You have written a book and want to have it published by a “traditional publisher,” rather than a print on demand (POD) company or doing it yourself. The first thing you may hear from fellow authors is this: “Publishers don’t accept books or even book proposals directly from authors anymore. You need a literary agent.” There are many advantages to having an agent represent your interests in the contract and publishing phases. Here are seven questions to help you identify and choose the best possible agent for your book.
1. What criteria must a good agent meet?
One non-negotiable criterion is membership in the Association of Authors’ Representatives (AAR). The AAR has a list of standards its members must meet; so, you can start by eliminating anyone who does not belong to AAR. Since agents receive about 15 percent of your advance from the publisher and other future income, there should be no charge for reading or representing your book. If an agent charges to read your manuscript, cross that person off your list.
2. Where should you look for an agent?
The best way to find an agent is through the referral from a fellow author. For the cyber-literate, the next place to look is on the Web. Just type “literary agents” into you favorite search engine, and you will be buried in potential candidates. If you favor libraries, ask a reference librarian for help. If you are most comfortable pouring through books, one of the most comprehensive is Jeff Herman’s Guide to Book Publishers, Editors, and Literary Agents. Herman’s book is also filled with informative articles and guidelines. Finally, go to a bookstore, select the best books on your topic, and read the acknowledgement pages. Most authors mention and thank their agents.
3. How do you narrow down the list?
Do your homework. Read everything you can find about each agent. If there isn’t enough available information, that’s a clue to keep looking. List the main categories that apply to your book: self-help, travel, current affairs, social commentary, investigative journalism, or memoir. You are looking for agents who are interested in those topics.
4. How do you rate the agents who meet your criteria?
As you read through the listings, match what agents want to the categories on your list. It’s a good idea to make a spreadsheet to organize all of this information. It should contain the name of the agency, contact information, the kinds of books the agent is looking for, requirements for submission, and your rating. Develop your own rating system, such as a five-point scale, with those with the best potential receiving a five. This will give you a wide-angle view of all of the agents who might be a good match.
5. How do you approach the agents with the highest ratings?
In most listings, agents will tell you exactly what they want or send you to their websites for submission guidelines. There is only one rule here: Follow those instructions to the letter. Different agents may have different guidelines. Some will accept a proposal; others want only a query letter. Give them exactly what they want.
6. What makes great query letter?
A query letter is much like a resume; it should peak the reader’s interest and get you (or your proposal) in the door. You have one page on which to say everything you want to say. Every word counts. Your first paragraph must grab the reader and hold on. It does this by presenting your “book hook” — one or two sentences that explain what your book is about and sum up the essence of the story. The second paragraph supports the first by explaining how the book differs from the competition, who your readers are and how they will benefit, and the thrust of your marketing plan. The third paragraph focuses on you and why you are uniquely qualified to write this book. Your closing paragraph is your pitch. It should be short, simple, and action oriented. Thank the reader for his or her time and consideration of your submission. Then, ask for what you want, such as a speedy response or a request for a proposal.
7. What is the procedure for sending out query letters and/or proposals?
Be personal, not generic. Your query letter is the first step in establishing a relationship with an agent. If he or she will accept a proposal, send it with your letter; if a proposal is requested, send it immediately. Always include a self-addressed, stamped envelope (SASE). You may send your query letter to more than one agent, but if you do, be sure and let everyone know that. If the agent asks to see your manuscript, send it along with a note requesting a response within four weeks. It is fine to follow up at that time to ask about the status of y our book. Before you commit yourself, arrange to meet the agent in person.
These are the procedures for finding and choosing the right agent. But, beyond procedures, there is your intuition. You want someone who is excited about your book, who believes in it and you. If you can’t picture this person as a partner and an advocate, keep looking for the perfect agent.