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Literary Agents

How to Get a Real Agent

Author: Mark Blanchard
Date:   04-05-01 19:03

Recently I’ve received a number of requests for a repost of my old letter to Robert McCleod on how to get a real agent. So for the benefit of those new folks who might derive some help or insight from it, I’ve dredged it up from the bottom of the stack and present again now. (FYI - Prior to reposting, I updated and edited it to include more useful information, but it's basically the same.)

Without question, the single most difficult problem a new author of book length fiction faces is ‘How do I find a real literary agent?’ (Note that I specify ‘book-length’ works here. Unfortunately, if you write poems or short stories, most agents won’t be interested in handling you because they can’t make any money from you.) Well, I faced the same problem a few years back and I must say, I found the going pretty tough until some kind folks helped me to distinguish the ‘dolphins’ (i.e. real agents) from the ‘sharks’ (fake agents) swimming around the little lagoon of publishing.

As we all know, at first glance a dolphin’s dorsal fin can look a lot like a shark’s. Likewise, at first glance it can be hard to tell a real agent from a fake. The sharks know this, of course, and they capitalize on it. And lately they’ve been getting more refined in their dolphin-mimickry and more people are being pulled down by them. In spite of their changing tactics, the basic rule for telling dolphin from shark remains the same. There’s one sure-fire way to tell and I’m gonna give it to you right now– ya ready?


Got it? If your prospective agent asks you to send him up-front money for a contract fee, marketing fee, promotion fee, mailing fee, signing fee, reading fee, buy-my-porsche fee, or pay-the-rent-on-my-girlfriends-apartment fee, you know he’s a crook and you walk away. That’s it, that’s the only rule you need for telling dolphin from shark. Ask for money up front = he’s a shyster; take a cut of what he sells for you = he’s a real agent. Let me repeat this again because so many posters to Writers Net fail to get it, fake agents want you to write them checks BEFORE they sell your work, real agents sell your work and take a cut, sometimes itemizing back expenses as well, but always after the sale.

Why do fake agents want you to pay up front? Because they either know they can’t sell your work or they DON’T EVEN TRY to sell it. They don’t try because they’re not in the business of selling manuscripts, they’re in the business of conning gullible authors out of up front money. And judging by the numbers of requests for agent info we see on this board, this fake agenting thing is a pretty lucrative business. In fact, there may be MORE fake agents out there in our lagoon than real agents, I dunno. One thing I do know is that the majority of the agents who advertise or who you will first run across during a net search are fake. This is probably why they do so well. They’re easy to find and the new authors bump into them first.

Once you’ve accepted my premise that fake agents charge up-front fees and you vow not to query these agents, your next question should be, “Where can I find a list of real agents and how should I approach them?”

First accept the fact that most lists of agents you’ll find on the net and those advertising in Writer’s Digest are fake. Not all of them, mind you, but most. This includes the list found here at Writer’s Net (and they disclaim this unfortunate fact right up front), it includes the list at Literary Marketplace and it includes most of the other commercial sites. Trying to sort the good agents from the bad on these net lists is like trying to separate spilled grains of wheat from sandy ground. It’s a laborious task and you wonder if it’s worth the effort even though you know it can be done.

That’s why I suggest a different approach – why not go straight to the mill and buy your flour already stone-ground? You do this by going to the three untainted sources of info on legit agents that I know to be accurate and unbiased and upon whose judgement I place all my faith. Those three sources, in the order I suggest you use them, are:

  • The list of member agents of the Association of Author Representatives (or AAR -- AAR (there is a link here in Writers.net if you look for it or you can go straight to http://www.publishersweekly.com/aar/). One cannot be a member of this organization and charge fees. Not all real agents will be found on this list, but everyone found on the list will be a real agent. Get it?
  • Agent Research and Evaluation - The other, tried and true internet list of good agents can be found at (http://www.agentresearch.com/services/dreckoning.html). This list doesn't have addresses, just the names of the larger agents doing legitimate deals. Agent Research is a real company and they charge fees for some of their reports, but their sole purpose is to tell you which agents are actually doing the deals. You can buy their lengthy reports or not, as you wish. I didn't buy anything from them, but I used their free reports frequently when I was looking for an agent. Again, AR&E doesn’t have records on all legit agents (especially the tiny ones), but every deal that they do know about comes from a legit agent.
  • If you cross reference the above lists, you should have a good 200 names of legit agents to start querying. If you come across other agents that you insist on querying and you want to know if they’re real or fake, go to the fine ladies at Writers Beware and ask them if they’ve received any complaints about your agent in question. Writers Beware (http://www.sfwa.org/beware/agents.html) maintains a vast database of information on the shysters and they’re happy to share it with you. Victoria Strauss and Ann Crispin maintain Writers Beware free of any charge to the petitioner and they are frequent contributors to this board as well. (But remember, if you ask for their info and you don’t like their answer, please don’t shoot the messenger.)

