Published fiction authors: how can a writer get a reputable agent?
June 17, 2022 6:50 AM   Subscribe

A friend of mine (sadly not me), is shopping his “Regency-era sci-fi” novel to British and American agents without much luck. He’s finding a lot of not very reputable agents, but no one who would actually give him serious critique, support, or a direct answer. He’s followed the advice I’ve seen in previous Asks on the blue (eg using literarymarketplace etc) to little avail. Can any of you fab folks recommend an agent (or a press) that might be interested in looking at his work? Or have advice on the approach he should take? Thanks!
posted by mollymillions to Media & Arts (12 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: So, agents are unlikely to provide much in the way of critique or support until they're your agent. Because...that's work. Friends may do it for free, but agents have to earn a living. Even then, you should be aware that the degree of support in revisions varies from agent to agent.

All that said, Fox Literary is legit, though small (they represent Seanan McGuire).
posted by praemunire at 7:32 AM on June 17, 2022 [3 favorites]

IIRC, one possibility is to research an author of the same or closely-related genre and see if the agent or agency was ever mentioned. If the author has a large presence online, s/he may even answer direct questions about which agent does s/he use.
posted by kschang at 7:39 AM on June 17, 2022 [1 favorite]

Janet Reid's blog is full of useful advice on this, and Reid is a lot of fun.
posted by BibiRose at 7:41 AM on June 17, 2022 [2 favorites]

Best answer: "Regency SF" sounds like a rad project - I'd love to read this!

Your friend should be querying agents when he's ready to enter a business relationship, not to solicit critiques or other support. Literary agents will work with their clients to get a project ready for submission, but they have to be selective about providing feedback (and many follow a "no response means no" policy, simply due to the volume of emails they receive).

Your friend may want to pause and make sure he fully understands the process and is putting his best foot forward. If he has money to throw at the problem, he can hire an editor to review his manuscript and/or submission package. Other options are to find a writing group or to consult the wide variety of books, podcasts, and blogs about fiction writing and traditional publishing. Writing conferences may provide access to critiques from literary agents and are a source of community.

Once your friend is ready to start querying again, he should approach the process as a numbers game - obviously he should query agents/presses that are a good fit for his work, but he should be prepared for 90% of queries to end in failure. I recommend sending out 5-10 submissions at a time. If he doesn't get a positive response, that's a sign to pause and tweak the submission package.

It's been a couple years since I've queried a novel, but here are some resources that I've found invaluable for identifying agents and crafting my submissions.

The Complete Guide to Query Letters (Jane Friedman)
Query Shark
Writer Beware
Writer's Digest New Agent Alert
posted by toastedcheese at 7:41 AM on June 17, 2022 [8 favorites]

The publishing world used to be like this: a few people with connections got directly to an editor and a vanishingly few lucky bastards got picked off the slush pile. It's evolved such that a few people with connections get directly to an agent and a vanishingly few lucky bastards get picked up by an agent off THEIR slush pile. Actual writing is the smallest part of a writer's job. Making connections, building a brand, selling and promoting: no one in the business will take you seriously if you aren't just as committed to these parts as you are to the writing.
posted by rikschell at 8:43 AM on June 17, 2022 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Your friend should go on the PubTips subreddit and get his query letter critiqued. It is very hard to write a good query letter. If he is not getting requests at all, then the most likely reasons are

1) bad query letter
2) bad writing in the sample pages
3) hard to find a place for the book in the current literary marketplace

- And out of those three, (1) is the easiest to fix.

I use QueryTracker and Twitter (hashtag #mswl for manuscript wishlist) to look for agents. With both of those, you have to vet people a little bit - do they actually have sales? Do they have sales to good publishers? Do they represent any successful books? (Sales are, of course, not the only sign of a good agent or a bad agent, but it is much harder to figure out if an agent is a nice person and a good communicator than it is to figure out if they're good at selling books.) Many agents who are very good at social media are not necessarily very good at selling books.

