Alanah Winters

Alanah Winters: Compelling fiction

The Business of Seeking An Agent...

If you keep up with me on Facebook you know that last Saturday I participated in a local writing conference hosted by the Charlotte Writing Academy. I had the chance to partake in their book fair, writing contest, seminars, and networking opportunities. While there I was able to make the acquaintance of some very interesting people in my field and take in lessons that would help me successfully further my writing endeavors. I had a marvelous time! The icing on the cake was being able to meet the New York bestselling author, Jason Motts and hear his thoughts about the literary world as he knows it. I left the event with a deeper appreciation of the process of writing. It also didn’t hurt winning the best new author award and the blog award!

I went home that night on a natural high.  Even with my head in the clouds, I started to think of my future and where I really saw myself going within the literary world. I couldn’t shake the feeling it was time to revisit my five year plan and make the necessary tweaks to better suit my evolving needs.

…and I believe what I should start looking for is an agent.

Just writing that sentence scares the hell out of me. Or is it excitement I’m feeling? Hard to say, it’s probably a little bit of both. Self-publishing just started to feel comfortable and now I want to up the ante for myself. Okay, so I want an agent to represent me and my work. How do I go about doing that?

As always I turn to the internet for my research needs and I found a wealth of information.

I found that agents are considered the connoisseurs of the publishing industry. With their insider knowledge and contacts they can navigate the choppy waters of the literary world much easier than an untrained author. Being a nurse and a diligent advocate for my patients, I fully understand the blessing of having a knowledgeable person by your side. An agent's sole purpose is to negotiate the best deal for you, protect your rights, and guarantee you’re compensated properly for your work.  Basically, it’s their job to have your back at all times. That all sounds great!  I don’t know how I lived life without one for as long as I have. Did you know that approximately 80 percent of books that are acquired by the Big Five traditional publishers get sold by agents? So why would I not need a person with that type of skill set in my life?  

The answer is simple; I do need one!

And name you George

And name you George

However there are some writers that don’t. For an example, if you wrote an academic or literary work, you might not need an agent. The bigger the advance an agent can predict you’re worth the more likely you can garner one for yourself.  So basically if your project doesn’t command a decent advance you’ll most likely have to sell the project on your own. I guess agents don’t sweat the small stuff… sorry, bad joke.

I also learned that not all books are weighed the same. And no, I’m not talking about the actual weight of the book. I mean the book’s commercial potential, which is the skill of knowing how big your work really is. So I would have to honestly look at my work and deiced where my book truly lies on several different levels of commercial viability. First off, do I have a “big” book, fit for the Big Five traditional publishers? Or are my books “quaint” in nature and more suitable for mid-size and small presses?  Here’s where I would have to shrug my shoulders. I’m sure many authors have a rough time putting themselves into the right category. Here are some helpful hinters for the type of books the Big Five traditional publisher crave:

  • Genre or mainstream fiction
  • Romance
  • Erotica
  • Mystery/crime
  • Thriller
  • Science fiction/fantasy
  • Young adult/new adult

Nonfiction books are sought after as well, but the Big Five usually won’t sign a nonfiction book unless it expects to sell a minimum of 10,000 to 20,000 copies.

There’s other information available to better understand what sells. For $25 dollars a month you can get an insider look in what commercial publishing looks like on and study the deals that get announced.

Also, check out Manuscript Wish List, where agents/editors specifically spell out what they’re looking for!

Let’s just say everything was a go to pitch to the Big Five and all you had to do was get an agent to recognize you were right in thinking so. Traditionally, agents get paid only when they sell your work and they receive a 15 percent commission on everything you get paid (your advance and royalties). From all the research I have done so far, it appears to be best to avoid agents who charge fees other than the standard 15 percent. But you have to get one before you can worry about how much they will get paid, right?

Don't put the cart before the horse…

Dang it horse, you had one job...

Dang it horse, you had one job... is also mentioned as one of the best places to research literary agents. It does seem convenient to be able to check out the agents’ member pages and then search the publishing deals database by genre and category, pinpointing if that particular agent really works for you.

Down below are some links to other possible helpful links to find an agent that fit your needs: About 1,000 agent listings and an excellent community/resource for any writer going through the query process. About 200 publisher listings and 1,000 agent listings. About 400 to 600 agent listings. $5.99/month subscription fee.

Since I don’t write nonfiction books my focus for the rest of this post will be centered on fiction.

Most of the information I have found shows that agents that focus on fiction will want to see you’re coming to the table with a finished (and polished) product. Okay, let’s assume you’re ready. The most common materials you’ll be asked for:

  • Query letter. This is a one-page pitch letter that gives a brief description of your work.
  • Novel synopsis. This is a brief summary (usually no more than one or two pages) of your story, from beginning to end. It must reveal the ending.
  • Novel proposal. This usually refers to your query letter, a synopsis, and perhaps the first chapter.
  • Sample chapters. Always start from the beginning of your manuscript.

Important: Almost no agent accepts full manuscripts on first contact. This is what “no unsolicited materials” means when you read submission guidelines.

Here’s a list of responses you may get after contacting your agents of choice:

  • No response at all, which means it’s a rejection.
  • A request for a partial manuscript and possibly a synopsis.
  • A request for the full manuscript.
  So many papercuts...

  So many papercuts...

In this process you must always be open to tweaking your query if there’s no interest shown.  Again, let’s just pretend I get past this hurdle as well without too much heartbreak and I have a plethora of agents to choose from. How do I pick the right agent for me? Here are a few helpful hinters:

1. Their sales track record is usually the number-one sign of whether you've landed a good agent. Evaluate their client list and the publishers they have recently sold to.  Make sure they sell the types of publishers you consider appropriate for your work.

2. As in all good standing relationships, communication is key. Your dealings with your agent should be professional in nature and nurturing in some regards. They should always treat you as a business partner.

3. The agent you choose should genuinely believe in you and your work. Think long-term when thinking of the agent that’s right for you.

I think I’ve found enough to keep me busy for a while. Wish me luck and if I’ve missed any important steps please leave a comment. I’ll keep everyone posted to my progress. Happy Friday everyone!