Table of Contents
- Part 1: Define your novel and author’s brand
- 1) The category of your novel
- 2) The genre of your novel
- 3) The uniqueness of your novel
- 4) The themes and tone
- 5) Author’s brand
- Part 2: Think globally, act locally
- 6) Seeking out local agents
- 7) Looking for agents internationally
- 8) Learn the rules of the publishing industry
- 9) Create a pool of possible agents
- 10) Do your research on the agents and their firms
- 11) Writing query letters
- 12) Agent Red Flags
In the past decade, the publishing world has changed quite a bit. Authors now no longer have to wait for a positive response to their query letter from an agent, nor do they have to wait for an editor or a publishing house to pick up their book. These days, authors can self-publish with immense ease, mostly thanks to Amazon and similar platforms like Smashwords that offer authors the opportunity to publish their work independently. And before you start thinking that you would not be able to publish in print if you’re self-publishing – without having to dig deep into your pockets that is – know that Amazon also began offering in recent years the option of print-on-demand, which allows authors to publish their work in print. When a reader buys a novel, the printing cost is undertaken by Amazon – but by the author as well, as the cost is deducted from the money the author would make with print-on-demand. And, if the book is really long, then the author stands to make zero to nothing on those sales.
That, in essence, makes it clear that self-publishing is not just liberating, it can also be a prison and make it difficult for you as an author to actually live on your work. When you are self-publishing, you need to undertake all of the production costs at front – even if you are using Amazon and their print-on-demand option. The question here is, what do they print? A novel needs a good cover, a good blurb, and even better – advanced reading copies that would be sent out to popular reviewers and Booktubers (YouTubers and influencers that focus primarily on reviewing books). And, it would be even better for your upcoming novel to get reviewed by major literary newspapers and magazines as well, which will not happen if you don’t have someone to open the door for you.
And that door can be opened with a good agent. A good agent can help you advance your career as an author quicker. The self-publishing road is long and it demands you to pay attention to every detail from the writing of the novel, to generating publicity through marketing and social media marketing, as well as designing a good cover or paying for an illustrator to make one for you, which is usually not cheap.
But, before you embark upon the journey of seeking an agent, you need to be prepared for it, and that does not just mean having written your first novel. Let’s take a look at some of the things you should do before you start looking for an agent.
Defining your novel and brand as an author will help you find the right agent to represent you and make those sweet deals you sometimes hear about in the publishing world. Unfortunately, in order to get an agent, you can’t just write your novel and then start sending it to the list of agents, marking them one by one and waiting for a positive response (although, by all means, you do need a list of prospective agents, which we will take a deeper look into further down in the guide).
What you need to do is prepare who you want to be as an author. The more you have defined your brand, the better your chances will be. However, you cannot just think, “Oh, I am the author Sabrina Raiden and I write romance novels.” There are thousands of romance novels out there – it’s one of the most prolific and most popular genres in the world today. Just go on Amazon and choose a random genre – even a more obscure one like speculative science fiction, and you will get thousands of results. The idea is that with an agent, you will be able to stand out in the crowd, but first, you must stand out among the pool of potential authors that an agent would have (because just as you would be choosing the right agent, the agent will have to choose you as the author they will represent). As such, let’s take a look at what you can do to convince an agent to take a chance with you.
1) The category of your novel
There are three (so far) semi-distinct categories of novels recognized currently in the publishing world. Let’s take a look at them:
- Genre fiction: genre fiction is the most “basic” category, meaning, a novel ticks all of the markings of a particular genre, be it romance or thriller or mystery. There are rules to each genre, and the novel does not attempt to break too many of them. Moreover, each genre has its own tropes – which are like situations, cliché’s and character’s traits that repeat across many works that belong in a certain genre. Knowing these genre rules and tropes will help you define your novel, so that when an agent reads your query letter, they know exactly what type of story you are trying to tell.
- Literary fiction: just like genre fiction, literary fiction can also come in many different genres. The difference here is that the novel is considered – by the publishing world – to have literary merit, be it due to the writing style, the themes the novel explores, or what the novel is trying to teach (but not preach) to the readers and the world. In essence, it means that the stories are more character-driven rather than plot-driven, and even when they are plot-driven, the author takes also as many character-exploration routes as possible when telling the story. Again, the actual genre here is not as important as the content, but often, even when a novel does have literary merit, it is not considered so, because it is not considered as such by the publishing industry. And yes, an agent can help you get this recognition, but for that, you need to have the right agent for the job.
