Saturday, November 17, 2007

The Dream of Landing an Literary Agent

Whether you write nonfiction or fiction writer, you’ve probably dreamt of finding a literary representation – landing an agent. I know I did. While I did approach some publishers with my book proposals, more often than not I sent those very same proposals out to agents. It took me many years of sporadically searching (six or eight), but last year I finally got the good news: an agent wanted to represent me. It was my dream come true – and continues to be.

Sometimes friends would ask me why I bothered looking for an agent, especially since I’d have to give up a percentage of my hard earned money to that agent. The answer had two parts, although the second representing the real reason: 1) An agent can get my proposal into the hands of editors at large publishing houses that I can’t even approach and can get it noticed by editors in mid-sized publishing houses that I can approach but where I might otherwise go unnoticed. 2) I want a business partner – someone who will help me build my career, support me in my endeavors, direct me down the right path when I’m not sure which way to turn, make sure my interests are protected, and be there to celebrate with me when I succeed because that success will be partially their own as well.

I love having an agent, and actually I have benefited by being with a very small agency run by a husband and wife team, because I seem to have gotten two agents for the “price” of one. Although I don’t have constant contact with them, I know they are there when I have questions, and I love knowing that they represent me and are sending out my work. (Well, at the moment they aren’t sending out my work, but we’ll get to that in a minute.) I feel they represent “me,” not just my work, and that they believe in me as a writer and as a person. I couldn’t ask for more.

Now, I’m writing this blog today to dispel a misconception about having an agent. Having an agent does not mean that your work will sell. It does not mean you will definitely get a publishing contract for your book or a large advance. I say this, because, like a lot of writers, I lived in a dream world for a while where I imagined that having an agent meant these things would happen.

It’s not wonder I did, though. I went from having no agents in 2006 to briefly having three agents in 2007. Yes, three. I was signed by the first agent in March. Just before the Book Expo America (BEA), I was signed by a second agent for a project my first agent did not want to represent; it was not something in her area of expertise and she wasn’t excited about it. In addition, I had another book project I was excited about, and the first agent agreed to have an agent in her firm represent me and the project at the BEA as well. I’m proud to say, therefore, that I had three agents representing me and my three projects at the BEA this year.

You’d think with three agents -- really good agents with great track records -- I’d have sold a book, right? Wrong.

All three projects currently are sitting on my desk waiting for me to peddle them. Well, one of them is waiting for proposal and first-two-chapters rewrite so I can then send it off to a different agent (one that handles young adult books, which my agents does not). Another is being considered by a publishing house after I sent it there myself. And the third is waiting for me to complete a proposal update and my Write Nonfiction in November project, which is something I want to enclose in the proposal package, so I can begin sending it out to small publishing houses. In other words, all my projects came home to me despite representation by a literary agent.

Now, I’m not saying agents are worthless. I’m just saying, don’t think that just because you have an agent, you will sell a book. You have to have a book idea and proposal worth selling. And you have to find the right publisher. Remember that agents most often only peddle proposals to medium to large publishing houses, because the advances from these are large enough to make it worth their while financially. Agents make their living off of the percentage they get when they sell a book (and later off a percentage of royalties – if there are any). That’s how it works. Just because these particular publishing house say “no” to your book project, however, does not mean that some other smaller publisher will feel the same way. Some really successful books have started out with smaller publishing houses (or self-published) and later when they became best-sellers the big publishing houses came along and purchased the rights to publish them.

Despite my projects coming home to me, I’m still happy to have my agents. They are just about to sit down with me and discuss my other projects and ideas, where I’m going and how they can help me get there. We’re going to evaluate how much time I need to take promoting one of my book projects before they can begin talking about it to editors at publishing houses. We’re going to take a look at what I’ve been doing to develop a platform and what else I can do to make myself more attractive to publishers. I wouldn’t be able to have these conversations with these knowledgeable, experienced and respected publishing professionals if they weren’t my agents. They see my future better than I can, and they have a better idea of what I need to do to make that future a present reality.

I highly recommend holding on to your dream of finding an agent. Just make sure your dream is an accurate one, and then make it come true with hard work, perseverance and, above all else, good ideas and good writing.

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