“Let’s Get You an Agent”—An Agent’s How-to for Writers

So—Eric Nelson is an agent with the Susan Rabiner Literary Agency.
His own blog, “How to Think Like Your Agent,” is full of quick, no-nonsense advice. Here, he lends our readers a special dose of it: how to get an agent, from an agent’s POV.

Check out his words to the wise below, then bookmark his blog for regular industry tips.

In which Eric Nelson reveals all. (Or 5 hott tips.)

EN: When I first switched from being an editor to being an agent, I Googled “how to get an agent” to see how this world looked from an author’s perspective.  I wasn’t impressed with the results. Most of them tell you to buy a book about agents, polish your proposal, and stay away from scams. That’s “good” advice, but it’s like telling you you’ll need a computer and possibly paper.

So let’s get you an agent the right way. 

1. Write something great, and put it where it will get you noticed. 

Maybe it’s a short story; maybe it’s an op-ed. Maybe it’s a manifesto or a monologue. As an agent, this is how I find nearly all my authors: I contact them after they’ve published something great. There are lots of good agents out there actively looking for new authors… But we’ll let our slush pile [read: your unsolicited submissions] sit forever while we go to conferences, read literary journals, go to readings, check out highly-trafficked fan fiction, and peruse self-published books by someone with a strong GoodReads following.


Agents want authors who have three things going for them: remarkable writing, a central conceit their intended audience will love, and way to get their work in front of that audience.

Put yourself in an agent’s shoes. Where are you more likely to find an unagented writer with those qualities? In today’s slush pile, or on Ploughshares‘ website? Think of your book as the pinnacle of a journey, not the first step. An agent shouldn’t be the first person to read and enjoy your work, or even the 100th.


2. Get a friend with an agent to refer you. 

Ha! That’s great advice, right? If you had friends with agents, you probably wouldn’t have bothered reading this. So—if your writing is not only not getting you noticed by agents, but failing to impress other writers, you need to go back to #1 [“Write something and get it noticed”]. You should be doing readings, writing for journals, writing for websites, self-publishing your stuff, or getting the word out in some other venue. You’ll meet other aspiring writers and maybe a few published authors.  If you don’t know a single published writer, you haven’t put enough effort into building a network and a fanbase to get the word out about your book.  Most agents still find the majority of their clients through referrals.


3. Join Publisher’s Marketplace.

Being a writer isn’t going to stay free. You should be buying books, journals, and magazines. Plumbers need good tools to do their work; so do writers. And no tool will serve you better than Publishers Marketplace. It’s $25 a month, which sounds crazy. But remember – you don’t have to join forever.  In a few weeks or months, you’ll know what you need to know: you’ll see the book publishing world the way your agent does.

Here’s what you’ll find there: a database that allows you to search for publishing deals by keywords, like, “Miami vampire” or “former SEAL,” or whatever your book is about. It includes a profile for every agent, which describes what s/he has been selling, and provides his or her email address. You can also find how much books sold for, which will help you determine whether lots of books like yours are being sold right now—and for how much money. You can even find out which agent represents your favorite writer. Everyone in the industry uses Publisher’s Marketplace; going without it is like going on a cross-country trip without GPS. By using it well, you’ll feel like an industry insider in a day.

Finally, Publisher’s Marketplace will help you find who to pitch, but also who not to pitch. And NOTE: It will be especially helpful if step one or step two worked, and you met an agent. Why? You can look them up to see what they’ve been selling. Are you talking to someone who does a lot of big deals? Someone who does solid work in your area? Or is this agent, to put it charitably, still establishing himself?

4. Okay, if you absolutely have to, start sending cold emails.  But only one a month.

Where to start? Well, if you’ve done the first two steps (above) and you still don’t have anyone calling, make a list of the 20 agents on Publishers Marketplace who represent anything like your book. Now: Cross off everyone who hasn’t made a deal in over a year. [These folks aren’t working.] Then cross off everyone who’s made three or more six figure deals this year. [These may be beyond you.]
Using the remaining list, query one agent a month. This isn’t the advice everyone else will give you. Most will tell you it’s okay to write to a dozen agents at a time. But think about this: If Agent #1 writes back in six weeks and says, “Sorry, but your dialogue isn’t believable,” you’ll be glad for a chance to fix it before sending it to Agent #3.  However, it is true you shouldn’t wait to hear back from one agent before moving on to the next—some may never respond.

Also—when querying, be sure to put your Publishers Marketplace subscription to work. Say you’re “reaching out because of your recent deals for (fill in specific  authors).

5. Keep writing.

Waiting sucks, but here’s the reality: If you’re a novelist, your first novel isn’t likely to get published. Sorry! However, the one you write while waiting for agencies to get back to you probably has a better shot. (That’s something!) Why? Creative breakthroughs. Show me a great first-time novelist and I’ll show you a writer with four unpublished novels she gave up on, hidden away in a drawer somewhere. If you’re having trouble getting attention for your writing right now, it could be because you’re about to have a creative breakthrough. So take advantage of where this novel has gotten you as a writer: keep creating.

Not a novelist? Nonfiction authors: Keep trying to turn pieces of your idea into articles. You’re not using up material; you’re establishing yourself as an expert in this field. Poets: Keep publishing your work in journals such as this one.

If all else fails, tweet at me.  I’ve actually taken on a bunch of clients who did that.

Good luck!

From Tasha: Writers! How are you getting YOUR work noticed? How do you meet other writers?
Have any Q’s for Eric, or for other agents?
Comment below!

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