- Mainstream fiction: when it comes to mainstream fiction, the definition is very murky – and in order to understand it better, one must throw ethics out the window. For example, if Oprah chooses a book for her book club, that book tends to become mainstream. Another example of mainstream fiction is, unfortunately, 50 Shades of Grey, despite the fact that it neither conforms to the romance genre nor it has any literary merit. A novel is considered mainstream fiction when its popularity explodes – be it in the first week or first year of publication. Moreover, books that appear on bestseller lists like the New York Times also tend to become mainstream novels – but the word “tend” is crucial here. Not every book that appears on the bestselling lists is actually a bestseller, and as such, not every book will become mainstream fiction. But, if the book does spawn a relatively successful film, then that book will become mainstream fiction. So, what you need to convince your agent is that your book has the potential to be a great film – and if you doubt it, stop doing that, because both mediums can be and often are interchangeable, especially when a great story is waiting to be told. For example, although Star Wards began as a successful movie in the 1980’s, it has spawned many novels within the universe, and not just sequels and prequels and spin-offs, like the Mandalorian.
So, now that you understand the novel categories, let’s take a look at what knowing your genre means.
2) The genre of your novel
If you want to be brave and believe that your novel does not belong in any genre, it’s a story that creates its own genre, be prepared to be disappointed by both the publishing – and the self-publishing world as well. You might think that those who would enjoy your novel – your ideal audience – will not care for the labels and rules of a genre, but they actually do. Most readers will pick up new authors and new novels when they understand that the novel belongs in a certain genre they like, because that way they know what to expect.
This does not mean that you need to write your novel by following genre rules. You write the novel you want to, and then try to discover which genre it belongs to. Of course, it is difficult to mix romance with a thriller, right? But then again, your novel might be both a romance and a thriller, for example, but even in that case, romantic thrillers already do exist and you need to tick all of the rule boxes of both genres.
The more of those genre rule boxes you tick, the better your chances are to attract the right agent to represent you. However, you cannot make the mistake of marketing your novel as a fantasy romance when the romance is a minimal part of your story. Understand well the genre your novel belongs in and work with that, instead of trying to force your novel into a box and a label where it does not belong.
For that, you need to research the genres out there. This can be a bit confusing, as there are not only specific genres, there are also specific subgenres, usually a mix of one genre and another, like the aforementioned example of a romantic thriller. As such, within the genre of romance, you will find many subgenres, mixed with every other genre there is out there, from mystery to science fiction and fantasy. Some genres have more subgenres than others. Understanding these genre and subgenre rules will help you define where your novel belongs in, but, it should not dictate the story you are trying to tell. And while you might be tempted to change some aspects of your novel to make it fit, it is inadvisable to make major changes just to fit a genre. A better idea would be to write a completely different novel and tell a different story instead. As such, the best thing to do is understand which rule boxes you tick of a genre, and go with that one, even if you novel does not fit all of them. Because, that fact is also important.
3) The uniqueness of your novel
While it is good to belong in a genre, it is even better to offer something new. That is why it is a good thing when your novel does not tick all of the right boxes. For example, take a look at Harry Potter. Harry Potter is a classic hero: he has a tragic past and abusive home situation, but, he overcomes these situations in order to complete with his mission and objective, because he is the one who has been chosen to defeat Lord Voldemort. Now, that aspect of being the Chosen One is what makes Harry such a classic hero, because one of the most common tropes in fantasy is the ‘Chosen One’ or even the ‘Chosen Ones’, as this title can often refer to a multitude of protagonists.
