Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Everything you wanted to know about literary agents...

A few people have recently been asking very similar things -- this is an example:

Dear Neil, I know that you touched upon this in your F.A.Q. but I'm very desperate for advice and I don't really know anyone personally to help me out. Without embellishing a little, you are one of my chief inspirations for writing and I would be honored if someone told me my writing was a quarter of your caliber and creativity. That said, you are about the only author I could think of that I would want to answer this question.I'm getting close to finishing what I hope will someday be my first novel and I'm becoming nervous. Not about the book, though. Like so many authors, I'm not afraid to write I'm afraid what I write won't get published. Since publishing isn't very friendly to the poor unsolicited manuscript I'm not seeing much alternative but to find a literary agent. The thing is I'm not sure how to go about that confidently. Like everyone submitting their writing I want a fair shake in a read through and a reputable agent to (hopefully) attach myself with. I don't mean to be a bother but if you could refer me to a website with a listing of good agencies or recommend a few by name I would be very grateful for that. It would be a thrill to have a book in print before I turn 25 (I'm giving myself a couple years room) so any direction you can point my zeal in would be more than I have at the moment.Thank you dearly and regards, Courtney W. IL

I'd been a writer professionally for about five or six years, and had three or four books published before I decided that it was time to get an agent, and I got that agent (Merrilee Heifetz, of Writers House) because she'd just sold DON'T PANIC! on behalf of Titan Books in the UK, and we met while I was in New York, and I liked her and felt very confident in her; she's been my agent for almost 18 years now; which is my way of saying that I don't know much about the ins and outs of getting agents.

I have read Ten Percent of Nothing, however, a book which explains how Dorothy L. Deering, possessing a high school degree, a recent embezzlement conviction, and no experience as a professional writer, editor, or publisher, began operating a fee-based literary agency out of her garage in Nicholasville, Kentucky. Over the next ten years, she racked up a fortune in reading and marketing fees, learning the business of sham publishing as she went along. Later, as the owner of a vanity press, she bilked 1.5 million dollars out of her clients, masterfully manufacturing dreams of literary success until she was brought to justice by Fisher�s investigative journalism, an FBI probe, and the retaliation and testimonies of numerous victims. So I know there are bad people out there who call themselves literary agents.

And best of all, I know Teresa Nielsen Hayden. Teresa's an editor at Tor Books (she's edited other places too over the years) and a weblogger besides -- -- and she knows publishing better than anyone else I've ever met. So I asked her...

What I got back was the kind of comprehensive post that aspiring authors should read with care. Study, even. Mark it and copy it and use it as a resource:

Hi, Neil --

Happy to answer.

1. If you're writing fiction, the True Secret Answer is "get an
offer." If you've got an offer, you can get an agent. If you don't
have an offer, you don't want the kind of agent you're likely to get.

a. If you're good enough to get published, having an agent may prove
helpful. If you aren't (yet), you definitely don't want the kind of
agent you're going to get.

i. There is no substitute for writing a book that people want to buy
and read. If you can do that, you can get published. If you can't, no
clever workaround will help, because we can't force people to buy and
read books they don't like.

b. Some ways you might get an agent without getting an offer: Be
obviously and extraordinarily good. Sell a lot of short stories. Have
some other seriously hot credentials.

2. Don't start by looking for an agent. Do your research first. Start
by learning about agents, submissions, publishing houses, the
industry, et cetera. Note: This is a huge subject.

a. No matter how you think it works, the publishing industry doesn't
work the way you think it does. This is true even for publishing
professionals. They know how their part of the industry works, and
they know a lot about adjacent areas, but the further afield they go,
the less reliable their expertise will be. People who aren't in the
industry generally don't have a clue.

i. A phenomenal number of articles about how publishing works are
written by people who don't know what they're talking about. This is
partly because writing about writing, or writing about publishing, is
what wanna-be authors do when they've given up on writing, but don't
yet want to admit it. It's also because a made-up version of the
publishing industry is going to be much simpler and more logical than
the real thing, and thus is easier to write about.

ii. Look askance at articles that credit some industry practice to the
stupidity of people working in the industry, who have failed to see
the simple and obvious solution the author of the article is about to

3. There are easily as many scam agents, useless agents, and clueless
agents as there are real ones. They all swap bad information with each
other. The difference is that the scammers know it's bad information.

a. You can't research this subject just by getting online and looking.
You have to stick to good sources.

4. Did I mention that any idiot can write a book about how to be a
writer? When you see someone who's never sold a book, but who's
written a book about how to get your book published, and said book was
published by a vanity house, and said author is nevertheless accepted
as an authority on the subject by a great many aspiring writers, you
know you've wandered into strange territory.

a. The scary part is that I've just described
more than one
Authoritative Source of Advice about Writing and Publishing.

b. Any idiot can put up a website, too.

c. Check out your source's credentials.

i. It's always worth your while to assess the quality of the info
you're getting, because bad advice can cost you such an inordinate
amount of time and effort.


The Essential Resources:

The Association of Authors' Representatives

There are some legit agents that don't belong to the AAR, but not
many; and if an agent belongs, they're legit.

Writer Beware:

Preditors & Editors is one site in two places, mirrored:

Aspiring writers should read both Writer Beware and Preditors &
Editors. Reading them from start to finish wouldn't be a bad idea.


Further Agent-Specific Resources

Agent Research & Evaluation has a good reputation and a stern

Agent Query,, is an online database of
agent info. I haven't used them. They've been casually recommended to


People who give reliable advice:

Victoria Strauss, who ought to get a Special Hugo or something. She
has a collection of very good articles on her website, a couple of
which are specifically about finding an agent:

Ann Crispin.

