Literary Q&A: How to Get a Literary Agent (Series #10)

How can I find and sign with a literary agent?

Hi everyone! Happy Sunday. This is a great question and I want to share several things with you. First, you need to know IF you need a literary agent. What do I mean? Well, for today we are going to look at three types of publishing: Top 5 publishing, small press publishing, and self-publishing.

You do not need an agent to self-publish, and you do not need an agent for a small publisher. If you want to take your book to one of the Top 5 (Simon & Schuster, Macmillan, Penguin Random House, Hachette, or Harper Collins) or most of their imprints, you will need an agent.

WHY? The Top 5 publishers don’t want to have to screen out all the muck and get submissions from everyone who thinks they have a good book. They want the authors to be funneled down to agent picks and get to choose from the best of the best. Your agent must have the connections to get a Top 5 house and then they need to be able to negotiate a complicated contract.

We will be going over the process of self-publishing in March. The process for a small house isn’t much different from querying an agent. You want to have an edited manuscript and write a query letter (More on that below). And send that query directly to the small publisher.

The thing I want to focus on here is, whatever you do, DO YOUR RESEARCH.

Know if you want to publish with the Top 5, small publisher, or self, before you begin with publishing.

The reason is because many people take the same unfortunate path: They think their book is really good and they try to find an agent because they’ve heard they need one. After querying unsuccessfully for a while, the author may stop querying and self-publish, or revise and resubmit until they find an agent who will take them. They researched the agents in the beginning, but by now, they’re ready to take anyone they can get.

They ask their new small-agency agent to query Top 5 houses and they do, but when it looks like that isn’t working, the author allows them to search for a smaller publisher. Then, they either accept a small publisher or can’t find what they want, and decide to self-publish.

It appears to be a logical method.

But here’s the thing: Top 5 publishers take “great” books. If you know your book isn’t top-shelf great, but you desire to be traditionally published, you might start with small publishers on your own. If you know your book is great, it has been edited and lacks typos and plot holes, the voice is captivating, the story structure follows the plan, and it flows well, then by all means, shoot for a Top 5 house or imprint.

But know this: Not all agents are the same, and having a bad agent is worse than no agent at all.

I have said this a million times, but for the newbies: not all agents have the capacity to get you a Top 5 contract. There is not a test or certificate to become an agent. There are people who do it the “right” way, rising through the ranks of reputable agencies, and people who just wake up one day and call themselves an agent–or join a small agency that promotes them to agent right away. The latter set cannot get you the contract you want–they don’t have the connections–but will often say they can and do make Top 5 contracts. You MUST look this up. Keep reading to find out how.

Let me take a detour here and talk about something to watch for. Some people take an alternate course and pay a “publishing company” to publish their book for them. You shouldn’t be paying anyone to publish. If you are self-publishing and need a cover, or if you need an editor, these are things to pay for, but other than that, KDP does not charge to upload, small presses do not charge to publish, and major houses not only publish for free, you may get an advance.

I have a friend who recently asked me for advice before using a traditional “self-publishing” company. The benefits were that the company would make the author a cover and format the book for them, then publish it worldwide and give them fifty bookmarks, postcards, and posters (that the author didn’t need). The royalties for selling a book on the company’s little site were 25%, and royalties for selling on Amazon or anywhere other than their site were 10%!

Their site’s book gallery listed the top 15-20 of the new releases, top-selling, and trending books. Everything else had to be looked up by title–there was no way to browse. And the author and I both agreed that their covers were hideous. However, why would you want to buy a cover when you’ve paid for this program? The lowest rate for publishing with this site without any of the many optional add-ons, was $899, and the author had put down half before calling me!

Needless to say, I told them to get their money back.

Now, formatting your book is a time-taking process, and you really have to pay attention, but it isn’t that hard. I’ve done it several times. Any time you self-publish on KDP or wherever, you usually have formatting guidelines to follow. You can also pay someone on to format it for you inexpensively. As for a cover, there are many ways you can go, but on this one, again, do your research. I will post more about this next week. But you can find covers for $100 from places like 100Covers and they come with three revisions included. Or mine did. If you’ve done enough research, you can either do it yourself, or at least know enough to tell the designer what you’re looking for and know if they’ve achieved it well enough to get you sales.