On the other hand, let’s take a look at Elantris, by Brandon Sanderson. It can almost be considered a classic epic fantasy novel, however, it differs from them in one of the most common tropes: first, the main protagonists are both a Prince and a Princess, and they are neither chosen nor have they had a difficult home life. Instead, they do the things they do and push the story forward because they are both put in situations that are out of their control, and they act in order to make the best of it. The Prince falls ill, is proclaimed dead, and thrown into the relics of Elantris – a city that was once great and now is ruined and covered in grime, while the Princess, who was to be his bride, becomes widowed before she even met him. In a classic fantasy novel, the characters can be princes and princesses, but usually, they have the air or the knowledge of being the “chosen ones”, but these two protagonist were not chosen – they were the ones who chose to act because they could and wanted to, without being driven by any prophecy or foretelling.
So, what does the above example tell us?
Your novel should belong in a genre. But it should also break some rules, reverse some tropes and place them upside down in there as well, because that is what makes your novel unique. So, you might write a romance novel. One of the biggest no-no’s in romance is having a character cheat on a partner. However, infidelity is a part of real-life romances, and that is why this “breaking of the rule” is often seen in different romance novels. One of the biggest rule-breakers out there is, for example, GRRM and his A Song of Ice and Fire, where he breaks many of the common fantasy rules and tropes, and that has become a mark of his work. However, in order to do that, you need to be prepared to wait long term for results, because although A Song of Ice and Fire was originally published in the late 1990’s, it only became mainstream fiction after the success of Game of Thrones, and the show became popular because GRRM broke so many storytelling rules in the novels.
So, find what genre defines your novel, and then find what makes it unique within the genre, and ensure that your prospective agents understand these aspects about your novel, so that they know that by signing you up, they will have a unique author and a unique novel to work with.
4) The themes and tone
It is complicated to discuss themes in a novel, because these are independent form genre. You can write a science fiction novel and place the focus on family, for example, or you can write a romance where the main theme is letting go of past mistakes. The theme of the novel is something that grows organically from the traits of the characters and the trials and tribulations that they go through as they achieve their goals and advance the plot. Again, the key word here is organically, as you should build the themes throughout the novel, and not force them in where they do not belong. Additionally, less is more, especially in fiction when it comes to the themes you present in a novel. Trying to present too many themes means you cannot focus properly and develop properly either one. These themes become apparent only after one has read a novel – or a whole series really – for the themes are more than the sum of their individual parts.
However, what the themes in a novel do dictate is the tone of the novel. For example, one cannot deal with difficult themes like rape, abuse, and even murder and death in a light tone and a writing style that is more comedic that dramatic. On the other hand, you also should not aim for zero lightness and zero humor in a novel either. You need to find – not balance, for balance implies an equal presence of both light and dark – but of harmony. A book that deals with difficult themes should have a darker, more dramatic tone, but it also needs to have moments of happiness, lightness, and humor.
On the other hand, a novel that has the purpose of entertainment, humor, and deals with lighter themes, also needs to create harmony with dramatic moments that would be darker and more emotional. Again, you’re not aiming for a balance between the two, but of harmony between the two.
As with everything else, however, there is an exception – in the specific genre of dramedy. As the word itself is made up of combining the words drama and comedy, it’s a genre that does aim to balance lighter themes and humor with darker, emotional moments that can move the readers to tears.
What your prospective agent would need to know are the major themes in your novel – and remember, try not to cram too many in your novel, although that is a topic for another guide – and how these are represented in your novel. In other words, your agent needs to know which themes you are tackling, and how you are doing that, as well as what would be the point you would be making.
5) Author’s brand
Finally, once you understand and have determined the things above, from the category to the genre and the themes in your novel, you now have a general idea of what will be your author’s brand. And you might think, “Oh, but I don’t have a brand, I write science fiction, romance, and I write historical novels too,” but in that case, you need to be prepared to get more rejection letters than positive answers.
Agents want to represent authors who do not aim to be jacks of all trades. As the saying goes, a jack of all trades is a master of nothing, and agents usually sign up authors who are consistent in their style and genre. They want to know that you have written a science fiction novel and that you will keep writing more in that genre. Most often today, it’s actually easier to get signed up and get a contract if you already have future novels you want to write in mind – whether or not they are in the same series is not as important as it is for them to be in the same genre.
This has a drawback, however, especially for the authors. There is pressure there to produce the same or better quality of novels in the future, and yet, that is difficult to do without branching out in different genres and trying out different things. The good thing, however, is that you can fit many different aspects of other genres in whatever genre you are writing in. You can play with character’s backgrounds, you can play with tropes, and you can still write a different and unique novel in the same genre.
