Saturday, June 24, 2006

How to Find and Sign With a Literary Agent

©2006 Suzanne Falter-Barns

If you’re interested in publishing a book and gaining a market presence and income from it, you’ll need a literary agent. They are the grease that keeps the oft-rusty wheels of publishing moving. Every day, they eat lunch or talk to editors and acquisition people in major, mid-sized and even small publishing houses while pitching them on the new hot ‘properties’. That's where you want your project to be.

Here are some tips I can pass along that will help your search for this important part of your team. (This may not be a fast process, by the way.)

• Make sure you’re selling something marketable. It could be you’re the only person out there who wants to read about your Aunt Tillie’s days as a pickle packer. Before you approach an agent, find out what problem your book solves and who it will appeal to. Research similar titles on and look for gaps in the marketplace. Go to bookstores and see what’s hot (and what’s not.) Give an agent a good reason UP FRONT to get excited (before they even read your mss)

• Do not send your manuscript! Send a one page letter describing your project and why you are the person to write it, plus your proposal (non-fiction only) or a few sample chapters of your manuscript (fiction.) Offer to send the rest right away if they are interested. Make sure everything is spell-checked, double spaced, with correct margins, etc..

• Make sure your book idea or manuscript is in top shape. There is no substitute for excellence… it helps! You’ve got to have an awesome concept, and an even better title.

• Make your book proposal as professional possible. (Book proposals are only for non-fiction books, those other than novels.) You’ll want to include a lot more than just what the book’s about. You’ll need to include any market research you’ve done on who’d buy the book, ideas for unusual places the books could be sold, or ways to tie it in with ‘special sales’ (that’s pub-speak for big wholesale orders) to certain industries, or connections with your workshops, speaking gigs, web site, etc.. You’ll also want to include an impressive bio, merchandising ideas, a sketch of the competitive marketplace and publicity ideas. (If this sounds daunting, worry not. See my blurb at the bottom.)

• Establish your credibility. If you’re writing non-fiction, are you a PhD or do you have a masters, or lots of great professional experience? It’s tougher to sell a great book written by someone who’s got no credentials in the field to back them up … but it can be done. This is where platform is totally critical!

• Build your platform. Get your list up to at least 7500. And make sure you've already begun to speak, and get media blurbs. Have that branded site and blog and put them to work for you. (This is where my Get Known Now Blast Off Class is really handy!)

• Hook up with a star. Can you get a celebrity endorsement, or a testimonial or foreword from a highly placed industry star? This will help an agent feel they can sell your work. I found my 'star testimonials' simply by contacting other big authors through their sites.

• Find the niche no one has explored. They’re out there, even in your chosen field. This is especially true for non-fiction, though niches apply to both genres. The best niche comes from your own passions and interests… what’s really You?

• Hand pick the agents you submit to. DO NOT SEND MASS MAILINGS TO AGENTS. It won’t work, and is a waste of time and mo.ney. Instead, research who to approach and pick the 5, 10, 20 or so who actually sell your type of work. Agents stick to niches themselves, and one way to find that niche is in various resource guides like Writer’s Market, the LMP (Literary Market Place … in all big libraries), or the Writer’s Digest Guide to Literary Agents.

• Make your letter great. Your pitch will be placed in a pile with the other cold submissions that arrived that day (maybe 25 –50) and an assistant will thumb through them, spending about 10 seconds on each one. This means if you have a personal contact, you mention it in the first sentence. Trim your description of your book into a meaty, mouth-watering paragraph. Add a bit on why you are the person to write it. And BE SURE to let them know you hand picked them, out of all the agents out there, because of the great work they’ve done for authors X, Y and Z. Make it personal, a little witty, and smart.

• Don’t use old contact info … and call to see that the agent you’re contacting is still at the address you have before you send anything

• Don’t ever pay an agent to evaluate your book. This is not how standard agents work, and is illegal.

• Give the agent one month to evaluate your work. Then follow up by phone or email. Many will tell you how they like to be contacted in guides such as The Writer’s Market and those listed above. Continue to follow up, until such actions are ridiculous. You’ll probably get some kind of response, especially if you’re letter is great

• Follow up and ask for referrals. If you’re lucky, you’ll get the intended agent on the phone. They may seem interested, but just won’t commit. (A standard line is “I’m not taking on any new clients right now.”) So ask if they know any agents they might recommend, or someone who is expanding their operation. Then send a thank you note if their info has been helpful.

• Work your personal connections. Be exhaustive, thinking of anyone you know who might connect you with other agents, or even authors. Most authors will want to see the project you’re pitching, and may not feel comfortable sharing their contact with you… but many may.

• Be persistent. You may have to go through several lists of hand-picked agents, before you get the bite you need.

Download Suzanne’s free list of 50 Top Publishing & Media contacts at . Drop by her blog at for almost daily tips on how to get known now … the easy way!

©2006 Suzanne Falter-Barns..

Want to reprint this article? Email Lorraine Carol for permission at


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