Sunday, July 27, 2014

How to Get An Agent (or anyway, how to look for one without going nuts)

So how do you go about getting a literary agent?

Well, the first step is to write an excellent manuscript, of course. But let's assume you've already done that.

Here's my recipe, based on experience gathered over the course of several agent hunts.

1. Define what you're looking for

This is really important! Don't tell yourself that “any agent will do.” It's not true. An agent will end up having the final say in whether and where you submit your work. You want to find someone you can trust with that decision.

Make a list of the qualifications you're looking for in an agent. Here's what my list eventually became:

  • Agent has a good sales record with middle grade fantasy
  • Agent has been an editor at a major publisher
  • Agent works in New York City
  • Agent does not have a significant online presence

There are, of course, many excellent agents who don't meet these qualifications. You'll want to make your own list of what you feel comfortable with. I just offer mine as an example.

2. Make a list of agents

You'll find agents listed on and Search for agents who represent your genre. The information on these sites may be outdated, so double-check everything. Make a list of every agent who reps your genre.

3. Annotate your list

Check your list of agents (step 2 above) against your list of qualifications you want in an agent (step 1 above). Google each agent on your list. Look for interviews and reported sales. Be sure to read the agent's webpage if s/he's got one. Take copious notes. The purpose of this is not to find connections you can mention in your query, but to help you make the right choice.

That's right. You're choosing them. They make a choice too, of course. But it's important to give full, non-starstruck attention to your own part in the choosing.

4. Divide your list

Now it's time to select the agents you feel you'd like to work with. Divide your now-annotated list into three categories:

= I should be so lucky.
= S/he would do nicely.
X = Alas, I fear we should not suit.

For the ♫ and X agents, make a note of why you put them in that category.

In my case, the ♫ agents were those who met all four of my desired qualifications. (Note that I don't call them “dream agents”. All I knew about them was what I'd found online... insufficient data for dreaming.) The ♪ agents met two or three of the qualifications. The X agents in most cases had no reported sales.

Take the X agents off the list and put them in a separate file. Later you may wonder why you didn't query them, so this will serve as a reminder.

5. Write your query

There are plenty of sites with good advice on how to do this, and alas, some sites with not-so-good advice. Janet Reid's Query Shark blog offers good advice, as does Absolute Write.

Polish your query to the nines. But not to the tens. Spend a couple weeks on it, but not three years. Ultimately, it's only a query.

6. Send your query

If this is your first time querying, or if you've never gotten a request in the past, pick just six agents off your list to query. If you know the ropes pretty well, pick ten. Check each agent's submission guidelines and tailor the query to the agent. Hit “send.” Note the date you sent the query in your records.

Bite your nails. Try to think about something else. Give it a month.

Increasingly, agents have a “no response means no” policy. There's not much we can do about this. Back in the day, you could avoid querying such agents, but that's probably no longer possible... there are too many of them.

Keep careful records of any replies you received, including dates of form receipts or form rejections.

At the end of the month, if you've heard nothing, don't nudge. Instead, get ready to send your next batch.

7. Send your next batch.

If all you got were form rejections or no response, there are two possibilities:

  1. There's something wrong with your query.
  2. You've written something that the agents (or their interns) don't think is marketable. A common reason for this is that a trend has suddenly become a glut.

Hard to tell which. But take another look at your query anyway, revise if necessary, and go on to the next six (or ten) agents.

By the way, I'd divide these batches between your ♫ and ♪ agents. You don't want to use up your whole ♫ list while you're still refining your query.

8. Reacting to requests

At some point, if you've gotten your query right and if you haven't written something for which there's no market, you will get a real live personal response.

If it's a rejection, read it over carefully. Wait 24 hours and read it again. Save it. If it's a partial or full request, make sure you have your manuscript ready to go. If that gets a rejection that's not a form rejection... same thing. Read the rejection carefully. Wait 24 hours and read it again. Save it. This is valuable data, especially if a consensus develops among several agents.

Never, ever say anything in response to a non-form rejection except, possibly, “thank you.”

9. The Offer of Representation

An offer of representation does not come via email. What comes via email is an invitation to talk on the phone. You may want to have a list of questions ready. (“What changes do you think my manuscript needs?” and “Where do you think you would submit it?” are two I would ask.) However, these conversations often seem to center on favorite books-- yours, his/hers. It's really a get-to-know you conversation.