Another way to branch out, of course, is through the use of a pseudonym, however, using a pseudonym will be a different experience for every author.
Part 2: Think globally, act locally
Now that you have prepared yourself as the author with your brand, your genre, and what makes your novel unique within its genre, you are ready to embark on the search for an agent. For the purposes of this guide, we have assumed that you are writing in English, that your novel is in English, and that you are looking to place your novel on an international market.
But, of course, you might be writing in your native tongue, and you might want to tackle a smaller, local market. If this is the case, then you need to learn the specific rules of the publishing industry in your (native or not) country, which might differ from the international ones and the ones present in most English-speaking countries.
As it is, if you are writing in English and the global publishing market is your goal, then you need to think globally, but start locally – of course, if you live in an English speaking country and are closer to that market, physically speaking. This means that instead of hunting down an agent that lives in a different state or country, start by looking for agents locally.
6) Seeking out local agents
You might be surprised at how many agents actually operate from near you. While New York is considered the apple of (among many things) the publishing world, this does not mean that you have to live in New York City to find an agent. Start with your county, then your town or city, and then your state (or country). Look through the yellow pages, and, considering how ads work these days, you will be probably bombarded with ads on social media for prospective agents once you start looking for them.
Of course, there is no need to jump immediately into it. This part of the process is not meant to ensure that you have a local agent. This part of the process is meant to ensure that you do not miss out on a local agent that might actually work with authors that write novels in a similar genre to yours. Because, while there might be agents in your town or city who will take you on, this does not mean immediately that these will be the right agents for you. First and foremost, you need to check whether they work with authors in your genre, and if they don’t, even if they do want to sign you on, you might not be successful as these agents might not have the right contacts with the right publishing houses in the industry to be able to help you get your book published.
To reiterate, this step is to ensure that you don’t miss out on the opportunity to get a local agent in your genre. Rule of thumb is, you will have an easier time finding an agent if you write general fiction, like drama or romance. On the other hand, genres like science fiction, speculative fiction, fantasy – especially dark fantasy, might have a more difficult time finding an agent who represents authors who write in that specific genre.
In any event, start the search locally, and then move on to a global search.
7) Looking for agents internationally
This will not be an easy task for you to undertake. There are many agents that are available worldwide, and you will probably have an easier time finding agents in your genre globally rather than locally. The issue that might arise here is that the agents themselves might not be willing to work internationally. This will greatly limit the pool of possible agents that you will get in the end. That is why, as in the previous section, where you are in the world does matter in the publishing world, to an extent.
However, before you get discouraged because you do not live in a primarily English speaking country (like the USA and the UK, for example), and before you think that you will have no issues since you do live in those countries, know that your success in finding an agent will depend about 50% on luck and 50% on effort. Ensuring that you understand your chances beforehand, and that you understand the rules will be crucial to how you handle the period between the moment when you start looking for an agent and the moment you (hopefully) get signed on.
There is no point in sending query letters to agents that will not accept to even take a look at your work because you’re based internationally and they don’t work internationally. But, there are some ways to ensure that you finish this task quicker, rather than get lost in a pool of agents worldwide. Here are some useful things to consider:
- Looking within your genre, find the agents who have worked with the authors of the novels;
- Check if those agents work internationally – if they do not specify that they do not work internationally, they can become a part of your “list” of prospective agents;
- Check databases online, as a simple google search will lead you to many different resources;
- Check the validity of the resources, and then, check the agents’ websites too. Rule of thumb is a good quality webpage will be a better choice than an agent with a shabby website that crashes every few seconds and has links that go nowhere;
- Beware of scams – if an agent’s website makes too grand promises, they don’t just look too good to be true, they are too good to be true.
8) Learn the rules of the publishing industry
The terrible thing about the publishing industry is that, besides the agent scammers and vanity presses that would often disappear with your money, it can be and it is a cruel place for most authors (and is among the many reasons why some established authors decide willingly to go into self-publishing). The only way to ensure that you do not become one of the victims of the publishing world is to learn how it works, how it tends to take advantage of authors, and have the information in mind before you even make the decision to send a query letter to an agent.
