So you’re ready to get a literary agent, huh? You’ve got a strong idea for a book and you’re smart enough to see the obvious perils of self-publishing. Besides, it would feel so much better to have a legitimate publisher behind your work. It’s time for an agent and you know it.
We literary agents are a cagey lot. We work on straight commission – 15% of the money you get from the books we sell for you – and believe it or not, most of us expect to be paid for our work! Imagine that! That’s why agents insist on only representing books they believe in. (Read: believe we can sell) As the publishers have tightened their rules about which kinds of books they’ll take, and what they expect from authors, agents have had to adapt and take not just “strong ideas” but also the right kinds of authors.
We’re choosier because publishers are choosier than at any other time in history.
How can you get an agent who will love your work, see a brilliant future for you and best of all, help you achieve it? Here are 3 Ways to Get a Literary Agent. (My agency only handles nonfiction, so my advice is for would-be nonfiction authors only.)1 Know the competition It’s very easy and incredibly common to think your book is the first of its kind, is brilliant and unique and golly, just pure genius. But before you grind out an entire manuscript (never, ever, ever a good idea!) or write a spiffy book proposal (always a good idea), you’ll want to have some awareness of similar books in the marketplace. Lucky for you, this is easy! Just go to Amazon.com and search the main themes of your book. Scroll about 2/3 down the page to where it says, “Product Details” and you’ll see a little line that says, “Amazon.com Sales Ranking”. If the “similar topic” book has a number between 1 and 150,000 buy it and read it now.
Try to find the six books closest to yours and read them well enough to be able to clearly answer the question every agent and publisher will be asking in their heads when they look at your masterpiece: “What about YOUR book will be New, Different, Better or offer the reader something More than all those other titles?” (The concept of N.D.B.M. is my trademark acronym – it’s helped hundreds of authors get publishing contracts!)2 Never write the whole book until you have a check from a publisher in your bank account.
Fiction authors must write the entire thing, but as a nonfiction author, you should only write the proposal. That’s because it will allow the agent to give you input on how to make the proposed book idea stronger and it is simply how nonfiction books are bought and sold in the USA. If you don’t have a book proposal, or if you don’t know how to write one, click here. 3 Offer it only to agents who have sold and are selling books like yours. There are 5 billion “literary agent directories” online. It’s not difficult for you to spend a little time searching for agents who handle books like yours. One of the most common reasons we reject things is because the author has sent us something we never handle. We get offered lots of children’s books, screenplays, memoirs and other things we can’t sell.
If you get rejected by agents who are inappropriate for you anyway, you may get the idea that your book is no good, when really, you just haven’t gotten the right opinions yet. You didn’t give your book a fair shot.
Here’s why this is important: If we have never sold a book in your genre (the type of book you’re writing), then chances are we don’t know what’s good in that genre and (most important!) we don’t have relationships with the editors who buy the books in that genre. Only select agents who have sold books in your genre and who are still selling books in your genre.
You may be thinking, “I expected this blog to be about how to query, or where to find the right agent!” Here’s the harsh truth: If you send your work to 30 agents who have sold and who are selling books in your genre, and all of them reject it, you’ve got one of two problems. Either your query (pitch letter) to the agents is bad or you skipped step one or step two above. That’s all there is to it. We make a living doing this. That means we’re always searching for content good enough to sell. (Think of sharks hunting in the ocean!)
Rather than get discouraged and go off in a huff to self publish (a very, very unwise choice for everyone except memoir and autobiography writers!), actually take a moment to think through these three steps. Did you really follow them? If you did*, you’ll absolutely get a literary agent.
Like everything else on Planet Earth, there’s a proven way to get to your goal.
(If you did and you also have even the early indicators of the key elements publishers are looking for now!)