Writer’s Forum


A space for thoughts about the creative process and the things that affect it.   John wrote this article in 2003, not knowing the changes that would come with the internet for writers, editors, and publishers.

The Most Frequent Question: Agents

I should first admit that the world has changed (oh, wow!) since I last went looking for an agent. Some of the rules have changed but some of them have not. The agent I found stayed my agent for over forty years. But let’s take a look at the advice I have been dispensing to young writers all these years and see how it stands up. Here’s what I tell them.

Do you need an agent? Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. Many big houses won’t even look at unagented manuscripts.

Is it true that it’s almost as difficult to get an agent as it is to find a publisher? It can be, with marginal material, but this is where you start. Even with a good book it can be a tedious, difficult search. The best agents are busy and can’t take on work they feel is iffy or lukewarm.

Look first at agents located in New York—10017 and 10036 are great zip codes for agents, but don’t assume that, just because someone lives in New York, he is either (a) real, or (b) God’s gift to the publishing world, and you would be damned lucky to get him.

typewriter-4Conduct the search on a high level. Don’t waste the agent’s time, don’t call uninvited, don’t send out twenty queries at once, and please-oh-please don’t put it up for bids. Don’t write a copyright notice on the title page in 72-point type, as if you’re afraid the agent is going to steal your book. Don’t shoot yourself in the foot before the agent has even had a chance to see your manuscript.

Be a pro, even if you’ve never sold a word to anybody.

Don’t send the agent a 300-page manuscript without warning. Query the agent briefly in a letter of no more than a page or two. Summarize the book brilliantly but don’t hype it. A tall order, you say. Yes it is, but you’re a writer, write something that makes the agent say, “I’d better look at this.” But don’t be cute.

If you send by mail, include stamped, self-addressed envelopes with everything, query letter or full (solicited) manuscript.

Get names from the Association of Authors’ Representatives, a merging of two agents’ groups, with a canon of ethics and professional standards set out in its bylaws. There are LOTS of agents there to choose from—more than 30 pages of them, last time I looked.

Watch out for sharks. Anybody can set up shop in Gopher Prairie USA and call himself a literary agent. Don’t sign a contract allegedly binding you to some agency before a book is even sold. Never, ever, ever pay an “agent” to read your book. Such fees can run into hundreds of dollars, and for what?

Don’t give up. This may be the most important point in this column. If you believe in your book, don’t give up. Churchill said in the darkest days of WWII, NEVER give up, and look how that turned out. The publishing world is full of stories of writers who have made the rounds and hit it big on the 20th, 30th, 50th submission. You have spent at least a year or two writing this thing. Now have the courage to keep it going. Send it till the type wears off the page.

Start another book. Don’t wait for this one to run its course.

Don’t ask other writers to read your stuff. What does it matter what any of us thinks? Get it in the hands of an agent who will tell you straight-up what she thinks.

And now I would add this: Don’t lie.

Oh, I am aware of the writer who did tell a few whoppers to his agent and then went on to a fabulous mega-million-dollar career. I know him well and that’s a funny and true bit of Denver literary folklore. However, it’s also a one-in-a-million story that may have more to do with plain old luck than anything else. It could just as easily have turned out the other way.

You know what? I still like these points. I like them all, even the ones that may go down hardest with a gung-ho new writer, certain of his brilliance and impatient for the world to discover him.

September 2003