It’s easy to describe how it works: the writer writes a book, queries an agent, the agent signs them on, and then searches for the right publishing house. If the theme, topic and genre are very lucrative, the book might generate an auction-sale where publishing houses bid (or fight) for the rights to publish the novel. Once a publishing house – or an editor from a publishing house – has decided to sign on the author, the author is then given an advance, and the novel goes into production. The production costs are taken on by the publisher: from the cover to the marketing and printing. The book gets published, and depending on how it goes, the sales are deducted from the author’s advance payment. Once the advance has been deducted, the author then starts to get royalties from the sales.
It seems simple, right?
Not everything is what it seems, however. Many agents work differently, and many publishers offer different types of contracts. And, when you’re just starting out and you’re still an outsider in that world, it can even be difficult to learn the rules of the publishing world because there is just simply not enough information to be had out there. This means that you will have to take it on a case-by-case, agent-by-agent, publisher-by-publisher basis. The best advice we can give you here is to never – ever – sign any contract, be it with an agent or a publisher, without reading it very thoroughly first, preferably with someone who can give you legal advice, even if you have to pay for it. This is especially important because contracts are usually written in legal lingo that you might not be familiar with. If you are reading a contract and not understanding some or many parts of it, get legal help, because you need to know and be sure what you are signing up for.
We will talk about red flags more in depth later on, but here is just one example of getting published but wishing you hadn’t. Let’s say that you have an agent who is mostly interested in ensuring you get published by any means. You’ve written a first book in a series, and you plan to have more novels. The publisher wants to buy the rights not to the novels, but to the series. The agent is ecstatic, and presents it as the most lucrative contract they have been offered for a series. You sign on the dotted line and are given an advance for the first two novels. Since it’s for two novels, it’s a bigger advance than the normal, and it seems amazing. You’re publishing your first novel and can now work on the second one.
Except when the novel gets published and the amount of sales are in, there are no royalties left for you. Since you got an advance for two novels, you might not even be legally entitled to royalties until the second book gets published and sells enough copies to even out with the advance. So, for the next two to three years, you’re still living off of the original advance. Maybe you need to get another job to make ends meet. This impacts your writing process, and the third book, which you need to turn in to get the next advance, is stalling. And since the publisher has already bought the rights for your series, they can now fire you and hire a ghostwriter.
If the scenario above seems like a horror story, it is the reality for some writers. While the particular circumstances may have been different, for example, author L. J. Smith was fired back in 2011 and unable to continue writing in the Vampire Diaries series.
For that reason, learn every bit of information you can, every possible situation that might arise, and before you sign anything, read the contract from the first to the last letter, and make sure that you understand all of the possible implications.
9) Create a pool of possible agents
Finally, you can sit down with your list of prospective agents, which will hopefully be many. Out of all of these authors, you need to choose several that you will focus on. Remember, the more agents you attempt to query, the more time you will have to spend on doing your research. So make your choices wisely, because the difficult part of the work has just begun.
This is not the moment when you will write the names down on some post-it notes, tack them on the wall, and play darts to see which agents should go onto your list of agents you will start with. No, what you need to do here in this step is choose which agents would be ideal for you. This criterion is most easily filled by genre. If the agents have worked with authors in your genre, then they are your best bet at getting signed on.
Another factor to consider is experience. Experience is a bit difficult to determine. If an agent already has too many authors signed on, then they might not be able to focus on you as an upcoming author to the best of their ability, but on the other hand, they would potentially have the most contacts. On another note, an agent may have been working for ten years, but has only worked with two authors in those ten years. Finding a golden mean would perhaps be the best criteria for choosing agents in this step, as you don’t want to get lost in a pile of existing authors and existing contracts the author is working on, but you also want to have someone who will have experience and enough contacts and professional reputation in the publishing industry – not to ensure your chances of getting successfully published, but to increase the odds, at the very least.
10) Do your research on the agents and their firms
Once you have chosen which agents you will aim for, you can prepare a query letter. In order to make it a good one, you will need to do your research on the agents themselves and their firms. Try to find as much information as possible about them before you contact them in any way.