Jim Macdonald, sometimes known as Yog Sysop. He hangs out at
AbsoluteWrite, fighting scammers in the Bewares Board, and teaching
writing in Learn Novel Writing with Uncle Jim.

Me (she said, modestly) mostly, unless I'm feeling irresponsible. You can usually tell.
Further down is a list of some of my Making Light posts about writing,
publishing, and related subjects. I put it at the bottom because it's
so long.

John Savage, a pseudonymous lawyer who specializes in law for writers.
He does a weblog, Surreality Check:

C. E. Petit, a lawyer who specializes in law for writers, has a weblog
called Scrivener's Error:

Michelle Sagara.

Kent Brewster, of Speculations/Rumor Mill, has overseen a great many discussions of publishing, editing, and agenting.

Andy Zack is a legit agent who answers questions online.


Selected other sites that track and discuss good guys and bad guys:, the Rumor Mill:

especially see Speculations' "Search for the Killer Agent" thread:

AbsoluteWrite, the Bewares Board:, Whispers and Warnings



Sillybean's Publishing 101 has a good selection of current links on
writerly issues, and I'm not just saying that because it links to a
lot of my articles: is an oppressively compendious list of writers'


Bad Resources:

Avoid the list of agents at Anyone can type in their own
name there.

The more you know, the more errors you see in the "Everyone Who's Anyone in Adult Trade Publishing and Tinseltown Too" website.


Stuff from Making Light, roughly in order of its relevance:

On the Getting of Agents


A Brief Note on Linguistic Markers (recognizing scammers)

More Linguistic Markers (more of the same)

Bad Advice on Cover Letters (Todd James Pierce's bad advice)

Taking Your Own Bad Advice (Todd James Pierce digs himself in deeper)

Varieties of Insanity Known to Affect Authors If it amuses you, "Varieties of Insanity Known to Affect Authors" isalso available on assorted t-shirts, sweatshirts, and tote bags:

Cover Letters (a brief note on bad cover letters)

Nudge Note (short: waiting through a submission)

Extratextual Characteristics (on categories)

How Books Sell (addressing some common errors)

Squick and Squee (fanfic as an R&D lab of techniques)

Namarie Sue (Mary Sues, and other iniquities)

Is It Me -- (things the editor doesn't want to hear about)

>From Correspondence: Sneaking Out Under the Literary Radar

On Writing Genre Fantasy (brief)

The Evil Overlord Devises a Plot (cheap plot tricks) The weblog post talks about and links to The Evil Overlord Devises aPlot, but the actual thing is at The fancy automated version of the Evil Overlord Plot Generator (with Murphy's Laws of Combat) is here:

Looking at The Writers' Collective (scam publishing)

Hanging Out In Someone Else's Argument (PC magazine)

Look Quick, Before It Goes Away (can't summarize it)

Yetanother Book -- (very brief, on stupid advice books)

Deserts of Vast Literacy (extremely brief)

Wocky Jivvy, Wergle Flomp (scam poetry competitions)

The Power of the Press, Sort Of (hapless vanity publisher)

Prose and Cons (scam agent Melanie Mills gets busted)

Yetanother Variant (touches on publishing scams)

Rowling vs. Stouffer (I thought it was interesting)

The Underlying Forms of Fraud (a general article on fraud)

Communicator Awards, and Other Coincidences (Cris Robbins Agency)


How's that?



Quite astonishing really.

Changing the subject, it must be a delight for Waterstones to have solved the potential publicity problem of Joe Gordon's weblog so effectively. That was sarcasm: actually it looks like it's turning into a Waterstones PR disaster -- as the Guardian in,3604,1388249,00.html
gets the story out to all its readers, points out that a bookseller that supports free speech and has no policy on employee blogs cannot be seen to have reacted rationally by firing a blogger, then closes its article by extracting every less-than-flattering comment that Joe made about Waterstones and spreading it to a Waterstones-visiting readership much bigger than Joe's blog ever reached before, while the Scotsman -- also covers it, and they at least go on to use the word dooced, but without mentioning and the lady who will undoubtedly beat this blog in the Best of Blog awards -

Just for the record, Waterstone's may be LIKE Borders in the U.S., but they are not a part of the same company. Janice in GA
Happy wife of a Borders employee

Absolutely not.

And this came in from Jim Vance. I don't have anything to add to it, other than Jim is, as always, a gentleman, and that I'm very much looking forward to reading the conclusion of Omaha.

When Neil announced last spring that my wife Kate Worley's cancer had left our family in financial straits, the show of generosity from friends and fans was amazing. When she slipped away a few weeks later, the response was even greater. During her final weeks Kate was immensely touched by the show of affection represented by those gifts. I suspect that the number of condolences and contributions that followed her death would have astonished her.

Those gifts enabled me to reduce crippling medical expenses to a manageable level, and to provide for our children. For that, as well as the peace of mind it afforded Kate at the end, I am immeasurably grateful.

The gifts eventually stopped coming, of course, but more have recently begun to arrive...which prompts me to ask that no one else send money to us in Kate's memory. The assistance received made the difference between survival and desperation, and the accompanying sentiments provided emotional support at a time of desolation. But if this were to resume, I'd begin to feel as though I were profiting from Kate's death. That's not the way I want to remember her.

If anyone else who reads these words feels the need to honor her memory, please make a donation to the American Cancer Society in her name. Or do yourself a favor and seek out copies of the wonderful adult comics series she did with Reed Waller, "Omaha the Cat Dancer." After a hiatus of several years, Kate was writing the conclusion of that series during her final days, and we hope to be able to announce the publication of that new material in the near future. That may be the best way of all to honor her memory: keeping it alive by reading the wonderful stories she worked so hard to create.