Getting your work published is simultaneously thrilling and terrifying. There are so many aspects to consider: do you self-publish, or do you hire an agent? How do you find an agent that’s right for you? How do you get an agent to actually read your manuscript?
We spoke to Denise Bukowski of The Bukowski Agency and Kris Rothstein from Carolin Swayze Literary Agency to answer all of your burning questions about getting published. This two-part interview discusses everything from the benefits of hiring an agent to what happens once a book has been sold.
Part I discusses the beginning of an agent/writer relationship and how to get an agent’s attention.
What are the benefits of hiring an agent?
Denise Bukowski: If you want your book to make money, and if you want anyone besides your mother to read it, you need to hire an agent. A writer who self-publishes is really just self-printing because nobody knows about their book. Writers don’t have the marketing skills they need. It’s very sophisticated, and a lot of it is digital, and a lot of it is done in advance of publication. The whole point of a publisher is to get the word out about the book before it comes into the warehouse, so there are backorders.
Kris Rothstein: An agent is your professional advocate, negotiator and advisor. They have a network of connections and experience – knowing which editors and looking for what kind of book, what kind of style. They have experience with contracts and will help you understand what you need, why and how to get it. They will also help if your work inspires further interest – i.e. in screen projects, other languages etc. They are also editorial experts who can give advice on your work and future project ideas. They are not your PR person, but they can give help in that area. They handle the financial aspect of your career as well. Agents know who has a bad reputation in the industry. They know what to do if someone violates copyright or if a publisher goes out of business.
When should a writer hire an agent?
DB: For fiction, it’s when you have a complete manuscript ready. For non-fiction, you can submit a proposal following the proposal guidelines on an agent’s website. You need to show your credentials, experience, qualifications, and connections you have on the subject. Non-fiction writers also need to have a platform with an audience, so people know who they are. You should also have support from other writers who are enthusiastic about your work. I approach someone based on their track record, so you need to have a profile in the literary community or whatever non-fiction area you’re in. One way to do this is to get published in the major Canadian literary magazines and American ones. It doesn’t have to be The New Yorker or The Atlantic; smaller American literary magazines are good too. Editors read literary magazines to see who’s got an essay that could be expanded into a book.
KR: A writer should look for an agent if they are a committed professional, preferably with publishing history or relevant credentials in their field of non-fiction. They are ready to achieve success, even though they know it only comes for a few. A writer should not hire an agent because they think someone else will be doing all the work for them. They are partners. Many authors do not need an agent. If you think you can handle the duties yourself and are not planning to target publishers who only accept contact from agents, then you can absolutely make it on your own.
How should a writer look for an agent?
KR: A writer should consult several of the many resources online (or in books!) about the process. Agents do not appreciate writers who have done no research. If writing is your intended job, then you need to be professional and prepared. Always read the agency’s guidelines and be familiar with general concepts like the query, the pitch, the proposal. Know what the agent represents and how you fit within that.
What should a writer look for in an agent?
DB: Look at their website and their list of authors to make sure your book is compatible. They will often have areas of specialty and aren’t qualified to market certain genres. Also, check to see if you know any of the writers on the agent’s list and see what they think. If you attend writer’s workshops, ask the writers about their agents and if they would recommend that agent.
KR: Geography is important. It can be nice to have an agent in the same area so you can meet in person. Reputation is key – do your research. You should feel that the agent has a sensibility in common with you. You don’t want to focus on subject material as much as figuring out which agents gravitate towards a certain style and perspective (i.e. they prefer works that approach a topic with humour, even if dark, or they love books with an element of romance).
What do you look for when acquiring a writer?
DB: With non-fiction, we look for profile and platform. You need a really strong proposal created according to the guidelines on our website. You also need to be able to say where your book fits in the marketplace. Name successful books like yours or what niche your book fills that hasn’t been filled by others. For fiction, we look for your track record and other writers who endorse your work. Your cover letter should include non-book-length things you’ve published already. It shouldn’t be a 10+ long page synopsis; it should be a jacket copy. The cover letter should be a pitch that will interest people. I don’t often get past the first page of a manuscript because the writing isn’t that strong, so you’d better have a really well-crafted opening in your fiction.
KR: That they have approached me in a knowledgeable, respectful manner. That they have read the guidelines. That they come with one or two projects only and not pile on a heap of unsold work. That they are smart, funny, engaged with the work and love books. They should read widely. That their ideas are superb and that their writing is good, even if it needs some editorial assistance. That they are doing something unusual and surprising. It is relatively easy to tell if an aspiring writer will be difficult to work with, which is not desirable.
Come back December 3 for part two of our interview with Denise and Kris.