourself to uber-famous writers. “My book rivals Harry Potter.” That’s just saying, I’m as good as J.K. Rowling and if you don’t see it, you’re crazy. Or, “My book is like the Odyssey, but funny.” That one could work as a selling point, but you get my drift, I hope. Let the agent decide if you are THE undiscovered talent that you think you are. Be positive and proud, not egotistical.
  • Expecting agents to contact you daily regarding your query, your information, anything, really. Agents are busy. If they know they should contact you, they will. But, because they are busy, things sometimes fall through. So, send a gentle hint or nudge them, but remain polite and professional.
  • Thinking any agent is better than none. We are all people, and publishing can be scary, but would you rather walk through a haunted house with someone who’s been there before and can hold your hand, or watch them get as scared as you are? That’s not a position you want your book in.

If you are really freaked out about the whole query writing business, there are some sites that will write and send your query for you. I am listing three, but a Google search would uncover more. Personally, I wouldn’t spend money on that as there are so many things you will want to spend money on later, like marketing and buying your books. But I understand the fear.


{If you would like help with your query (for free, of course), you are welcome to email your query to me at: Once I publish this, I have a feeling I may be a little busy, so please excuse me if I don’t get right back to you.}

For non-fiction, this is all different. They write a 25-30-page book proposal and have a marketing plan. It is my understanding that the book does not have to be complete to submit a proposal, however, if it is complete make sure you turn in a version according to submission guidelines.

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I found a list of query no-no’s on Writers Digest ( by Chuck Sambuchino. It was a series of Twitter posts from agents. Because I couldn’t copy, I’m going to paraphrase a bit from that. Here are very important things NOT to do in your query:

–Do not degrade your own writing or your comps

–Only pitch one book or series- let the agent ask you for your other works

–Do be polite, positive and uplifting

–Do not tell the agent that you are THE exception to the rules

–Do not “put down” other agents

–Don’t tell the agent when to respond (unless you have received an offer)

–Do not pitch over social media unless it is a pitch event

–Do explain in the query why you chose the agent- don’t say “You were in a random search”

–Don’t start with “Dear Agent”

–Don’t be politically incorrect

–Don’t get fancy with fonts and colors

–Don’t tell the agent how interesting or original your story is

–Don’t mention your lack of success so far

So, you’ve written your query. Now, for the synopsis. I know this is a dreaded subject. I hated writing them until I realized that I could use my story outline and basically put it into sentences, because I outline scenes. A synopsis goes scene by scene through your book to tell us what happens, including the ending. The agent wants to see the bones of the story. Is it a good premise? Does it have several instances of rising action, leading to a climax and finally, a resolution?

Sit down (without your book) and think through it, list the scenes in order. You might come up with something like seven to ten pages. Okay, that’s fine. Now, shorten some sentences, and take out things that aren’t necessary to the resolution of the plot. Narrow it down. The synopsis you send to your agent needs to be about 600-800 words. If you can get it down to one page, that is the best. Just remember, it’s not a blurb, or hook like the query. This is to tell, not show, the details of your story.

Make sure it’s clear, with no spelling or grammar errors. Make it present tense, single-spaced, short and to the point. It should have each scene outlined with the characters’ story arc and emotions but does not have to detail every plot turn. It is said that your synopsis should sound like “a friend telling you about a book over tea.”

Wondering why you need to send so much to agents to be considered? What does the query do? Why not just the synopsis? Read here:

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9. Send your queries out. Use your spreadsheet to record your submissions, the dates, and the agent’s response. You can also do this on

While you are waiting to hear back from agents, keep thinking positively, work on building up your social media presence. Focus on at least two of the big sites and get your handles (social media AND your website) put into your name. If it’s taken, get a little creative, like: @JaneDoeWrites or @AuthorTomThumb. I use my last name and profession: @haskinauthor.

