Not all agents currently handle self-published books. About six months ago, I interviewed a lot of agents I know for a blog article I was working on. A lot of them said, “Are you kidding? I would never handle a self-published book. Those people are crazy; they can’t write, and they have no idea how things work.” Fortunately, things are changing. Some of the best agents I talked to were beginning to represent self-published books. Jane Dystel, who was Obama’s agent, and James Levine, another major agent in New York, were both starting to work with self-published authors. So it can still be hard to find an agent as a self-published author, but there’s beginning to be some hope.
The first thing to realize if you’re an author looking for an agent—and this is true whether you’re traditionally published, self-published, or not published at all—is that it’s just plain difficult to get an agent to represent you. It’s brutal. Most agents are overwhelmed by the number of submissions they receive, and a lot of them don’t even read anything that’s sent to them unless they know in advance who sent it. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to get an agent, but you should be aware that it’s probably going to be tough.
So what steps should you take if you want an agent? This may seem obvious, but first of all, you’d better have a good book. Do your research, and make sure that the book you’re writing will stand out in the marketplace. This is particularly true if you’re writing a nonfiction book. If someone else has already written a book that relies on the same concept, your book needs to offer something new and different, whether that’s a new voice or style or new information based on research. Whether you write fiction or nonfiction, you need to make sure you’re producing the best manuscript you possibly can before you start to approach agents. That usually means getting some kind of professional help. I’ve been involved in publishing books by extremely successful authors, including Toni Morrison, Tom Robbins, and Leonard Thompson, and all of them wanted to work with an editor. Working with a good editor can be intellectually stimulating, collaborative, comforting, or challenging, but it is almost always helpful in some way.
Another important part of getting an agent these days—and this has changed in the past ten to fifteen years—is having what’s called a platform. A platform is anything that makes you stand out from the crowd. It’s a metaphor for visibility. Depending on what you’re writing, your platform could be something like being a professor at Harvard, having written another successful book in a similar field, or having a syndicated talk show. Of course, if you’re as famous as Dr. Phil or Oprah, you’re obviously not going to have any trouble getting an agent’s attention. But hardly anyone has that kind of platform right off the bat; most authors have to build their own platforms, and the easiest place to do that these days is online. Virtually all writers today have their own websites, and many blog. Through social networking, they reach out to a community of readers, other writers, agents, and publishers. Another way to build a platform is through traditional media—by writing a weekly column for a local paper, for example.
Writers’ conferences can be a great place to meet agents. Agents need writers. They’re actually always looking for new ones, but they need to meet you and see something you’ve done before they commit. There are big writers’ conferences all over the country, so there’s a good chance you live close enough to attend. If you’re a writer, you should subscribe to Publisher’s Weekly and Publisher’s Marketplace, both of which are about twenty dollars a month. In addition to letting you know about writers’ conferences, they’ll keep you informed about what is going on more generally in the publishing business. Writer’s Digest also has a good list of conferences in the back of every issue. When you pitch your idea to an agent at a writers’ conference, don’t expect them to hand you a contract on the spot. They’ll ask you to send them a proposal or a sample. Another way to make contact with an agent is through friends. If you have a friend, family member, or neighbor who is a writer and has an agent, that person can be a good resource. If a writer friend reads your work and likes it, maybe he or she will be will be willing to recommend it to his or her agent. The most important thing, whether you approach an agent at a writers’ conference or through a friend, is that you cannot simply wait for an agent to come to you. It won’t happen. You have to be assertive. That can be hard for some authors, but it’s absolutely essential.
Finding an agent is hard work, especially if you’re a self-published author, but if you make your book as good as it can be, build a platform, and make an effort to get out there and meet people, it can be done.
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