What is an agent, and why do you need one? If you are an unpublished author, having an agent promote your manuscript to commercial publishers can mean the difference between earning royalties and spending money on self-publication.
Agents, otherwise known as authors’ representatives, are essentially commissioned business-to-business salespeople whose sole responsibility is to connect publishing houses with marketable manuscripts.
Because agents work on commission, they have a definite interest in obtaining the highest-paying publishing contract for their client, which if all goes well will be you. How do you hire an agent?
First, you find agents who have knowledge and expertise in assessing literary markets and the marketability of your manuscript.
Next, you contact them via a query letter. If your query elicits a positive response, the agent will ask you to forward sample chapters of your work.
After reading your work, the agent will let you know whether it is a property they believe they can sell profitably and will negotiate a contract with you.
WHERE DO I FIND AN AGENT?
Anyone can call himself an agent, but those with a proven track record generally belong to the Association of Authors’ Representatives (AAR.)
The AAR has certain standards of ethics and behavior for its members, including Agents must not charge “reading fees” to potential clients.
Agents must have transparent accounting practices – in other words, a member must provide clients with full disclosure regarding all monies they have received on behalf of that author.
Agents must not have outside activities which constitute “conflicts of interest.” For example, an agent can not freelance as a book reviewer. The Association allows “guest” visitors to their website to download their member directory for free.
This directory lists members in good standing, their specialties, and their addresses.
The web address for the Association of Authors’ Representatives is http://aar-online.org DONT GO TO A BRAIN SURGEON FOR APPENDECTOMY
Legitimate agents generally come out of the publishing industry and maintain connections with their old employer(s). Most have been in editorial or acquisitions positions, and tend to be specialized in the genres they represent.
If you have a science fiction manuscript, do n’t bother querying agents whose specialty is publishing books on art history and European culture. Focus your efforts on agents or agencies whose areas of expertise closely matches the genre and content of your manuscript.
THE QUERY LETTER A query letter is basically a sales letter you write to the agent explaining why your work is something the agent should sell.
Think of it as a cover letter for your book, and write it in the same tone, professionalism and persuasive attitude that you would write to a prospective employer. Remember, this is a business transaction, not a note to your best buddy.
Your letter should include what marketing people call your Unique Selling Proposition. This is a feature of your product which differentiates it from other products in the same market or genre. You may have to compare and contrast it to works by other authors if it is fiction or detail the benefits to the reader your nonfiction book offers. Keep it short, sweet and to the point, and don’t retell your story. The agent doesn’t want a book report.
WHAT DOES IT COST TO FIND AN AGENT?
It costs you some time to do research, the price of a first-class postage stamp, and the challenge of writing a top-notch query letter. If you aren’t comfortable writing sales or marketing material, you may want to hire someone who freelances in this area to help you craft an excellent query.
What happens if every agent you contact rejects you? Well, you have some options.
You can have an objective third-party (editor, book doctor, etc.) critique your manuscript. You can then make the changes recommended and resubmit to agents.
Or you can choose to self-publish and use the same marketing information you submitted to agents as the basis of your promotional campaign. Either way, the time and effort you have expended promoting your book prior to publication can help you better develop insight into the realities of promoting and marketing your
work and may end up honing those skills so that self-publication can be fun and profitable.
The author is a freelance writer, editor, and owner of JMT Publications (http://jmtpubs.tripod.com), a company specializing in helping authors become successfully self-published.