US Literary Agents: The Why, How and Where
While self-publishing is a perfectly valid way for writers to have their work read, there are a number of upfront costs and time-commitments that make can it prohibitive for many writers. Often, the cost of printing small runs of books drives up the cost per unit. Most authors struggle to break even with slimmer profit margins, not to mention warehousing a large number of unsold books and marketing them to hard-to-reach audiences.
And with eBook publishing, the market is just too saturated, making it difficult for writers to get noticed. By the time all is said and done, writers may wonder where all their free time went that could’ve been spent on well… writing.
To make larger profits and take advantage of wider opportunities, traditional publishers are the way to go. Not only do they have established distribution networks and brand recognition, but they don’t require any upfront cost from an author.
There is a problem, however. Most traditional publishers, especially the larger entities, don’t communicate directly with writers. Why? The reason is that, nowadays, there are many more writers and fewer opportunities than there used to be.
Anyone with an email address and delusional sense of their own abilities can submit their work, and it becomes harder to determine which authors are worth publishing. Traditional publishing houses use literary agents as a way to separate the wheat from the chaff.
Why Do I Need a US Literary Agent?
US literary agents allow American writers to get their foot in the door with traditional publisher, they also serve a number of functions:
- Offer realistic comparisons of your skills in comparison to similar published authors.
- Help craft your book proposal or manuscript to a professional level
- Find and distribute your work to potential publishers that fit your book’s genre/type
- Negotiate the terms and agreements of contracts between you and the publisher, as well as subsidiary rights and usage
- Suggest in-person marketing activity to increase your sales and public persona (i.e. book signings, interviews, public speaking engagements)
- Help create future profit-generating works
- Forward your royalty payments and book advance
US literary agents have worked in the publishing industry for a number of years. Agents combine the practical experience of the evolving publishing process with connections that fostered from years of networking. In exchange for a percentage of your earnings, agents work on your behalf to make your life easier as writer so you can concentrate on creating your best work.
Before Hiring US Literary Agents
After deciding that you can enlist the services of a literary agent, there are a number of things you must research before approaching US Literary Agents:
Analyze all the books that will compete directly with your work. This includes best-sellers as well as lower-tier works. Pay attention to how your book’s unique qualities set it apart from the competition while reaching the same—if not greater—audience.
Fiction writers should have a completed manuscript, although some US literary agents may only require a few sample chapters. This includes having a proofread/copyedited manuscript that can be submitted digitally or in print.
For nonfiction authors, make sure your finished work is in a presentable state. If you have an idea for a non-fiction book, be prepared to have an adequate pitch prepared, along with related works that could tie into the finished product (i.e. published articles that may function as chapters of your work, college thesis, etc.).
Be familiar with the catalogs of publishers that would be likely to print your work. Would your book be a good fit? Having a realistic knowledge of the available avenues for your work shows a literary agent that you’re not only aware of the market, but that you’ve done your homework.
Once you’ve done all the adequate prep work, it’s time to make a list of all the viable agents that may consider working with you. But where can you find US literary agents?
Where to Find US Literary Agents
Unless you’ve had a literary agent contact you, the task to find an agent is in the author’s hands. There’s a number of ways to find US literary agents that can help you publish your book:
Conventions and Events:
By nature of their work, literary agents must be social and rub elbows with everyone in their industry. Where does this happen? Conventions and literary events. While there are some conventions that are geared strictly to the publishing industry, don’t forget that attending related events offer opportunities to have your work published, as well.
For instance, a Comicon at a nearby university can give opportunities for science-fiction and fantasy writers a place to meet agents. Similarly, nonfiction writers can meet interested agents at niche events—a book on drone modification could find an agent at an RC-enthusiast event.
The advantage of these events is that you meet someone face-to-face, as well as have an opportunity to pitch your work and get feedback. Plus, it never hurts to exchange business cards. The downside is that these events cost money and time.
If you’ve gathered the list of competing titles in your genre (see “Before Hiring a US Literary Agent” above), you can go one step further and find out which literary agent is responsible for helping the work become published. Often, this is found in the “credits and acknowledgements” section of a book. If you cannot find the recommendation there, try contacting the PR/publicity department of the publishing company.
Finally, if this method doesn’t work, try contacting the author directly. The author may give their agent’s direct details and perhaps a recommendation before contacting them. Then again, the author’s email might be handled by an agent directly.
There are a number of lists compiled that offer a number of agent’s contact information, as well as their submission guidelines:
Just about any literary agent is on social media. It’s the way the publicize works and judge a potential author’s viability as a client (i.e. # of likes). Because LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, and other social media sites have a search function, you can find US literary agents that are locally-based or have their specialized-genre preferences listed on their profile.
You can contact the agent through the social media platform that you found them, or find related webpages that list their guidelines, client roster, and so forth.
Once you have a list of at least five agents, you must compose a query letter for each.
What is a Query Letter for US Literary Agents?
Literary agents expect a query letter from their potential clients. Essentially, a query letter serves as an introduction to you and your potentially-published work. The form is quite simple: an introduction/referral, a “pitch” (a persuasive description of your work and why it deserves to be published), your qualifications, and a closing.
Be aware that agents have their own submission guidelines, so be sure to do your research beforehand to find the right fit. Some US literary agents only accepted postage-based query letters, while others only accept email query letters or submission forms through their webpages.
Also, don’t jump the gun and attach your work unless it is specified in the submission guidelines of the work. Agents typically avoid viruses on their computers this way, or they may not receive them at all from spam filters.
After the Query Letter
Once your queries are sent out, three possible outcomes arise:
If the agent is interested in your query, you’ll be contacted by the agent. Typically, they’ll ask to see your finished manuscript or book proposal (for non-fiction writers) upon request; as stated before, your work should be in completed state before contacted agents for this very reason.
If you don’t receive a response from an agent, be sure to follow up after a week or so. US literary agents are busy individuals, so things do get lost or forgotten in the mix. Your follow-up should be another form of contact, such as by phone or social media, as a contact email may have changed, their inbox may be full, or their spam filter sorted out your query.
If your query is rejected, be sure to thank the agent for their time. If they offer any feedback on your work, this can be interpreted as a way to shape up your work for future publications. If they don’t believe your work is a good fit for their publishing talents, ask for a recommendation for other agents.
Remember to not take rejection personally or be disheartened by a US literary agent. After all, literary agents have their own rules of conduct when dealing with authors, and some may just be overwhelmed by the clients that they currently work with. Continue to submit queries or improve your work until you find an appropriate agent.
[As a side note, US literary agents may filter out foreign submissions from outside the US. Entering into a legal contract—especially one with obligations that only pertain to the United States—may ward off agents who feel that their time-investment isn’t worth the risk should a project fail or that various international laws/rights may be transgressed by their representation.
If this is the case, you may have to pursue domestic literary agents in your country before considering American markets. Saying that, FWU’s own PJ Aitken is based in the UK and is contracted to a US agent]