Jeremiah 32:27 "Behold, I am the LORD, the God of all flesh; is anything too difficult for Me?"
THE FIVE Ws OF LITERARY AGENTS: by Brandilyn Collins
The market for Christian fiction has certainly changed over the years. In the past, agents were frowned upon. Editors didn’t want a go-between separating them from their novelists, and literary agents weren’t really needed, since editors were able to handle the far lesser number of manuscripts crossing their desks. Now with such a burgeoning market and so many submissions, numerous Christian publishing houses have declared that they will accept manuscripts only through agents (or through the editor’s meeting the author at a writers’ conference). As a result, Christian novelists are asking, "How do I find a literary agent?"
Let’s look at the 5 Ws of agents – who, what, where, when and why.
First, WHO is an agent? A literary agent is an author’s advocate and liaison with editors. A good agent has:
(1) strong contacts within the field of publishing
(2) strong negotiation skills
(3) a wide understanding of the business of publishing
(4) knowledge of what various houses are looking for
(5) strong editing skills.
But here’s the surprise. WHO can be an agent? Answer: anyone who wants to hang out a shingle. (Including con artists.) You don’t need a degree, a license or any formal training. This is good reason for authors to be cautious in choosing an agent.
Also in this first W, WHO should you target as an agent? Remember that not all reputable agents are created equal. Like authors, agents have various levels of success. A "lower level" agent will have less contacts with editors, or perhaps her contacts are not the top editors. A "higher level" agent will be powerful because of years of networking and experience. There are pros and cons in targeting each. The newer, less experienced agents can’t move as many mountains for you, but their agencies will probably be easier to break into, for they need to build their business. The powerful agents are great and can really move your career. But they can be very difficult for a new author to break into, for their clientele is probably full. However – like editors, agents are always looking for that fresh, new talent, no matter how busy they may be.
As you seek an agent, understand that you may need to break into a less experienced agency and then work your way up as you gain success as an author. I always say go for the top. Query the best agents first. Put them on your "A" list. But you may need a "B" and even a "C" list if you’re just beginning.
Second, WHAT does a good agent do for an author? He/she:
- Helps build your career
- Helps polish your manuscript until it’s the best it can be before sending it out
- Places your work directly in the hands of an editor
- Negotiates the best contract for you
. This is vital, for contracts always are written for the benefit of the publisher. A good agent knows how to read the fine print, and how and when to push to improve the initial contract for your benefit.. A good agent calls editors and garners interest for your manuscript, then sends it upon request. This places your work toward "the top of the pile" rather than some stack in the corner... Places you in the best houses for your writing, and counsels you as to what you should be writing (if you’re scattered in numerous genres, for example),
Third, WHERE do you find an agent? One of the best ways is to meet prospective agents at a writers’ conference. If they’re in attendance at a conference, that means they are actively seeking clients. I’d also recommend a couple of books:
- Sally Stuart’s Christian Writer’s Market Guide. If you’re looking for agents who represent specifically to the Christian market, this is your book.
- Jeff Herman’s Writer’s Guide to Book Editors, Publishers and Literary Agents. This book includes agents to both the secular and Christian markets, and it presents lots of information on them, including what they are looking for, percentage of fiction to nonfiction represented, clients, recent books sold, how to query, etc. If you find an agent in the Christian Writer’s Market Guide whom you’d like to target, you may want to check Herman’s book to see if there’s any additional information on the agent.
Also, check the AAR’s (Association of Authors’ Representatives) website at: bookwire.com/AAR to see if a particular agent is a member. AAR members have to meet certain criteria, such as never charging reading fees (something you should always avoid) and having sold a certain number of books in recent years.
Fourth, WHEN should you get an agent? If you’re trying to break into major publishing houses, an agent is extremely helpful. If you’re writing fiction and are a new author, you should have a completed manuscript rather than just a proposal. An agent (likewise an editor) is going to want to see that you can write the entire book well. For nonfiction authors, it’s a little easier to break in with a proposal, depending upon the subject matter.
Fifth, WHY should you get an agent? Here are six reasons:
- The agent querying process is a good sounding board for your manuscript and writing skills. If you try and try and can’t land an agent, that’s a good indication that your manuscript is not yet at the publishable level. It’s better to find this out with agents than to send your manuscript to editors and receive their rejections, for then you’ve wasted your best chance with that publishing house.
- Agents will critique and help you polish your manuscripts.
- They can get your manuscript into the hands of the right editors, more quickly.
- They’ll negotiate a better deal in your contract than most authors can do on their own.
- The better agents know how to re-sell your books many times over through such secondary sales as foreign rights, book clubs, audio, etc. Even if you can sell your book to a domestic publisher on your own, you probably don’t have all these contacts.
- They are free. Yes, it’s true. (If they’re good.) Fifteen percent of a domestic sale, 20% of film or foreign rights sales, is typical for an agent’s fee. My experience has been that, with the better deals my agent has negotiated for me on domestic sales, I have come out ahead even after paying the agency’s percentage. As for foreign rights, etc., that’s pure gravy, because I certainly couldn’t make those happen on my own. (If you sell all rights to the publisher, and that house makes a foreign sale for you, most likely you’ll only receive 50%.)
Landing a good agent can be a long, tedious process. It can take months. But if you persevere and find an agent thats right for you, that process and all the frustration involved along the way will prove worthwhile.
~ Brandilyn Collins <