What You Need to Know about Landing An Agent

As a writer who hasn’t had a new novel out in a few years, people tend to ask me what I’ve been up to lately.  As if they assume there’s nothing happening here under the bus.  I tell them about Storyfix, and they say, “oh, so you’re writing a blog.  But are you working on anything?”

Yeah, I’m working on the rest of my writing career.  Right here.  I hesitate to call this a blog — there’s nothing at all wrong with blogs, by the way,  it’s just that my ambitions for Storyfix exceed the scope of the word — it’s an instructional resource for writers.  An entire body of work about writing and publishing, delivered in 700-word bites.  Something I intend to build into the best site on the internet for novelists and screenwriters.

As I look over the oeuvre of Storyfix thus far, two things strike me.  First, in seven weeks we’ve released 38 “blogs” directly attacking the challenges and issues facing writers, and in less than two months.  It’s already attracted hundreds of subscribers and allowed me to guest blog on some of the most established writing sites out there.

In my spare time I’ve written the new ebook, “101 Slightly Unpredictable Tips for Novelists and Screenwriters,” which releases this week.  I’m not shy about saying this: I hope you’ll buy it.  In a discipline that’s been written about for decades, there are exciting ideas and strategies here that are completely fresh and new.

The other thing: I haven’t talked much about agents.  In my workshops there are always folks who want to talk more about selling their writing than evolving it, and I deflect that because it’s the most profound cart-before-the-horse scenario imagineable.

And, to be honest, it’s an entire workshop in its own right.

But it’s time.  Because you do need an agent.  That is, if you want to sell a novel to a major New York publisher, or if you want your screenplay to even get out of the envelope you use to mail it.  It’s a non-negotiable fact.

This isn’t rocket science.  I’m on my second agent, and along the road to the bookstore (and back) I’ve studied how agents and writers come together.  So I’ll be succinct.

First of all, you need to understand your ambitions for your work.  If you’re targeting small presses, academic publishers or a Publish on Demand solution, then you actually don’t need an agent.  But you do still need to know how to pitch your work… more on that in a moment.

Agents all say they’re looking for great new talent, and they publicly lament that they can’t find any while many post “not accepting new clients” on their websites.  All of that is a smokescreen.  If you can get to an agent — any agent — with a great project, and if you can present it well and wrap it in a cloak of cache, you stand a chance of hooking up.

The best way to land an agent is through a referral from an existing client.  In other words, somehow you need to get a writer who is represented by an agent you’d like to approach, — which for most new writers is any agent at all — ask them to read your stuff, and if they like it pursuade them to contact the agent on your behalf.  That’s precisely how I landed my present agent.

Agents, however, are like publishers in more than one way.  They’re both looking for the next Harry Potter, and they are both tiered professions.  Which means, there are New York agents having lunch with publishers and each other, and there are regionally-based smaller agencies that phone it in.  The latter can sell you into the business, but there’s no comparison to someone who gets invited to all the right parties.

The next best strategy is precisely how I landed my first agent, with whom I worked for 16 years.  Agents attend writing conferences.  At most of them you can book a 10 minute “pitch” session — that’s right, face-to-face — which is your make-it-or-break-it opportunity.

This leads us to the art of the pitch, itself an entire textbook of structure, content and nuance.  For another day here on Storyfix.  For now, though, let’s assume you know how to pitch you work.  What happens then?

The agent will ask to see a partial manuscript.  A chapter or three.  Only rarely will they ask for the entire manuscript.  At the moment you deliver that sample — agents for screenplays will ask to see the whole thing, or at least a treatment — you are swimming with the sharks.  Writers are constantly frustrated that agents don’t get back to them, either within a promised timeline or at all.  Or worse. months go by and then, upon inquiry, the agent can’t even remember meeting you or having heard your pitch, much less consenting to read something.

That’s happened to me, too.  The utter arrogance and incompetence of it is incomprehendable.

We’re stuck with that.  And despite the cold blooded truth of it, it remains the second best approach.

The third best strategy, and it often works, is to write a killer query that presents you and your work and asks if they’ll give you a shot.  This results in the same best-case outcome: they’ll ask to see your work.  And again, welcome to the shark tank, where manuscripts are consumed like chum.

You should consider all three of these approaches.  At the end of the day, though, an eternal truth comes back into play: it’s all about the work.  About your story.  About your craft.  And, at this stage, about your ability to succinctly and pursuasively pitch it, either face-to-face or in written form.

By the way, a more detailed how-to on pitching is in the new ebook (Tip #89).  I”m just sayin’.

3 Comments

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3 Responses to What You Need to Know about Landing An Agent

  1. Overall, all of this information is good. But email and ebook readers and such seem to be changing things a little. Since agents no longer have to print out (or wait for a printed copy) of a manuscript, there is a growing trend of them asking for a full, right at the beginning. I’ve been following quite a few agents on Twitter and they all tend to have ebook readers. So if they request a full, they can still stop after three chapters if they don’t like it, but if they want to read more, they don’t have to wait. Though, one agent did blog about the fact that that might be giving authors more hope/confidence than if they used the older system of asking for a partial and then a full.

    Just thought I’d toss it out there that being asked for a full instead of a partial isn’t always a sign that they’re more interested. Sometimes it’s a sign that they’re more impatient.

  2. @Debra — great point. I think the most effective way to connect with an agent is to meet with them at a writing conference (you know, the “scheduled” ten minute face to face), which allows the chemistry to brew and gives both parties a sense of each other. If the agent really likes you, then perhaps that’ll influence how they react to your work. Online submissions (like old school mail submissions) don’t allow for that, and I agree, this trend will soon take over. Guess we have to be charismatic in our query and cover letters.

    It’s never been easy, it’ll never be easy, even as it changes.

    Thanks for commenting. L.

  3. Thought I’d add publishing in literary magazines: I’ve had three agents contact me because they read work of mine in these. Now I should add I haven’t landed an agent yet, they are looking for a longer work (which I am working on)…