Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The thing about agents

I've had some conversations lately about writing and agents and when to get an agent for your writing. There are a lot of advice books out there, some of them excellent, some of them worthless.

I figured I'm only going to be asked this question more and more often, so I figured I'd post about it...and if I was really lucky, shorten the conversation by being able to direct people to my blog. Not to say I don't love to help. I do. A lot of people have helped me. There just seems to be a more efficient way to do things (the whole "being-married-to-an-engineer" thing is starting to show).

So here goes...

Question: When am I ready to find an agent?
Hillary's advice: When your project is completed, and really not before. As a beginning author, you want to show them that you're capable of finishing a project. You want to appear as professional as possible; having your manuscript ready is the first step.

Question: How do I find an agent?
Hillary's advice: Sure, you can go through a market guide (like this one), but if you have the opportunity to go to a writers' conference, meeting agents in person is worlds better. Agents are inundated with queries and proposals (more on these later). If they connect to you personally, they are MUCH more likely to respond to you, or tell you in five minutes if they're remotely interested. Also, you can get a feel for whether or not you actually like that agent. Once at a writers' conference, I had lunch at the table of a literary agent, thinking I'd get a feel for him and if I'd want to approach him with one of my proposals. Well, I didn't even have to talk to him to decide that I found him deeply irritating. Wouldn't have gotten that piece of info from a book.

Question: What if I don't want to go to a writers' conference? They're so expensive.
Hillary's advice: Yes, they are, and a good conference is worth every penny. I connected with both my publisher and my agent through Oregon Christian Writers. To cut costs, look at staying in a less-expensive motel, or bunking with a nearby friend/relative rather than staying on-site. The reason conferences can be pricey is because they're paying for flights and usually a paycheck for the agents and editors that you want to meet so much. Choosing a conference is where a market guide is handy - you can get a feel for what kind of agent/ publisher works with your kind of material, then look for the conference with those people. Most larger conferences will list the agents/ publishers attending on their website.

Question: What should I look for in an agent?
Hillary's advice: You want someone who's proactive. Some agents will sit on manuscripts until the end of time, even if you're a client. A proactive agent uses all of their contacts in the industry to find the best home for your project. Your agent should know the business well, or, if he/she is just starting out, be in a literary agency group with others who do. It's also helpful to like your agent, so look for someone you don't mind talking to for lengths of time.

Question: How much does an agent cost?
Hillary's advice: An agent's cut is 15% of your earnings. The upside is that she doesn't get paid until you get paid. Never, never, never, never, ever pay an agent anything upfront or any "fees" for looking at your work. Ever.

Question: Wow, 15%. What if I find a publisher willing to take my manuscript without an agent?
Hillary's advice: I found a publisher willing to take my manuscript without an agent. But the thing is, I don't know anything about the inner workings of literary contracts. They're still mysterious to me. There's a lot of legal jargon in there that's so specific that you could take it to a lawyer, and the lawyer wouldn't be about to sift through it. I signed on with Sandra so that I didn't have to worry about it. Part of her job is to negotiate points of my contract. A good agent will probably find things to negotiate about that you wouldn't ever think to quibble over. Also, it means that you get to keep a happy relationship with your editor and your house. Let your agent be the tough one. It's enough to argue with your editors as you go over drafts.

Question: What's the easiest way to get an agent to take you on?
Hillary's advice: Have an interested publisher. Preferably two. It's a good idea to be talking to both editors and agents simultaneously for this reason.

Question: Okay....what's the easiest way to get a publisher interested?
Hillary's advice: Write a really good book with subject matter that sells well for that house. Sorry, I know it's glib, but it's the truth. Most houses will be pretty straight-forward about what kind of material they're looking for. Read up on what the houses publish - take a look at their catalogs (usually online). Read about what's selling. Ask a bookseller what's selling. Right now, it's Amish and historical. A few years ago, it was chick lit. Few years before that, it was suspense.

Question: Right. So if I'm sending something to an agent/publisher I haven't made contact with before, what should I send?
Hillary's advice: A query letter. A query letter is like a first date: you give the pertinent information about your project in such a way as to be intriguing and a bit mysterious. Do not give your life story. Do not describe your entire book. Just enough information about the project for an agent to be able to gauge his interest. Include the fact that it's finished (it should be!), the word count, and from what perspective it's written (first-person past, third-person omniscient, etc.). Write a sentence about why you are uniquely qualified to write this book, unless of course there is no good reason. When in doubt, remain mysterious.

Your letter should be no longer than a printed page, four to five paragraphs tops. Oh, and don't compare your book to other books or movies that didn't sell well, or were box-office flops. Your publisher is just as interested in being solvent as you are.

A few more things about queries - always thank the agent/editor for any assistance. Always. Do not ask for that assistance within a certain timeframe; it is, however, appropriate to follow-up. It's permissible to follow-up twice, I think, in four week intervals (this is where queries and first dates diverge). After that, move on graciously.

Question: If I'm meeting with an agent or editor at a conference, what materials should I show?
Hillary's advice: When meeting with an agent or editor, or hoping to catch that person walking about, have a proposal at the ready. For the written materials, visit Jeff Gerke's site here for the best, most comprehensive description I've found.

Question: If I meet an agent/editor on a plane, should I pitch my project?
Hillary's advice: No. He's off-duty. The exception to this is if the conversation goes as follows:

You: So, what do you do?
Editor/Agent: I'm an editor/literary agent.
You: That's wonderful. I recently finished my first novel.

IF the editor/agent says, "oh really, describe it to me," then by all means, do so. If she says, "can you believe what they're charging for on-flight drinks these days?", drop it. Fast. You don't want to be that guy.

Now, if you're at a writers' conference, he's fair game UNLESS you're in the restroom. Seriously. And it has happened. DON'T BE THAT GUY.

Question: Your advice doesn't jive with what I read in my book.
Hillary's advice: While I'm certainly not the world's greatest living expert on the matter, I've also been around the Christian publishing industry for over ten years. I listen to experts talk about this stuff multiple times a year. Your book may be old. The publishing industry changes like the wind. The editor you're working with may leave that publisher tomorrow (it's happened). Trends come and go. What people are looking for changes.

Question: Fine, then. What books on publishing should I look at?
Hillary's advice: Sally Stuart's Guide to Getting Published and Ron Benrey's The Complete Idiot's Guide to Writing Christian Fiction. Sally's advice is always spot-on, and Ron, being an engineer as well as a writer, is very thorough. Randy Ingermanson and Jeff Gerke also have excellent resources for writers on their websites.

Question: Any other advice?
Hillary's advice: Have your verbal pitch ready at all times. Be able to say, "my book is about a woman in Alaska who leaves her family to become a travel-writer abroad" at a moment's notice. Practice in the mirror.

Aside from that, read constantly. Read older stuff, read newer stuff. Read the kind of stuff you write; read other genres. Watch movies. Watch good TV shows. Surround yourself with good writing. Then go out and experience things so you have something good to write about. Not only will this fill your creativity tank, BUT, you'll have something to talk about when you meet with people!

Hope this all helps - if you have other questions, post them at the bottom and I'll try to answer them as best I can!

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