Some writers try to sell their books directly to publishers, but I don’t recommend it. The publishing world is a shark tank, and you want your own shark. A good agent will not only sell your book* to a publisher for a good price, he or she will also be your advisor, perhaps your first-line editor, and your friend. It’s up to you, of course, but I strongly recommend having an agent to sell your project. A good one, with whom you have a good relationship, is well worth the commission he or she will charge you. Mine has even negotiated good magazine and web work for me. **
The trick of getting an agent is: you need the right agent. You need an agent that not only appreciates your kind of book (and the market for it), but has lunch regularly with the editors who buy such books. This is why a lot of writers have more than one agent — one for their non-fiction, one for their fiction, one for their poetry, etc.
The first thing to do is go to a bookstore or library and pick out several books that are similar to yours. By similar, I mean same genre, same market, same sensibility, etc. Books that might be shelved next to yours.
Assemble a list of about ten, and first look in the acknowledgements; authors often thank their agents. If not, write down the publishers. Then call the publishers, ask for the editorial department, and when someone answers ask for the assistant of the agent who represented the book published by that house that you identified as being similar to yours. This will leave you with a list of about ten agents that are possibilities.
Then call those agents’ offices and make sure you have the name spelled right and the address correct. In the same phone call, ask for the agent’s assistant and ask that person how the agent likes to receive things. As an attached Word file? In the body of an email? As an attached PDF? In a paper envelope? Send the proposal to each according to her preferences, along with a letter saying you are looking for representation for this project, that you have sent it to several agents, and that you’d appreciate hearing from her quickly. Any agent that writes or calls and says he/she doesn’t look at simultaneous submissions — that is, won’t look at someone’s work while other agents are looking at the same work — strike from your list. You are the client. They are auditioning for your business, not the other way around.
When you have a few agents that want to represent you, ask them first what they charge. Most agents charge fifteen percent commission. There is room to dicker, especially if you have several who want to represent you. (Keep in mind that you also need to put aside about a quarter of the advance to pay the taxes, so between that and the agent’s commission, you really only get about half the advance. But remember: you’re likely only to get a quarter of the “advance” on signing — then you’ll get a quarter on delivery of the manuscript after however many months you’ve said it will take you to finish the manuscript, a quarter on hardback publication about a year after that, and a quarter on paperback publication about a year after that. So that $100,000 book contract that you thought would let you retire young really puts only about $50,000 in your pocket — over three years. That’s less than $17,000 a year. Whatever dollar figure you hear that a publisher is willing to pay, divide it by four, imagine that dribbled out over three years, and decide, using this formula, if you can accept the offer. If you can’t do a good job on that much money, refuse the contract.
Then ask the agents for the names and phone numbers of some of their clients, and then call all those writers. Figure out what’s important to you in an agent and ask the clients of each about the characteristics that are important to you. Does she return phone calls? Does she work quickly? Does she get big money? Does she follow through on foreign/film rights, etc. Will she edit your proposal? Does she offer career advice?
Another thing, and this is important: Disqualify any agent that requires you to sign a contract with him, especially if it’s a contract for a period of time. Stand firm on this. Tell him you’re willing to pay his commission if he sells the book for an advance you can accept. But if he can’t, you need to feel free to take it back from him and go elsewhere. This is important: do not sign agent contracts.
My agent* worked a true stroke of genius when David Remnick told me in September 2006 that he wasn’t going to renew my staff-writer contract the following June. I’d been worried anyway about how I was going to produce 30,000 words about the Iraq War II military (my beat) while doing all the research and interviews for the book whose proposal my agent had just sold and whose manuscript was due in eighteen months. I was on the verge of asking Remnick for a book leave — a common enough thing at The New Yorker — when he called to lower the boom. My last day as a staff writer was nine months away. With my body and my head deep in New Orleans, I was going to have to fly in and out to write the Army stories I was contractually obliged to write. So not only was I losing the best job in journalism, the end game was going to break my concentration repeatedly on what I hoped would be my most literary book yet.
My agent, who had sold my proposal for Nine Lives (then called The Neutral Ground) to an imprint of Random House, jumped into action and negotiated for me a dream deal. I could work off the remainder of my 2006-2007 New Yorker contract by writing a daily blog post from post-Katrina New Orleans for the magazine’s new website. The web editor said a few lines and a couple of links was all I needed to send, but I said, no, I’d like to write you complete story every weekday. So every weekday for five months, while doing the interviews and research for Nine Lives, I had to go out and find something interesting and perhaps amusing about which to write. (Not a problem in New Orleans.) The New Yorker called the product “New Orleans Journal,” and you can see them all here. (Scroll down to “by far the most fun….”) Reporting and writing New Orleans Journal was the best imaginable crash course in the city about which I was writing a book. That was a dozen years ago and I’ve still never done work that was as satisfying and as much fun as that. (New Orleanians loved “New Orleans Journal” and would stop me on the street to shake my hand. That never happened to me before or since.) And my agent got me that gig without even asking me ahead of time if she should. She knew me well enough to know how perfect a gig that would be for me. That’s a great agent.
*If your book is a novel, you must write the whole thing before you can try to sell it or even find an agent for it. If your book is non-fiction, do not send around a completed manuscript, even to agents. Agents and publishers want to see proposals for non-fiction books. You can find the ones that sold my four books, along with a little essay about non-fiction book proposals and finding an agent, here.
**Name withheld at her request. I’ve just added to my page of successful book proposals one for a book I really wanted to write, but for which even she couldn’t find a publisher. Please take a look and, if you can figure out why it flopped, tell me. Stop me before I try again to sell it.