I’m sorry I haven’t been returning your calls. Since my first day at one of the largest publishing companies in the world, I've been getting dozens of queries a day from aspiring writers. It's difficult to get my work done when I'm fielding calls every fifteen minutes, and I must admit, during an especially busy day (or an exceptionally cranky one), I ignore the calls. (I'm sorry!) But now I'm here on shewrites.com, ready and willing to tackle any question you need answered. Please, send them to my She Writes inbox! In the meantime, I'll be answering some of the questions I hear again and again (and again).
Until next time,
The Girl with the Red Pencil
Q: Do I need an agent?
A: YES. An agent isn't just there to take 15%--she's there to protect you. She’s familiar with the inner workings of the publishing industry and knows not only to negotiate for money, but also for other things to help you along in the process: more bound galleys and finished copies of your book, a favorable option, and even clauses in your contract that will legally bind the publisher to consult you on the cover design or pay for any necessary permission fees.
Also, without an agent, it's highly unlikely that you’ll even have a contract to negotiate because most publishers don’t accept unsolicited submissions. If you send your proposal directly to a publishing house, it will almost always end up in the slush pile (overflowing boxes of unsolicited materials that beleaguered assistants must sort through) and then in the trash. Your manuscript probably won’t be returned (please don’t send the only copy of your handwritten baby in a library of composition notebooks!) and the likelihood of receiving a response, even a generic one, is smaller.
Editors trust agents to be the first filter because they select a very small percentage of projects to represent out of the countless submissions they receive. Agents are kind of like personal shoppers—they cull the best pieces of the season and pick out the ones that are to an editor’s taste. They know which editors love a good bildungsroman, are fascinated by true crime or inspired by political memoirs, or curl their toes at the thought of a spicy romance. Therefore editors have higher expectations for submissions sent by agents.
There are a few established authors who don't have representation—they usually already have a standard boilerplate contract, a long-standing relationship with an editor, and a sterling reputation. But these writers are the exception. Unless you’re already a New York Times-bestselling author and recipient of the Pulitzer, get an agent. They are a necessary and invaluable resource.
Which leads me to the next FAQ:
Q: How do I get an agent?
A: Do your research! First, head to your local bookstore. Most authors will thank their agents, so look at the acknowledgment pages in books that are similar to yours. If you’ve written a comedy of manners set in Alabama, an agent who represents other Southern novels is more likely to be interested in your novel than an agent who represents science fiction, of course! Also, check out the current Guide to Literary Agents, Writer’s Market, or Literary Market Place (all available both in book form and online). Consider subscribing to Publishers Marketplace, an online service that provides contact information for agents, as well as descriptions of the deals they’ve made.
Make sure to follow your chosen agents’ submission guidelines. If an agent’s website or listing in one of the above publications states that she does not accept submissions via email, don’t email your project! You’d be surprised how many aspiring writers don’t follow the guidelines.
Finally, don’t “hire” an agent who charges a fee for representation. There may be exceptions to the rule (though I haven’t seen any), but legitimate agents won’t ask for money up front. If a respectable agent chooses to take you on as a client, she will take a 15% commission when you receive your advance payments, and no sooner.
One more thing: When you send out your submission, make sure it’s perfect. Check every questionable spelling, make sure it reads smoothly, and confirm that every bit of information is correct. Poor grammar and typos won’t help your cause.
Q: What should my submission include?
1. A concise, professional cover letter that presents the premise of your project and introduces you as a writer.
2. A proposal with the following elements:
a. For a novel, include a synopsis. For non-fiction, include an annotated contents page.
b. An evaluation of the marketplace. What makes your project particularly relevant? What similar books have already been published? What makes yours both different and better?
c. A marketing plan, including your contacts at various media outlets, and writers who are willing to provide endorsements of your book.
d. A bio. Have you been published in any literary magazines? Did you attend a respected MFA program? If you’ve written non-fiction, your bio should include an in-depth description of your platform. What makes you the best person to write the book? What is your expertise?
3. A few sample chapters (approximately fifty pages), unless the agent requests complete manuscripts in her submission guidelines. If you’re submitting a novel, make sure you’ve finished the entire book before you start submitting to agents. An agent can sell a non-fiction project based on a detailed proposal and some sample chapters, but she cannot sell fiction unless she has a complete manuscript,
4. A S.A.S.E. with adequate postage.
***Please note that although I work at Random House, this column represents my own thoughts and opinions and not necessarily those expressed or endorsed by my employer***