Literary Agents: 10 important things to know

Noun

helping profession ‎(plural helping professions)

  1. A profession that nurtures the growth of or addresses the problems of a person’s physical, psychological, intellectual, emotional or spiritual well-being, including medicine, nursing, psychotherapy, psychological counseling, social work, education, life coaching and ministry.

vintage-nurse-phone-imageDid you notice that literary agent isn’t listed? Newsflash! That’s because those who work in publishing are not in the helping professions.

I recently got a query that said, “I have no idea what to do next! Help!” I wish I had a rational response to that. I wish I could brush it off, knowing the writer is just naive and ignorant as to how the publishing industry works. I wish I was a kinder, more patient reader of queries. I could, and did, delete the email.

I’m sure most of you who are reading this blog post commiserate with me, and are shaking your heads and tsking appropriately. Because obviously none of you would ever put something like that in your query letter. You are all educating yourselves about the industry, as evidenced by doing things like reading blogs about writing and publishing. Nevertheless, I’d like to give you some information about literary agents and the procuring of one:

  1. The job of a literary agent is to sell manuscripts to editors, as well as broker sub rights deals (e.g. rights for foreign, dramatic, audio, merchandise, etc.)
  2. Agents get paid when they sell something; some agents also have a salary from their place of employment; most don’t.
  3. Some agents give editorial input to their clients; some don’t. It’s not required.
  4. Agents are regular people, so they can fall anywhere on the “nice” spectrum, from kind and nurturing to nasty and awful.
  5. You might become friends with an agent, but that’s separate and different from the agent/author relationship
  6. If you are un-agented and looking, don’t take it for granted when you have an agent’s attention and interest.
  7. Most agents aren’t all full of themselves and hoity toity, we’re just super busy (and perhaps, like myself, lacking patience).
  8. Most agents are book people who may or may not have the best social skills (see numbers 4 & 7, above)
  9. The primary job of a literary agent is to take care of the clients they already have. As such, responding to queries often isn’t on the top of the priority list.
  10. When interacting with literary agents be professional and keep your fingers away from the bars of the cage.

I’m happy to answer any questions in the comments section below. Here on the blog I am available to help people who are just learning the do’s and don’ts of the industry. I would say that there are no stupid questions, but I’m just not so sure about that any more. (Just kidding. Ask anything.)

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15 Comments

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15 responses to “Literary Agents: 10 important things to know

  1. Pingback: Writing Links in the 3s and 5…3/14/16 – Where Worlds Collide

  2. jdewdropsofink

    If an author is a U.S. citizen but lives abroad, is it worth noting that in the query, particularly when the story you are sending has a non-U.S. cultural theme? Or, is trying to work with someone outside your home country a turn off?

  3. Thanks for the information, Linda. I have a number of picture book manuscripts. (I’ve narrowed the list down to 3-4 that my critique group says is my best stuff.) When I submit one to an agent, and it is rejected, should I wait a while and submit a different manuscript? Or is it one and out?

    • Usually if I like someone’s writing style but a particular manuscript isn’t right for me, I’ll ask to see other work of theirs. I find it annoying when I get barraged with submissions from someone I’ve just rejected. All that being said, I’m not sure what the right answer to your question is, because I’m just one agent. I think it’s important for you to have a strategy though. Like, going out with your strongest manuscript to a bunch of hand picked, appropriate agents, and seeing how that goes. Then, if you don’t meet with success, perhaps try a different manuscript.

  4. Rosie Taylor

    I love your straightforward tell-it-like-it-is manner and it is very important to remind us how very busy/inundated agents and editors are. We usually only consider our side as submitting writers. Thanks, Linda.

  5. jdewdropsofink

    I’ve heard different opinions on submitting a manuscript with the page layout noted in the text. Some agents don’t want anything in their submission but the text. Other agents say they like the page layout because it shows that the author has actually thought through the visual process. Most agents don’t put a preference for page layout v. no page layout on their sub guidelines, so when in doubt, what’s the best policy to follow? Thank you for allowing questions!

    • I assume you mean for picture books. For me it doesn’t matter, unless it’s important to how I would read the story, to have the page layout. Obviously if an agent does have a preference though, you should submit to them using their preference.

  6. Gracie

    Thank you for this opportunity to ask a question. I’m wondering what your opinion is on the order of information in a query letter. Do you want to read the pitch in the first paragraph? The first sentence? Would you rather know right away why the writer has chosen to query you? Does the order even matter to you? I understand from your response to Mandy’s question that a great manuscript is key. What makes you want to read the whole query letter so that you want to read the manuscript in the first place? Thanks again.

    • I blogged about writing query letters here. Honestly, I don’t usually care why someone chooses to query me. I do like to know if we’ve met though. I prefer the order to be: pitch/logline, short synopsis, bio, but if the query letter is well written it won’t matter. What makes me want to read the whole query is when the manuscript is about a topic I find interesting, and the query isn’t painful to get through.

  7. Hi Linda, Thanks for the new blog post and offering to entertain some questions. At conferences, one pitches his/her story and is sometimes asked by an agent or editor to send his/her work. I am sure agents are encouraging to many; there are a lot of good writers out there. Besides sending the manuscript with an awesome query letter, is there anything a writer can do to stand out from the others? What would you personally recommend?

    • Really and truly, it all comes down to writing a fantastic manuscript. What will have you stand out from the other good writers is being a great writer. Seriously. There’s no trick or special something you can put in your query letter. Being active on social media can’t hurt.

  8. I’ve been having a mental tug-o-war over what to include about my background in a query letter. I’m writing fiction. I am not a published author. I understand it’s best not to include irrelevant information. What amount and type of background information do you recommend?

    • Your bio should be a short paragraph. If you have nothing published it’s ok. You can include what you do for a day job and/or if you are a member of any writing organizations. You can include hobbies, if they are relevant (e.g. if you’re a falconer or play on an amateur soccer team or build computers for fun or have 5 saltwater fish tanks AND it’s relevant to your manuscript). You can say if you’re a member of a critique group. I think less is more, regarding bios.