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Are you looking for an agent for books or scripts? Are you having trouble finding one you like? Join the club. This is one of the most common complaints of writers, including long-time professional writers. Even writers who have had agents before may be looking for another one, or have different types of writing projects which would be better handled by another agent.
This article will help you in finding and selecting an agent, including how to best contact an agent initially and what to send when you provide additional information, such as a nonfiction proposal, fiction manuscript, children's book, or screenplay treatment or full script. It is adapted from a set of guidelines for using a list of agents.
Selecting an Agent
Some considerations to keep in mind when choosing the agent that's best for you are:
- Types of books handled. Most agents handle multiple types of books, but some agents specialize. It can be useful to choose an agent who handles several types of books if you have different types of writing projects, or you may prefer to divide up different types of books with different agents, if the agents agree. In some cases, agents will handle other types of projects for clients, but only when they are handling the client for their primary area of emphasis. (Most commonly this occurs when the agent represents you for non-fiction and additionally takes on fiction, children's books, or scripts). Check on what types of manuscripts the agent handles to decide what's best for you.
- Film and TV rights. Most agents now handle film and TV rights for projects they represent – generally through a rep in Hollywood, LA, or on the West Coast, though some handle the rights themselves. Some agents will state this in describing what they do on a list, although many agents who haven't stated this may do so as well. Should you want an agent who only handles film and TV rights, generally look for an agent who handles scripts and screenplays, or obtain a specialized directory for this purpose, such as the Hollywood Creative Directory.
- Foreign reps and rights. Most agents handle foreign rights, generally through a subagent or group of subagents, although some handle these rights themselves. Some agents will state they have foreign reps and note the major areas where they have representation, although many who haven't provided this information will have ties with foreign reps. Should you want to know the specific foreign reps which different agents have, these listings for many agents are in the Literary Marketplace, available in a hard copy which comes out in late November each year or online.
- Location. Do you want an agent who is near you – or one who is near the publishers if you live out of the major publishing centers, which are in New York City (especially for mainstream commercial books), Los Angeles (especially for projects with film and TV potential), and the San Francisco Bay Area (especially for more targeted smaller audience and independent books)? Generally, it is best to get an agent in the major centers, especially in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Washington, D.C. on the East Coast or California on the West Coast. Within these states, it is best to have an agent who is close to these major publishing centers. Still, many agents do extensive traveling and some have relocated from these centers, so they may still be well connected. Then, too, if you like having more face-to-face contact with your agent, you may prefer one in your area.
- Size of Agency. While many agents are independent or work in small agencies, others are part of large agencies or affiliations of agents, such as William Morris, International Creative Management, and Writers House. While a big name affiliation can help even new agents gain clout, many independent agents or agents in smaller agencies have excellent reputations and have sold big books. A list of all the agents with an agency will help you know about the size of the agent's organization. Then, in querying agents it is best to select one, or at most two or three agents in a large organization, to contact in a particular agency.
- Affiliations and Listings. An agent's affiliations and listings in directories of agents can help you in deciding whom to contact, too. The agents who are listed in Literary Marketplace and/or are members of the Association of Authors' Representatives (AAR) are generally agents with fairly solid credentials, although the AAR list provides little information other than whether an agent handles nonfiction, fiction, children's books, or dramatic works. There are a number of popular directories which include more detailed information on some of these agents, but many of the bigger and more established agents aren't listed in these directories or don't provide them with much information. It can also be very time consuming to do your own research on where each agent is listed to combine information from multiple sources.
However, knowing where each agent is listed can be helpful in further refining your choice of agents to contact, since agents who have multiple listings are more likely to be receptive to newer writers. On the other hand, these agents can often be overwhelmed by a large number of writers contacting them when these annual directories come out (typically between July-September for the following year), and many of the agents in these directories are the smaller and newer agents. Often, many of the agents in the larger agencies or the more established agents won't be listed – they will only be in Literary Marketplace or members of the AAR. Then, too, some of the more established agents don't provide much detail on what they want to any lists, since they get most of their new clients by referral or through industry sources, like panel discussions of agents for writers groups.
- Areas of Specialization. Besides the broad areas of specialization – Nonfiction (N), Fiction (F), Scripts/Screenplays (S), and Children's Books (which includes from juveniles to young adults) (C) – many agents and agencies describe their interests in various sources. Where these descriptions are available, you can look for agents or agencies with particular interests (i.e. "business" if you have a business book; "self-help" or "relationships" if you have a personal improvement book. However, don't overlook the agents who don't provide such information, since many agents who haven't listed that as a specialty or haven't listed any specialties may still be interested, especially if your book might be considered a general trade or commercial nonfiction or fiction book.
