Monday, May 26, 2014

Ask An Agent. Ask Anything!

No, not that kind of agent

If you had five minutes to sit down with an experienced literary agent and ask anything, what would you ask?  I recently posed this question to my writer friends on Facebook, and the questions came in quickly. Here’s the first batch:

What is your biggest draw when it comes to signing someone?

I think every aspiring author asks this question sooner or later, in one way or another, and they’re hoping to divine the ONE secret thing that will make them rich and famous. And I always disappoint, because I don’t believe that such a singular “secret of the ages” really exists. But when pressed, I generally narrow it down to four things:

1-      Your story (the information on the pages).
2-      Your writing (your skill and style).
3-      Your professionalism (how do you present yourself?)
4-      My gut. I just get a feel for a story and a person.

Ask me again tomorrow, and I might change some of those answers. Because at the end of the day, it’s really an educated guess based on my experience.

Is it common to have more than one agent depending on the genre of your novel?

Yes, that does happen. You want to write romance AND fantasy, but agent #1 only handles romance. But the more common situation would be for fiction vs. nonfiction. In any event, don’t keep it a secret; make sure that both agents are aware of the situation, and that both of your agency contracts allow you to work with another agent.

What is the best way to approach a lit agent?

Don’t ask me, ask them. Do your research, and find out how each one wants to receive that first contact. One wants a query by email, while another wants the full manuscript by UPS. Whatever it is, do exactly that and nothing more. Going “above and beyond,” probably won’t help.

What is the difference in having an agent vs. not having an agent?

Whatever it is that you write, an agent already has personal relationships with dozens of editors who handle your genre. He can get you past the slush pile, and assure that someone actually reads your work. He regularly hears whispers about opportunities that will never be known to the general public. A good agent can also coach you through the process and introduce you to people who might make all the difference in your success.

Are there different agents for different types of writing, such as novels or scripts?

Yes, every agent has a specific range of materials they handle. Don’t waste your time (or hers) by sending your short stories to an agent who only handles picture books. And screenplays are a whole different world that most book agents know little about.

How finished should a novel be before going to a lit agent? I've got a novel I've been working on for five years or more, and I'm trying to decide when it'll be ready.

Unless you already have a known track record (you’ve sold thousands of books), most publishers won’t sign you without a complete manuscript. They don’t trust you to finish, or to finish on time, and they might demand that you (and your agent!) repay your advance. But even without an advance, they still turned down dozens or hundreds of other authors to sign you and invest in your project. If you don’t come through it will throw off their production schedule and trade show plans, and they won't have enough time to line up someone else. And because your book isn't in the catalog, they won't be able to recover their investment. For these reasons, most agents won’t bother with incomplete fiction.


  1. Thanks for answering my question. Since it's my first novel, hopefully the future ones won't take so long.

  2. This was very eye-opening. Thank you so much.