There is one question on the lips of most aspiring writers. And in almost every case it’s the wrong question.
They all want to know: How do I get an agent?
I’ll tell you why this is the wrong question. It’s not because self-publishing is the future or because you don’t need an agent in 2014 or blah blah. There’s plenty of room for those discussions elsewhere. It’s just the wrong question because asking it means you think the process matters.
It’s like saying: How do I enter the password? That’s helpful sure, but um, you have to have the actual password first. Chances are, you don’t. None of us do at first.
To make that clear: the password here is to have a really great book. A book with a lot of potential to sell or win awards or accomplish things that people in publishing find important. Actually not just potential, but likelihood, real likelihood of fulfilling it. That might not be easy, but it is really simple.
Jack London put it well about a 100 years ago, “If you are going to write for success and money, you must deliver to the market marketable goods.”
That’s the answer for how you get a book agent. Because guess what very few book agents have ever said (and I know my fair share of them): Man, I just have way too many good clients. In fact, they’re always complaining: How can I get more great clients?
As my friend Omid Ashtari, formerly a TV and literary agent at CAA and now an exec at Twitter put it, it’s the shark’s job to sniff stuff with potential out. That’s what they do.
But look, I can tell you how to find an agent. It’s really simple: Pick 10 books that you like a lot–that either represent the style of writing you aspire to, that match the market you’re working for, or have achieved the success you want. Now look at the Acknowledgments sections of those books (or just use Search Inside on Amazon or Google Books) for where they thank their agent. Which names pop up more than once? Which names do you have a connection with? This connection could be anything–you’ve emailed with one of their clients before, you went to the same college, your uncle does their taxes. Rank your favorites and email them each a week apart–per the instructions on their website–until you get a response.
That’s seriously it.
Because what else would there be?
In 1932, a struggling writer named John Fante wrote to HL Mencken, editor of The American Mercury for advice. Fante lamented that he was having trouble selling a book. Mencken’s advice to Fante is a lesson in the art of the pitch:
I am sorry to hear that you did not land your other manuscript with Mr. Sedgwick. You probably ruined your chances by appending your hard luck story. Always remember that strange editors are not interested in your personality, but only in your work. If you tell them that you are down with leprosy, or about to be hanged, it only harrows their feelings without helping them in the slightest to do their jobs. Thus they resent it. When you send manuscripts to editors you don’t know, say nothing whatever. Simply put your name and address in the upper left hand corner of the first page, insert your stamped and addressed envelope, and let it go at that.
He listened…and within a few years, would sell one of the greatest novels of the century, Ask the Dust, to Stackpole and Sons. It’s still in print 70 years later.
#13 in the 48 Laws of Power is “When asking for help, appeal to people’s self-interest, never to their mercy or gratitude.” You have to understand, if you have a good book, offering it to an agent appeals directly to their self-interest. Their job is to take on projects they can sell for a commission. Does anyone ever say: How will I ever find a real estate agent? Of course not.
But too many writers think they’re too good to make or own a house worth selling. They think the secret sauce is in the format of the proposal or the pitch or the magical introduction to an agent. They don’t have that thing they have to say.
As Anne Lamott put it, they “kinda want to write, but they really want to get published.” Unfortunately, that’s just the wrong set of priorities. It’s the wrong strategy too.
So if you want to know how to get a book agent, there is your answer. Write something amazing and then narrow down the field and approach one.
If you’ve done your job, they’ll do theirs.