Supposedly I am a professional author. I have a cat, as so many writers do, and she is sitting on my lap right now making it hard to type this. I also have a literary agent who is much less annoying than lap kitty, whose job is to sell what I write. Having an agent is a good thing and is often necessary in today’s publishing market. Most book publishers won’t look at your writing unless you use an agent.
Publishing is not alone in requiring agents. There are agents for those who play sports, make music, and act. There are agents that will help you sell a house. And so there are agents for writers. And all these agents have one thing in common: they make money only when their clients make money.
That is, you do not pay a real estate agent upfront to sell your house. Your real estate agent makes her money only when your house gets sold; she takes a cut from the proceeds. The same thing happens in the writing business.
The role of agents is to serve as the gatekeepers standing between the publishing houses and the authors. They look over the materials that potential writers produce and decide if it looks like something that a publisher might be interested in. They know the industry, and ideally have years of experience working in it. Many agents are themselves former editors with ties to the publishing industry. They know the people working for the different publishers, they know their tastes, and they know what is likely to sell in the current market.
Novice writers, struggling with rejection, are often tempted by various charlatans who prey on the naïve and hopeful neophytes. There are those who call themselves agents who will tell their prospective clients what they want to hear: that they are talented, that they have a wonderful future in publishing, that they will get them a publisher. But then they ask for a “retainer” or charge a “reading fee.” And after the neophyte pays the fee, they don’t hear from the agent again, except to occasionally ask the writer for more money.
If a so-called agent ever asks you for money, he is not a real agent. Run away fast. A real agent will never ask you for money for “expenses” or any other reason. A real agent will make money only when you do—when you get a contract with a real publisher, a contract that the agent will negotiate with the publisher to make sure you get the most possible. A real agent studies the contract your publisher offers and makes certain your rights are protected because that protects his rights as well. A real agent will earn his fifteen percent.
A few years ago an American fantasy and science fiction author coined something called Yog’s Law that he repeatedly tells new writers to keep them from being cheated: “Money flows to the writer.” If someone makes promises but wants you to pay him first, they are violating Yog’s Law. Anything that violates Yog’s Law is a scam. Remember that.
Getting a real agent can be very difficult. Many publishers will not look at your proposals unless you have an agent. And many agents are not willing to look at your proposals unless you’ve been published. It puts writers in a catch-22 position, which makes them easy prey for the charlatans. However, it is not as hopeless as it sounds.
Getting published doesn’t mean just getting books published. If you can get articles published in magazines, small or large, if you can get short stories published, if you can work for a newsletter—all those things count. And there are some agents who will look at you even if you haven’t gotten anything published, just as some editors will look at your stuff without having an agent.
To become a writer, you first must write. And write a lot. The science fiction author Jerry Pournelle suggests that you should be willing to throw away your first million words. Learning to write in a way that other people will want to read what you write takes work and persistence.
Next, find a writer’s conference to attend. There are dozens, if not hundreds, around the country every year. Find one that has agents and editors in attendance, save up the money for the conference, and then go. You’ll get to learn more about the business and skill of writing, and you’ll get to meet agents and editors in person. You’ll find out they are ordinary people. You can talk to them, share your ideas, and if you have a good one, they’ll ask you to send them a proposal. By attending conferences you significantly increase your chances of getting published. You might not be successful the first time out; you may have to attend several conferences. But the persistence will pay off. Persistence in writing regularly and persistence in trying to get published are the keys to success in the business of writing. You have to have a thick skin and the determination of a mule. The people who don’t make in in the publishing industry are the ones who give up.
I did not get an agent until I had four books published by major publishers. And even then, it was difficult to find one who would listen to me. I finally made the connection with my agent when I talked to an editor at a writer’s conference. I told her about the books I’d had published, and she told me about an agent she knew that I should contact. I mentioned the editor when I contacted the agent, told him my background, and pitched a book idea to him. After a few more emails back and forth, he asked me if he could represent me; I agreed and we signed a contract. Today, he is trying to sell three different book proposals for me: two non-fiction and one fiction.
Will he succeed in selling any of my proposals? Eventually. But only after several publishers look at them and turn him down. Even with an agent, you won’t sell everything you write any more than an actor—even an Academy Award winner—automatically gets every roll she tries out for.