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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 6.27.16

The first story I ever submitted will be published next the spring by an online magazine for no money. Does this limit the possibilities of publishing it elsewhere?

Congratulations! It depends on your agreement with the magazine. In this instance, I would strongly encourage you to confirm that you are only granting this magazine the right to publish your piece nonexclusively and that you will retain copyright to the work. Keep in mind that it is good practice (and good karma) to acknowledge where a piece has first been published; your early supporters will stand by you for your whole career if you let them. I would also urge you only to submit to magazines in which you would be thrilled to publish.


posted 10.13.15

If I have many different forms of writing (self-published memoir, finished screenplay, completed short stories with an outline for a full short story collection, already produced commercials,  and short films) how do I approach an agent with the work? Do I focus on one form, or is it acceptable to send all projects, as a portfolio of sorts, to the agent?

Trying to flog too many projects at once tends to be a red flag for agents. We don’t mind learning how broad your accomplishments are in your query letter, but we want you to seek representation for a single project. Also, most book agents don’t handle screenplays, short films, or commercials, so by putting any emphasis on these, you may inadvertently suggest that you don’t understand our business.

posted 4.14.15

Can I send a query for my book to more than one agent?

You bet. And if, later, you find out that multiple agents are reading and loving your book, e-mail all of them (separately) and say something like, “Most exciting news to share! You are not the only agent enjoying my manuscript. Let’s set up a call as soon as you’ve finished reading, as I’m in the most unexpected, thrilling position: I get to choose my agent.” Avoid maniacal glee. You get the idea.

posted 8.20.14

Is there a fee for working with agents or do they get part of the commission from the book sales?

There is no fee. We only make money when our clients make money. The standard agent commission is 15 percent of all domestic income and 20 percent of all foreign income brokered by that agency. If you encounter an agent who requires an up-front fee, run from him as you would from a burning barn.

posted 4.2.14

Is strong journalism and column writing considered when judging the talent of a writer seeking to branch out into more creative areas?

My own client list includes nearly a dozen reporters and columnists. As a former magazine writer and editor, I pay special attention to queries from journalists and columnists, and I believe many other agents do, too. It’s always important to include your credentials in a query letter. Your reporting and column writing may even be what grabs an agent’s attention, but what most interests any agent will always be a high-quality book proposal or manuscript. And no matter how good they are, some reporters and columnists aren’t able to make the transition from short-form journalism to the long...

posted 2.13.14

Is self-publishing my early work going to cost me later in my literary career? Does an agent perceive self-published work as a demerit?

I believe self-publishing is a better option than ever before—for unpublished writers as well as for previously published authors. So, no, I don’t think of it as a negative. But it won’t really help you find an agent unless your self-published book has garnered strong sales and/or good reviews. If you’ve self-published without much success, I probably wouldn’t mention it in your query letter when submitting a proposal for new work.

posted 2.13.14

If I’m a hermit by choice (find crowds draining, don’t do public speaking well), how does that reduce my chances of being published? Would an agent and/or publisher see that as a marketing nightmare?

I think the answer depends a great deal on the nature of what you’re writing (and perhaps the degree to which you’re really a hermit). It is almost impossible to promote nonfiction without having the author engage with the world in some way. You can probably get away with avoiding public-speaking events, but if you’re not willing to, say, do an NPR interview about your book, that’s a problem.

Fiction is a little bit different. Whether it’s intended to be high literature or complete pulp, it’s all about what’s on the page and how the reader responds to it. Yes, an author who is...

posted 11.7.13

I’ve read that literary fiction writers should consider submitting book-length manuscripts to contests and independent presses at the same time they are querying agents. This feels unorthodox to me, but given the tight market for literary fiction, maybe it’s warranted. What is your feeling on this?

I think that’s probably a wise and realistic approach for short story collections. The fact is, if you’re publishing stories in venues high profile enough to suggest that a collection might be a viable commercial prospect for a major publisher, you’re probably going to be hearing from agents already.

For novels, however, I’d save submissions to contests and independent presses for a second or third round. I don’t think you need to wait until you’ve queried every agent in the world, but make sure you’ve given yourself a chance with a few dozen or so people who seem like they’d be a...

posted 10.31.13

I have a book I think would make a good e-book—it's fiction but with lots of relevant (historical and political) links to videos, archival photos, cultural analysis. Is it a good idea to market this to agents and editors as a potential e-book? Or would that seem gimmicky? Also, would it make it seem less literary?

An e-book original is, unfortunately, still perceived as a last resort for a book. Since, to my knowledge, e-book publishers operate on a no-advance payment structure (with higher royalties most of the time, to make up for that) pitching your project as a "good e-book" is like telling agents they might never make a dime on it. So, not an ideal foot to put forward! Instead, pitch the book based on all its general merit; then, in a separate paragraph, argue that your topic lends itself to unique opportunities for digital engagement in an e-book edition, which would be an asset to the overall...

posted 10.17.13

What type of query letter piques your interest?

One that's as well written as the book itself. Even better is one that's short, pithy, and demonstrates the author's understanding of, and aspirations for, how the book will be received as part of the literary and cultural conversation. I'm much more interested in knowing why an author wrote something and what kinds of books and authors inspired her, than I am in a lengthy synopsis. The latter should take no more than one paragraph.

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