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Mother Hen's Bin August 2007



Every writer at some point sweats the next step once a manuscript is almost at completion or fully completed with edits to boot. And this step is writing The Query Letter to an agent. And duly noted that this will be, besides your manuscript, the most important introduction of you and your craft to an editor or agent. It will be the deciding factor on whether or not they will request to see your completed manuscript.


How do you begin to write a query? Think of your story and its plots; jot the best points down that best describe/tell your story. You may find yourself writing a few pages down. Don’t worry. Let it flow and then worry about editing it.


But before I briefly touch upon the Query let me give you a few tips on finding an agentfirst.


The most important factor you should remember when hiring an agent is to never, ever pay him any money before your book is actually ‘sold’ to a publisher. They earn their 15% from your royalties when EARNED.


When you are charged for a reading fee, RUN.


Research the agent; see if he/she is a member of AAR. Although some agents, may not be a member of AAR, this does not mean they are not reputable, just means they may have not filled the necessary quota enabling them to be allowed membership within the AAR. However, some reputable agents do charge you for such things as postage, photocopies of your manuscript and in some cases, faxes to editors.


If you are a short story writer, don’t seek the aid of an agent. You’ll have a hard time finding an agent who takes a short story writer on as a client. There are hundreds of reputable magazines and zines who accept unagented work from an author.


There are many writers who feel an agent will open up more doors for them. This is a difficult assumption to prove or disprove.  If your aim is to get through the big conglomerates, then even with an agent, that possibility is not as high as you may think. The reason for me stating this is because the big houses are filled to the rim with manuscripts and have their already established authors who they give preference to. Your submission must be in tiptop shape, something that will grab their attention right off the bat.


A good agent will submit your work to various publishers suitable to your style of writing. A good agent must have a good working knowledge of the market and of each publishing house's demands and likes. Possessing this knowledge means they have already established some sort of a contact there and know to which editor to send your work to.


They will negotiate your contract and collect your royalties and then distribute them. He should be able to spot any errors in the royalty invoice. You are entrusting your career to this person, research them carefully.


A common percentage is 10%-15% commission on your actual earnings(royalties, advances). This commission rate may jump higher for any other rights he will be negotiating for you such as movie or foreign rights. It could be anywhere between 20% - 35%. A reputable agent will NOT charge you a reading fee but may charge you for expenses incurred while he represents you. Find out what these charges may be before you sign on with them.


It’s funny, but the best way to find yourself an agent is to be published. Sounds a bit like what came first, the chicken or the egg.  But, I could see the reasoning here, somewhat. Once you’ve established yourself and proven to them you are a go-getter, they will approach you or at least give you the time of day. To find an agent, go to conferences, ask fellow writers who their agents are. And make sure to find an agent who is experienced in the genre you write in. Don’t go to a romance agent because he is famous if you write children stories.


And don’t jump at the first agent who shows an interest. Check out their credentials: who are their authors; are they members of AAR; where were they before they opened up their own agency; did it deal in the publishing world; do they have a website? A very good site to check with to see if there’s anything going on with a particular agent is the Preditors and Editors website.


Before you sign a contract with an agent, find out as much as you could about them . You need to feel comfortable with your decision. Don’t be shy to ask them a lot of questions. If they are hesitant and don’t want to spend a few extra minutes calming your worries, then perhaps they are not for you. Have a list of questions to ask before hand. Always be prepared.


Some questions that you may pose are: 

*What is your training as a literary agent?

*What is your commission (domestic, foreign sales)?

*Do you have any charges you impose and for what expenditures?

*What are some of the books you have published?

*Do you accept writers who write in many genres?

*How often do you communicate with your clients?

Any agent that hesitates to answer your queries perhaps is not one for you. They should willingly provide answers and ease your mind. If there is no connection, again, heed my words and run. Last thing you need is to be stuck with an agent who will make you feel uncomfortable and unsure of where your manuscript is heading.

One thing I forgot to mention is to find out what the conditions are if you should decide to step away from this agent or vice versa. In most cases, a written letter expressing your desire to terminate your contract suffices, as long as you make sure this is part of the contract you initially signed with your agent.

