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Do I Need an Agent and If So, How Do I Get One?

Apr 14, 2021

First Off: If You're Doing Traditional Publishing, You Need an Agent

There are exceptions but for the most part, Big 5 publishers aren’t going to work with writers who don’t have agents. And even if one will deal with you, you’re not going to be protected in a way that an agent can. Fifteen years after my first book Party Girl came out, we are trying desperately to wrestle the rights back and I can’t imagine how hard it would be if I hadn’t had an agent negotiate a great contract for me in the first place.

Know That Agents Want to Find Talent

The fact is that it is very hard to get an agent. But just like publishers, agents want to find the diamond in the rough. It's just that they're hammered with a lot of potential diamonds. Still, if you’re a diamond and you want an agent, see below for some links to places where you can find different agents that accept unsolicited submissions.

The Process

I recommend compiling a list of 100 agents on an Excel spreadsheet and then methodically going through them; if they accept unsolicited submissions, send a one-page query where you say what your book is about, who your audience is (as in, number of followers on Instagram and newsletter numbers) and essentially why you are worth considering. Also, explain why you're writing them—meaning make it clear that you've done your research and maybe you’re a fan of an author they represent. I think everybody responds well when they know someone writing them gives an F about who they are.

If you don't get anywhere after querying 100 agents, I say you've done it. If you say “I've queried 20 agents and I haven't heard back,” I don't think you've tried hard enough. But if you’ve tried 100, that’s an effort. If you don’t hear back from your initial query, I would say wait a month and follow up again. And if you still don't hear, then give it one more shot and assume no response is the response.

Unfortunately, that is going to be the case most of the time. And don't resent them. Agents are hammered with queries and massively overpaid underpaid in a lot of cases.

How Some Writers I Know Got Their Agents

I got mine because I had been writing for magazines for 10 years and going on TV so I was lucky enough to have two different agents contact me. But I had really put in the time when it came to getting my name out there, which is why I always highly recommend trying to get published—trying to get blog posts and articles and all of those things, even if you're just publishing them yourself on Medium and building up an audience that way—before reaching out to agents.

A writer I know named Jason Smith built up a profile on Medium. A hundred thousand people saw a story of his that went viral, Warner Bros. contacted him and they connected him to an agent at ICM. But that is not the standard way—it’s somebody who got really, really lucky.

Jillian Lauren, who is the massively best-selling author of a bunch of books, told me that she just did it the old-fashioned way, which is she looked at the acknowledgments sections of books that she liked, saw who the agents were that were thanked and cold submitted to them.

Mark Ebner, who is an old friend of mine, said he had he read about this agent named David Vigliano. He decided that's who he wanted to be his agent and he cold-called him and said, "Hey, are you Big Vig?” And David laughed and ended up signing him. David is actually a friend of mine and sold one of my books.

And my friend Ryan Hampton, when he wanted an agent, literally just Googled literary agents and called everyone on that list. And this is exactly what he told me he said: “My name is Ryan Hampton. I've spent the last two years watching my friends die from addiction. I'm sick and tired of reading the same old addiction memoirs. I have a story to tell, and I think if the rest of the world could see what I did through my lens, they would be outraged. I'm writing a book, not just any book, and it's not my story on how I got sober. I want people to be as outraged as me. I'd love to work with you, but if you aren't interested, please let me know. I'm going to get this published. 

And of course, he did get it published. And now he's doing his second book. But I don't have balls like that. I could never do that.

Finally my friend Amy Spencer who was a magazine writer—she and I actually used to co-host a radio show on Sirius called Sex Files—reached out to the agents of authors she admired but didn't get very far. But when she told a magazine editor friend that she had written a proposal, the friend said, “Hey, I can connect you to my friend who's an agent. They don't really represent stuff like yours, but why not?” So Amy sent her book to that agent and then got an email from a different agent at that agency, because the agent who didn't represent books like hers had passed it along to that agent.

The point is there's no one path.


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Sites that list agents:

Previous podcast episode: Should I Give Up on Traditional Publishing? 



"Agents want to find the diamond in th rough. It's just that they're hammered with a lot of potential diamonds. You need to stand out."