Friday, February 27, 2009

Three Ways To Get A Literary Agent

Every Friday I'm trying to post an update of my trying to find an agent.

As I see it, there are three "standard" ways to get an agent in the literary world.

First, there's the traditional way of going through the slush pile. Based on agent information we can find online, we submit a query letter and maybe a few pages if the agent asks for it and see what happens. Several weeks ago, I did my first round of querying. Out of three agents, one wasn't interested based on the query and 5 pages, one asked for a partial and then said no, and one told me that she was no longer accepting new clients at this time.

Upon discussing this with some other writers, I was basically told that 2 of the 3 agents that I had tried -- even though they said they represent literary fiction -- don't actually represent that much literary fiction. I had been going by their guidelines, but I've been convinced now that it's better to actually look at the books they currently represent. The one agent that does represent quite a bit of lit. fic. was the one that told me she no longer accepts new clients. So, on this front, I'm actually holding back and doing more research so that I can be more systematic in my approach. I also may revise my first chapter since multiple reviewers have said it's the weakest chapter in the book. I hate beginnings!

A second way to get an agent's attention is to publish short stories in prominent literary magazines. I've had a few short stories that I was working on, but I neglected them as I was finishing my book. So, this week, I focused my energy on wrapping up some stories. I had one that was a finalist for a contest held by Glimmer Train. Glimmer Train is one of the biggest journals you can get into as a literary writer. They usually have several of their stories longlisted in Best American Short Stories. So, I have faith in this story and I finished getting it polished so that I can send it out again. I've also been working on a second short story that I'm hoping will be publishable.

The third way to get an agent is, of course, through connections. I don't have many connections right now, but I realize that I do have a few distant ones. In other words, I'm about three degrees removed from two of my favorite agents. Whether or not that will open any doors, is up in the air. But, I do think this is something to keep in mind as we all try to publish. The world is smaller than you think.

Does anyone have other ideas or tips for publishing? What are you all trying to do besides submitting queries? (Let's assume that you have already focused on the WRITING part of the journey, which admittedly, is a never ending process.)


  1. The thing that helped me out more than anything recently was Query Tracker ( --I think) Anyway, it lets you look up agents by genre they represent, then you can click around just a big and find out authors that agent represents, as well as response times and acceptance rates from that agent. Very good resource, and easy to use.

  2. Querying and entering contests. I've submitted short stories to magazines, poems to agent and editor blogs, humorous material to websites, etc.

    So far I have failed to capture an agent.

  3. After many round of rejections and many different iterations of my query, I was fortunate enough to submit my query for critique by agent Nathan Brandsford on his blog. The feedback he gave, and the feedback in the comments was invaluable.

    I took it in, revised my query, and submitted it, and he did request a partial, but declined to move on to the full manuscript. he did provide some more excellent feedback on how I can strengthen my manuscript, which I am doing right now. Well, not right now. right now I'm writing this. But you get the idea.

    This is a very tough market right now, and agents are only taking on the very best projects, so my advice is to make sure you are truly ready to query.

    And then, if at first you don't succeed (you know the rest).

  4. I have sold a few short stories to magazines, but I stopped writing short fiction about two years ago because I had an idea for the novel I'm currently shopping around. Also, it's a lot of work shopping stories to literary journals, though (thanks to Davin's encouragement) I plan to try again.

    Mostly, I tried to write a good book and work on my craft, hoping that if it was good enough, then someone would want to agent/publish/buy/read it. Currently, an agent is reading a partial, and while we are meeting in person next week to discuss the writing, he has yet to request the complete ms. So I don't quite know what to think.

    As for researching agents, I believe that you have to do your homework about each agent you query, because while many of them claim to cast a wide net, most really only like a limited range of literary forms. Find books you like, and then work backwards to see who agented the author. You will end up querying fewer agents than if you take the "shotgun" approach, but you will also end up with far fewer form rejections.

  5. You and I are on the same page. I hate beginnings too and I've been told that my beginning is the weakness part of the book. I stop sending out queries in January because I knew I needed to make sure that my first chapter was stellar. Also, I'm in line to get my query reviewed by Evil Editor. In the meantime, I'm writing on my next two novels while I figure out what it is I need to do to improve the first chapter of JC.