Be realistic and do not badger the agent every day or week to see if your manuscript got accepted. It may take months or if you’re one of the lucky ones, it may take a mere ride back home to get an answer. Okay, big exaggeration but you get my drift. Once a month or twice is okay. If there’s anything, I am sure he will call you. However, if you, at any time, feel that your calls are purposely being side-swept, then an immediate meeting with him to discuss your book should be had.

First  time advances are anywhere from $5000 and less. Don’t expect higher than that unless you’ve got a bestseller on your hands. By the time you repay (earn out) the advance you received by the money your publisher withholds for money already issued out to you, it will take a year or more depending on the promotional and marketing you have done. And yes, this aspect is entirely up to you. Long gone are the days where publishers fork out the money to promote their authors. Budgets are gone nowadays, even the publishing houses are feeling the crunch.

In closing, an agent should be interested in your whole writing career and the future of your books to come.

If an agent decides to leave the agency, what happens to you? Find out. Is there a provision for this?  Make sure that they keep you informed every step of the way. Afterall, this is your career and you should be aware of what your agent is negotiating or dealing for you. Find out if there is a clause stating how many years you need to sign up with this agent. Personally, even though I do not have an agent, I would make sure not to have any stipulation such as a time factor for the simple reason if I don’t like how my agent will take care of my career, I can have the freedom to look elsewhere. No need to lock myself with someone that in turn locks my book for several years. A year is a good number to start with. Afterall, an agent does need some time to get your work out there. Some agents even ask for a three year term. Use your judgement and go with it. Make sure to ask for a clause which states you have the right to walk away when you want to.

To get a list of agents and other info from the AAR(Association of Authors Representatives) write to them here:

The Association of Authors' Representatives, Inc.
P.O. Box 237201
New York, New York 10003

Include $7, payale to AAR and a SASE with postage for this package.


Snag That Agent:


Good agents have a way of sidestepping the slushpile. However, they are far and few. In order for you to snag these agents, you need to perfect your query to them.


Think of a query as your inexpensive travel route;saves you money attending a conference and you get to ‘speak’ to several of them at once via your query letter.


First thing you need to do is find the right agent for you. Research agents who have a track record selling the genre you are offering. Most agents have websites. Link there to see who their clients are. This along with the info on deals they’ve made for their clients will give you a pretty good idea if they are suitable for you.


Another way is to buy yourself a copy of Writers Market.

Now, let’s analyze what components make a good query before you melt with all that sweating you’re doing.


1-     sum up your book in as few words as possible to intirque his/her interest.

2-     Give him a good impression of who you are and what qualifies you as THE person to have written this book.

3-     A simple thank you for your time and why perhaps you chose him to possibly represent you (name drop any book deals he’s made) gives them a good impression of your research skills and determination to find The Right agent for yourself.


These three elements represent your query, each one taking up a paragraph.


Now let’s break this down even further.


1-Sum up your book: I know, I know. You’ve worked so hard to write those precious 100,000 words or so. Now I’m asking you to cut down to 1-2 paragraphs. Impossible? Nope. Capture the essence of your book. Think OF YOUR NOVEL AS 3 SCENES: BREAK down each scene, mark down the what’s of each scene, then summarize them into one captivating logline.


2-What qualifies you to write this book? This is the part you sell yourself to the agent. But I haven’t been published before? Don’t dwell on this or worry yourself. You obviously have an interest in the subject matter you wrote about;researched details or perhaps a part of the story reflects what you do in real life. Let him know.

Ex. I am a member of The Scientific Research Institure and have done extensive research on the potency of mixing natural herbs together.

Ex. As a teacher for the past 15 years, I have dealt with children with disabilities.


3-Toss in a few thank you’s to the salad. Let the agent know the reason you picked him. Mention some of his/her book deals and how your book would be a perfect match to his collection of authors represented.


This was just a short and quick introduction of a query to an agent. Watch out in a future column where I will present to you several query samples to editors to review and keep as a template for your own books.



Reference to Read on Editing:


-How To Be Your Own Best Editor: The Toolkit for Everyone Who Writes by Barry Tarshis


Lea Schizas

(NOTE: This is a reprint of an earlier column)