Here are some things to think about:
- Look for the authors they are working with, find their books, and read their books even, if you have the time.
- Do the books match with yours in terms of genre, theme, and category? If the agent has worked with literary novels before, and your novel is strictly a genre novel, you might want to look for a different agent to increase your chances of getting signed on.
- Note the publisher of each novel. Are these publishers the ones you would like to work with?
- Note whether the author is still represented by the same agent. Long term work with an author shows that the agent is serious and has produced good quality publishing contracts for the author.
- Note whether the author is now working with a different agent, and ask yourself whether that other agent might be a better choice from the start.
- See other books published by the same publisher. The goal here is to deduce whether the agent chooses the right publisher for the author. For example, if an agent has sold the rights of a romance novel to a science fiction publisher, you might want to rethink that agent, as you don’t want to get published by the wrong publisher for your novel.
- Check the publishers that the agent(s) have worked with. Which authors they are working with, and which authors have they worked with in the past? How many have become long-term house authors? Moreover, if you’ve written a series, but the publisher seems to be focusing mostly on one-shot novels (where the story ends in one book), then you need to find an agent who has experience in selling book series.
- Finally, check the marketing strategies of the publisher. Check their website, and understand which books get more promotion, which do not, and how much effort is being put into book covers, illustrations (if any), and so forth.
You need to research these things because these days, the goal is not to just get published, but to get published with some modicum of success. If the agent you aim to query works with publishing houses that place zero to no effort in marketing, if they produce covers that are not to your liking, then you still have the time to change your mind and choose an agent who will give you the most chances of success.
11) Writing query letters
Finally, you have done your research, you have prepared your novel and have figured out your brand as an author, and you’re ready to write the query letter that will hopefully entice the agent(s) to ask for a manuscript.
There is neither a wrong or right way to write a query letter. You are trying to guess what would entice the most someone who is virtually a stranger to you, which means that you can easily make a mistake. You might be too formal, while the agent prefers more personalized letters. Or, you might be too personalized and too informal, which would put off your potential agent even before they have any idea of what your novel is about and they have no idea that it is a masterpiece.
So, how to ensure the highest chances of success?
Well, there are two paths you can go by, right?
The formal part is easy. You do not attempt to create any sort of personalization, but you do aim to come across as professional. Your letter begins with the description of your story, the word count, the category, the genre, the themes, and whether or not is the first book in a series. You close it with a thank you and hope for the best.
The informal and personalized part is tricky. You do not wish to open a query letter by telling the agent that you found them in the yellow pages. And, since we have already instructed you to do your homework and read books from the authors that the agent has signed on and gotten published, you now have the tools to create something more personalized. You can mention an acknowledgment quote from one of the authors they’ve worked with, for example. Yes, this means that you will have to write many unique personalized query letters to different agents, however, your aim here is to increase your chances from the start, and personalization – when done the right way – can open many previously closed doors.
Of course, the part of the query letter where you describe your novel would remain more or less the same, but when it comes to the story, you need to make sure that the following things are clear:
- Title and word count.
- Genre and category.
- The protagonist, the problem they will face in the novel, and what choices will they have to make to get there.
- The protagonist’s inner conflict, what they want, what they need, and what they will get at the end of the novel.
In other words, genre, category, the protagonist and the problem they are facing (the plot) is what ensures your novel belongs in a genre. The protagonist’s inner conflict, what they want, need, and what they get in the end is where you present what is unique about your novel and the character.
The above are just generalities. A fantasy novel, a science fiction novel, an urban fantasy and a dystopia, for example, will require a deeper description of the world. You can also include the themes tackled in the novel, especially if they are topical themes like police brutality and racism, for example. So, adapt this advice to your novel specifically, but do make sure that you use as fewer words as possible to describe your novel. This is not the spot where you explain how there is a twist and then a double twist within the climax of the novel. Think of this part as something between a summary and a blurb for your novel. A blurb will be less detailed, but full of hooks to entice a reader. A summary has no hooks, but it does present the events and action in the novel. Find the balance – yes, the balance – between these two, and you will have described your novel in the best possible way for the purpose of your query letter.
Finally, close the letter by thanking the agent, send it, and hope for the best.
