By Jonathan Hernandez
The aspiring writer faces many challenges. First, we must slay that fearsome foe – the blank white page. Then, we have to polish our rough work with many vigorous hours of revision, submit it to brutal workshops, and subject it to exhaustive rounds of editing. Now you have a gem that you want to sell, where do you start?
For those of us not up to speed on all the ins and outs of the literary world, this might seem daunting. Many hopeful authors have fallen prey to boogeymen like false agents. But knowledge is our best ally against their best-laid schemes. Luckily, in the age of global communication and information, it’s possible for us to reap the wisdom and experiences of others. And also remember, sometimes your gut is right. If it feels too good to be true, it probably is.
If you’re a new writer, you might not need an agent right now, so don’t panic. If you’re submitting a short story, most literary journals aren’t expecting an unpublished writer to be agented. If you’re trying to get your new novel published, however, an agent will greatly enhance your chances with an editor. They find a market for your story and facilitate its sale. I could spend endless pages praising the merits of the agent: they have connections, they’re natives in the markets that we are merely tourists in. They work closely with the author, reading and familiarizing themselves with their work to advocate and fight for it. They are fluent in the language of contracts and rights, and serve as a diplomatic mediator. Agents seem to have a great deal of influence.
I must quickly dispel this erroneous notion that agents are some kind of for-hire literary hitman that have standard rates. No writer should ever pay an agent out-of-pocket. If you ever encounter an agent that asks for compensation up front, demands wages, or anything of that sort, it’s probably a good indication that that agent is a fraud. Agents have contractual obligations and are usually upfront and forthcoming about what they can and can’t do for you. They don’t get paid unless you sell (they typically get a 12-15 % commission), which means they have an incentive and as much at stake as you do.
Agents are often solicited via the query letter, but they don’t have to be. Agents might also be reading your favorite literary journal and hoping to find an author just like you. Writing a query letter is like writing a resume; it should advertise your strengths and demonstrate your enthusiasm while being brief and professional. They should all be tailored for your specific piece and bear relevant facts about it. Take time with your query letters – even though they’re short, they’re how authors make their first impression (and we know how important those are). The Internet has many sources citing both good and bad examples, and giving their advice and opinions. Writer’s Digest as a good blog about this topic. Shop around and see what style or format appeals most to you and then craft your own.
The most important thing to remember (and take this as an encouraging note) is that agents aren’t scary creatures, they’re folks like you and me. Do your research on them and try to meet them in person. Often, authors acknowledge agents by name in their books. Other times, they might causally drop their name in an interview or on their blogs/websites. Agents also attend writing conventions – the person you’re cozying up to at the convention bar might be your future agent (so have your story pitch ready if they’re willing to hear it). The Internet is your friend; Poets & Writers has an excellent literary agents database that you can skim through at your leisure.
If you’re curious about agents and want to know more about them, the Poets & Writers website has a page with various links you can explore at your own leisure. The SFWA (Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America) website also has a Writer Beware page with a links to false agents, contests, publishers, and even provides some documentation about previous legal cases.
It behooves us as writers to make sure that our work is as professional and published as possible. There are many ways to strengthen your writing skills: writing workshops, classes, groups, and other resources. Remember that you’re never alone – you belong to a global community and storytelling is an art as old as time itself.
Fear not, and keep writing.