Writing Advice #22: The Path to Publication (Part 4)

This week I want to talk about agents a little bit.

In the movie American Dreamz, there’s a moment where Mandy Moore’s character (Sally Kendoo) is told by her mother that she needs an agent. Sally asks why and her mom responds (I’m paraphrasing here): “Because an agent is a person who’s mean to other people so that you can pretend to like them.”

I love that line, even though I think I’ve misquoted it — it might have been flipped: “Because an agent is nice to other people so that you can be mean to them,” or something like that, but the spirit of it is this: Agents handle certain things so that you don’t have to be bothered.

Three different publishers bid on my first novel. Houghton Mifflin was where I wanted to be, but the two other publishers had made very respectable offers, too. When I decided on Houghton, my agent said, “OK, I’ll call [Editor X] and [Editor Y] and tell them they didn’t get it.”

So right there, that’s cool — agents deliver bad news for you! I was pretty psyched about that, since I knew the other two editors and didn’t want to have to be the one to say, “Gee, guys, I’m sorry, but…”

Agents get 15% of whatever YOU get. Some writers think, “That’s not worth it. I need every penny I can get.”

Sure. Fine. Look, the average advance for a first novel WITHOUT an agent is around $5000. That’s the average — plenty of people get NOTHING.

So if you get an agent and the agent gets you $10,000 (not unreasonable), then you’re already ahead of the game. Even subtracting 15%, you’re still WAY ahead of that $5000 average ($10,000 – $1500 = $8500).

Once upon a time, I knew a couple of successful writers who didn’t have agents. They’re all agented now.

Look, if you write, it’s because you like to write. It’s not because you enjoy reading 16-page publishing contracts and arguing with some legal affairs guy at the publisher about your publishing rights in Trinidad.

These are things an agent can (and will!) handle for you, letting you focus on the writing.

In the time I’ve had my agent, she hasn’t just sold nine books of mine. No. In addition to that, she’s also sold foreign rights for two of those books, a movie option for one of them, and the audio rights for two of them. Plus she’s advised me on career moves (which book to write next), helped me knock my third book into shape, and calmed me down when I needed it. (Hey, I’m a writer — I stress easily.)

An agent goes off and does the ugly footwork of finding someone to publish your book, leaving you blissfully free to NOT write cover letters and to work on your next book instead.

So I’m a big fan of agents. Once I signed on with my agent, I had a two-book deal in six months. You can’t beat that, right? (YMMV.)

You need the RIGHT agent, though. A bad agent is worse than no agent at all.

You want an agent who handles your kind of work, first and foremost. Sally Superagent may have gotten Dirk Bigsales a ten million dollar contract for his latest thriller, but if she doesn’t handle your sort of chick-lit, then she’s not the agent for you. Find an agent who handles what YOU write.

You want an agent who works for FREE. OK, actually, the agent works on COMMISSION, but this is important — you don’t pay the agent until YOU get paid! There’s no up-front fee or anything like that. An agent agrees to represent you because he or she BELIEVES in your work and is confident that he or she can sell it. THEN he or she gets paid. If an agent agrees to represent you, but wants money up front, RUN, don’t walk, to your nearest exit. An agent gets 15% of what you make WHEN YOU MAKE IT, not ahead of time. The agent works for free until the sale. (At that point, the agent will get your money, take his or her 15%, and send the rest to you.)

Lastly, try to find someone you can work with. Ideally, you’re going to have a long-term relationship with this person. If you don’t get along or you hate each other, no matter how much money you make together, it’s not going to end well for either party. I’m not saying you have to be bestest buddies with your agent (though if you are, good for you!), just that you need to be able to work together in a professional manner.

“OK, Barry,” I hear you saying: “HOW do I land this wondrous person?”

You know my first piece of advice, right? Say it with me, kids:

“First, you have to have an awesome piece of writing!”

Yeah, I know I keep saying that, over and over. That’s because people forget. They get all caught up in the hunt, the process, the chase, and they forget about the work itself. So I’m gonna keep pounding that home to you, over and over and over again.

Second of all, there are a few ways to find an agent. There are some decent books out there, such as Jeff Herman’s Guide To Book Publishers, Editors & Literary Agents. This book is indispensable. It will help you narrow down your search to those agents who are predisposed to your sort of story. (Ignore editors and publishers for now – focus on agents.) Following the guidelines in the book, start contacting them. Follow the guidelines to the letter! Do not deviate from them!

Now, another way to find an agent is to do what I did: Go MEET one.

Here’s how you do that: Writing conferences!