After you have culled through and cross-referenced the first two lists, I suggest you pick 20 -30 agents that you want to pitch first and then you gin up a good query letter which covers the basics of who you are, what your book is about, why it's salable. Include a bibliography of any other works you've published. I won’t go into the details of how to write a good query letter here because there are many fine primers of this subject available on the net already.

Just make sure your query packet is well-written and to the point, because you’ll have very few throws at this table before you crap out. If you screw up in your pitch, an agent will spot it in about ten seconds and then you're out of the game as far as he’s concerned and he’ll hand the dice to the next wannabe on the slush pile. When you’re satisfied with your query packet, you send it off and see what happens.

See how easy and fair it is to get your foot in the door? Anyone with stamps and letterhead can do it because all that matters to agents is the work itself. You do not have to have insider connections, you don’t have to be a journalist, you don’t have to be a published author, you don’t have to have an MFA degree. You just have to write a good book. That’s all. If you’ve written a good book and made that fact clear in your query packet, some agent is going to see that and get behind you. Trust me on this, I’ve seen it happen more than once.

Here's what you can expect to happen with the legit agents after you submit your query. No matter how good your query is, most will decline to see your work. That’s just the reality of the numbers game. Maybe 60-80% will turn you down with a variety of excuses -- maybe 100% if your work is crap. But the odds are that someone out there in NY (where most of the legits work) will ask to see your writing sample, which is usually about 3 chapters or 50 pages. The ones who say yes are the agents who think you've got an interesting concept and want to know if you can actually write. You’ve hooked your dolphin with the tasty query, now you have to reel him in with the writing..

If your concept is killer, a few agents may ask for the whole manuscript right away if they think you are on to something. You should IMMEDIATELY comply. Some wannabe writers carp at the cost of producing a good query packet or don't want to spend all that money on postage, but you're a fool if you don't. You've just spent 2 years writing the thing and you won't pop for $20 bucks to fedex the manuscript to one of the few people who is ever gonna read it? Wake up and smell the Folgers, in this game you put out all the expense and effort first, hoping to make something back later.

Now comes the gut-check part. In all probability most of these agents will read your manuscript and read it FAST. I’ve heard stories about authors submitting queries and writing samples to agents and then not hearing back for weeks or months, but such was not the case with me. Most of the real agents I queried responded to me positively or negatively within three weeks, some within days of getting my query. The slowest was two months.

Remember, each and every one of these agents is in the business of discovering the next J.K. Rowling. As such, they won't let a good thing pass them by. As soon as they get your query and find the time to sit down, they'll read it and then they'll reply. Now bear in mind that the odds are very high that you won't like their reply, but take their advice and believe it, because they'll be brutally honest. If your writing is crap, they may tell you, but they’ll probably just give you a form letter rejection. You’ll be lucky if they tell you in that case because it will save you from making further queries. But if your writing shows promise and is unpolished, they'll probably also tell you and if they think it's good and want to rep it, they will DEFINITELY tell you and they may make you an offer of representation on the spot.

Here's what happened in my case, perhaps you can learn from it. I wrote a thriller and then went to find an agent. I had no insider connections and had published very little. I found an internet list of agents and started writing pitches to them, setting a personal goal that I would pitch to 100 agents to get 10 to read my book to get 1 to represent me before I got discouraged and gave up. These were pretty realistic goals, I thought, maybe they’ll work for you too. If I was any different from most beginning writers, it’s probably that I’m very realistic in my assessment of own modest abilities and I know how to take criticism. These are good traits for a writer to have, I think, because we’re all going to get a lot of criticism over our careers.

In any event, I figured that if no one wanted to take me on after I hit those magic ‘powers of ten’ numbers, I would take the hint, conclude that my work was crap and stop trying. Most wannabe writers don’t do this. Many can’t or won’t take criticism and as a result they never think to rework their book or pitch after they see the pattern of rejection developing. Others have the problem of getting realistic feedback from an objective reader. They think that if their Aunt Marge reads their book and says ‘It’s wonderful honey, you’re so talented’ that she actually means it.

I tell ya, long experience has taught me that reviews by friends and family are usually worthless and there is no one so valuable as an editor who will rip my work to shreds. If you can find one or more of these bloody-penned editors to flagellate your manuscript before you send it to agents, you’ll save yourself a mountain of stamps.

Long experience has taught me one other thing about writing -- most of it is CRAP! Trust me on this, one summer in college I worked for a film production company as a script reader. Got paid $5 per script and I probably read about 250 scripts that summer. Of the 250, I'd say that 245 were absolute dreck, completely unworthy of the trees that were sacrificed to that make up the thousands of pages of incoherent drivel I was forced to read. Of the remaining five scripts, four showed some promise as ideas, but the writing was still unpolished and only one was engaging enough to recommend my company buy. (They passed on it, btw. It was a script very similar to Kevin Costner's For the Love of the Game.)

