FAQs: Agents & Research

On agents…

Q. How do I get an agent?

A. There are two ways: conventional and unconventional. The conventional way is to buy a resource book that lists agents and their specialties. Many agents only handle certain types of fiction–and some handle only non-fiction. By doing your homework, you save your time and money in not making erroneous submissions. These reference books also list recent sales by the agent as well as guidelines the individual agent requires for a submission. One such publication is Guide to Literary Agents from Writer’s Digest Books.

The unconventional way is becoming more mainstream these days. In short, there is no substitute for doing business in person. Meeting someone face to face is the most effective way to make a connection…and business (publishing is a business) is all about making connections. How do you meet an agent (or editor) in person? Many writers conferences have taken the lead from the Maui Writers Conference in providing a forum for writers and agents to get together. Usually there is a fee for each face-to-face consultation you have with an agent. However, if you are someone who can schmooze and sell yourself, then it’s well worth the fee. Again, you want to do your homework to make sure you’re meeting with the right type of agent. Talking to an agent who specializes in historical fiction when you write self-help books will likely get you nowhere.

Q. Is it possible to get published without having an agent?

A. A physician friend of mine once coached me before I gave my first deposition. His advice: if the opposing attorney asks you, “Doctor, is it possible these injuries were caused by a UFO abduction instead of the car accident your patient was involved in?” my response should be: “Anything’s possible.” So I’ll answer this the same way. Of course it’s possible to get published without having an agent. It does happen. But like UFO abductions, the likelihood of it occurring is…somewhat remote. I think it’s best to focus your energies on finding a good agent. Addendum: with the digital revolution, “getting published” has taken on a different meaning. Traditional publishing still exists, but other options are now available–it’s feasible to successfully self-publish and distribute your work on all digital platforms (Kindle, Nook, iBooks, Google Play, etc.), as well as through print on demand publishers (e.g., CreateSpace). Thus, if your time frame for realizing your dream of getting published is short, it is now possible to move forward without securing an agent. While it’s not a substitute for being traditionally published, it is a viable alternative for some writers.

Q. What makes a good agent?

A. This is an involved question. But…you want an agent who is enthusiastic about your work, who can fight for you when necessary, and who has solid contacts in the industry, primarily with editors. He (or she) should be attentive and make sure all potential avenues of distribution of your work are explored.

You also want your agent to be industry-savvy: that is, when negotiating contracts, you want him to be well-versed in industry norms; you want him to be able to tell you that something is reasonable or unreasonable, or that something is or isn’t customary for the publishing houses. You want him to be well-informed on new issues and industry technologies. You also want him to be able to tell you about the ramifications of a particular clause in your contract. It’s a bad feeling to later find something in your contract that doesn’t mean what you thought it meant…or that you could have negotiated something substantially better just by asking for it. The agent needs to know to ask in the first place.

Finally, your agent has to be responsive. If you ask a question, he should respond in a timely manner.

Q. I’ve heard that some agents charge reading fees. Is this reasonable?

A. No. I would never pay a fee for an agent to read my work. From what I’ve heard from others in the industry, reading fees are unnecessary and usually indicate a sub-par agent who looks to the reading fees for his or her source of income rather than the sales of author material.

Q. I’ve finished my novel and I’m ready to submit it. Can you give me some guidelines on how to find an agent and how to submit my work?

A. Getting an agent is very tough these days–not that it was ever easy. First spend some time poking through my website to gain an insight into the publishing industry and its nuances and practices. Then buy a book that lists literary agents. When deciding to which agents you should submit your work, make sure they handle the type of book you write. Next, comply with whatever requirements are outlined in the summary provided for each agent. If they say to send the first 15 pages, don’t send 50. (I wouldn’t send the entire manuscript at the outset, as it’s expensive and unnecessary. I know someone who just hit his 100th agent rejection, so the costs add up.)

