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A literary agent is a publishing professional who acts on behalf of authors to sell their books to publishers. Agents provide a variety of services, including suggesting revisions to improve manuscripts, identifying and submitting to publishing companies, and evaluating and negotiating publishing contracts.

It is on the last point that agents are extremely useful, because modern publishing contracts are long, complex documents filled with legal jargon and loopholes. In addition to having expert contract knowledge that authors generally don't have, an agent can play hard ball with publishers that an author may be afraid of offending. An agent can play "bad cop" in tough contract disputes without the author being put in the position of potentially damaging his or her working relationship with an editor. Furthermore, many major publishers won't even look at your work if you don't have an agent; these publishers rely on agents as a filter. In the case of companies that do accept unagented work, having an agent usually means your manuscript skips past the young, overworked slush readers and into the hands of a more senior editor.

In exchange for their services, agents will generally take 10%-20% of the sales they negotiate for authors. Reputable agents only work on commission (that is, they only get paid if they make a sale for an author). Some may also deduct expenses such as overseas postage. In agented contract situations, the publisher will generally send an advance or royalty payment to the agent, who then takes his or her commission and sends a new, smaller check to the author.

For general pointers on finding an agent, see Is There An Agent In The House?

How I Got My Agent (and Why I Wanted One)

Before I was Gary Braunbeck's wife, I was one of his coauthors, and before I was a coauthor, I was a fan of his writing. I've known him for just shy of 10 years now, and in that decade I've watched his career grow. Because he's a decade older than me, I've looked to his writing career as a model for how things might go, and when things have not gone as well as planned, I've taken a lot of notes in the hopes that I can avoid the same pitfalls for my own developing career.

So. Many of you probably know that Gary has sold the majority of his books without an agent's help. And while that proves pretty convincingly you don't need an agent to have a career as a novelist, it's become clear that he ultimately didn't get the kind of deals that he could have gotten if he'd had a strong, involved agent going to bat for him and seeking opportunities for him. This isn't a slam against any of the people who've published his work; your support is appreciated.

But I look at the deal my own agent made for me, a first-time novelist, and compare it with the deals Gary's gotten, and mine is considerably better. Gary's feelings were naturally mixed; on the one hand he was proud of me, but on the other he was tremendously frustrated. I realize a nontrivial part of that is that I'm writing fantasy and he's writing horror, but for Pete's sake, with all the critical praise and awards he's won and the audience he's built ... he's deserved better.

And the horror vs. fantasy thing is largely a function of marketing rather than a reflection of what's in our respective books. A lot of Gary's work has been labeled horror purely because he's been with horror publishers. His stuff could just as easily be deemed fantasy; Keepers could have had a centaur on the cover instead of a snarling dog and a screaming man.

Clearly, having an active, involved agent makes a big difference.

But let's back up. Before he was a novelist, Gary had published a lot of short stories, many for various Tekno Books anthologies. Tekno puts together anthologies for publishers like Ace; if you've read an anthology edited by Martin Greenberg or John Helfers, you've read a Tekno Books production regardless of the logo on the spine. These anthologies are invitation-only, and you will not be invited unless you're a pro writer known to the editors, or recommended to them by one of their existing writers.

Because of his work for them, the editors at Tekno knew Gary produced good fiction, met deadlines and was easy to work with. So, when Steve Perry told them he had started but couldn't finish Time Was, they asked Gary if he wanted to take over. And so Gary got his first published novel. Gary's other books also often came about because he knew editors and informally found out about their interests and gaps in their schedules etc. A lot of business gets done in the bars at SF conventions.

For that matter, both my collections happened because I knew editors who were familiar with and liked my work, and I happened to know to pitch to them when they had lulls in their schedules. HW Press has never been open to submissions, and CGP was closed to submissions when I made my deal for Installing Linux on a Dead Badger.

Are you starting to get the idea that networking with other writers and editors is pretty important? Good. Because it's hugely important.

When I was finishing my novel Spellbent, I knew from watching Gary's experiences that I wanted a good agent shopping it around for me, but I was prepared to sell the book on my own if I had to. So when the book was in what I felt was presentable condition, I started asking author acquaintances if their agents were currently taking new clients. I never once cracked a copy of Writer's Market or Literary Market Place.

