Very early on in my time at Penguin, I wrote a rejection letter that changed everything.
It was my job to ghostwrite rejection letters for my boss, who was the president and publisher of the division and wanted to keep those letters simple and direct. He wasn’t really considering projects from agents whom he didn’t know and didn’t want my time taken up managing these poor leads.
After reviewing submissions that came to him, he would simply write “reject” or “R” on the cover letter and I would figure out what the letter would say. After only a couple of months of writing these letters for him, he returned one particular submission from an agent whom I didn’t know. I wrote up a simple, generic letter that was little more than a form letter and would likely discourage further submissions as was the desired outcome with this practice.
Except, that’s not what happened.
Not even close.
About a week after I put that letter in the mail, my boss got six more submissions from that agent.
Six more submissions.
How was it even possible that an agent could have so many clients all at once, let alone so many clients who were supposedly a good fit for my boss’s list of authors? Confused, I asked him what he thought of this influx.
“He’s not a real agent,” my boss said.
“No. What he’s doing is promising people that he has ties to the big publishing houses, and the rejection letters are proof.”
“So?” I said. “What does that mean?”
My boss looked at me and smirked.
“It means he’s charging them by the rejection.”
After I picked up my jaw from the floor, I left his office.
And I threw out all six of those submissions.
I was shocked. This “agent,” whom I will wholly and fully label with scare quotes even though I hate using scare quotes, was charging people by the number of times their work got rejected from places like Penguin. Given how quickly my boss summed up the situation, it was clear that he had encountered such practices before. This man’s conduct reflected a rather disturbing reality pervasive throughout book publishing: some people will hang up a shingle and claim to be a literary agent, and if they don’t charge you outright for representing you as a whole, they will charge you for every rejection that you get.
Now, any credible publishing resource like Writers Market or Publishers Marketplace will tell you never to pay an agent until they earn their commission from a legitimate deal. This is hopefully not news to you. But the above story highlights the far more frustrating reality that while many people still crave the support and guidance that a traditional book deal provides, it’s becoming harder and harder to get even the tiniest sliver of attention from people who are legit. On particularly bad days, paying someone by the rejection seems more appealing than not having any representation at all.
This then presents us with the question of how do we ultimately know that an agent is not only legit, but is a good fit for our work?
I hope I’ve made myself entirely clear that YOU SHOULD NEVER PAY AN AGENT WHO HASN’T SECURED YOU A DEAL. Agents get paid when you get paid. But in the spirit of giving you an actionable take away, I have a simple tip for you that will help you determine not only who isn’t a snake oil salesman, but is a good fit for your particular project.
Often, we are told to look at publications like Writers Market as a starting place for finding people interested in our work. This work of starting with a list of agents is absolutely a viable way to research possible representation. But while this can help, it can be just as if not more valuable to start with a book they’ve represented.
A book that, ultimately, has a lot in common with your own.
An author will often acknowledge their agent in their book. It can also be fairly easy to find the agents of books through Google. But instead of researching agents by genre, category, or even agency, research them by the books that you have in your hands.
Why should this tip be worthy of an article like this? We hope for an agent with whom we can have productive conversations and even a laugh. We’d love for our agent to have a slick reputation and a confident style. But what this tip does is it satisfies the most simple criterion – you want a certain outcome for your project, and this agent got similar results for someone else. Does this mean that they’re a good fit for you? Not necessarily. But starting with a dozen agents who have gotten similar results for a dozen comparable authors provides you with a far more specific lens through which to view thousands upon thousands of publishing professionals.
The likelihood of your compatibility with a literary agent is directly tied to the likelihood that they can get you not rejections, nor deals for other kinds of books, but a deal for your kind of book.
You only need one publisher to say “yes” to get yourself a traditional deal.
And you only need one agent to make this happen.