Articles – How to Get a Good Agent

by Gini Graham Scott, Ph.D., J.D.

Copyright © Gini Graham Scott

This article is available for personal distribution to individuals as long as you distribute the full article and provide full credit, including the short bio at the end of the article and this announcement. But it is not for publication in either print publications or on other websites without written permission.
Are you looking for an agent for books or scripts? Are you having trouble finding one you like? Join the club. This is one of the most common complaints of writers, including long-time professional writers. Even writers who have had agents may be looking for another one, or have different types of writing projects better handled by another agent.
This article will help you find and select an agent, including how to best contact an agent initially and what to send when you provide additional information, such as a nonfiction proposal, fiction manuscript, children’s book, or screenplay treatment or full script.

Selecting an Agent
Some considerations to keep in mind when choosing the agent that’s best for you are:
– Types of books handled. Most agents handle multiple types of books, but some agents specialize. It can be useful to choose an agent who handles several types of books if you have different types of writing projects, or you may prefer to divide up different types of books with different agents, if the agents agree. In some cases, agents will handle other types of projects for clients, but only when they are handling the client for their primary area of emphasis. (Most commonly this occurs when the agent represents you for non-fiction and additionally takes on fiction, children’s books, or scripts). Check on what types of manuscripts the agent handles to decide what’s best for you.
– Film and TV rights. Most agents now handle film and TV rights for projects they represent – generally through a rep in Hollywood, LA, or on the West Coast, though some handle the rights themselves. Should you want an agent specializes in film and TV rights, look for an agent who is a member of the Writers Guild of America (WGA), since many producers, production companies, and studios will only deal with WGA agents. You can find these agents listed on the WGA Web site, and in occasional directories that are published, such as the Hollywood Screenwriting Directory.
– Foreign reps and rights. Most agents handle foreign rights, generally through a subagent or group of subagents, although some handle these rights themselves. Should you want to know the specific foreign reps which different agents have, these listings for many agents are in the Literary Marketplace (http://www.literarymarketplace.com/lmp/us/index_us.asp) available in a hard copy and in an online subscription.
– Location. Do you want an agent near you – or one near the publishers if you live out of the major publishing centers, which are in New York City (especially for mainstream commercial books), Los Angeles (especially for projects with film and TV potential), and the San Francisco Bay Area (especially for more targeted smaller audience and independent books)? Generally, it is best to get an agent in the major centers, especially in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Washington, D.C. on the East Coast or California on the West Coast. Within these states, it is best to have an agent who is close to these major publishing centers. Still, many agents do extensive traveling and some have relocated from these centers, so they may still be well connected. Then, too, if you like having more face-to-face contact with your agent, you may prefer one in your area.
– Size of Agency. While many agents are independent or work in small agencies, others are part of large agencies or affiliations of agents, such as William Morris, International Creative Management, and Writers House. While a big name affiliation can help even new agents gain clout, many independent agents or agents in smaller agencies have excellent reputations and have sold big books. While you can initially query more than one agent in an agency, since not all agents will be interested in the same project, if more than one expresses interest, you have to decide which one to follow-up with in sending additional material. You can also say that you weren’t sure who to contact to explain why you contacted more than one agent in the same agency. This multiple contact approach works better when you are sending e-mails, since this is a more informal type of initial contact and almost all agents use email these days. If you are sending a query by regular mail, it is better to pick one agent to query first; then if you have no response in a couple of weeks, try a second agent at that agency.
– Affiliations and Listings. An agent’s affiliations and listings in directories of agents can help you in deciding whom to contact, too. The agents who are listed in Literary Marketplace and/or are members of the Association of Authors’ Representatives (AAR) are generally agents with fairly solid credentials, although the AAR list provides little information other than whether an agent handles nonfiction, fiction, children’s books, or dramatic works. There are a number of popular directories which include more detailed information on some of these agents. But many of the bigger, more established agents aren’t listed in these directories or don’t provide them with much information, since they get most of their new clients by referrals or through industry sources, like panel discussions of agencies for writers groups. Still you can often break through with a well-written query about a compelling project. However, it can be very time consuming to do your own research on the credentials of different agents and the number and size of deals they have gotten for their clients in recent years, such as Publishers and Agent has done. Contact us for a referral and you can get a 10% discount on your first order by mentioning Changemakers.
– Areas of Specialization. Besides the broad areas of specialization – Nonfiction (N), Fiction (F), Scripts/Screenplays (S), and Children’s Books (which includes from juveniles to young adults) (C) – many agents and agencies describe their interests in various sources. Where these descriptions are available, you can look for agents or agencies with particular interests (i.e. “business” if you have a business book; “self-help” or “relationships” if you have a personal improvement book. However, don’t overlook the agents who don’t provide such information, since many agents who haven’t listed that topic as a specialty or haven’t listed any specialties may still be interested, especially if your book might be considered a general trade or commercial nonfiction or fiction book.
