Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Getting an Agent, II: Books

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Okay. This may seem irremediably remedial to some of you, but if you happen to be starting out down this path, these are some resources you need to know about. I apologize that almost everything I have to say is focused on the North American market—I invite my UK colleagues (and “imprintmates,” as Faye Booth calls us) to contribute.

To find an agent who is a good fit, you will have to do a great deal of research. This is harder than it ought to be.

Books of Listings

There are a few standard guides you need to consult. They are not reliable, consistent, regularly updated, or properly vetted, but there you have it. Be aware that some of the best agencies have no more than a paragraph in these books. Some of those best agencies frankly don’t want to hear from anyone who hasn’t been properly introduced, and that most likely includes you, you smelly little pest.

Guide to Literary Agents (Writer's Digest): This is the standard annual reference, with much the same material showing up in several incarnations (Writer's Market, etc.) It tries to cover everything, but sham agents constantly show up in its pages. Still, it's a basic resource.

Jeff Herman's Guide To Book Publishers, Editors & Literary Agents: Less than annual, but updated with some frequency. Herman goes into more detail than other guides-- when possible--but this makes the whole book quite uneven. If the agent you're interested in happens to be one of those who really went into detail when Herman interviewed them, you've hit the jackpot. But some of the agents are ditzy, and it shows. I don't blame Jeff.

Agents Directory by Rachel Vater: This one is unique in that it tries to list only those agents who are currently seeking clients, as opposed to the exhaustive, but-not-answering-the-doorbell-yet-still-listed approaches of the others. Rachel Vater is an agent herself (formerly with Donald Maass, now at Lowenstein-Yost). [She is also the agent of record for Elaine Isaak, who is no relation to yours truly. Rachel blogs, too, and her stuff can be great fun.]

Writer's Handbook and Writers' & Artists Yearbook: These are roughly the UK equivalent of the Writer's Digest Guide (or Writers' Market), though they tend to have higher-profile editors than their US equivalent. Short, informative entries, but little of the rambling detail one might like. I'm sure there are other publications in the UK, but I've never seen them--anybody in the Isles care to comment?

Literary Marketplace: Usually--even on its own cover--abbreviated to LMP, the LMP is a sort of annual Yellow Pages of the publishing industry. It's designed for people in the business, not for writers, and it's $300 price tag reflects that (though I understand you can pick up used copies of last year's edition for under $20). Sometimes when you have found the name of an agent but can't find them on the web, the LMP is where you must go (or, in my case, the LMP in the library is where I must go). There is bound to be a UK equivalent, but I am ignorant on the topic.

Books By Agents

Every so often, an agent will write a book where at least some of the chapters focus on how to go about winning the attention of themselves and their brethren. (Or, usually, given the gender makeup of the vocation, their sistren.) Back in 1999, Lori Perkins' wrote a very successful book called the Insiders Guide to Getting an Agent, and was promptly buried under a tidal wave of queries. Noah Lukeman's The First Five Pages acheived the same result, with Mr. Lukeman closing his doors to queries for a while. More recently Ann Rittenberg (agent for the estimable Dennis Lehane) co-wrote Your First Novel (with one of her clients), and I suspect poor Ann is now somewhere beneath six feet of SASEs.

These sorts of books can be instructive and entertaining, but there are now enough agents blogging on the web that it isn't really necessary to buy books to get an insider track on how agents think. There is one exception to this rule, and that is Donald Maass' The Career Novelist. This book (now ten years old), which I cordially dislike, talks about your career as a writer as though it were a business proposition. It talks about name-branding and positioning. It talks about genre, bestsellerdom, and career rehabilitation after disappointing sales. It talks about all of the things that are fundamentally opposed to the spirit of writing fiction, but are so much a part of the process of publishing fiction. It's a philistine piece of work. It's a total downer. I recommend it.

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Eliza Graham said...

I think the best source of agent information on the web is either or Especially if you want to bypass having to mail out letters.

I got lots of reads in the States via e-queries. Not all agents like them but lots of them let me submit the first three chapters by email, too.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Eliza--

You're absolutely correct, and one step ahead of me (see next post).

An e-mail from Amazon UK tells me that Playing With the Moon has shipped as of yesterday, so I guess the Royal Navy nabbed the pirates after all.

Eliza Graham said...

Whoops--I see I pre-empted you there a bit, David! Sorry about that.

Agree with what you say about Gerard's site--his approach isn't for everyone. Though I love his refusal to be cowed by people perhaps some of us writers tend to be over-awed by (ouch, awkward sentence).

David Isaak said...

Pre-empt me any time you like, Ms. G.

You're right, Gerard's a character--and quite fearless. Not sure it has served him well, but it's been fun to watch from the sidelines!