- Reputation. A big concern of writers about agents is whether they are truly reputable. The vast majority of the agents who are listed in various sources are, particularly if you learn about an agent through a personal referral, though their appearance on industry panels, or through referral by other writers in professional writers' organizations. A good way to eliminate agents who might be a problem is to not contact who charge reading fees or promote editing services (unless they do this on a limited basis for new, unpublished writers, and additionally represent established writers at no charge). However, many agents do charge fees now for copying manuscripts, foreign calls, messengers, and postage, and some ask for an advance retainer of about $50-200 to cover such costs, so this isn't necessarily a warning sign. This request for fees is generally most common for agents on the West Coast and outside of the main publishing centers, because they have higher postage and phone expenses.
Sending Queries to Agents
When you send a query to an agent, unless that agent has specifically requested a contact by e-mail or phone, the best approach is to contact that agent by regular mail. Many agents, even if they have e-mails, Web sites, and faxes, specifically state that they don't want e-mail queries, and faxes have long been frowned upon unless you get special permission. While some agents are open to e-mails, they don't want attachments, which makes it difficult to do more than send a very brief query letter with a description of your project and yourself. The vast majority of agents also don't want phone queries, with a few exceptions.
Almost universally, agents don't want unsolicited manuscripts. So don't send the full manuscript unless requested, except for the very short picture books, since most agents invite you to send it all.
Prior to getting a request for more information from an agent, it's not always clear what types of submissions they prefer, since some don't specify what they want – or don't make it clear whether they just want an initial letter or prefer a letter plus a proposal and outline or sample chapters (sometimes with a page limit of about 10-50 pages). Then, too, agents can change in how much they want to see initially, depending on how busy they are and their reaction to your project after they read a few pages.
Because it is not always certain what agents want, their receptiveness to new projects, and the types of material of current interest, a good way to make a first contact is to start with an initial query letter and 1-2 pages of amore detailed description about your project and yourself, such as included with the list. Then, if the agents are interested, they can ask for more. This approach cuts down on your expenses of sending more detailed full proposals or outlines and chapters on the first round – so then you are only sending these additional materials to agents who request them. This preliminary query approach also avoids the problem of sending your material to an agent who wants an exclusive look to consider it (typically asking for about 2-4 weeks to do this) until you have an initial show of interest.
Another advantage of this initial brief approach is it enables you to send out multiple queries quickly and at little expense, since you are essentially sending a letter with 2-3 pages of additional information – a cost of about 50¢ a query. This multiple query approach also increases your chances of finding an agent and choosing among those who are interested in your project, since agents commonly have a high rejection rate – about 95% for many agents, and some agents who show interest could be very busy and overextended. Thus, with multiple agents expressing interest at this early stage, you can be more selective in whom to send additional information.
A good way to select and contact agents is with an agents list that is coded so you can select those agents which are most appropriate for your project and that is formatted so you can easily cut and paste names and addresses or add field codes for sorting and merging. This way, you don't have to type each address individually. Instead, using any word processing program, you can cut and paste selected names and address onto your letters and envelopes, or you can take the names you select and format them into a database for merging and sorting in any word processing program.
In selecting these agents, it is best to only send a query to one agent at a particular agency – or perhaps two or three if this is a larger agency with a dozen or more agents. Commonly, in these smaller agencies, if an agent isn't interested he or she is likely to pass it on to another agent in that agency who is. (I got two of the agents I have worked with that way.)
All agents ask for an SASE, so include this as a matter of course. You can use printed labels on your envelopes or run them through your computer to speed up the process of creating them.
Sending More Information to Interested Agents
Once an agent has expressed interest – or if you are sending more extensive information with your initial query, the agent typically wants to see certain basic materials. While different agents may have slightly different requests in what they want to see, generally, agents want to see the following materials, which are generally what they would send to a publisher if they represent you. So have these materials prepared and ready to go on request.
An advantage of creating this basic package is you have the information that most agents will want – and you can add or subtract materials from this basic package depending on the agent's requests. This is the approach I have used in sending proposals to many agents for myself and for several clients, who found agents as a result of this method.
For Nonfiction - Send a proposal package which includes:
Table of Contents
Overview of the book
Chapter by chapter outline, brief descriptions for each Chapter
1-3 sample chapters (up to about 50 pages)
Description of the market
Your bio, including your credentials for writing the book, and
any promotional support you can provide
For Fiction – Send the following:
1-3 sample chapters (typically 10-50 pages)
Then be ready to send the whole manuscript on request
For Children's Books
For younger children: send the whole picture book (if you didn't already send it with your query letter).
For older children: follow the non-fiction or fiction guidelines
For Scripts and Screenplays
Send a treatment if it's based on a book (you can adapt a detailed chapter by chapter outline to create this)
Send the full script in standard script format if it's an original script.
About the author: Gini Graham Scott, Ph.D., J.D., is the author of over 35 books, primarily nonfiction in the areas of business, personal development, relationships, psychology, criminal justice, and pop culture. She has also published several fiction books, has several film scripts in production or represented by agents, and writes children's books. She has a syndicated column on relationships at work and in business in a dozen publications, including the Oakland Tribune, 10 other East Bay papers, and the Los Angeles Downtown News. For more information on Gini Graham Scott, visit her website at www.ginigrahamscott.com,. For more information on the PublishersAndAgents services, check out www.thepublishingconnection.com