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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 10.3.13

Is it not expedient to send a sample chapter of a novel-in-progress, to find out where interest might lie, rather than wait until you've got it all done, and then maybe spend the next five years sending out queries?

Since we agents have such heavy reading (and the lion's share of that reading is material we won't ultimately take on) you shouldn't go on a fishing expedition with a work-in-progress (unless it's non-fiction, where a proposal/sample can be enough to sell). Either way, you're going to finish your novel if you're committed to it, so my advice is to use submission energy wisely. Most agents won't offer to represent fiction without digesting the complete project, so you don't stand to gain much from reaching out prematurely.

posted 9.26.13

Is it possible to find an agent for a novel if you don't have a website or social network platform?

Yes, it's absolutely possible. If an agent loves your book enough, he or she will sign you, and the two of you can work together on any platform issues, if necessary, before submitting your manuscript to publishers. That being said, creating a website is relatively easy, and a well-done or particularly creative site can be a plus. Similarly, a larger number of Facebook fans or Twitter followers can tip things in your favor if an agent is on the fence about taking you on as a client.

Being active online, though, is valuable in ways other than just ticking off a marketing box. Online...

posted 9.17.13

Is there a market for just plain funny fiction? Or does it have to fit into a genre such as mystery or literary fiction?

Oh, there’s a market—it’s just so damn hard to crack. Nothing is as subjective as humor, hands down. Even if the acquiring editor thinks the project is funny, chances are that someone high up in sales or marketing disagrees. But I think the minute you start thinking that your writing “has to fit” certain parameters is the minute you lose an essential part of your voice.

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.

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