How Can I Find an Agent?

Photo by Jeffrey Abrahams

By Eric Olsen

I know there are some good agents out there. Some of the writers in We Wanted to Be Writers have good agents, agents who sell their work and aggressively look after their interests and hold their hands when hands need holding and return their calls and do all the other things agents are supposed to do . . . and too often don’t.

“When I got out of Iowa,” says Sandra Cisneros, “I learned the business side the wrong way, by signing on the dotted line—and then later on I had to get an agent who helped save me from the big mistakes I’d made as a young writer . . . When I talk to young women, I tell them you don’t need a husband, you need an agent.”

“You need a shark, someone to get that best offer,” says Jennie Fields, whose agent, Lisa Bankoff, recently sold her latest novel, The Age of Ecstasy. “You want an agent who understands your book, understands what you’re trying to do. I’ve been with Lisa since 1990. She’s represented all of my books. She’s a go-getter, and tough. Sometimes an agent can be terse with you if they’re tough, but you don’t need a mother, you need someone to give advice.”

“My agents have always been important,” says Joe Haldeman. “They make me more money and allow me to be a writer without the expense of living in New York. I’ve sold books and movies without agents; that is, I sold them on my own, and then had my agent do the paperwork. But I wouldn’t think of trying to make a living at it without an agent.”

So how do you find a good agent, an agent like Sandra has, or Jennie or Joe?

“I tell people to first figure out who writes like you do,” says Jennie. “Who do you relate to in your own writing? Call the publisher, tell them you want to write an article about the writer, and ask them, ‘Who’s their agent?’ Then send a query to the agent. But I found my agent through a friend.”

Look at the acknowledgements of all the books by those authors who, you figure, write the sort of book you’re working on; the writer might mention his or her agent, particularly if the agent scored a fat advance and big movie deal. I just checked the acknowledgements in a book that happened to be at hand, my raggedy paperback edition of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code (OK, I admit it, I read it and, yeah, it ain’t Literature, but I liked it), and I see that Brown lavishes praise on one Heide Lange, “agent extraordinaire.” You can be sure I’ll be sending Ms Lange the first four chapters of my take on ancient conspiracies and secret societies forthwith. I may even stick in some vampires.

“I found my first agent by asking friends,” says Jeffrey Abrahams. “I signed with him and he got me a book deal. My second book was totally different, though, about the homeless and not his kind of book, so I went looking for another agent. I queried five. They all wanted to represent the book. Four were in the Bay Area, where I live, the fifth in New York. I went with the New Yorker. I figured he’d have the contacts.

He was great—communicative, responsive. He sent the book out to 60 publishers, all of whom said, in one way or another, that the market had changed and no one wanted a book about the homeless. My agent was great; he didn’t charge me for all those copies, for the calls, for anything. ‘Well,’ he finally told me, ‘we tried.’ Now, that guy was an agent.”

There are so many people out there these days calling themselves agents that it’s almost as if one needs an agent to find an agent. The field seems to be particularly rich with scamsters, rather like the banking sector, so proceed with caution.

First of all, a real agent makes money by selling your work. Stay well clear of anyone calling himself an agent who charges an upfront “reading fee” or “representation fee” or “marketing fee.” Don’t get mixed up with anyone who refers you to fee-charging publishers, or requires you to use his own editing services, for a fee of course.

There are several services that can help.

• Agent Query is a free service with all sorts of info about agents, the nuts-and-bolts of finding an agent, and a searchable database. It also has a list of scams to watch out for.

• Writer Beware also has a nice discussion of scams to avoid. You can find this on the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America website. This is, by the way, one of my favorite sites, a wealth of good advice about the business and practice of writing that will be useful for any writer.

• The Writer’s Market series published by Writer’s Digest is full of current info about agents (which can also be obtained on constantly updating annual subscription at the Writers Market website). See also the 2011 Guide To Literary Agents by Chuck Sambuco, Writer’s Digest book editor, and Jeff Herman’s annual Writer’s Guide to Book Editors, Publishers, and Literary Agents.

• Agent Research and Evaluation is a little like a match-making service, and charges $360 for a “customized fingerprint,” developed from a questionnaire you fill out about your work, yourself, your goals. Based on this, they put together a list of agents they think might be best for you.

But assuming you find an agent, the struggle for good representation is far from over. And then one has to wonder if, in this new era of digi-everything, self-publishing, and the collapse of the “legacy” publishing models, you even need an agent.

More on this to come . . .

One response to “How Can I Find an Agent?”

  1. Julie Musil

    What a bounty of information. Thanks!

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