I would have failed the following quiz 15 years ago when I began my search for an agent. Yet somehow I ended up with a great agent, and we’ve been working together ever since.
The following true-or-false quiz isn’t about the nuts and bolts of finding a literary agent—query letters, reading fees, percentages—but about the bigger picture. My hope is that by taking this quiz you’ll learn now, the easy way, what you might otherwise have to learn later, the hard way.
Guest column by Nicholas Montemarano, whose most recent novel is
THE BOOK OF WHY (Little, Brown, Jan. 2013), which received praise from
Publishers Weekly, The New York Times Book Review and The San
Francisco Chronicle. His previous books are the novel A FINE PLACE
(2002) and the short story collection IF THE SKY FALLS
(2005). His stories have been published widely in places
like Esquire, Zoetrope, Tin House, and The Pushcart Prize.
He is represented by Jill Grinberg at Jill Grinberg Literary.
You can connect with him on Twitter and Facebook.
TRUE OR FALSE?
1. Your relationship with your agent is probably going to be the most important relationship you ever have.
False. I would hope that your relationships with your spouse/partner, children, and close friends are more important. But your relationship with your agent will be the most important you have in the publishing world. Years ago a writer’s most important relationship was with his editor. In the best relationships an editor gets to know an author’s work over many years and helps shape that work. That doesn’t happen as much anymore. Publishers, especially larger ones, are more concerned with the bottom line, and so are many authors, and this leads to authors jumping houses (and editors) many times over a career. In such cases the agent is the only constant in a constantly changing publishing world. It really is like a marriage.
2. You need to have a high-powered literary agent in order to have a successful career.
False. You probably need to have an agent in order to have a successful writing career (unless you’re a poet), but your agent does not have to be Andrew Wylie or Binky Urban. What matters most is that you find the best fit for you—for your work and your personality. Some writers prefer to work with “boutique” agencies—smaller agencies with fewer clients. I’m a writer who will always write novels and short stories, so it was crucial for me to find an agent who values short stories (even though they don’t sell as easily as novels) and would be willing to submit my stories to magazines. You have to make your own list of qualities you’re looking for in an agent. Don’t be too impatient to sign with an agent; make sure it’s the right fit—for you.
3. Your agent works for you.
True. Your agent is your employee. She offers you a service—selling your writing to editors—in exchange for a fee. I highlight this because many writers, especially young writers, get this relationship backwards; they feel that the agent is the employer and they are the ones looking for a job. No, you’re hoping to hire someone. That said, notice that in the second paragraph of this post I wrote that my agent and I have been “working together ever since.” While it’s true that my agent works for me, it’s truer to say that we work together for both of us. We have the same goal—to launch my stories and novels into the world, to see them published with care and enthusiasm, and to help my books find their largest audiences possible. I trust her opinion—she knows the publishing world much better than I do—but she also trusts mine. She makes no decisions without me, and I make none—other than those related to the writing itself—without her. It’s a partnership.
4. It’s all about who you know.
False. It’s not all about who you know, but who you know matters. I wish that weren’t true—God, I wish it weren’t. For a long time I didn’t know this, or maybe I didn’t want to believe it. But it’s true—you need to know someone. If you send a query letter to Andrew Wylie about your amazing first novel, you will never hear back. But if one of your MFA teachers happens to be one of his clients, and you absolutely wowed your teacher with your amazing first novel, and your teacher is a generous person, then maybe Andrew Wylie will have one of his assistants take a look at the first few pages of your novel. You get the point. If you ask one hundred writers how they found their agents, my guess is that 90% of them will say that they had some help. But in the end, it comes down to the work. No agent will represent you simply because you have a mutual friend.
5. Agents edit.
True. Agents have become more like publishers. A writer sends a manuscript to his agent, the agent makes editorial suggestions, the writer revises, and they go through a few more rounds until the agent is ready to submit the work. Sometimes agents and writers will solicit blurbs for a manuscript before submitting it to publishers. My agent rarely makes specific suggestions or line edits—that’s not her thing—but she will give me general feedback about her emotional response to my work, the overall narrative, and character development. This kind of feedback works best for me. I trust that she’ll tell me the truth. The bottom line is, your agent needs to be enthusiastic about your work before she sends it out, and sometimes that requires editing. This is a good thing.
6. All agents care about is making money.
False. It’s true that agents care about making money—you want them to care about this—but in no way is that all they care about. Agents—the best ones, anyway—care about books above all else. That’s one way that I knew my agent would be a good fit for me. When I sent her my first novel, A Fine Place, back in 1998, her first response wasn’t to talk about where she might sell it, but rather how reading the novel made her feel. She said, “When I read your novel, I got a chill between my shoulder blades. I just thought it was terrific. I would love to represent it.” That did it for me, and we’ve been married—in the literary sense—ever since.
Other writing/publishing articles & links for you:
- Your Book’s First Lines Are So Important. Nail Them!
- NEW Agent Seeking Fiction Writers: Margaret Bail of Andrea Hurst Literary.
- The Importance of Being (Slightly) Arrogant — It Makes You a Better Writer.
- Sell More Books by Building Your Writer Platform.
- Interview With Bruce Cameron, Creator of 8 SIMPLE RULES…
- Follow Chuck Sambuchino on Twitter or find him on Facebook. Learn all about his writing guides on how to get published, how to find a literary agent, and how to write a query letter.
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