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Why do I want an agent?
Literary agents are essentially somewhere between the guardian angels and the mercenaries of the publishing world. They guide you through your career, bring your work directly to the people who matter, fight the contractual battles so you can spend more time on writing and promotion, and make sure you end up with the best possible deals.
The biggest benefit to having an agent is that they can get your manuscript out of the slush pile. An experienced agent has contacts in the publishing industry, and knows who publishes what, and what they’re interested in. While to us mere mortals, the publishing industry behind a wall, an agent knows that Paul from Penguin Random House loves literary writing with a distinct voice, and that Bob from Pan Macmillan is a sucker for manuscripts set in the 1920s with snarky male characters.
The reason that the publishing industry is hard to break into is that it is surprisingly small; everyone knows everyone. Agents have already done the tricky part of breaking in, and can help mould your proposal to suit the current state of play.
The other huge benefit of having a literary agent is that they live and breathe contracts. They understand what the publishers will and won’t budge on, they know which clauses need careful scrutiny, and they can negotiate the things that truly matter to you and your career. Agents don’t just interpret legalspeak—their livelihood (as they work on commission) depends on securing a contract while defending your rights and your interests.
Different writers need different things, and it is not always the amount of money offered that is the most important factor on the table. For example, to a regular travel writer, a non-compete clause may be detrimental to their career, while to a writer who just wants to publish that one book, the size of the advance or the royalty terms might be more important. A good agent will understand your individual needs, and will preserve them without giving away unnecessary rights.
How can I get one?
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Finding an agent isn’t necessarily an easy feat—some say it is easier to find a publisher than an agent. But it’s definitely not impossible if you are clever with your submissions.
First thing’s first: figuring out who to submit to. The Australian Literary Agents’ Association is a great place to start, and it has a useful guide on submitting to an agent. The benefit of the Association’s member agencies is that they all follow the Code of Practice, meaning that the Association vouches for them on an ethical basis. Take a look through the member agencies and their websites, and see which of them represent what your area of writing.
Another great source is the Australian Writers Marketplace. This is Australia’s version of The Market—it is a fairly comprehensive list of Australian publishers, agencies, magazines, journals, writing organisations, and courses, and it includes submission guidelines where relevant. If you purchase a digital membership, it also has articles with lots of helpful advice to get you going.
If you find an agent and you’re not sure if what they are doing is reputable or the norm, go to the Australian Society of Authors or your state writers centre and voice your concerns. Take a look at their list and who they represent, and see whether those people are successful. Don’t sign anything you’re not comfortable with or you don’t understand.
Before going any further, make sure you are ready to submit. Look up the norms for your genre; remember fiction writers generally need to have a completed manuscript before submitting (even if the agent only wants to see a few sample chapters!), while nonfiction writers often only need to have completed a book proposal, including sample chapters. Read the submission guidelines on the agency’s website, and make sure that you are meeting them. Respect the agent’s time; if you can’t bother to meet their requirements, why should they bother investing time in your work?
Next, you need to write an excellent query letter. A query letter is basically your opportunity to sell your manuscript, as well as yourself, in approximately one page. If you’re not sure how to get started, A Decent Proposal is an excellent book to help you construct a query letter and proposal. You can also find examples of query letters that worked here and here, though take them with a grain of salt.
If you’re struggling to find someone to represent you, remember that a huge part of gaining traction in the writing industry, especially in Australia, is building connections. As mentioned above, the industry is very small, and everyone knows someone who knows everyone. Be kind and professional at all times (or news will spread), but don’t be afraid to go to industry events or reach out to your local writing organisations. All industry professionals, including agents, are just people—and people are surprisingly generous with their time.