I confess: I’m not the world’s foremost expert on literary agents. On the other hand, I’ve had a ton of experience in researching them, reading their blogs, articles, and interviews, and especially, getting rejected by them. So, most knowledgeable or not, I’ve learned many things.
The big, colossal, gigantic, overpowering thing about agents is that you really need one if you’re a writer of books. That is, if you’re not an already-established powerhouse of book-selling or, at the other extreme, if you don’t care much whether you publish or sell books at all. The thing about the world of publishing is that almost all reputable publishing houses will totally ignore you unless your manuscript is sent to them by an agent. This you must know above all else to sell books, except that you must first be able to produce a well-written product. That part’s kinda…duh.
Some writers can make self-publishing work out quite well for them, but there are so many facets to master that it’s extremely intimidating. Just editing and formatting are beyond a lot of us, but throw in cover design, advertising, obtaining reviews, mastering social media, building a platform, and all the big brick walls the marketing effort presents you with, and most of us are so much better off having an agent and publishing company handling all that stuff. Or at least guiding us with their years of amassed wisdom, which most of us do not possess.
So you really want an agent, if at all possible. That’s a pretty huge effort in itself and calls for a whole lot of research and education in just how to go about it, and that’s a bit beyond the scope of this little discussion. But a significant thing to point out here is that you have to give the agent what she wants when you submit your masterpiece, or she will frequently ignore it just like the publishing companies will ignore it if it doesn’t come from an agent. See how this works? It’s not sucking up or kowtowing to the people in power, or however you want to think of it; it’s greasing the rails.
You can make it a lot easier and save yourself a lot of frustration and anguish if you find out what the rules are and mold your product to match, whether it’s your entire manuscript or your query letter or synopsis, instead of believing your product is perfect and trying to crowbar it into the system because you know you’re the exception to the rules. The odds say you’re not.
All that being said, now you have to realize that not all agents want the same thing. Some have great flexibility, but most do not and you need to come to terms with that right away. So do your research, find out what works for which agent, and tailor your submissions to meet that requirement, or you’re wasting your time.
Luckily for us, some folks get together and have conferences and such, and do some of the research for us, and give us good hints at this kind of thing. Here are a few of those hints, nicely sorted into areas where agents agree and where they disagree, compiled by Robert Lee Brewer of Writer’s Digest. It can at least give you some ballpark targets to aim for or avoid. While you’re checking them out, wander around their website a little and see what else they have to offer. You can never have too many helping hands.
There are some things all agents want to see from writers, but one thing was abundantly clear at the 2019 Writer’s Digest Annual Conference: They don’t agree on everything. In this post, I’ve collected how literary agents agree and differ on what they want from writers.
Let’s get this out of the way first: Literary agents (like acquisitions editors) are human beings. They’re not magical creatures that emerge from and disappear into the void to sell manuscripts. They do love to read great writing and work tirelessly to advocate for their clients. And if they’re ethical, they don’t get paid until they sell their client’s work. So in that sense, I guess they are a little magical, right?
That said, they are still human. And human beings have different personalities, different methods for getting their work done, different strengths and weaknesses, and different preferences for their clients and potential clients. That’s the one thing that was abundantly clear to me during the 2019 Writer’s Digest Annual Conference.
In this post, I’ve attempted to share a few of the things that agents seem to agree upon and where they can sometimes differ.