Guest post by Casey McCormick
Earlier this month, I did a survey of topics that interested readers here at Fiction Notes. One topic was agents and how to get an agent. Agent interviews and tips on getting an agent feels outside my expertise; I usually send people over to the Literary Rambles blog where Casey McCormick and Natalie Aguirre specialize in agent interviews. No sense in trying to reproduce their excellent blog here. But I know you want something. I asked Casey–after a couple years of doing agent interviews and being an agent intern herself–if she could give us some tips on getting an agent. This is her response.
Tip #1 – Writing is Your Key to Publishing
The best tip I have for getting an agent is to write a lot, then write well. Writers learn by practicing and pushing themselves to do better with each book. You should also learn how to craft a compelling query letter, synopsis, and pitch line. These skills will serve you not just through the query process but throughout your career, and in the end the quality of your writing and story-telling matters more than anything.
If your writing isn’t fantastic, the agents you’ll attract won’t be either.
Tip #2 – Build a Knowledge Base
Learn as much as you can about the agent-writer relationship and industry before you query: what an agent is and isn’t, the difference between a good, bad, and scam agent, how to approach agents correctly, what happens after you get an agent, what’s expected of you as the writer, etc. Knowledge of the industry lends itself to preparedness and professionalism.
Tip #3 – Be Business Savvy
Publishing is a business. The relationship you have with your agent (and later editor, publisher, publicist, etc.) will be a business relationship, however comfortable and casual. Conduct yourself professionally using social and business etiquette, then follow the agent’s lead from there. If they keep things formal, you should as well. If they’re more casual, feel free to respond in kind but never moreso. Keep compatibility in mind as you correspond with agents. If an agent is too formal or casual, you might never feel fully comfortable in a partnership.
Tip #4 – Find a Community
I cannot stress enough the benefits of a writing community. It can be a large forum such as AbsoluteWrite or Verla Kay’s Blueboard, a private listserv, or friends who blog and/or Tweet. Surrounding yourself with people who understand what you’re going through is invaluable. Often the relationships you form will lead to critique partners, beta readers, much-needed advice, support, inspiration, and a recommended agent. Plus, it’s these writers who will be first in line to help promote your book.
Tip #5 – Put an Ear Out
If you have friends who are represented or have had the opportunity to attend conferences, consider soliciting their advice. Some of the best information I’ve received on agents has come from friends and acquaintances. You should never ask for a referral or put someone in an awkward position, but writers are usually happy to offer their opinion about an agent or agency if they’ve formed one. Forums and Twitter can also be good for recommendations and bewares.
Tip #6 – Connect with Agents Where Possible
Observing and meeting agents at conferences, retreats, and other events can provide invaluable intel about their personalities and interests. You can also learn a lot from interacting with agents online. Spend time where agents make themselves available: online conferences such as WriteOnCon, seminars like those held at Writer’s Digest, Q&As, Twitter, forums, contests at Miss Snark’s First Victim, Operation Awesome, and elsewhere. Be mindful of etiquette in each situation. Except in the case of contests, this is not the time to pitch your work but to learn something or make a meaningful connection.
Tip #7 – Ask the Hard Questions
You can increase your chance of success just by being honest with yourself. Is your book really finished? Have you revised it and made it as good as you possibly can? Have you had it critiqued and/or read by unbiased persons? Do you know how to query, really? Is your book good enough for professional eyes? Are you discerning about the agents you query and how? Are you ready for a profession in writing?
Once you’re ready, be shrewd about the agents you find. You want one who sells, who has published clients in your genre. Don’t let your eagerness to publish or an agent’s personality blind you from the hard facts. How many deals are they making in a year? Are they to houses with whom you want to publish? Is their agency respected? Who do they represent? Do those clients seem happy, proud of their representation? If the agent is new, do they have a strong background in publishing and/or work with a respected agency? If not, where will their contact with editors come from? Will they command respect when they pitch your work?
It’s not appropriate to ask agents these questions unless they’ve offered representation, but it’s important to discern how legitimate and solid an agent is before you query. It’s worth noting, however, that you’re not obligated to accept an offer from any agent you query. If you want to query agents on which you have little info, feel free but be considerate of their time (in other words, don’t query agents you doubt you’d accept) and prepare to ask the right questions if offered representation.
Tip #8 – Subscribe to Publisher’s Marketplace
I’ve talked about the importance of finding an agent who is actively selling and representing quality clients, but this can be difficult information to find. Publisher’s Marketplace is an industry site where many (though not all) agents list their representative deals. It’s a paid subscription at $20 a month. Members can unsubscribe at any time, which means you can sign up for a month or two while you research.
Tip #9 – Have a Submission Strategy
Many writers submit their queries in waves. Consider keeping 5-10 queries out at any given time. This will allow you to actively pursue representation without ruining your chance with your entire list of agents should your materials not be ready.
When you’ve received several responses (or closed out on non-responders), take time to evaluate them:
Are you getting form rejections to most or all of your queries? A good query will have a decent request rate, but if all you get is rejections, it means something isn’t working. Reevaluate and revise.
Are you receiving partial requests that don’t lead to full requests? Your submission materials are serving you well but something in that partial isn’t. Reevaluate and revise.
Are you receiving full requests followed by rejections? It’s safe to assume your submissions materials are working but perhaps your book isn’t quite there. Reevaluate and revise.
Tip #10 – Keep Calm, and Write On
Before or while you’re querying a project, start working on your next book. Not only will this provide a welcome distraction while you’re fretting over your submission baby, but it can make rejection easier to swallow if something new and exciting is well on its way to completion. And since you’re pushing yourself to write better with each book, maybe this new one is the one you really want to query anyway.
Casey McCormick is a literary agent intern, blogger, wife, and mom (x2). A member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, and a founding member of WriteOnCon, she’s honored to be part of the extraordinary kidlit community. Casey started the popular Agent Spotlight series in March of 2009 following the creation of Literary Rambles in 2008.