How Best To Succeed In Marketing Your Writing

Marketing your writing can be vexing. When will an agent look at your work? What are the advantages and disadvantages, the courtesies and rules when trying to acquire a literary agent? An experienced writer tells all.

If you are a writer, chances are you are or at one time will be considering whether or not to find an agent to market your work. When is it wise to have an agent, when is it imperative, and when is it either a waste of time or possibly downright damaging?

First of all, if you are strictly interested in publishing short fiction or poetry, or short non-fiction to the magazine, newspaper or online markets, having an agent is not neccesary. Agents are not interested in handling such minimal sales, as their small percentage of your take (generally 15%)does not make it worth their while. You also have to hit a lot of possible markets to sell a short story or an essay these days, and you can probably do so on your own more efficiently than an agent can, especially if you cultivate a relationship with an editor and sell repeats to the same markets over and over.

If the work of your heart is a literary novel that you hope to have published at a small press such as a university press, an agent is also probably not called for. Again, the small margin of profit makes the shopping around of such a project prohibitive for most agents.

But if you are writing or have written a blockbuster type novel, a romance, mystery, woman's fiction, science fiction or mainstream, an agent may be just the person to add to your writing team. Agents have contacts in the publishing world, and know the markets. They also can help make suggestions and give advice on works in progress, guide an author's future efforts and help with publicizing, boosting sales, negotiating profit percentages, advance figures and more. While it is still theoretically possible to sell your own novel to a publisher, particularly if it is a genre novel such as romance, having a good agent can still be highly beneficial.

On the other hand, many authors attest to the fact that sometimes having an agent, a poor agent, is worse than having no agent at all. A poor agent doesn't bother to send your work out to editors, doesn't keep you informed about its status, doesn't return your calls, and can't negotiate her way out of a paper bag. Your work vegetates on her desk for two years, then gets rejected because it's not "timely."

But a good agent can find a hot deal for a well-written novel, help the author make it in the big time, handle options and assure a future of continued sales, if quality work is being produced.

How to find a an effective agent is a key question for those writing big novels and non-fiction books with a promising future, where agenting can have a significant effect on sales and longevity. Most people in publishing agree""New York is where it's at, so if you want an up-to-date, fast tracked agent, find one preferably located in New York, or ascertain that your out-of-New York agent travels to the city frequently and has rich contacts there.

But aren't most fast-tracked, savvy New York literary agents tough to sign with? You bet. And they certainly don't want to know you until your polished, top notch novel or non-fiction book is finished and ready for the big time.

Even then, the chances of your getting a read by the top New York agents is minimal. Those who are really effective already have a major client list that does not need expansion. If by some miracle they agree to take you on even though they are the agent for Stephen King or Patricia Cornwall, your chances of getting a lot of attention at such an agency are not huge, when you consider they have a sure thing going with Author No. 1, and will be available for that author morning noon and night. In that case, how available will they be for you, their fledgling author with no proven track record?

So perhaps your best bet as a new author is to find a literary agent at roughly your level, mid- or starting level. Fortunately, beginning agents, or those with a few sales under their belt, are also looking for you or someone like you. How to find them?

There are three primary ways to find just the right agent for you. There are many web sites that list agent news, and even provide listings of agents, although not necessarily with recommendations or providing track records. One good source is Todd Pierce's Guide to Literary Agents.

Basic information online like names and current addresses is helpful, though, and often more up-to-date than the material in agent such as "The Literary Marketplace," long accepted as the writer's bible of agents and publishers. Another timely resource is Publishers' Weekly Magazine, which always lists new and upcoming agents, who for example, have just made their first noticeable sale, and might be in the market to enlarge their stable of authors. Check out Publishers Weekly at your local library if you can't afford a subscription""it's an excellent source.

But maybe the best source is your own research. Check out books that are similar to yours, the type of book you wish you'd written, and read the acknowledgments page. Most authors will have thanked their agent in those pages, and you can use the reference to prepare a query to that agent, asking them to consider your work.

How to query an agent? Write a crisp, ("sparkling," one agent said) one-page letter inviting the agent to take a look at your partial manuscript (usually three chapters and a synopsis, or in the case of a non-fiction book, an outline). Include three facts, roughly a paragraph each: the gist of the book, the "hook" that will make the agent (and later the editor) sit up and take notice; your qualifications for writing this particular book; and why you think this agent might be right for you (which should be the briefest paragraph, eg., "Because you handled John Jones' book on Creating Topiary Trees that Will Amaze Your Neighbors, you may be the exactly right agent to market my book on Bizarre Garden Statuary to Get Attention in Your Neighborhood, or something along that line.

Some writers include a page or two of sample writing, then wait to hear from the agent who may or may not ask to see a partial or complete manuscript.

Should the agent want your work, and offer you a contract, don't forget to ask his credentials and selling record. You may be satisfied with a low or mid-level agent, but you definitely want to know he has accomplished something. The best acknowledgment of an agent's credibility is her membership in the Association of Author's Representatives, which will send you a copy of their membership for a minimal fee, or you can find AAR on line.

One final caveat: never engage an agent who asks you for money to read your work. Most agents also do not charge for copying, postage or other office fees, but some do. You'll have to decide if the investment is worth it, or if you should continue seeking an agent who doesn't charge and who seems compatible with you, or to market your work to publishers independently.

Whatever you decide, it has been done successfully both ways. Some authors never bother to hire an agent; others have an agent and find great success or fail to sell completely in spite of it.

Information is your best arming for the marketing wars a writer faces. Arm yourself.

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