Sunday, July 27, 2008

Need an agent?

Who doesn't need an agent? Getting book representation is harder than getting published. I should know. My 4th book is due out in early September with Black Lawrence Press under Dzanc's umbrella, and this one, like the others, found its way into print without an agent. I don't doubt that an agent could have gotten me a better contract if she had been able to sell my manuscripts. But how can I be sure she'd work hard enough to land me a publisher in the first place? And would she negotiate enough money to make her 14 or 15% commission justifiable?

I was at a League of Vermont Writers meeting last Saturday where four agents spoke about their businesses, each focusing on a different type of writing. One specialized in cookbooks, of all things. Another wanted good young adult lit. One handled only romance novels. The fourth was rather, well, vague about what she wanted. I have so many questions about agents: If I get an offer, how do I know I've got the right person for my book? How do I know the agent is legit and not a scam artist (all it takes to become a literary agent is letterhead). How do I know the agent is good at selling manuscripts? How do I know this is a person I can get along with?

I wish I had the answers to any of those questions. You can check AAR to see if the agent is listed, but some good agents are not members and, anyway, I'm not sure being a member of AAR is a sure bet that an agent can sell your book. Other than that, finding an agent is a crap shoot, at best. But there are some things to be wary of. Foremost, never pay an agent up front to represent your manuscript. An agent from Stylus Agency responded with bubbling enthusiasm to my query and sent me a contract which asked for a check for $2500 to "start the ball rolling." She must've thought I was an idiot. But do the math. If she gets four suckers a week to send her a check, that's ten grand without lifting the telephone. Times that by, say, fifty weeks a year, considering that she may take a vacation, and, well, not a bad racket. And her letterhead wasn't even that good.

The four agents I met at LVW did not lack for business. One said she gets 8,000 queries a year. Math again--that's 32 a day, five days a week, fifty weeks a year. Each query has up to 50 pages of manuscript, and each needs a response--usually "sorry." A few might look good enough that she'll ask to see the manuscript. My eyes are burning just thinking of it.

I have a friend with a dynamite young adult novel he's trying to sell and is looking for an agent. I told him about the YA agent and gave him the link to his website. He sent a query and within hours got a negative response. Now, I know the agent is still traveling because he said he'd be out of town until August. He could certainly check his emails while he's away, but the rejection said just, "Dear Writer," which tells me that he has his email on auto response. He probably never even saw the query. Too bad for him.

For the time being, I'm not going to waste my time navigating through the wilderness of haughty and supercilious would-be agents. When my book WHILE IN DARKNESS THERE IS LIGHT hits the bookstores, I'll let the agents come to me. I've got a little novel waiting patiently for some attention.