These are lots of fun. Sometimes they suck, but you’ll usually hit one or two that are cool. This is what worked for ME. It might not work for you. Nothing is 100% guaranteed. Realize that publishing is like crossing a minefield…where the mines secretly change positions after someone successfully gets across. So even with a map, all you know is where the mines USED to be. You are going to hear from people who directly contradict me. And you know what? They might be right! Such is the insanity of the publishing biz that it’s entirely possible for two diametrically opposed notions to co-exist and be equally correct. God, I love this industry…

Anyway. Start poking around for conferences. You’ll probably be able to start in your area. Look into a local or statewide writers’ organization; they will usually have conferences once or twice a year. Join the groups; go to the conferences. Attend the workshops and classes at the conferences. LEARN.

You’ll hear a lot at these conferences. Some of it will be crap. That’s fine. You still learn, even when it’s crap. At the very least, you learn that you don’t like and you learn why you don’t like it. You learn who and what to avoid.

But a lot of what you hear won’t be crap. You’ll like it. You’ll hear stuff you’d never even considered before.

You’ll hear stuff that directly contradicts what I’ve told you. That, too, is fine. God knows there’s no one-size-fits-all formula in writing. Pick and choose what works for you. I won’t be offended. 🙂

Many conferences have helpful handouts for new writers that tell them how best to exploit a conference. Read these things like the Bible – they’ll help you enormously.

Here’s where the agents come into it: At a lot of conferences, you can pay extra to have one-on-one sessions (usually about ten minutes) with individual editors and agents. If there are agents at the conference that meet your criteria, pay to do these sessions! This is very important — they have to meet your criteria! Again, it doesn’t help you to meet with an agent who’s a bad fit for your work. Narrow your potential meetings to those agents who handle your sort of writing.

And yes, sometimes you’ll pick someone you think is a good fit and you’ll be wrong. No big deal. It’s all a learning experience. Worst case scenario, you’ll become comfortable talking about your work with these sorts of people. You’ll get used to getting certain questions. They’ll poke holes in your synopsis, helping you to strengthen it for the next time.

Best case scenario, they’ll ask you to send them a sample or all of the manuscript! That’s what you’re going for – you want to use these sessions to bypass the query/synopsis stage. I never even wrote a synopsis for my first novel. No one ever asked to see one. I pitched it directly and they wanted to see the whole thing.

Now, some folks (some of them agents and editors) decry these sorts of sessions. And they have good reasons. Some of them even say that they don’t get any sales out of them.

As I mentioned before, all I can tell you is what worked for me. I met my agent because I paid the conference people an extra fifty bucks for a ten-minute session with her at a conference. She loved what I told her about my book and asked me if I had a copy she could read right there! (This NEVER happens.) She then asked me to e-mail the ms. to her when I got home. (Again, this NEVER happens.) Two weeks later, she called to say she wanted to represent me. Six months after that, I had a deal.

So, the things that NEVER happen…sometimes do.

(Despite what happened to me, though, NEVER bring your manuscript to a convention with you. No one is going to take a big pile of paper with them to fly home with. If you make a connection and they’re interested, they’ll have you mail it to their office. In super-rare cases where someone DOES ask to see your work then and there, they’ll be equally happy to accept it via mail when they get back to the office. And this way you don’t have to schlep cartons of paper around all weekend. Ugh. I did that once. It sucked.)

There you go. Agents and writers’ conferences, all in one blog! Next week, more on the Path to Publication, wherein I answer some reader mail. That’s right — people have sent me some questions, and next week is the perfect time to talk about them, as I’ll expand a little more on the whole “pitch session” concept!


And hey, don’t forget — you can have YOUR questions answered, too. Just post them questions below!


  1. Dear Barry,

    I loved your Jasper Dent series, I don’t think I’ve ever read all three books in a week. Anyway, your writing advice blog is really very helpful and I usually come back to read more.
    I just completed my Thriller/ Romance novel, and I wanted to publish it.
    So I’ve wanted to ask, I don’t live in the US. I live in the Middle East, but I write English books based in imaginary places in the US. And I’ve always wanted to publish my books through an agent. Is it possible to get a US agent and publish in the US even if I don’t live there.

    Thanks in advance.



    • Hi, Kashmira,

      Sure, it’s possible to publish in the U.S. without living here. Most agents don’t care where you live — they just want to know if you can write and if they can sell what you write! Start looking for U.S. agents!


      • Hi Barry,

        Thank you so much for your advice. I’m relieved if that’s the case. Going to start a major agent hunting.


Leave a Comment