Read here to find out what to include in your website: Fans follow authors, not books. So do not make a fan page for your book, if you don’t have one for yourself. Otherwise, you will need to make a new page when you write the next book or series. Make a plan, know the goals you have for your writing career. Make a memory board, if you want to. Just post it somewhere you will see it often.

Have author photos taken. Or go outside on an overcast day with a selfie stick and get some natural shots. Just don’t go crazy with filters.

Have a mindset of success and go out and interact with readers and other writers. The #WritingCommunity on Twitter has a great group of people, and there are many other hashtags to follow. #writerscommunity #writerslife #writersofinstagram Etc. Etc. Network with writing groups online and begin to write a new piece of work.

Also, during this time, participate in pitch events online. I only know of Twitter’s, but they have: #pitmad,#SFFpit, #DVpit, #pitchwars, #pitmatch, #kisspitch, #peerpitch, #wcmockpit, #pitchmas, #pitchslam, #WCNV, #70pit, #PBpitch, #kidpit, #faithpitch, #pitchon, #GUTGAA, #IWSGpit, #canlitpit, #Adpit, #querykombat, #sonofapitch, #Pit2pub, #revpit, #PitchAmerica, #NoQS, #Wepit, #tenqueries, #pitdark, #querytip, #querywin, #ficfest, #nestpitch.  There are probably more, but that’s all I could find. If you know of any more, please let us know in the comments.

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10. Welcome the rush of rejections. It’s going to happen. Sorry. I always hope to get feedback with my query rejections. Yes, agents who are authors still require an agent to get published in a big house. Great feedback are things like, “your voice isn’t strong enough,” or “your beginning doesn’t have enough action,” or anything specific that I can fix. Sometimes they are open to what’s called an “R & R” which means revise and resubmit. This means the agent can see your book’s potential and they believe that with some work, they might be willing to take you on. Of course, it is their opinion. You will have to weigh your creative liberty with your desire to be traditionally published. Most of the time, though, it makes your book better.

Some agents give a timeframe for when they will get back to you, some do not.  If it’s been six weeks since you sent your query and haven’t heard a peep, you are free to send an email to nudge the agent. Something along the lines of, “Dear Mrs. Magillicutty, I was wondering if you’ve had a chance to peek at my query? Thank you for your time, Sam Smith.” You don’t have to explain why you’re writing, and you don’t need to tell them how you feel about them not answering, you certainly don’t want to tell them that you notice they’ve been on vacation but still haven’t answered your query. (And that does happen.)

If it’s been twelve weeks with no response, it is a no. Be professional when you get rejected. The agent is not rejecting YOU, though it feels that way. Your book simply didn’t make their cut. Millions of famous writers were rejected before being signed. Agents will tell you that the process is very subjective, and it is. But what does that mean? It means that you must query the right agent, be in the right genre, have the right word count, be on their Wishlist, catch them on the right day, hook them with your letter, and write better than 98% of their inbox. Publishing may be all about odds, but it requires talent.

If you are getting requests for the full manuscript but then rejected, your query is working and hooking the agents, but take a look at your manuscript. If you are not getting requests for more, your query itself may need some work. The goal is to be able to have a stranger on the street read your query and need to read your book. Try asking your contacts on social media which version of your hook makes the want to read it. If you feel like you are failing and you’ve already corrected your query, you may not have queried enough targeted agents, or (the most common) your book just isn’t ready yet. Each agent has their own criteria for what they accept and what they don’t. Google “Reasons for query rejection” and a full ton of information is available.

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I could take rejection, but why won’t they answer me? you ask.

^They could be busy with other clients. Agents don’t get paid until you do, so all the work they do for you until you receive your first paycheck is free. Therefore, they are going to spend time on their current (money-making) clients as a priority.

^They may have sent out their Wishlist with a request for “robot vampire books” like yours and received 75,000 queries with robot vampires. That amounts to a lot of queries, a lot of comparison, and your book had better be more fantastic than any of the rest of them. Or, they may have found what they wanted and haven’t taken down the request but are rejecting any and all robot vampire books. You can’t know, so send anyway. Just don’t take the rejection personally.

