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Agent Advice

In our Agent Advice feature, some of the best literary agents in the country answer the questions most frequently asked by writers about how to get published.

posted 7.8.13

Why does a writer need an agent?

Publishing, at its best, is a team effort. The agent is the writer’s first professional reader and, in most cases, first editor. Ideally, a writer should pick an agent who has fallen deeply in love with the writer’s work, warts and all. In the best of these relationships, the writer and agent develop a rhythm on the editorial side, working together to talk through the trouble spots in a way that truly resonates and allows the writer to make the work better. Agents and editors spend a lot of time talking about books and taste, so having an agent who really understands your work—and knows...

posted 7.1.13

At what point is an author justified in ending his relationship with his agent?

Writers leave their agents, and vice versa, for any number of reasons, so the point at which to do so varies. If you do decide it’s time to end the relationship, it’s wise to do it gracefully. If that agent has sold any of your work, chances are you’ll have ongoing contact regarding that project or projects. It’s good to apply the law of diminishing returns. Also, ask yourself: Do you have serious misgivings about the quality of service you’re receiving? Do you believe the agent’s goals are aligned with yours? At the same time, remind yourself that no one is perfect—the grass is not always...

posted 6.24.13

I’ve made revisions to a novel that change it in significant ways, including a name change. Is it bad form to submit it to some agents who asked for the manuscript before but passed on it?

I think you can query agents with the same book if you feel it’s been significantly improved. You should be up front, however, with the fact that they have previously seen a version of it.

posted 6.17.13

Do you think it’s a good idea for people who are not completely confident in their work to make an attempt at soliciting an agent? Is it worth the effort to try? Which raises the question: What evidence would one need to consider oneself worthy in the first place?

Think about it this way: If only supremely confident people attempted to put their work out there, then we’d hardly have any books. Is it worth the effort to try? As I once heard Andrei Codrescu, in an NPR commentary, quote Heraclitus: Who can stop the sea from rising? Which is to say, though sadly lacking his thick Romanian accent, this is a rhetorical question. So why not try? As for your last question, I fear it is too existential to take on in this brief format. I’m going to refer you to my colleague Betsy Lerner’s blog, www....

posted 6.10.13

Do you like it when a writer draws a parallel between the writer’s manuscript and other books that have been published?

I love it. These comparisons give me insight into the writer’s influences and what kind of novel the writer has crafted. In some cases, particularly when a writer compares the book to a novel I loved, it can be pretty enticing—“Oh, you love The Stone Diaries? I love it too!” It’s smart, effective marketing, which is essentially what a writer needs to do to get an agent excited about reading the book. I also appreciate when writers mention relevant books I’ve represented. It indicates that they have done their homework.

posted 6.3.13

How widely should a writer be published and how large a body of work should she accumulate before it is time to consider finding an agent?

There’s no hard-and-fast rule. You don’t even need an agent to get your novel published. Independent and university presses publish amazing writers, and some people self-publish. You need an agent for countless other reasons, including protecting your intellectual property. Reputable journals or independent presses that get review and award attention can help build a consensus about your work before you go to an agent. But there are also writers who skip directly to getting an agent for their novel, selling it to a big house, without building a body of work beforehand. Frequently this work...

posted 5.27.13

Should I have my work professionally edited before I present it to an agent?

Most of the material agents see is not professionally edited. However, it’s not unheard of, and the instinct to have your work looked at is a good one, as you really want to get it into the best possible shape you can before submitting it to any agents, magazines, or book editors. If you’re okay spending the money, I’d suggest you find an editor who can provide references, and I’d talk to clients he or she has worked with to judge if it’s worth it. There are plenty of former book editors who freelance now and who have the type of expertise you want.

posted 5.20.13

For an unpublished writer, does it cost more to seek a literary agent abroad or would it be safer to self-publish first in the home country before seeking an agent in another country?

I’m not sure about the words cost and safer that you have chosen to use here. Do you mean them literally, or metaphorically? If you have e-mail, it shouldn’t cost you much. And unless there is a terrific home country–based agent (they are less common where you are, no?) whose loving advances you are rejecting, I don’t see any cost to your career, either. The United States, of course, imports little in the way of books, though we do get serial crushes on various areas around the world (India, Africa, e.g.) and then suddenly there’s a lovely burst of publishing activity...

posted 5.13.13

What is the best advice you can give young writers who are applying to MFA programs?

My advice is to understand that you don’t need an MFA to be a great writer. That said, getting an MFA is a wonderful thing! If you decide to pursue an MFA, you’ll get an automatic community of other burgeoning writers who will give you honest critiques of your works-in-progress, you’ll gain access to accomplished professors, and you’ll have uninterrupted time to focus on honing your craft. I would only caution that an MFA in no way guarantees you that your work will ever be published, nor does it necessarily provide access to a teaching job. It is, however, a wonderful luxury, and I advise...

posted 5.6.13

Do agents really read synopses? Isn’t a ten-page sample more useful? 

For me, fiction synopses that detail every step of the plot are hard to read and fairly useless. The same description might yield work that’s boring, amazing, or ridiculous; it’s all in the execution. The ability to talk coherently and convincingly about your work is important, though. I like a query that communicates the book’s territory, feel, and type; your influences and credits; and, above all, a sense that you know what you’re trying to do. And then it’s on to the work itself. To that end, I ask for a query and the first page. One book I’m extremely excited about is...

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