12) Agent Red Flags
Looking for red flags when it comes to the publishing world is not something that you do before, after, or as you are sending your query letter to an agent. No, looking for red flags is something that you will constantly need to do in order to ensure that the publishing industry does not undermine you in any kind of way. Most importantly, you need to look for these red flags before you sign any kind of contract with an agent or a publisher. Here are some red flags you need to be aware of:
- The agent is excited by your novel and wants to sign you on, but the agent works primarily with romance authors, and your novel belongs in a different genre. This means that the agent might not even be able to find the right publishers for you.
- The agent is asking you for a fee of any kind: to read your novel, to contact publishers, to host an auction for your novel. Remember: agents get a percentage of the contract. They should not ask you for money to do the things that they are already supposed to do. Read your contract wisely.
- The agent has been dropped by too many authors. This means that the agent constantly fails to produce good contracts for the author.
- The agent has never gotten an author published: this one might seem unfair, especially if you are also new to the industry world. However, there is a difference between an agent that is just starting out officially, but has previous experience in the publishing world, and an agent who has been around for years but has never managed to get an author published. So, do your research wisely.
- The agent is offering you a murky contract. This means that the contract they have offered to you upon signing you on has odd wording. For example, maybe the agent gets to have the final say in which publisher to sell the rights to, or maybe the agent wants more than the standard percentage of the profits and the advance (which is usually 15%). 20% is odd, 25% is worrisome. Maybe the agent will try to slip a higher fee after two or three years. Maybe the agent will try to get an extra bonus upon getting you a publishing contract.
The above red flags are important to think about, because they can leave you vulnerable. For example, if the agent gets to have the final say about which publishing house will get the rights to your novel, they may have their own preferred publishers and choose them, rather than the publisher who will offer better terms for the ratio between the advance and the royalties. Maybe the agent will also slip in some wording in the contract that will give them the rights to sell the rights for a movie or an audiobook without the need for your permission or involvement – leaving you open to scam. This is one of the major reasons why you should look into the agent’s history. If they have worked with an author previously, but now that author is represented by a different agent, write to that author and ask them about their experience, especially if you are close to signing a contract.
After all of this, you might believe that you are better off getting published the traditional way. But, self-publishing is not easy either. When you are self-publishing, you need to focus so much on all of the aspects of publishing a novel that you may go weeks or months without writing anything.
Remember, your success will depend about 50% on hard work and writing a great novel, and the other 50% is pure luck, and this does not depend on whether you are getting traditionally published with an agent, or you are self-publishing. It also depends on marketing, being seen, and having a platform online on social media.
Having an agent and a publisher, however, can also protect you. For example, recently, there was a “scandal” with Audible, the platform that has created most of the audiobooks you’ve listened to. Audible has a return option on their platform, meaning, the readers could pay for an audiobook, listen to it, and then return it within a certain number of days. However, the cost for that is not undertaken by Audible the company, but by the authors themselves. It became even murkier when Audible refused to divulge to the writers as to how many returns there have been to justify all the deductions in pay. Having an agent – or even better, a strong agency – increased the chances of the authors to get proper information from Audible. The worst thing about this? There is no other easily accessible platform like Audible where even self-published authors can publish audiobook versions of their novels.
It doesn’t end with Audible. An agent can protect you from the publisher as well (which is why we stressed the importance of getting a good agent instead of just an agent), especially in situations that have either not been covered by the contract, or situations where the contract wording allows for misinterpretation for the publisher’s gain.
To conclude, having a good agent can be of great benefits, and the most difficult thing to do is to find the right one for you as the author. However, we hope that this guide has given you some insight into what you can do to find the perfect agent for you as the author and for your novel as well. Remember, the more information you have, the better, and always – always! – read each and every word of the contract before you sign it, and if you do not understand it, invest in some legal advice, as it might not just save you future headaches, it might also save your career as an author in the long run.
Georgina Roy wants to live in a world filled with magic. As a screenwriting student, she is content to fill notebooks and sketchbooks with magical creatures and amazing new worlds. When she is not at school, watching a film or scribbling away in a notebook, you can usually find her curled up, reading a good urban fantasy novel, or writing on her own.