Royalties are generally going to be about 30-40% if you publish through a small press, or self-publish. (Major publishers have a lot of variables in their percentages.) Getting only 10% royalties from Amazon and other retailers would not benefit the author at all. Don’t forget though, if your small publisher uses KDP to publish your book, they only receive 30-40% of your sales to begin with–so you get 30-40% of that–and, if you’ve got an agent, you give up another 15%. See why having an agent with a small publisher wouldn’t be a good idea?

The other reasons are that [1] you don’t need an agent to query a small publisher, and [2] there is no complicated contract for them to negotiate. Small publishers generally use a standard, non-negotiable contract–that’s pretty much a yes or no, with some wiggle room if you’d like to ask for more books or a better royalty.

So, the only time you need an agent, is if you know you want a Top 5 contract. I ask you to be honest with yourself. Is your book going to be a bestseller? Is it beyond good? Have your readers been shocked by how much they like your book? Know if you should be shooting for the Top 5 or even if it’s something you want. Some people just want to say they are traditionally published. That’s fine. And small houses are considered traditional. If that’s what you want, go for it.

But if you know that you belong with the top sellers and are sure your book belongs with the Top 5, you need an agent.

So, how do you get one? First, as I said, you MUST make sure the agents you choose are able to make you the contract you are after.

Here’s my favorite way to do that, and I will be doing it again soon. Go to Publisher’s Marketplace and buy a 1-month subscription for $25. When you do, a button appears on the menu to the left called “Dealmakers.” When you click there, you can see every book deal made and recorded by every agent and publisher. They can get behind on recording their deals sometimes, but I’ve found that doesn’t matter for our purposes.

Look up the publishers you are interested in and see which of their which agents they are buying from in your genre, or look up agents you’ve found on Manuscript Wishlist and see if they’ve sold to any of the major publishers. Or look for books like yours and see who made the deal and what publisher they used. Write down these agents, and make a list of publishers you prefer, because your agent may ask that later.

Next, you make up a query spreadsheet. We did this in a previous blog post here.

Do the research and fill out your spreadsheet. Read all about that in this post.

Then you design your query letter. I explain that in this post.

There is a LOT of information in those linked posts. If you plan to query, you need to check them out. You will send out in rounds (It is explained in the above pages). The last time I sent out queries, with our “bestseller,” I sent out only five, and I got an R&R (revise & resubmit) from the one I wanted. So I was pleased.

If an agent offers you a deal, before screaming into the phone, politely ask for two weeks to make your decision. They will expect this. At that time, write everyone else who has your submission and let them know you’ve had an offer. They will check out your manuscript and see if they like it too. If more than one agent wants your book, you get to choose the one you like best, but that is a great sign that your book will find a publisher. Sometimes agents bring on books that they just can’t sell–which is why they are so choosy when accepting manuscripts–and that author falls through the cracks and might have to start over again, or try another book. If you haven’t done your research, you might choose an agent who can’t get you the contract you want, or who doesn’t have the foreknowledge to choose a book that publishers are looking for.

That does not benefit you at all. So know what you’re looking for. [1] What type of contract do you want? Top 5, small pub, or self pub? [2] After editing, and beta readers, and you are sure you’re ready, choose your method. [3] If you’re looking to go with a small press, send them a query yourself. [4] If you are self-publishing, get a cover, format your text, and upload it to KDP. [5] And if you are choosing a Top 5 Contract, follow the instructions above and make a spreadsheet, research agents, and send out queries in rounds until you get the agent you desire.

What happens if you don’t seem to be able to land that agent? Reevaluate. You can revise and reedit and send out to a new round of agents, or you can write a new book and try again. If you still have faith in your book and still desire a traditional publishing contract, take that query and send it to small publishers. Make sure they have covers that you like. Email a few of their clients and ask if they have a good experience with the publisher. And if you don’t care about the label of “traditional,” self-publish, to keep all your sales and have the sales info to use when marketing. That way you know which promotions are working and which aren’t.

I hope that fully answers your question on how to get a literary agent. If there’s a part of the process you’d like me to expand on, let me know. If not, we’ll talk about covers next week. With my book done, I will be editing soon, so we may talk more about that in February.

Don’t forget: The best project you’ll ever work on is you. Keep writing!


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