  6. Beth, I'm heard a lot of good things about query tracker. I have the bad habit of making things as hard as possible on myself for as long as possible. Simplicity scares me. I wish I was joking.

    Justus, Mind you I don't know if any of these rumors are real, but I've heard at least three successful agents say that if you are getting published and winning contests, the agents will come looking for you.

    Rick, Yes, Nathan is great. I've learned a lot from him. He was the one that requested my partial. I didn't get any advice from him though, which is okay. He just said he didn't connect with it as much as he would have liked. It's great that he gave you some tips!

    Scott, you have a meeting with an agent that looked at your partial? I really don't know what that means, but personally it seems really exciting. It's probably healthiest not to get your hopes up, but I've never heard of anything like this, so I'm pretty excited for you!

    Crimogenic, I guess we just have to keep trying and hoping that each new attempt is making our work better. I started working on another novel. But, it's sort of a personal project since I'm not sure anyone would ever want to read this next one. It's pretty dark. My first book is dark, but the one I'm working on it really dark.

  7. One thing that worries me is that I might start thinking about the reaction of an imaginary agent/publisher to something I write, and that imagined reaction having a censorious effect on my work. I would like everything I write to be "a personal project" and not let ideas about the marketplace influence my writing. But it's hard to ignore my perception of the business side of writing, and a form of market-driven self-censorship is already happening with my new work-in-progress. I don't know what to do about that. Hopefully, once I really get going on the new novel, I will be carried along by the story's own momentum and requirements. We'll see. I have to keep in mind Ezra Pound's maxim: "No art ever grew by looking into the eyes of the public."

  8. Writing IS a neverending project. :) I'm learning that full force as I edit/rewrite. And like you and Crim, I hate beginnings. Now, I don't hate them... they're just really really hard. But as long as ch 1 improves every time I write it, I'm happy.

    I don't know any additional ways to get an agent, but that's largely because I haven't yet started querying or seriously looking. Your post reminded me of the short story route though, and I have a couple short stories in the works, so I may work on those and shoot for publishing them.

  9. Personally, I'm a big fan of contests, and of creeping on the blogs of agents and editors.

    Some publishing folk run contests on their blogs occasionally. It's usually something little like the first paragraph contest held by Nathan Brandsford, the contest to query in 150 words or less by Colleen at The Swivet, and the fantastic Secret Agent contest over at Miss Snark's first victim.

    The prize is usually something insanely useful: a critique on a query or even a partial. Not only are you getting a professional opinion, but the odds are much better: entries are usually in the hundreds, as opposed to the gazillions you would find in a slush pile.

    I think it's a great way to get noticed, especially if you have a fresh concept and a strong voice.

    Good luck with your quest for an agent!

  10. Scott, That's one of my biggest concerns too. I try so hard to write for myself when I'm writing, but then when I try to get published, all those other thoughts start to invade. I feel like my first book was written for me. Temporarily, my second book was getting tainted, but then the reality of how hard it is to get published just reminds me that I have to at least nurture the happiness of making my own art. Even with that it's tough though. Sometimes the influence can be subconscious.

    Anette, yes, I was actually surprised when I learned that some of the agents I wanted to get actually said they got clients from literary magazines. Of course, not all literary magazines are created equal, for better or for worse, and I have yet to get into the New Yorker.

    Kat, GREAT point. I really should have mentioned contests. They can be a great way to get some attention for yourself. The only downside to this is the cost, but a lot of contests are free. Oh, and for you young ones out there, keep your eye for your contests that are open only to writers under 30. They often have reduced entry fees, and your competition pool would be smaller. I only heard of these about three weeks before I turned thirty, unfortunately. But, there are a lot of them out there!

  11. I have a request for a partial from being a finalist in a contest, so that could be #4 on your list. Sometimes catching the eye of an agent can happen through blogging, as well. Amazing world this blogosphere is!

    I have submitted to Glimmer Train many times and come close, but never made it in. I've given up lately, but perhaps I should try some more!

    I've noticed in the comments that others have mentioned contests as well. It's not a sure-fire way to land an agent, but it's something else that is out there.

    I just plan on querying and doing lots of research on agents. All I can say is good luck to all of us!

  12. i was thinking that a 4th way to get an agent is to sleep with him; and the fifth way is to bribe him, like a large amount of cash in a paper bag.


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