(The following essay was commissioned by Brian Keene exclusively for his Patreon patrons in November, 2018. I am reprinting it here with Brian’s permission, in the hope that it will help you as a writer decide whether you need an agent and, more importantly, help you land a good one.)
Hello, Brian Keene’s Patreon patrons! My name is Nicholas Kaufmann, and Brian has asked me to write an article for you about how to land a literary agent. I’m very grateful to him for the opportunity, because I think this is an important topic for any writer. But first, you may be wondering who I am and what makes me an authority on the subject. Well, despite having worked in a film and literary agent’s office and being represented by one of the best speculative-fiction agents in the business, Richard Curtis, who also reps Dan Simmons, Kim Harrison, Ray Garton, Greg Bear, Paul Di Filippo, and perhaps most notably the late Harlan Ellison, I hardly consider myself an authority. But I do have some tips from my own experiences that I can share, and which will hopefully help you get a good agent.
But first, let’s back up a moment and talk about the basics. What exactly can a literary agent do for you? Their primary job is to get your manuscript in front of acquiring editors at publishing houses. But it’s not just a matter of submitting manuscripts on your behalf. A good agent will have strong contacts at every publishing house and will know exactly which editor to send your manuscript to for best results. Good agents regularly schedule lunches, meetings, or if they’re not in the same city, phone calls or emails with acquiring editors to get an idea of what they’re looking for and to show them their list of available properties.
Let’s say an editor loves your book and makes an offer on it. Congratulations! Here’s where an agent’s expertise really comes in handy, because now your agent will negotiate the deal for you. They’ll do their best to get you the highest advance and the best possible royalty structure, and on top of that they’ll also protect your subsidiary rights wherever possible. For example, let’s say a publisher gives you an advance of $10,000 for your novel and wants worldwide rights in return, meaning they can sell it everywhere across the globe from Cincinnati to Singapore, all for that same $10,000. Your agent may decide that it’ll be more profitable for you to keep those foreign rights for yourself in order to sell the book again to foreign publishers, sales that can turn that initial $10,000 into $20,000, $30,000, or more. Admittedly, it’s a gamble. Sometimes foreign publishers won’t be interested in your book. It happens, but good agents know how to weigh the pros and cons of holding back those rights. The same thing applies audio rights. (But not e-book rights. No publisher will let you keep e-book rights in this day and age!)
Movie rights are another subsidiary right that good agents know to hold onto. Publishers often want to snatch up movie rights because if your book gets optioned and/or filmed, it’s extra cash for them — but it’s extra cash they’ve rarely done anything to earn. Most publishers don’t have Hollywood contacts, they just sit back and hope a book gets noticed. A good agent, on the other hand, will likely have someone on the West Coast whose job is to represent your book to the studios. Why share movie money with the publisher if they’re not the one actively trying to sell your book to Hollywood? They will likely see an uptick in sales in conjunction with the film anyway, so it’s not like they get nothing out of it. But without an agent representing your deal, it will be very hard to hold back those rights from greedy publishers.
But even then an agent’s job isn’t finished. If the book comes out in hardcover, a good agent will negotiate reprint rights for the paperback. They will also work to get you as many free author’s copies of the book as they can (my agent once bumped the number up from 8 to 25!), and maybe even get you input on the cover art. If possible, they will also try to get you a multi-book deal with the publisher rather than a one-off. They will discuss your next book with you, map out their vision for your writing career, and generally act like a partner with your best interests in mind. After all, agents work on commission, which means your success is their success.
So is it worth getting an agent? This question is more valid now than ever before in modern publishing history. After all, there’s so much writers can do now without one. Self-publishing in particular has gotten easier than ever before, and with the proliferation of e-books, distribution of self-published novels is no longer the problem it once was. In fact, many new authors jump right to self-publishing without even attempting to go the traditional route.
Personally, I thought it was worth getting an agent because I had certain goals in mind that I knew only an agent could help me reach. I wanted my books to be available in Barnes & Noble and other bookstores; I wanted them to be reviewed by trade magazines like Publishers Weekly and Booklist, because that’s how most TV and film executives first hear about a book, as well as in respected newspapers and magazines like The Los Angeles Times and Rue Morgue, not just online book blogs that only get a small handful of views; and I wanted my books to have a long shelf life. All of which meant I needed to be published by a major publisher, and the only way that was going to happen was with the help of a literary agent. If you share these goals, having an agent is the best way to achieve them.
Here, then, is how to land an agent, in six not-so-easy steps:
- Finish your damn novel. We’ve all heard stories of novels that sold for huge advances based on a partial, or even just a pitch, but those situations are extremely rare. Rarer still are agents who will look at an unfinished novel submission from someone they’ve never heard of. If you want to be a published author, let alone an author with an agent, you can’t half-ass it. Your first priority is to finish the book. Make it the best damn book you can, and then use it to hook an agent. My novel Dying Is My Business is the book I used to land my current agent, and I’ll be damned if it didn’t take me two full years to write and rewrite until it was good enough to start shopping around.
- Write a query letter. People treat the writing of query letters like it’s some kind of alchemical formula that relies on esoteric knowledge possessed only by the lucky few. Truth is, it’s not that hard. There are hundreds of websites out there dedicated to showing writers how to write one. The query letter I used to get my agent had three parts to it: 1) the hook, a single sentence that should ostensibly grab the agent’s attention (for example, “A vigilante mob killed vicious child-killer Fred Krueger, but now he’s back from the dead and murdering the surviving children in their nightmares.”); 2) a detailed description of the novel, no different from what you might see on the back of a paperback on your shelf; 3) your platform, i.e. any previous publications under your belt, any literary awards or nominations, any interesting jobs or hobbies in your background, basically anything that sets you apart and has already laid the groundwork for publicity and audience-building. It’s okay if you don’t have any platform at all, but agents and publishers both like to know if there’s anything special about you that they can turn to their advantage when it comes to marketing. Finally, at the end of the query letter, sign off by letting them know that the manuscript is available for their review upon request. Be sure to thank them in advance for their time and consideration!