I second the recommendation for Janet Reid's blog QueryShark. Alexa Donne on YouTube also has some good advice about querying, although (as with anything) you want to take her advice with a grain of salt.
posted by Jeanne at 9:18 AM on June 17, 2022 [4 favorites]

So, my experience with agents straddles the time from when they picked people up because they saw potential, to now where if it isn't a book they think they can market as-is right away they won't touch you.

The only useful advice I can give from the wrong side of that boundary is, make sure the book is as closed to a final product as possible. You won't get guidance from agents anymore (don't even get me started about the shift in what editors do either). Polish your approach, then re-polish. Have social media presence and participate in discussions. Blow your own horn a lot. If the writing itself still needs development and work, find a writing group. Some people go the MFA route but that isn't always financially feasible and increasingly seems like an academic pyramid scheme.
posted by Ardnamurchan at 9:21 AM on June 17, 2022 [1 favorite]

I am an agented and published author. With one exception, I agree with all of the advice above.

The exception: I respectfully disagree with rikschell, because writing is still the most important part of a writer's job. The other stuff is certainly important -- but the quality of your writing is the one thing you have full control over.In my experience, the most common reason unpublished writers get rejected is that their writing is not yet up to professional standards.

It's hard to know whether that's your friend's problem. I'd encourage him to note at which stage of the process he's getting rejected.

If agents aren't responding positively to his queries, he needs to either target agents more carefully (by making sure they really do represent the kind of manuscript he's submitting to them) or write better query letters. One way of doing that is to post his query on the "pubtips" subreddit and to take seriously any feedback he gets.

If agents are replying to his queries with a request for a full or partial manuscript, but then later rejecting him with a brief rejection (or just with silence), then the problem is probably the manuscript itself. I say "probably" because the fact is that agents are inundated with far more manuscripts than they can represent and they have to reject the vast majority.

One positive sign to look for: if agents are rejecting him but saying things like "I'd love to see a future draft of this" or "Please keep me in mind for any future books," that suggests he's writing at or near a professional level, and this particular manuscript just isn't clicking with this particular agent. If that's the case, there's not much for him to do but keep plowing forward. Like toastedcheese says, it's a numbers game. My novel was rejected multiple times before my agent signed me and sold it.

(ON PREVIEW: Jeanne beat me to the punch in recommending Pubtips! I endorse all her other advice as well.)
posted by yankeefog at 9:22 AM on June 17, 2022 [6 favorites]

Okay, you caught me in a hyperbole. Writing is not the smallest part of an author's job, but once the writing is finished, the work has only just begun. By no means is the hardest part over, especially for the unpublished first timer.
posted by rikschell at 11:04 AM on June 17, 2022

He needs writing groups and beta readers for feedback and critique. Agents these days really just focus on selling the book, not editing or recrafting the book, except in extremely limited cases.

Have a bunch of people read it (5-10, not close friends or family unless they are quite comfortable with being honest) - at least some other writers would be best. There are subreddits for just this sort of thing, and other online writing groups if he doesn't have people IRL he can ask. There are so many suggestions above about great resources for editing and rewriting and all that - he should study it all like he's in his very own master's program.

When the manuscript is as finished as he can get it, he can look on for agents open to submissions who rep his genre. He should steer clear of anyone offering to rep his book or publish his book if he pays for it and avoid agents who will also "edit" for a fee. There are legit book editors who can help, but if an agent claims to also be a for-pay editor, that's a scam.
posted by Ink-stained wretch at 3:57 PM on June 17, 2022

SFWA might be a resource; I believe membership requires having been published.

My small city has a SF writers group that meets monthly where they critique each others' drafts. Many of the attendees are published writers. Not sure how you would find such a group.
posted by neuron at 10:05 AM on June 18, 2022 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: thanks, all! my friend is very grateful for your suggestions. you are menschs🙂
posted by mollymillions at 6:46 AM on June 20, 2022

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