Building Your Business

How to Overcome the Odds and Find a Literary Agent

By Mason Lerner August 6th, 2014

Frank Sinatra once said, “Hell hath no fury like a hustler with a literary agent.” That may be true, but I’m not so sure Ol’ Blue Eyes knew how difficult it was to get that agent in the first place.

Writing a manuscript is one thing, but getting it published is a whole different beast that requires parlaying experience and skill into a book deal with the mythical query letter.

Many young scribes have a lot of questions when trying to score an agent. Should they approach an agent themselves? Should they wait to be approached? Should they ask a colleague for an introduction?

Austin-based science writer and editor Helene Engler has been asking herself those same questions. Engler, who holds a Ph.D. in zoology from the University of Texas at Austin, built a career writing about science for educational purposes. She has written for journals and produced content for interactive online games, but now she is looking to add a book to her resume.

Engler and her husband, financial analyst Jonathan Orenstein, completed a manuscript for a children’s book called Science Tales: Blue Flower + Red Butterfly, which, according to the query letter Orenstein wrote for potential agents, is a book written to teach children science in a novel way. I’m told the book is colorful and witty. The problem is, neither Engler nor Orenstein are still sure how to gauge interest from an agent.

“What I have heard about getting an agent is that it’s better to let someone find you by contributing your work to the community in snippets on blog or Twitter,” Engler said. “You have to build up your credibility and become someone out there. Then, once someone notices you, you can tell them about your experience. It seems to me that no one is interested.”

Sam Apple, who has written two books published by Ballantine Books, said he was lucky enough to find an agent early in his career. “I found an agent via a writing professor who introduced me to her own agent, but there are lots of ways to go about it,” he said. “I’ve heard plenty of stories of writers finding agents through blind submissions.”

When other writers ask Apple about landing an agent, he always offers pretty simple advice.”I tell writers … to find someone who can make an introduction, but I stress that’s not the only way to go about it.”

Regardless of whether or not you get an introduction, the first thing you need to do is make sure the agent is right for your work. Any writer can search the acknowledgement page or contact a publisher to find out the name of an agent of a pertinent book. Knowing if an agent typically works with books similar to yours will save both parties from wasting time.

The next step is writing the query letter, which may actually be more complicated than writing the text of the book. The query letter will act as a first impression with the agent. And as agent Chris Parris-Lamb told Poets & Writers, the query should be “as well written as the book itself.”

There are many dry guidelines online that suggest authors should clearly regurgitate what a book is about in a query, but according to Parris-Lamb: “Even better is one that’s short, pithy and demonstrates the author’s understanding of, and aspirations for, how the book will be received as part of the literary and cultural conversation. I’m much more interested in knowing why an author wrote something and what kinds of books and authors inspired her, than I am in a lengthy synopsis.”

In addition to an Agent’s Advice series, Poets & Writers provides many other important tools for finding agents, including a comprehensive literary agent database with contact information.

The real key seems to focus on not putting all your prose in one basket. As Apple stressed, finding an agent is not a one-size-fits-all process. If the work is marketable, there is an agent out there for you, so long as you’re patient enough to endure a lengthy process.

“Your reputation sells,” Engler added. “And it’s been easy for me to find science work as I am in the flow of a network after years of proving myself. But for writing gigs outside of my network, I am considered a nobody.”

For now.

Image by Johan Oomen
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