Thursday, July 30, 2009

Can I be represented by two literary agents?

Question: How unusual is it to have two agents? I have one novel signed with a British agent now, and they are looking at my second book. IF they decide it's not for them, I'll look elsewhere, of course. Just wondered how uncommon that would be?

The standard response would be to tell you that, in the majority of cases, literary agents will only work with an author on an exclusive basis. From an agent’s perspective, there are many (justifiable) reasons for this, including the fact that there are option and non-compete clauses built into publishing agreements, and that if another agent were to represent other works by the same author, the legalities could become infinitely complex. There are subsidiary rights issues, too. The shaping of the author’s career also becomes a problem, since agents often like to help “build” an author in a certain direction—and if another agent were involved, this could become impossible. There is also the simple financial fact that it can take years of hard work to build an author’s career, and one agent would not want to devote so much effort only to see another agent reap the benefits. And finally, the exclusive agent-author relationship is standard industry etiquette, and thus a publisher, knowing that an author is represented by one agent, would be quite surprised to receive a work by that same author submitted simultaneously by a different agent—and would probably not even know how to respond.

That said, as with everything in book publishing, this can become more complex, and the issue is not always so black and white. For me to give you a thorough response, I would have to take into account many factors. The answer will ultimately vary in each case, depending on the agent, the author, the publisher, and the work(s) in question. For example, it would be very unusual (if not impossible) for a novelist to have two different literary agents representing two different novels of his simultaneously. However, what if a novelist decides he wants to write non-fiction for his next book? And his agent only represents fiction? Will that agent be OK with his looking for a separate agent to handle his non-fiction?

There is certainly more leeway in the scenario of an author switching from fiction to non-fiction, and some agents will be fine with that, and will even recommend agents and/or give the author their blessing. Other agents, though, will not. If an agent is part of a bigger agency, he will, if possible, want to keep the author in-house at the agency, and have another agent in his company represent the non-fiction (which is usually fine). However, if his colleague doesn’t want to represent the non-fiction (as is often the case), then the agent may not want his author searching elsewhere for an agent to represent the non-fiction. Agents can be territorial, and they may become worried that if their novelist finds another agent to represent his non-fiction, then their client may end up, in the long run, switching to that other agency for his fiction, too. They also will not want their novelist devoting years to writing non-fiction, which are years which could have been spent continuing to write fiction (and vice versa with non-fiction versus fiction).

As an author, if you find yourself in a position where you are switching genres and must decide whether you want to have this conversation with your agent and look for a second (simultaneous) agent, you should take into account many factors. For example, if you are a novelist, and your agent has represented you for many years, and has landed you several deals for hundreds of thousands of dollars, is it really worth it to jeopardize the relationship in order to go out and find another agency to represent a one-time non-fiction concept? Conversely, if you are a novelist and have been with your agent for years and he has not landed you any deals, and you now want to make a true, lifelong career switch to non-fiction, then it may make more sense for you to find a non-fiction agent, whatever the price.

Just know that, whatever you decide, with most agents, the notion of your being represented simultaneously by another agency will usually strain the relationship. Whether it’s worth it is a decision only you can make.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Should I finish the manuscript of my novel before submitting to agents?

Question: I am currently working on a novel that I believe is very unique in the murder/mystery genre. My work is about 10,000 words currently, headed for about 110,000-120,000. Would an agent take me on at this stage of the game or do I need a completed work?

A good question. If you’ve written a novel, never query an agent unless your manuscript is finished and in its absolute final draft. Ideally, this final draft has not only been revised dozens of times over several months, but has also taken into account feedback from trusted, impartial readers. Your querying an agent should not be viewed as an opportunity to enter into a back and forth. Is not a dialogue: it is a one way conversation. You are requesting representation and he is responding Yes or No.

In rare cases an agent may be intrigued enough by your work to request a revision. But in the vast majority of cases, this will not happen. If an agent does not like your work, he will not ask you to revise, or be willing to read another draft. Thus your approach is your one and only shot, and it must represent the final, best work you have to offer.

That said, there are always exceptions. There have been instances in my career when I’ve sold a partial fiction manuscript for a very significant advance. In such cases, though, these partials will often comprise at least 200 or 300 pages, include a detailed synopsis for the remainder of the book, and will have been written by authors who have already published several novels with major houses. Even then, I do not advise your stopping at page 200 or 300 for a submission’s sake. If you can write 300 pages, you can write 400, and it’s always best to have the finished manuscript in hand beforehand.

When it comes to non-fiction, though, the requirements are different: you always approach with an unfinished work. The vast majority of non-fiction is sold based upon a professional non-fiction book proposal, which comprises but one or two sample chapters and rarely exceeds 40 or 50 pages. (I discuss this topic at length in my book How to Land (and Keep) a Literary Agent.) If you are unable to find representation, or if your agent is unable to land you a deal, then you would have wasted your time writing the entire manuscript in advance. But just because you are dealing with 40 or 50 pages, don’t think a first draft will suffice: as with fiction, these pages must be in the best possible shape.

This all points to a broader issue. In general, there is a stark difference in the publishing industry between fiction and non-fiction: many editors, for example, are only allowed by their publisher to acquire either fiction or non-fiction, and many publishers and imprints will publish either fiction or non-fiction. Editors of non-fiction tend to lunch with agents of non-fiction, and the same holds true with fiction. There are circles within circles in the publishing industry. You, as the author, must realize there is a stark divide, and never assume that the same rules that apply to fiction also apply to non-fiction. The more you pay attention to the detailed, specific rules which apply to each genre, the greater the likelihood of your landing a deal.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Do agents really read the first five pages? Or just the first five sentences?