But back to the query process and my story. I worked hard on my query letter and sent it out simultaneously to about 25 agents. Most of these wrote or called IMMEDIATELY saying they wanted to represent me and would I please send the whole manuscript. I was elated for about ten seconds, then I smelled a rat. My work couldn’t be that good, I was batting nearly 1.000. Almost every agent I queried wanted my book! Well you guessed it, my hit rate was so high because all of the names on my first list were FAKE AGENTS out to take my money. Fortunately, I did further research around that time and learned how to tell real from fake and I never wrote back to any of the shysters. Some of these fakes were persistent, though. They continued to call, email and write me, begging for the chance to represent me, all on the basis of a query letter. I didn’t fall for their siren songs, don’t you do so either.

Anyway, it took me a while to discover the AAR list, but when I did find it, I started over in my pitches with a clean slate. The results of this second round of queries were very informative. Most of the 25 real agents that I wrote to in the second round said that they were too busy to consider me or they gave me a brief no thanks with a photo-copied form letter. However, an encouraging percentage of the legits (maybe 30-40%) said they would like to read my writing sample and a few even said they wanted to see the whole manuscript on the basis of my query packet.

Based on these results, it seemed to me that I wasn’t beating Ted Williams batting average, but I was doing okay, so I was encouraged. And I could tell that the agents who were truly interested wanted to cut to the chase quickly. Several called me, several entered into frequent email conversations with me. I remember one of those with whom I emailed back and forth frequently was Russell Galen of Scovil Chichak and Galen. He's one of the top hitters in the legit agent world and here I had this man interested in my book and talking to me one on one. I was impressed even if he eventually told me in no uncertain terms what was wrong with my book and why.

Word up, even when you get these agents talking to you, be prepared to have them flagellate your book, because that’s what most of them will do. Straight is the gate and narrow is the way that leadeth to getting published, but the process is exceedingly fair, I promise you. It’s not personal, ALL THAT MATTERS IS THE WORK ITSELF. If you have the chops and the work is good, these professionals will see it in you and one of them will sign you on. If they don’t like what they read, they’ll tell you and probably suggest ways you can fix it.

Back to my story. As it turned out, Mr. Galen and the others that I contacted in that second round didn't really like my book. According to them, it fell into that category of 'close, but no cigar' authors and they told me so with no mincing of words. This was tough news to take and I could have pouted or shrugged off their comments and kept submitting to more agents, but that’s not what I did. I took their words to heart and decided to rework my book before I re-queried, especially in the troubled opening chapters that had received the most complaints. In other words, I believed what they told me. I suggest you do the same.

To rework my book, I utilized the expert help of a few other published authors in my writers group (the incomparable San Diego Writers Workshop), I retooled the novel based on the feedback I had received from the agents. Only when we were all satisfied with the results did I gear up to try another set of pitches. For this third round, I did the same thing I did in round two, pitched the same cold-call query letter to another 20-25 legit agents and waited for responses.

Again I got a good response and my batting average was about the same. All told, between rounds 2 and 3, I think I pitched to about 45 legit agents and had about 18 agree to read my writing sample. Of those, about 9 said they wanted to read the whole manuscript. When all was said and done, of the 9 agents who read the whole thing, 3 said they wanted to represent me. (However I must say in fairness two of those three only got hungry for me after I told them that I'd already received an offer of representation from Janklow and Nesbit, one of the biggest who represent Michael Crichton, Thomas ‘Hannibal’ Harris, William Goldman and bunch of others.)

The offer I eventually accepted came about in the following way: my future agent quickly asked via email to see a writing sample after he received my query letter and I sent it back to him via priority mail. He got it and emailed me on a Tuesday saying he liked my sample and would I please send the whole manuscript as soon as possible. I bit the bullet and Fedexed it to him on a Wednesday, he got it on Thursday, read it all on Friday and called me on Saturday morning with an offer. By the next Monday, I made my decision and was a J&N client. That's how fast it can work when it works. It won’t always work that fast, but when these guys want to move, they MOVE. If they decide they want you, they won’t let anyone else snatch you up first.

And it does work. I had no personal connections, I'd never published a novel before. I believe that ultimately your work will stand or fall by itself. If your book is good and it's salable, you'll find a place at the table. Stephen King makes this point strongly in his book and I agree. It’s all about the book.

As a result of this belief, I don’t have much sympathy for the folks who claim that breaking into the business is a just a matter of luck or connections or selling out or that quality doesn’t count. I think that’s pretty much just sour grapes talking. There’s nothing special about me or my books. I’m just a hack, I try to write what someone will buy and I try to do it the best way I know how. I don’t think any of the authors who get published are any different.

But I think I am different from a lot of wannabe authors in that I’m willing to play this publishing game by the rules they give me and not whine to the referees all the time. The rules are the rules, they’re tough but fair. Playing by them is the best way I see to do things and I firmly believe that you try to play this game by its rules and your book has merit, you’ll get your turn at bat too.

Anyway, that’s my opinion. Good luck in your efforts.

Mark Blanchard

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