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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?
One good route is recommendation. If you don't have access to advice from published writers, check the acknowledgment page in books you admire, especially those in a similar vein or voice to yours. Often the author will thank the agent. If the agent is not mentioned, you can call the publicity department at the publishing house and ask who represents the book.

There are lists of agents online (this link will take you to Literary, 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?
Write a strong, professional query letter. In one or two typed single-spaced pages, describe your book. Some agents recommend offering a relevant comparison (e.g. this is a legal thriller in the tradition of Scott Turow.) Avoid hyperbole (e.g. "Eat your heart out, Hannibal Lecter," or "You're sunk, Moby Dick.")

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?
Agents are swamped. Even the smallest agencies generally receive twenty or more query letters a day. Expect to wait a couple of months after sending a query letter. If you don't hear by then, you can call with a gentle reminder or follow up with a note.

Note: Persistence pays; peskiness is a turnoff.

What if they ask to see the book?
Send precisely what the agent requests. Some want to see partial manuscripts. Some prefer a few chapters and a synopsis. Some ask for the entire work.

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?
If you do, limit the time to two weeks or a month. Generally, it's fine, not to mention smart, to submit your work to several agents at once. After you've engaged an agent, you should inform any other agencies you've approached, so they won't waste time considering an unavailable project.

How do I choose between agents?
This is a high-quality problem, but one you should consider as you start your agent search. The writer/agent relationship is like a marriage. Some turn out to be supportive, productive, and fulfilling. Others end in acrimonious divorce.

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?
First and most critical: you need to find an agent who really believes in your work. Halfhearted representation is a setup for frustration and failure.

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.

Note: 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?
Some agencies require a separate agreement. Others rely on the agency paragraph in a book contract. In either event, know what you're signing and the consequences should things not work out in the future. Hiring an attorney to review a contract before you sign, may save you money, not to mention aggravation, in the long run.

I'm disappointed in my agent; what should I do?
Try airing your complaints directly. If the situation is not resolved, seek different representation for your next work. You need an agent who is responsive and reliable.

Note: 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

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