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About Writing Right: The Blog


A "new writer" asked online if it's better to hire a literary agent or work directly with publishers. Not an unreasonable question. This is what I said.

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Hmm. Methinks you don't understand the workings of the publishing industry, and you certainly don't understand the mechanics of literary agents. Here's the real low-down.


For starters, far more authors, writers, and wannabes exist than literary agents--possibly fiftty times more or greater. In real estate jargon, that puts literary agents in a seller's market. They hold all the keys and the power, and they know it. You can't walk into an agent's office (or email inbox) and announce that you'd like to hire him or her. Uh-uh. Just don't happen.


Also, literary agents are never "hired" at all in the traditional sense of the word. At least not the professional ones who are not looking to rip you off. They don't negotiate terms, and they don't set hourly rates. They work on a straight 15% commission taken from the proceeds generated by all the work they sell for you. Period. No sale, no income.


With that said, here's how the process of obtaining a literary agent for representation of your work plays out.

  1. You write your book. Not just part of it but all of it. Not an outline but the completed manuscript.
  2. You work up a query or a pitch, consisting of a brief synopsis of the book (two short paragraphs) followed by a brief summary of you as a writer and why you wrote the book. Conclude with a personal message to the agent about how much you believe your work fits into what the agent's interests in representation are and how you look forward to working with him.
  3. You research the hell out of potential agents and come up with a list of those for whom your work feels like a natural "fit."
  4. You go to the first agent's Website or online listing on your list and read the submission requirements, and you follow them to the letter. If the agent is not currently accepting new clients, scratch him off your list. Under no circumstances should you try to convince an agent to accept you as a client anyway. It won't work and will only waste time, something agents hate more than anything else. You'll quickly become persona non gratis.
  5. You send the agent your pitch letter only. Do not include anything more than that unless the agent specifically asks for it in his submission requirements listing. No artwork, no sample chapters, no already published work. Nada.
  6. Although not a hard and fast rule unless the agent says it is, follow up with a brief note asking if the agent has decided to represent you. I would allow at least four weeks before you do, though, so as not to appear overanxious or impatient. And then keep your follow-up short and to the point: "Just wondering if you've had a chance to read my query on my book, The Trouble with Pirates. Thanks for your interest."
  7. Repeat the procedure with the next agent on your list and keep doing so until you find a taker. Or exhaust your list. In which case, do more research, and put together another list to begin pitching.

Easy? Sure. That's why everyone has an agent to make him a best-selling author. But for all the headaches and heartaches involved with finding a literary agent, doing so will bring you one major step closer to ending up with that all-elusive publisher for your "baby."


Trust me. I know what I'm talking about. I had five literary agents in my life before finally finding the agent of my dreams. Was it worth the struggle? I'd say so, yes. With more than 250 conventionally published books and tens of thousands of short pieces to my credit, all that shopping around was definitely worth it.


Oh, and just in case you have any additional questions about agents, publishers, or anything else in this whole, wide, wonderful world of writing for a living, feel free to drop me a line at my Website, djherda.org. I'll look forward to hearing from you. Until then …


Smoke if you've got 'em.

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D. J. Herda is author of the new e-Book series of writing advice, About Writing Right, available at Amazon and at fine booksellers everywhere. His Website is at www.djherda.org. You can also check out his columns, "The Author-Ethicist" and "Fury and the Beast" at Substack. They're free; they're entertaining; they're informative, and they run weekly. Well, almost weekly. Occasionally weekly. Sometimes weekly. (Hey, he does his best!) 

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