And of course I asked Gary. He'd been corresponding with author/agent Janet Berliner (they met as a result of Gary being president of the Horror Writers Association) and she said that she had started her agency up again, but that the day-to-day operations were being run by her long-time assistant Robert Fleck. She said I was welcome to submit, but that there were no guarantees.

Here's the timeline for everything that happened after that; bear in mind that for all that's here I'm actually leaving quite a lot of secondary stuff out:

11/13/2007 - I make the initial email query to Bob Fleck.
11/13/2007 (1 hour later) - Agent Bob requests full manuscript and synopsis, via email. OMG!
11/15/2007 - I email synopsis and manuscript. Chew off nails.
12/2/2007 - I email a revised synopsis and manuscript because I'd changed the last chapters and made the synopsis suck less. Sit and vibrate nervously, annoying cat on my lap.
12/5/07 - Bob: "This is a very fun book; please look over the attached agency agreement draft."
12/5/07 (15 seconds later) - Cats scatter fearfully because I'm leaping around yelling "Woo hoo!"
12/5/07 (30 minutes later) - Me: "The agreement looks fine to me. Also, did I mention this is the first of a series?"
12/5/07 (30 minutes later) - Bob: "Write synopses for the other books! We'll whip all this into shape over the holidays, and send the package out afterward."
12/6/07 - Bob snail-mails agreement.
12/8/07 - I finally realize that Bob was the managing editor for the first magazine I ever sold a story to, years ago. KISMET OR COINCIDENCE?
12/14/07 - I finally realize Bob has probably sent the paperwork to our PO Box instead of the house. D'oh. Check PO Box that night, find agreement, wish I'd found it before Friday night.
12/17/07 - Mail back agreement (missed Saturday pickup time). Announce my new agentedness on LJ!
12/24/07 - Bob receives paperwork; he emails detailed requests for changes.
12/25/07 - Bob and I exchange a flurry of emails discussing/clarifying changes.
12/26/07 - I email Bob the synopsis for 2nd book in series.
12/27/07 - I email Bob the synopsis for 3rd book in series.
1/1/08 - I email Bob the revised manuscript.
1/16/08 - Bob gives me list of the first round of publishers he's sending the book to.
2/11/08 - Bob sends me the front matter for the novel package submission; I tweak some things in my bio and send it back.
2/17/08 - I discover a CONTINUITY ERROR, O NOES! After freaking out, I discover fixing it involves editing a whole two sentences. I email the repaired mss. back to Bob.
3/28/08 - I meet Bob at World Horror; he tells me he's gotten some preliminary interest from a couple of publishers, including Del Rey.
4/2/08 - Bob tells me that Del Rey likes the book, but is concerned that portions of the book are too dark for their audience; he forwards me the editor's comments. He says he's arranging for me to talk directly with the editor.
4/11/08 - After several days of quietly flipping the heck out, I talk to editor Liz Scheier. She expresses her concerns, I convince her that I will fix them.
4/11/08 (1 minute later) - I set about making requested changes.
4/14/08 - I email revised mss. to Bob.
4/28/08 - Bob emails me back to tell me Del Rey has made an offer. Cats hide under bed as I run through the house yelling OMG!
5/2/08 - Liz emails me to tell me she's pleased we'll be working together.
5/2/08 to 6/20/08 - Bob and various people at Del Rey hammer out the grisly details of the contract. When completed, it is goat-chokingly large. I read it, comprehend it, sign it.
5/9/08 - Del Rey announces the 3-book deal on Publisher's Marketplace.
6/20/08 - Del Rey cuts me an advance check.

So, that's about 6 months from query to book deal. Which is blindingly fast in the publishing world, and as you can see, there was a pretty constant flurry of activity.

From my perspective, the take-home messages here are:

  1. Networking is crucial in making book deals, but all the schmoozing in the world is meaningless if you can't back it up with a solid publications history and a demonstrated ability to produce good work on deadline.
  2. When it came time to get an agent, my networking and publications history would have been meaningless if I didn't have a finished novel in hand and a solid plan for More Where That Came From.
  3. Luck probably plays a distressingly large role in all this.
  4. I am a single data point; my experiences may or may not be reflective of what any of you might experience.

Hatshepsut says: I could write about getting an agent, except "My boss introduced me to his agent who liked my book proposal" is boring stuff. Yours is better.

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