– Reputation. A big concern of writers about agents is whether they are truly reputable. Generally, you can trust agents who you learn about through a personal referral, though their appearance on industry panels, or through referral by other writers in professional writers’ organizations. Another good source for reputable agents is Publishers Marketplace, (http://www.publishersmarketplace.com), which lists the agents involved in making deals each week (in fact, PublishersAndAgents has been tracking these agents for the past 10 years and has a record of the number and size of deals made by these agents). A good way to eliminate agents who might be a problem is to not contact those who charge reading fees or promote editing services (unless they do this on a limited basis for new, unpublished writers, and additionally represent established writers at no charge). However, many agents do charge fees now for copying manuscripts, foreign calls, messengers, and postage, and some ask for an advance retainer of about $50-200 to cover such costs, so this isn’t necessarily a warning sign. This request for fees is generally most common for agents on the West Coast and outside of the main publishing centers, because they have higher postage and phone expenses, although most agents now send manuscripts by email in Word or PDF documents.
Sending Queries to Agents
At one time the best way to initially query an agent was by regular mail with an SASE to get a response. But today most agents are receptive to initial e-mail queries or have a query form on their website for all submissions. Then you can follow-up with more information by e-mail or regular mail, depending on what the agent prefers. However, don’t send any attachments unless you get permission, since many people do not open attachments due to problems with viruses, unless the e-mail is from someone they know. What works best — and what is most likely to get through the various spam filters on many e-mail programs is a simple text message without any special graphics or photos.
The vast majority of agents also don’t want phone queries, with a few exceptions. And almost universally, agents don’t want unsolicited manuscripts. So don’t send the full manuscript unless requested, except for very short picture books, since most agents ask you to send it all.
Agents vary widely in what they want to review — from a synopsis to a few chapters to a full manuscript. Since it is not always certain what agents want, the types of material of current interest, and whether they are open to new clients, a good way to make a first contact is to start with an initial query letter with a brief description about your project and yourself and any past publications and PR. If you send this by e-mail, you will typically hear back with 1-2 days, sometimes within hours.
If you are initially sending a postal query, you can include a few additional pages, such as a synopsis and press clips. If the agents are interested, they can ask for more. This approach cuts down on your expenses of sending more detailed full proposals or outlines and chapters on the first round, so you are only sending these additional materials to agents who request them. This preliminary query approach also avoids the problem of sending your material to an agent who wants an exclusive look to consider it (typically asking for about 2-4 weeks to do this) until you have an initial show of interest.
Another advantage of this initial brief approach is it enables you to send out multiple queries quickly and at little expense. This multiple query approach also increases your chances of finding an agent and choosing among those who are interested in your project, since agents commonly have a high rejection rate – about 95% for many agents, and some agents who show interest could be very busy and overextended. Thus, with multiple agents expressing interest at this early stage, you can be more selective in whom to send additional information.
Virtually all agents expect multiple queries, and it is usually assumed you are submitting to a number of agents at the same time. Only a few will ask for an exclusive submission, and then you might treat that as a right of first refusal, and you don’t have to accept an offer from that agent.
Sending More Information to Interested Agents
Once an agent has expressed interest – or if you are sending more extensive information with your initial query, the agent typically wants to see certain basic materials. While different agents may have slightly different requests in what they want to see, agents commonly want to see the following materials, which are generally what they would send to a publisher if they represent you. So have these materials prepared and ready to go on request.
An advantage of creating this basic package is you have the information that most agents will want – and you can add or subtract materials from this basic package depending on the agent’s requests. This is the approach I have used in sending proposals to many agents for myself and for several clients, who found agents as a result of this method.
For Nonfiction – Send a proposal package which includes:
Table of Contents
Overview of the book
Chapter by chapter outline, with brief descriptions for each chapter
1-3 sample chapters (up to about 50 pages)
Description of the market
Your bio, including your credentials for writing the book, and any promotional support you can provide (especially important now, since publishers want authors with credentials and high visibility)

For Fiction – Send the following:
Brief synopsis
1-3 sample chapters (typically 10-50 pages)
Then be ready to send the whole manuscript on request

For Children’s Books:
For younger children: send the whole picture book
(if you didn’t already send it with your query letter).
For older children: follow the non-fiction or fiction guidelines

For Scripts and Screenplays:
Send a treatment if it’s based on a book (you can adapt a detailed chapter by chapter outline to create this
Send the full script in standard script format if it’s an original script.

* * * * * * *
About the author: Gini Graham Scott, Ph.D., J.D., is the author of over 50 books, primarily nonfiction in the areas of business, personal development, relationships, psychology, criminal justice, and social trends. She has published several fiction books, has several film scripts under option or in production, and writes children’s books. She has a regular column with Huffington Post (www.huffiingtonpost.com/gini-graham-scott), dealing with social trends and insights from everyday experiences. Her books on writing include Sell Your Book, Script, or Column, How to Find Publishers and Agents and Get Published, How to Get Published and Deal with Clients, Co-Writing, Copyrights, and Contracts, and The Complete Guide to Distributing an Indie Film, all available through Amazon and Kindle.