In addition to the editing and ghostwriting I do on a full-time basis as part of BA Writing Solutions LLC, I also help authors craft book proposals. Though it’s not always offered as part of the package, I recently helped an author-client find a literary agent.
After being turned down by a few book agents (well, let’s be honest, I never heard back from them), one agent in particular showed keen interest in our proposal. He liked the pitch, the author, the platform, and the presentation. He spoke with my client and they both realized they had mutual connections. Deal done, right?
My client still had reservations, and understandably so. Your book is your baby, and you want to place it in the best hands possible before sending it off into the world without your immediate help.
A few weeks passed and my client emailed me a strange question: “Is this agent in the Top 5?”
I wasn’t sure how to take that. Top 5 ever? Top 5 in his particular field? Top 5 this year? Top 5 in books sold? Top 5 in earnings? Still, I knew what he was getting at. Fortunately, this particular agent had no qualms in claiming his Not-Top-5 status. He was up front and honest about his work—which got me to thinking about what you really want to look for when you’re looking for a literary agent.
Though I’m sure there are more qualities—feel free to add some in the comments—I think a qualified literary agent only needs to show these three:
A Literary Agent Ought to Have Connections
A literary agent’s existence lives or dies on their connections. It’s like Marty McFly in Back to the Future when his future family fades from a photograph. Without connections, an agent just disappears. A book agent has to know people who actually work in publishing houses and are actively looking for new work. At the very least, literary agents have to know how to access the right people at a publishing house. At the very best, a connected agent has active, warm relationships with their publishing contacts so that when an agent sends a book their way, the publisher knows that the agent isn’t just wasting their time with a proposal that may not even fit what they’re currently looking to publish.
A Literary Agent Ought to Have Experience
Connections and experience go hand-in-hand. One bleeds into the other. Of course, a new author wants to land a literary agent with experience, preferably a decade or more. But the problem with this essential trait is that (typically) the more experienced an agent is, the less likely he or she will be open to taking on new and/or unproven authors (especially without a rock-solid referral from someone who’s already a client). You may be able to land an agent who’s sold a few books to a few different publishing houses, but wouldn’t you rather have the book agent who’s sold hundreds of books to dozens of houses?
Depending on where you’re at in your publishing journey, you’ll have to weigh the pros and cons of seeking an editor with years of experience (and maybe not being chosen) versus seeking an editor with only a few years of experience (and likely being chosen, but possibly having to endure a year or more of rejection as the agent gains more experience—via your book proposal).
A Literary Agent Ought to Have Passion
This may be the essential, essential quality you want to discover in a literary agent. When you speak with a possible agent or read their emails, does their passion for your project come close to matching your own? Of course, no one will be as proud of your baby as you are, but if an agent’s passion for your book can equal at least 70 percent of your zeal, you know you’ll have an agent on your side, championing you to make your book the best it can be before the two of you shove it off into the real world. If they have a clear understanding of why you’re writing a book (that’s your responsibility in the book proposal, by the way) and are behind the message, the method, and the man or woman behind the words, that’s an agent you’ll want to certainly consider.
A Literary Agent Ought to Be a Trusted Guide
The path to publishing that lies before you is long—at least a year or more—so strive to find the right traveling companion. To me, if your agent is connected, experienced, and passionate about you and your book, that’ll make for a much more rewarding journey, even if your first book proposal never graduates to full bookhood.