- Make a list of agents to target. This is the part that takes the most time and effort (aside from writing the novel itself, that is). You’ll need to research which agents are looking for a novel like yours. Sometimes it’s as easy as checking the acknowledgements in the novels of your favorite authors to see if they mention their agent by name. Often, though, it will require much more digging than that. Luckily, sites like Poets & Writers have a literary agent database that can be perused for free (https://www.pw.org/literary_agents). There’s also agentquery.com, firstwriter.com, querytracker.net, and many others out there that can help you build your list. And you’re going to want a long list. I think I queried somewhere between 20 and 30 agents before I finally landed mine. Other writers have queried far more than that. Be prepared to be patient, and be prepared to receive a lot of rejections. That’s just the nature of the game. Developing a thick skin now will help you immensely in the long run.
- Give them exactly what they ask for. If you get a reply from an agent asking you for the first three chapters and a synopsis (which I’ll talk about next), then that is exactly what you should send them. (If your prologue is longer than one page, consider it the first of the three chapters. Don’t bother the agent by asking whether to include your prologue or not because they used the word “chapters.” They don’t have time for stupid questions.) Also, if they ask for three chapters, don’t send them the whole manuscript instead thinking you’re being clever or sneaky. The only thing you’re doing is showing an agent right away that you don’t listen and will probably be difficult to work with. And finally, be honest. My agent asked for the entire manuscript and if he could have a two-week exclusive in which to read it. I was up front with him about the fact that another agent was currently looking at it also. It didn’t stop him from wanting to read the manuscript or from ultimately offering to take me on as a client. Had I lied to him about it and the other agent offered to rep me while he was still reading it, I would have been forced to reveal my lie and possibly burn a valuable bridge.
- Write a short synopsis of the novel. It sucks, but you’re going to have to write one. Boiling down the novel on which you’ve worked so hard to a one- or two-page document ain’t pretty and it ain’t fun. But luckily, like writing a query letter, it’s not as hard as you think. You know when a friend misses an episode of a TV show you both watch and asks you to tell them what happened? What you tell them is a synopsis, plain and simple. It’s a distillation of the plot down to its basics. The reason it’s hard for writers to do it with our own novels is because we want to include everything, all the touching character moments and subplots and cool bits of dialogue, but those things have no place in a synopsis. It is literally just a rundown of the novel’s main plot, so that agents and editors can have an idea of the shape of the book without necessarily having to read it from start to finish.
- A secret. I’m going to tell you something now that every agent will no doubt hate me for, but it’s an important tip. You see, good agents always want to find the next big thing. Good agents want to be the one to represent a hot new author, or to shepherd a book that takes the world by storm. That’s why I’m telling you this now: If an agent’s website says they’re currently closed to submissions or only taking on new clients by referral, send a query anyway. That’s how I got my agent. His website said he wasn’t taking on new clients, but I still queried and the book turned out to be something he was interested in. I’m thankful I had the chutzpah to do that.
Yes, it’s true, I got my agent with a cold query. It’s funny, I live in New York City and I go to a lot of publishing events, so I know a good chunk of the people in the industry, and it was still just a cold query that did the trick. Not glad-handing, not name-dropping, and not attending an agent pitch session at a convention, where half the time they’re telling authors to send their manuscripts just as a way to end a terrible, awkward conversation, but by querying agents until one took me on, just like they always said it would happen.
So let’s say an agent wants to sign you. Congratulations, but not so fast. Your work isn’t done yet. You’ve probably noticed over the course of this article that I keep using the phrase “good agents” instead of just “agents.” Unfortunately, that’s because not all the agents out there are good. Some just don’t have the contacts to effectively represent you. Some think being an agent is basically the same as being a submissions service and have no idea how to negotiate a deal if they’re lucky enough to land one. The worst are looking to con writers out of money and intellectual property. It’s up to you to make sure you’re signing with a good agent and not a dud, or worse, a conman. Check out what other authors they represent and which publishers they’ve sold books to. If you recognize some of the author names and see that they’re being published by major, reputable houses, that’s good. If you’ve never heard of their authors and all of them are published by Kindle Direct, that’s not good. You’re also going to want references, which means contacting some of the agent’s clients and asking if they’re happy with the representation they’ve received. A good agent will be happy to provide a few clients’ emails for this purpose. A bad agent will try to stop you from contacting their clients at all.
So there you have it, the ins and outs of how to get yourself a good literary agent. As you can see, there are no shortcuts or secret handshakes. Just hard work and lots of rejections until it hits. But if you’re looking for a successful career as a writer, I strongly believe that all the effort that goes into finding an agent is worth it. Speaking from experience, I know a good agent not only wants you to be successful, but they’ve also got your back when things go awry. An ally in your corner, especially a powerful one, is something every writer needs. And if you follow my advice, you just might get one for yourself.
Nicholas Kaufmann is the Bram Stoker Award-nominated, Thriller Award-nominated, and Shirley Jackson Award-nominated author of two collections and six novels, the most recent of which is the bestselling horror novel 100 Fathoms Below, co-written by Steven L. Kent. His short fiction has appeared in Cemetery Dance, Black Static, Nightmare Magazine, Dark Discoveries, and others. In addition to his own original work, he has written for such properties as Zombies vs. Robots and The Rocketeer. He and his wife live in Brooklyn, New York.