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Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Wrong Way to Find a Literary Agent

Yesterday, I received a very polite query from an interested reader who described himself as "a struggling writer."  After saying very nice things about the research and writing of In the Wake of Madness, he confided that he had written a book, but now didn't know what to do with the manuscript.  How could he find a publisher?  Did I have any tips?  Should he get an agent?  If so, how would he go about finding one?

Because I have fielded this question (these questions?) so many times before, I wrote back offering to put my answer on this blog, keeping his identity anonymous, and he was happy about that. And yes, one does definitely need an agent.  So here goes:
That was me, when I first set out.  I had a manuscript of a whaling novel, and some kind of publishing history in both New Zealand and the USA, but no idea how to market the project.  So I asked a friend who happened to have a good friend in the London publishing scene, and gratefully accepted his offer to carry the ms along on his next trip north.  Friend of friend's reader loved the book (bless her), so I was told I needed an agent. And guess what, I was handed on to yet another friend.   She, too, loved the book.  So I had a very pleasant agent, who just happened to be a friend of a friend of a friend.  (Muddled, yet?)  She -- guess what --passed it on to a NY friend who agented it.  So I had a NY co-agent who was a friend of a friend of a friend of a friend.  Both sold the book, then the NY agent (who, incidentally, had sold it to yet another friend) closed her business.  Impasse.  We had run out of friends of friends of friends of friends.  Then husband and I moved to New York.  Agent and I were in different countries and different markets.  It wasn't ever going to work.  So we shook hands with big smiles and parted ways.
Meantime, though, I had learned something.
Nowadays, there an extraordinary abundance of tips about this on the internet.  An idle google search brought up "Seven Tips for Finding a Reputable Literary Agent," by Steve Thompson; "Five ways to find a literary agent," by Cressida Downing; and "How to find a Literary Agent -- And Avoid Scams," by Dee Power; plus a number of books on  All of it seems interesting and useful. 
That was not available, back then, so I visited a bookstore.  There were two major books available, Literary Marketplace and Writer's Guide to Book Editors, Publishers, and Literary Agents.  I strongly recommend both.   I bought the one with the longer title, written by Jeff Herman, because it was cheaper.  Then I went through the directory of literary agents marking up the ones that seemed to like the kind of book I was writing at the time.  Then I wrote a short, succinct, beautifully composed, and laboriously polished query letter to them all, following Jeff Herman's tips for writing a query letter to a publisher.

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