Make sure the text is printed on clean paper, single-sided, in a standard (Courier or Times Roman) font, 12 point, with one inch margins. Your name and the manuscript’s title (and page number) should go at the top of each page. Include a query letter that contains the best writing you’ve ever done. Their feeling is if you can’t write a good query, you can’t write a good novel. I’m not sure I agree with that, but the point is it doesn’t matter what I think–just make it an intriguing letter. I believe Jeff Herman’s book provides details on what to include in a query letter.

Finally, I wouldn’t make exclusive submissions, even though this is what agents prefer. (This means you send out a query and wait to get a rejection from that agent before sending out another.) You have to be fair to yourself. Look at it this way: if it took 100 submissions to get signed by an agent, and you sent out one query at a time and waited about two months (if you’re lucky) to get a reply, you’d literally spend about 15 years mailing out queries. More than ridiculous, it’s not good business. And like it or not, writing is a business.

If you want to get scared and depressed at the same time, read Noah Lukeman’s book, The First Five Pages. A former editor and current literary agent, Lukeman outlines some of the things agents and editors look for in a manuscript. Some of the advice is excellent, while the behind-the-scenes look at how agents and editors make a decision on your manuscript is, as I said, scary and depressing. Assuming the information is accurate, it’s information you need to know. It’s also a sad commentary on how our publishing industry operates (though that’s clearly not what he intended).

Note: Click here to read a very useful article on finding literary agents, written by author Todd James Pierce.

On research…

Q. When writing a novel, how important is research?

A. If you care what your readers think (and of course you should!), you’ll want your facts to be correct. Think of it this way: your readers are intelligent people, with knowledge bases spanning many careers and professions. It’s likely some of them are going to know about the topic you’re writing about. The worst thing you can do is to take the reader out of the fiction you’ve worked so hard to create. There are many ways of doing this, but one sure way is to state a fact that’s blatantly incorrect. You don’t want your reader saying, “That’s not right. This guy doesn’t know what he’s talking about.” Boom…what has happened? The reader is no longer thinking about your story, or your characters, or the suspense you’ve worked hard to create: he’s thinking about the facts you’ve gotten wrong. Bottom line: spend the time, do the research. And get it right.

Q. Are all your facts always correct?

A. I guess this was the next obvious question. The answer is no. But you do your best. Over the course of 400 pages, there are many different topics and concepts you’ll encounter. Even the most diligent writer can’t get it all right all the time. But you can try!

(Note: sometimes you want to, or need to, take literary license. That is, change or stretch the truth. It’s still important to know what’s correct so you can judge how much you want to stray from the truth. Ridley Pearson once told me he works hard to ensure the accuracy of his facts so that when he introduces a “fictional fact” to further his story, the reader won’t know which facts are real and which aren’t.)

I often use facts I learn during my research to invent my fiction. But that’s the topic of an entirely different question.

Q. As a writer, how important are contacts in conducting your research?

A. Contacts are invaluable. Other than the obvious—providing you with information you wouldn’t otherwise be able to access—they sometimes think of something or say something that takes your story in an entirely different direction. For example, while researching FALSE ACCUSATIONS, my FBI contact took me to the Department of Justice’s Division of Law Enforcement indoor shooting range and showed me a variety of handguns. It was his opinion that in order to write about guns, I’d first have to experience what it felt like to fire them. Of course, he was absolutely right. And though I don’t think the word “gun” is even mentioned in FALSE ACCUSATIONS, guns played a role in THE HUNTED in terms of reality and believability. His instruction and the experience he gave me was invaluable in understanding the power a character holds in his or her hand when he or she points the weapon at someone.

I believe anytime a writer can experience something in life, it’s enormously beneficial. You may not be writing a book that involves guns, or skydiving, or even meat packing. But once you experience it, you’ll carry that memory around with you forever. And it’ll inevitably end up in a book.

DISCLAIMER: Any “advice” or information provided on this website is based on the author’s experience and knowledge, and is intended only as background and for purposes of general interest. It is NOT LEGAL ADVICE, and could be incorrect. If you have questions about this information, how it applies to your particular situation, or anything else of a legal nature, CONSULT AN ATTORNEY.

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