Hiring an Agent

by Sharon DeVita




There's an old cliché: you can't get published without an agent, but you can't get an agent until you're published.

True?  Or False?

I guess it's a little bit of both--depending on what you're trying to publish.

If you're trying to break into one of the traditional category romance houses, i.e. Silhouette, Harlequin, Mills and Boon, etc., the truth of the matter is you don't need an agent, and in fact an agent probably won't be able to improve on any category houses' standard boilerplate contract.  I know this from personal experience because I negotiated the contract for more than half of my 23 category romances myself.

So obtaining an agent at this point in your career will only be another extra expense--10-15% of your hard-earned advance and royalty money.

But what about bigger houses? Bantam, Dell, Harper, Avon?  While it's true that these houses still--on occasion--accept unagented material, be advised that if you send in your material on your own, it will sit in the 'slush' pile and get read...whenever.  So getting an agent in order to submit to a non-category house might be useful.

Now, before you rush out and 'get' an agent, there's a few things you need to remember: first and foremost, the agent works for you.  Repeat that! The agent works for you--not the other way around.  As such, you're the one who pays them, not your publisher, you do, and you have a right to expect certain things because you are paying them.  Do not simply 'take' any agent who will 'take' you. Be discriminating. A bad agent is far worse than no agent. Again, trust me on this. It once again comes from personal experience. I have fired no less than four agents in my career, two after only a brief period (less than three months), simply because they either did not follow through on something they promised, or they did something directly against a directive I gave them. Both no-no's in my book.  This is YOUR career; you're the only one responsible for it so don't turn your power over to anyone, especially an agent. Don't let them make decisions about your career without consulting you, or without your consent or approval.

When you start looking for an agent, I'd suggest you research the matter thoroughly.  First, start with the latest copy of the Guide to Literary Agents published annually by Writer's Digest Books. Jeff Herman also annually puts out a fabulous book on agents.  I'd also check out the web.  There's a great web site called LiteraryAgents.com.  It has tons of info for both the novice and the experienced author. 

When you send off your query letter to your chosen agent--and i'm a firm believer in multiple submissions for agents--they can say they prefer no multiple submissions, but that's their preference--for this benefit. Are you going to accept someone else's 'rules' for your career? I don't think so.  When you send your query, make it professional. DO not even think about including info on your days as a Brownie Leader, basketball coach, etc. While those are great and noble things, they have nothing to do with the business at hand--your writing business. Your query letter should outline your publishing credentials in the opening paragraph. If you don't yet have any publishing credentials, then you should open with a brief, attention-grabbing paragraph describing your book.  Whenever you send a query to an agent, remember they receive about 500-1000 queries per week.  You want yours to stand out--as being professional--not because you wrote it on pink scented floral paper! State some of your career goals in the body of the letter, with an offer to send the completed proposal to the agent--at their request.

Now, here are some simple dos and don'ts that I believe will help:

*Do not take the first agent who shows an interest. Make sure you check out each and every one's credentials.  Ask questions! Are they a member of AAR? If not, I'd take a pass. How many clients do they have? How many in your genre? How many sales in the last 12-24 months? What is their expected turn-around time of your material? Do they feel they have the credentials to help you achieve both your career goals and your potential?

All of these questions are vital before you put your name on the dotted line. And please don't think that because you have no publishing credentials you're not entitled to ask these questions. If you're paying an agent 15% of your hard-earned money, you're entitled to ask questions that no reputable agent should have any problem answering.

*Agents sell books; editors buy books. NOT PROPOSALS! Do NOT even consider asking an agent to review your work if you don't have a completed manuscript. Until you've finished a book, you can't sell it, so why waste everyone's time?

*Ask for references from friends, published authors, etc. I never have a problem giving an accurate assessment of any agent I've worked with, and I don't know that many other authors do. So ask!

*Check the agent out with RWA. They have a database that lists agents authors have had serious problems with. Before you sigh on the dotted line, check it out with RWA.

*Once you've found an agent you think you can live with--do NOT harass or bug them. Calling them six times in six months about your proposal is not going to endear you to them. Get back to writing and forget about the book the agent has.You've done your part, now let him/her do his/hers.

Sharon DeVita has published more than 23 books with Harlequin and Silhouette.  She is a member of Chicago-North RWA and often speaks at local conferences.  Sharon's August 2002 release from Harlequin, I Married a Sheik, is the third book in the single-title continuity series, The Coltons.

For more of Sharon's titles, visit our Fiction Bookstore.

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