I have purchased your book, The First Five Pages, and found it to be very valuable. I wonder, however, how likely it is that an over-worked literary agent (or editor) would have the time to read those first five pages. I would like to know what you think of making the first five sentences (or paragraphs, if need be) as vital and as impossible to ignore as those five pages?

This is a good question and shows that you are thinking in the right way, since you already realize that an author does not have the luxury of time or space in catching an agent's or editor's attention. Ten years ago, I wrote in the introduction of my book, The First Five Pages, that the title should have really been The First Five Sentences, since most agents will make a determination based upon these. This still holds true. An experienced literary agent can, in most cases, determine an author's writing ability within just a few sentences. Agents have to: if they don't have this ability, there is simply no way they will be able to survive, to sift through the thousands of manuscripts that cross their desk every year.

So, yes, it is vital that your first five sentences be as well written as your first five pages. But don't let this become an excuse to labor over the first five sentences (and the first five pages) and then let the rest of your manuscript fall apart. My point all throughout The First Five Pages was never for an author to merely labor over the first five pages, but rather that these first five pages serve as a microcosm for the rest of the book: if, for example, you overuse adjectives and adverbs in the opening pages, then you likely overuse them throughout the rest of your manuscript. The point was to take a step back, examine and revise your first five pages intensively, then take what you've learned and apply this throughout the rest of your work. The most important lesson you will walk away with is the one of craftsmanship: if you spend an entire month on your opening page, an entire week on your opening paragraph, this will change your work ethic and raise your standards dramatically. You can then apply these standards throughout the rest of your manuscript.

That is the value of your first five pages.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

What do you look for in a logline?

Question: Authors read about the need for a condensed hook, a one or two sentence summary of a novel's premise that will inspire an interested party to read more. What do you look for in a hook? What should an author incorporate in a hook?

This is a great question, and I devote many pages to discussing this in my free e-book, How to Write a Great Query Letter. The short answer:

It is important for an author to prepare a logline (sometimes referred to as a “tagline” or as “a one (or two) sentence summary”), because some agents will ask for it, because it will help you condense your query letter, and perhaps most importantly, because the act of condensing your 300 or 400 page work to a mere one or two sentences is a pivotal exercise for every author. The process will force you to examine your work in a whole new light and to ask yourself hard questions about what it is really about. It will also help you understand your work from the perspective of those who will have to market it, whether it is an agent, editor, sales rep or bookseller. And it will force you, creatively, to face the very essence of what your work is about.

The question authors most fear is, “What is your work about?” When confronted with such a question, we usually either find ourselves at a loss for words, or find ourselves spending ten minutes poorly explaining our work. It is the rare author who can summarize his own work instantly, without blinking, in a pithy manner, with eloquence and brevity. This should be your goal. If you can get to the point where you can achieve this verbally, in a social situation, then you will have reached the point where you can achieve this on the page. Writing, after all, is merely thought applied to paper.

From an agent’s perspective, specificity is all. This shouldn’t be too surprising, because all good writing is specific. As I discuss at length in my book, location, time period and comparison are three vital tools that will help you get there. You can write “My novel is set in America,” or be more specific and write, “My novel is set in New York,” or go further, “My novel is set in East Harlem.” The more specific you get, the stronger the imagery. You could write, “My novel takes place over a short period of time,” or “My novel takes place over a three day period in 1842.” 1776. 1812. 1945. McMurdo Station, Antarctica. Mobile, Alabama. Reykjavik, Iceland. Dates, locations and time frames can tell us so much, and with little space. A relevant comparison to a successful book in your genre will help complete the picture, and do so in few words.

As you work on your logline, it may even spur you to reconsider revising your work itself. In this way, we begin to see how the process of creating a logline can be far more than just a marketing endeavor.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

"How do I find out what agent represents a novel in my genre?"

This is an excellent question, and one I get asked often. There are many ways to go about this, and to do this research thoroughly, the right way, will take much time and effort. That said, here are three quick ways to help start your search:

1) Visit and click “Deals.” Under “Browse deals” set the drop-down tab for Year to 2009 (also do this search for 2008 and 2007). Set the “categories” drop-down tab to the genre of your work (for example, “Fiction/Thriller”) and click Browse. I just tried it in the “Thriller” genre, and it returned 53 deals for 2009 and 116 more for 2008, totalling 169 reported deals for just the last year and a half. Scan through each and you will find the name of the agent who made the deal.

2) Visit and click “Top Dealmakers.” Set the Dealmaker drop-down tab to “Agents” and set the Deals category to the genre of your work (for example, Fiction/Thriller). I just did it and it returned information on the top 100 agents who recently made deals in the genre—and even sorted them in order of the number of deals.

3) Visit and in the search tab type the key word “Acknowledgments,” and then (separately) type in the name of relevant authors and books in your genre. It may bring up the acknowledgments pages of relevant books, and these may mention the names of the agents.

As I said, all of this is just the tip of the iceberg. There are many more ways to go about this (I discuss this topic at length in my book, How to Land and Keep a Literary Agent). Also keep in mind that, aside from the genre, there are many additional factors you must consider in order to properly evaluate whether an agent is the right one for your work.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Welcome to Ask a Literary Agent! Please feel free to ask your questions about how to get published (or about the craft of writing) by posting them in the "comments" section of the blog. I will not be able to answer every question, but will pick random questions to respond to once every few days or so. Please be advised that I am not accepting new clients, and am providing this service simply as a way to give back to the writing community. I hope that you will prosper from the advice found here, and enjoy!