Agents: Needle, meet haystack. Haystack, needle. Part One

I belong to a small chapter of statewide writing club that includes published and unpublished writers. We connect via a monthly meeting and an online newsgroup, sharing tips, tricks, and sucesses.

There was a flurry of newsgroup posts recently about agents from writers who were (or thought they were) ready to seek representation. I tried to respond as well as I could, sharing my experiences–not from being agented, which I’m not, nor being traditionally published, which I also am not–but from five or six hard years of learning the writing business from research, conversations with published authors, and attending talks, seminars, and conferences.

Like a lot of knowledge that coalesces over time, you tend to forget that this isn’t general knowledge that’s imparted to every dewy-eyed would-be novelist that cracks open a copy of Publisher’s Marketplace. I found myself writing to some of my fellow club members with my eyebrows near my hairline, as I found so much of what I was writing to be, well, common knowledge. Or so I thought.

So, here’s a little capsule of what I learned. I freely admit this is all available elsewhere…it’s how I learned, after all. But if my shortcuts help the next newbie that can’t quite find the right resources, then I’ve done some good.

The Basics – Ground Zero
No matter how gifted you are as a writer, you need to educate yourself about the industry and the marketplace. This has never been more true than right now, with digital publishing having turned traditional publishing on its head in just a few short years.

This is not a waste of time. You are not stealing anything from your writing time; think of it as an enhancement. You may well be the next Michael Chabon and have your manuscript sent to a New York agent without your knowledge, but the overwhelming chances are that, to succeed as a writer, you will have to sell yourself a little or a lot and you don’t want to go cheap.

More to the point, you have to do this at some point. Don’t waste valuable time with amateurish moves and wasted gestures. Do your homework and get it right before you start.


Baby Steps
(These are tips that you will pick up if you do your homework, above, but are worth reiterating here.)

If you wish to be traditionally published by a Big Six publisher (who put out the kinds of books you see in airports, libraries, and those thingies that sell books…right, book stores), you must have an agent. No one publishes directly to the large publishers any more and hasn’t for a long time. This is called “over the transom” submission because it humorously refers to authors that would chuck their manuscript through the transom of the publishers’ offices (assumedly, it wouldn’t fit in the mail slot). Since the word transom itself is archaic, you can guess just how outmoded this method is.

Agents now serve as publishers’ first readers, sifting the wheat from the chaff, and trying to sell the wheat. Sometime they hit, much more often they miss. But either way, there is a 99.9% chance you won’t get a response if you send your manuscript directly to a publisher.

Some authors preach going direct to the publisher anyway. It couldn’t hurt, I suppose, and you probably won’t be blackballed by the industry, but your chances of being found are slim. If you don’t believe me, check out this picture of unsolicited slush (manuscripts) that were sent to a publisher. The pile is what the intern is sitting on.

Small Publishers
If you are looking at a small publishing house, much of the above does not apply simply because many small publishers don’t require an agent. But you might. Paying an agent 15% of your royalties might be worth it to have someone representing you and looking out for your best interests. There are plenty of horror stories of small publishing houses holding authors to unfair contractual agreements, subjecting them to litigation, and generally making the Big Six look like Boy Scouts.

This does not describe the majority of small publishers, but unless you are a lawyer during the day, an agent may still be a smart move. Remember, signing with a publisher–of any kind–means you are signing over your rights to some part of your work (often future work, as well, and sometimes even your name as a brand). Be smart.

Your Work

  1. Short poetry and short stories do not need representation. And you will not get it. Short, single items do not make publishers money (they can’t charge enough for a public that wants value), so agents will not represent it.Your best bet for short works are journals and magazines. With enough success in that industry, you may be able to publish a collection, but even then–without a longer work to your credit–you are fighting an uphill battle.If you wonder why, ask yourself when the last time you bought a short story collection was.
  2. If you have a novel or other long work, it must be finished. “Finished” does not mean you reached 75,000 words, saved the Word doc, and printed it. It means rewritten, edited, critiqued, re-re-written, and polished. You almost certainly have one shot to impress an agent. If you haven’t crafted the best product possible–let alone finished it–you will almost certainly not get past a form rejection letter.

This is a lot of information to absorb. Check out the second of two installments in this post (Agents: Needle, meet haystack. Haystack, needle. Part Two.) to find out what else I think I know about literary agents. Share your stories and experiences!


Writer of crime fiction, psychological drama, and dark humor.

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Posted in Tips for eAuthors

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