^Or maybe you’ve written about Peter Pan on a lunar colony, and the agent happens to have a current client working on something similar. They will go with their client first.

^They may have thought your manuscript was good, but not great. When I was an agent, I had to turn down a lot of good books. Not even just manuscripts with potential, they were things I would have read for pleasure. But I knew they wouldn’t sell because of the voice, or the word count, or a language barrier, or they weren’t ready yet. Meaning it would take many more revisions before they could be published, and the agent doesn’t want to wait for you to maybe get it right.

Once you’ve gone through a round of agents and gotten a bunch of “no’s” like a vase of roses, change your query and/or your manuscript, and submit to more. Revise and repeat until you get the offer of your dreams.

Or, self-publish. If you self-publish a book that sells at least 5,000 copies in a year, it could attract agents and publishers, but if not, don’t send your self-published book to agents. Publishers don’t like to buy them, so agents often auto-reject if they don’t contain sales information. They will also not take a book out of series. Meaning, you cannot self-publish or go through a small house for your first book and then expect a publisher to pick up your sequel. They just won’t do it. They would not own the copyright for the first book, and they want the whole series to make them the maximum amount of money. For publishers, it’s a cash game- that’s not to say that they are bad. They can have very pleasant people working for them, but the underlying focus is on making a paycheck.

How do you know when to quit querying? I wrote a post about that also:

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11. Don’t mindlessly accept your first offer. I can’t stress this enough. If they aren’t for you, they aren’t for you. Even if they are the only one who has given you an offer. Remember that whole thing about a bad agent is worse than no agent? If you’ve received an offer and haven’t already, now is the time to contact that agent’s other clients. They should be listed on the website, or you could ask the agent for a few names of their clients with contact info. People are happy to share their experiences, good and bad, especially if it helps you. You don’t have to say yes or no right away, ask for a week or two to think about it. And don’t be afraid to ask questions! Ask the agent what you want to know- before you accept the offer.

If you still have queries out when you get an offer, email the other agents and let them know you received an offer, so they can read your query and decide if they want it, too. If you have more than one agency wanting your book, it will enter an auction, in which case you can choose the best agent for you. Sometimes a query gets little response until an offer comes in, and then the other agents think, “Oh, so-and-so likes it, it must have potential. I’m going to pluck it out of the slush pile and see what I think.” Then you may get more offers. You can also email a few of your favorite agent choices after you get an offer and say, “I’ve received an offer for this manuscript, but I would really appreciate your view on it. I need to answer the offer by (whatever date the first agent gave you as a deadline).”

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12. When you have been accepted, or chosen your new agent, the agent will explain their process to you. They will exchange social media handles with you, get your contact info along with your birthday and social security number for payments, ask for your headshot, and a list of your favorite publishers; they will discuss editing options, and how to work on your platform.

They will have a contract for you to sign and they will put you on the website as you tweet to the world that you’ve made it. You will perform your edits from the agency and make plans with your new agent. From here, it’s out of your hands for awhile as the agent writes a pitch, comes up with a list of publishers and starts to send out your work.

The same thing happens when the agent gets an offer. They let the other acquiring editors know they’ve received an offer and wait for any more offers before choosing.

And there you have it. From done to published. There are so many details, I am sure I have missed many, but if you have more comments, feel free to list them below. And most importantly:

Persist. Keep trying and keep writing. Richard Bach said, “A professional writer is an amateur who didn’t quit.”

Be a professional.

~Jenn Haskin

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4 thoughts on “Agent Questions Volume Twenty-three: Finding the Right Agent/The Process of Publishing From A to Z (Twitter Series #3)

  1. Lakita Heuck says:

    Hi there! This article couldn’t be written any better! Looking through this article reminds me of my previous roommate! He constantly kept preaching about this. I am going to send this information to him. Pretty sure he will have a great read. I appreciate you for sharing!


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