How to Choose, Use, and Lose an Agent
Reprinted with permission
By Judith Kelman
Do I need an agent?
Yes, if you want to sell book length adult fiction or non-fiction. If you're trying to sell children's books, short stories, poetry, or articles, the need for an agent is debatable.
What should I expect to pay?
Most agents charge a percentage of the income on deals they successfully negotiate for you. The going rate is ten to fifteen percent. Foreign rights, if sold separately, are generally commissioned at 20 per cent, 10 percent for the domestic agent and 10 percent for the foreign co-agent.
Should I pay a reader's fee?
Most legitimate agents do not charge up-front fees, and the code of ethics of the Association of Authors' Representatives forbids the practice. If you need help to get your manuscript in salable form, you'd do better to hire a freelance editor or book doctor.
Where do I find an agent?
There are lists of agents online (this link will take you to Literary agent.com, a searchable database of agents). Many writers' organizations maintain lists of the agents who represent their members. You may also want to consult the Literary Marketplace (LMP) at your local library. This comprehensive reference guide includes a roster of agents.
You can learn about how individual agents work and what kind of material they're looking for by attending the agent panel at writers' conferences. If you can't attend, most organizations sell tapes of conference sessions for a nominal fee. Also, many literary agencies have writer's guidelines available for the asking.
How should I approach an agent?
If you have relevant expertise or experience, mention it. Include copies of any significant published writing samples. These are called "tear sheets" if they are actual pages cut from a magazine or newspaper and "clips" if they are photocopies. Clips are fine.
Include a self-addressed stamped envelope (SASE) whenever you submit your work to an agent, publisher, or publication.
How soon should I expect a response?
Persistence pays; peskiness is a turnoff.
What if they ask to see the book?
Manuscripts should be typed, double-spaced on one side of plain white paper, and delivered unbound. No sparkles or glitter. No cover art or fake blurbs or gimmicks. Again, expect to wait a couple of months for a response, then follow-up.
Should I agree to let an agent have an exclusive look at my manuscript?
How do I choose between agents?
You should interview any agent prior to entering into an agent-client relationship. If more than one agent expresses interest in representing you, choose the one who seems most in sync with your vision of your work and writing future.
What should I look for in an agent?
A good agent will offer sound suggestions for getting your book in publishable shape. The agent needs to envision where your work belongs in the marketplace and have good contacts at appropriate publishing houses. Agents handle submissions, negotiations, and contract revisions. As the book goes through the publication process, the agent serves as your liaison to the publishing house and troubleshoots should problems arise. Generally, agents collect your advances and royalties. They deduct their fees and relevant expenses and send you a check for the remainder.
You need someone capable of doing all of the above in a timely, professional fashion. If you are uncertain about an agent who agrees to represent you, ask for the names of clients you can contact for recommendations.
There is no licensure requirement for literary agents. Anyone can enter the business at will. You need to make a careful assessment of the qualifications and ethics of any agent you consider hiring.
Should I sign a contract with my agent?
I'm disappointed in my agent; what should I do?
No matter how anxious you are about your work, try to have reasonable expectations. You should expect your agent to return phone calls in a reasonable amount of time (a day or two). Expecting him/her to drop everything immediately when you call is not reasonable. Nor is it reasonable to expect the agent to love everything you write or be able to sell every project despite market realities.
If you have other questions or suggestions about dealing with agents, e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.