After some talk in which you get to know each other, the agent will usually offer representation.

What should you do?

Now here's my advice, which differs from that of others:


If the conversation went well, that is, and if you have the impression that this is someone you would like to work with. Just accept.

Especially if s/he's one of your ♫ agents.

Contact the agent's references, sure. But you don't need to contact other agents so that they can move your query to the top of their pile and consider whether they want to make an offer. You don't need multiple offers, since the terms are the same industrywide (the agent gets 15% of your domestic sales, 20% of foreign). You just need one good agent.

If the offer is from one of your ♪ agents, and one of your ♫ agents is also considering the manuscript, you might want to contact the latter to see if s/he's interested. On the other hand, you're already talking to someone who's enthusiastic enough about your manuscript that s/he read it quickly and responded quickly. It's up to you.

But you want to write, not to spend your whole life looking for an agent.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Walter Dean Myers and the World We've Lost

Walter Dean Myers died today. With this sudden loss, his much-read New York Times opinion piece from this past March takes on the character of a final charge to the kidlit community. One I hope we will fulfill.

What I thought when I first read the piece (from a perspective, of course, that began some 30 years after that of Mr. Myers) was this:

It wasn't always like this.

Here's a book from my shelves. If memory serves (it occasionally does) my brother bought it for the cover price of 1.50 at The Book Worm, a shop around 15 miles from our home. We bought books there sometimes, when we were in funds-- books by Walter Dean Myers, and S.E. Hinton, and John D. Fitzgerald, and Mildred Taylor. The books were all, like this one, modest in size and presentation. The Potterquake was still far in the future, and the children's book market wasn't anywhere near as competitive as it is now.

Hold onto that last thought. It's important.

In this long ago world, computers were vast objects that filled an entire room, and nothing went "beep" except automobile horns. Local volunteer firemen used to take all us village kids on long, long night rides atop the fire trucks and we were allowed to put out the streetlamps with the searchlights. Kids roamed freely in the fields and forests; no one expected anyone so patently annoying as us to be kidnapped.

The kids in Walter Dean Myers's books explored just like us, only in Harlem. That interested us. We climbed about in barns; Myers's characters roamed abandoned buildings. We rode our bikes down the steepest hills we could find; Myers's characters did wheelies. Harlem was a different world-- but these characters were fully relatable.

It had clearly never occurred to anybody at The Book Worm that the kids in a nearly all-white community wouldn't want to read books about kids in Harlem. As you can tell from the cover, it also hadn't occurred to anyone at Avon Books that since the majority of American children were white, black children ought to be kept off book covers. There can certainly have been no idea that the books were somehow Special Interest, rather than mainstream. The Book Worm was about the size of the average motel room, with no shelf space for Special Interest.

In his New York Times piece this past March, Myers wrote:

"...This was exactly what I wanted to do when I wrote about poor inner-city children — to make them human in the eyes of readers and, especially, in their own eyes. I need to make them feel as if they are part of America’s dream, that all the rhetoric is meant for them, and that they are wanted in this country."

I can only speak to the first part of Myers's wish. Mission accomplished. We ate these books with a spoon. Any suggestion that we shouldn't, or wouldn't, or couldn't have done so would have had to come to us from adults. No adults obliged.

We grew up. The Myers books got tucked onto a shelf with many others. The Potterquake came along and shook the children's book world to its core. And the annual output of children's books tripled.

The number of children, however, did not.

Suddenly the children's book world got more competitive. It became necessary to find an edge wherever one could. Covers became a matter of intense study and scrutiny-- what would attract readers? What would repel them?

At some point, someone somewhere seems to have decided, based on who knows what data or theory or madness, that a protagonist of color on the cover would not attract readers. (Begging the question: Which readers?)

There followed a period of several years during which African-American characters-- and, to a lesser extent, other characters of color-- vanished from the covers of children's books. Books that had a protagonist of color would show something non-human on the cover-- a symbol, a building, a monster, anything! Or the protagonist would appear in silhouette. Or, in what quickly came to be known as whitewashing, the protagonist would be shown on the cover but would have mysteriously lost melanin.

I see signs that this is dying out. I still think we have a long way to go before we progress to the point we were at in 1977. But I think that we've passed our nadir, and we're on an upward climb. Characters of color are reappearing on book covers, and some of them are even African-American.

We can do better, though. We can do so much better.

Let's do it for Walter Dean Myers.