Are literary agents necessary to get published? They are not. I have a number of author friends (to include Graybeard Publishing’s own Kelly Crigger) who have found professional writing success doing it themselves. There’s no tried-and-true path in book publishing anymore, so I tell emerging writers the most important thing they can do is figure out what’ll work for their book – don’t stress about what did (or didn’t) work for someone else’s book.
I’ve always worked with an agent, myself. The right agent can mean everything: s/he can and should function as your advocate, champion and confidante, and can and should do the same for your book. After all, they only get paid if you get paid. (More on that later.) The wrong agent can, well, ruin everything. Literary agents are not Kias. They are not all the same.
If you decide to go the agent route yourself, here are some things to figure out before, during and after the laborious (and it will be laborious) querying process:
1) Are you looking for representation for one book, or looking for someone to work with for a long career?
That’s not a trick question, there are good answers to both scenarios, depending on the situation the writer and their manuscript find themselves in. Some agents prefer to work on a manuscript-to-manuscript basis. Some writers do, too. The pros of this are flexibility, and a trust that the agent has a knowledge for the right editorial connections for whatever the focus of the book is. Once that sale is made, the writer is “On the Next One, “like Jay-Z, and so is the agent. In general, this scenario is probably best for writers mid-career who are comfortable with what they’re doing and how they do it.
If you’re looking for an agent to work with for the long-term, understand that A) that probably means you’re not quite as close to publishing as you think and B) you’re most likely going to be communicating and potentially working with younger agents who haven’t made their bones yet. And that’s okay! Stories like Chad Harbach’s are few and far between, and with good reason. Getting in with a young agent who’s also getting established can often be a good thing. They’re as hungry as you are, and you all grow together. But it obviously comes with the risk of the unknown.
2) Are you querying the right people? Are you being as precise and exact with your queries as possible?
Do your research, my fellow scribes! And do it BEFORE you start querying, and I don’t just mean buying that Guide to Literary Agents at Barnes & Noble and pitching anyone and everyone in its pages. No reason to pitch a historical project about ancient Rome to an agent who specializes in science fiction robot romance novels, you know?
Agents receive hundreds if not thousands of queries every month. They are looking for any reason to press the delete key. It doesn’t matter if that’s fair. It just is. So, do you think your query is tight and popping, or do you know it is? There’s a difference. I know it’s exhausting to write one more thing after writing so many things just to get to the query stage, but it’s a vital part of the process.
Also, I have at least three friends for whom this has worked: go to your local bookstore and find books that could be described as similar to your project. (I know, I know. NOTHING is like your project. Stop being precious and think like a reader, not like a writer.) Turn to the back, to the acknowledgements section. More likely than not, the author thanks their agent there by name. Write down that agent’s name and figure out how they receive queries. Generally speaking (always and forever, generally speaking) if an agent has found success in a certain field or subject, they’ll be open to finding new clients writing in that field or subject.
3) Trust … but verify
One huge note on agents: no reputable agent charges a reading fee. They make their money on sold commissions to publishing houses. If someone tries to charge you to consider your project, run for the hills, they are snake oil salesmen.
4) Are you willing to wait? Are you willing to revise while you wait? Are you willing to be told “No” over and over again until someone says yes?
The questions speak for themselves. Talent’s great. Tenacity’s better.
Matt Gallagher is a former U.S. Army captain and the author of the acclaimed Iraq War memoir Kaboom, based on the popular and controversial blog he kept while he was deployed. He has written for The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Daily Beast and Playboy, among others. He lives with his wife and dog in Brooklyn.
His debut novel Youngblood is out this week from Atria/Simon & Schuster.