Get Published Part 3: Agent It!

by Brenda W. Clough

 Why, you may ask, do I wait until this latter stage in the process to find an agent? Should this not be the very next step, after I finish writing my magnum opus? The reason is, because publication is slow. Maddeningly slow, glacial — almost as slow as finding an agent. Throw stuff into the hopper to start making its way through the belly of the beast. And then, while you’re waiting, find an agent. Ideally, a hotshot agent can cut to the chase, get you to the head of the line, line up a deal for you in six months, three months. But getting that agent may take you a long time, as long as finding a publisher. And getting an agent is no guarantee of publication. So finding an agent first is, essentially putting another step, a large one, between you and the brass ring.

So, let’s find an agent. Begin by reading up on them at the Writer Beware site, which is run by SFWA. You remember how you found publishers, by looking at the backs of real paper books? By that very act, you eluded many a criminal who’d be happy to take your money and not produce a real paper book. Real publishers can be mismanaged, go bankrupt, welsh on contracts, and in general be toxic assholes. But at least they push out books. Fake publishers never do. When you move to agents the possibility for wickedness increases, because they’re not selling a product. They’re selling a process, without a guarantee of results. There are criminal agents and they look just like bad agents. So click on all the links at Writer Beware, read up on everything, and save money and trouble.

Creating your list of possible agents is harder, because good agents don’t need to advertise. They get plenty of clientele by word of mouth. Nor is it helpful to throw ‘literary agents’ into a search window; that’s a fine way to find losers. You might start by reading Locus, the magazine of the industry, and note who is getting contracts and what agent represented them. Go to cons and ask the authors you admire. Go to Worldcon or World Fantasy or the Nebula Weekend, and attend agent and publisher panels. There is a professional association of literary agents, the AAR, but you’re going to want one of their members who works in your genre. When you have some likely possibilities, send then an email. Learn how to write a pitch letter, and see if they’re interested. If anything hinky turns up, be sure to consult Writer Beware, which keeps a list of the bad actors. Remember, on the Internet nobody knows you’re a dog. Any loser can get up in the morning and decide to start a literary agency in his garage. Don’t get into bed with him.

But Brenda, you say. This is all unutterably depressing; why can’t you be more upbeat and blog about musicals? It’s a wonder any new writer gets their foot in the door with a mainline publisher at all. Kindle is starting to look good. So let’s talk about self-publishing — in the next episode.




Get Published Part 3: Agent It! — 5 Comments

  1. Writing guilds have conferences, some big like Willamette Writers in Portland, Oregon. At their conference they generally have 20+ agents, editors, and producers in attendance. If you get your conference registration in early enough you can sign up for up to 3 individual appointments with these people, each lasting 7 minutes. That’s 7 minutes of the undivided attention of someone who can advance your career by leaps and bounds. The Conference even offers pitch workshops the day before the conference to polish your presentation. Check them out in your region.

  2. Excellent resources. I will say, however, that the agents or editors who appear at these 7-minute pitch sessions are rarely the top ones. They’re usually the lower bananas of the bunch, who drew the short straw and now have to sacrifice a weekend to appearing at these events. I went to an RWA regional event once, and the unlucky agent who was there to take romance novel pitches was even pitched in the restroom. She’s lucky no one followed her into the stall, and looked like she was about to go up with the blind.
    The cheery thing about SF and F, however, is that it’s a relatively small field. Unlike romance, you really can meet all the major players if you go to the right cons and events.

  3. Caveat about agents at events, even ones hosted by large writer groups. A few years back a large writers’ group hosting an event including pitches to agents was fooled by a woman who presented well, but turned out she wasn’t selling anything for anyone. She did a great imitation of a lunching agent, though. Several local new writers wasted months with her. This was at least ten years ago, so I hope it would not happen again. But it has happened.

    Remember that there is no school for being an agent. There is no rulebook. AAR is about as close as you get. They are often former editors, and some of them can never totally transfer their allegiance. Some are so used to looking at contracts from the publisher’s POV they miss important things for their clients. On occasion, they will sacrifice small things for a small client to get things for a big one–which can cause all kinds of ripples down line. So take Brenda deadly seriously about vetting an agent.

    My agent died last year; I don’t have a close contact with the agency. I might actually sever with them and find an intellectual properties attorney instead, should anything big come up. I would definitely get an IP lawyer as well if dealing with anything for Hollywood or film/television. A misplaced word could cost you your character rights. I know Kathryn Kristine Rusch keeps up on this as best she can–her blog is also a good source.

  4. Yes, one of the best things you can do is to ask the agent you’re in discussions with for a list of their clients. A sketchy one won’t give it to you. A good one will be happy to brag about the superb and talented people she represents, and you’d be able to go onto Goodreads and look at the books they’ve written.
    And yes — Hollywood is a different animal. I would never go into media negotiations bareback, any more than I’d go scuba-diving with sharks. A nice wrought-iron cage, that’s what’s called for, and a savvy entertainment lawyer can be that for you.