FAQs: Agents & Research

On agents…

Q. How do I get an agent?

A. There used to be one primary method: buy a resource book that lists agents and their specialties. Many agents only handle certain types of fiction–and some handle only non-fiction. By doing your homework, you save your time and money in not making erroneous submissions. These reference books also list recent sales by the agent as well as guidelines the individual agent requires for a submission. One such publication, which is updated annually and has been around for as long as I can remember, is Guide to Literary Agents from Writer’s Digest Books.

Alternatively, a previously unconventional way of finding an agent has become more mainstream. In short, there is no substitute for doing business in person. Meeting someone face to face is the most effective way to make a connection…and business (publishing is a business) is all about making connections. How do you meet an agent (or editor) in person? Many writers’ conferences have taken the lead from the defunct Maui Writers Conference in providing a forum for writers and agents to get together. Usually there is a fee for each face-to-face consultation you have with an agent. However, if you are someone who can schmooze and sell yourself, then it’s well worth this minimal cost. Again, you want to do your homework to make sure you’re meeting with the right type of agent. Talking to an agent who specializes in historical fiction when you write self-help books will likely get you nowhere. ThrillerFest, in New York City every year and run by International Thriller Writers, features a dedicated track built around such pitch sessions.

Q. Is it possible to get published without having an agent?

A. Back in the day when I was practicing chiropractic medicine, a physician friend of mine once coached me before I gave my first deposition. His advice: if the opposing attorney asks you, “Doctor, is it possible these injuries were caused by a UFO abduction instead of the car accident your patient was involved in?” my response should be, “Anything’s possible.” So I’ll answer this the same way. Of course it’s possible to get published without having an agent. It does happen. But like UFO abductions, the likelihood of it occurring is…somewhat remote. I think it’s best to focus your energies on finding a good agent.

That said, the eBook revolution has given the goal of “getting published” a different meaning. It has made self-publishing feasible because it utilizes print on demand to publish bound books and e-book platforms to distribute the digital editions. This allows you to easily make your work available on all digital platforms (Kindle, Nook, iBooks, Google Play, Kobo, etc.). Thus, if your time frame for realizing your dream of getting published is short, it is now possible to move forward without securing an agent. While it’s not a substitute for being traditionally published—and has some significant disadvantages, which I’ll cover in a later article—it is a viable alternative for some writers.

Q. What makes a good agent?

A. This is an involved question. But…you want an agent who is enthusiastic about your work, who can and will fight for you when necessary, and who has solid contacts in the industry, primarily with editors. He (or she) should be attentive and make sure all potential avenues of distribution of your work are explored.

You also want your agent to be industry-savvy: that is, when negotiating contracts, you want him to be well-versed in industry norms; you want him to be able to tell you that something is reasonable or unreasonable, or that something is or isn’t customary for the publishing houses; to be well-informed on new issues and industry technologies; and to be able to tell you about the ramifications of a particular clause in your contract. It’s a bad feeling to later find something in your contract that doesn’t mean what you thought it meant…or that you could have negotiated something substantially better just by asking for it. The agent needs to know to ask in the first place.

Finally, your agent has to be responsive. If you ask a question, he should respond in a timely manner.

Q. I’ve heard that some agents charge reading fees. Is this reasonable?

A. No. Never pay a fee for an agent. Reading fees are unnecessary and are indicative of a sub-par agent who looks to the reading fees for his or her source of income rather than the sales of author material.

Q. I’ve finished my novel and I’m ready to submit it. Can you give me some guidelines on how to find an agent and how to submit my work?

A. Spend some time poking through The Writer’s Toolkit on my website to gain an insight into the publishing industry and its nuances and practices. Then buy a book like Guide to Literary Agents. When deciding to which agents you should submit your work, make sure they handle the type of book you write. Next, comply with whatever requirements are outlined in the summary profile provided for each agent. If they say to send the first 15 pages, don’t send 50. (I wouldn’t send the entire manuscript at the outset, as it’s expensive and unnecessary. I know someone who just hit his 100th agent rejection, so the costs add up.)

Some agents accept electronic submissions. If so, this will be stated—and will obviously reduce your costs to next to nothing.

If they require a hard copy, make sure the text is printed on clean paper, single-sided, in a standard (Courier or Times Roman) font, 12 point, with one inch margins. Your name, the manuscript’s title, and page number should go at the top of each page. Include a query letter that contains the best writing you’ve ever done. Their feeling is if you can’t write a good query, you can’t write a good novel. I’m not sure I agree with that, but the point is it doesn’t matter what I think—just make it an intriguing letter of no more than one page. There are books dedicated to the particulars of writing a query letter. Guide to Literary Agents covers the topic as well.

Finally, I wouldn’t make exclusive submissions, even though this is what agents prefer. (This means you send out a query and wait to get a rejection from that agent before sending it out to another.) You have to be fair to yourself. Look at it this way: if it took 100 submissions to get signed by an agent, and you sent out one query at a time and waited about two months (if you’re lucky) to get a reply, you’d literally spend about 15 years mailing out queries. More than ridiculous, it’s not good business. And like it or not, writing is a business.

If you want to get scared and depressed at the same time, read Noah Lukeman’s book, The First Five Pages. A former editor and current literary agent, Lukeman outlines some of the things agents and editors look for in a manuscript. Some of the advice is excellent, while the behind-the-scenes look at how agents and editors make a decision on your manuscript is, as I said, scary and depressing. Assuming the information is accurate—a reasonable assumption since he’s an industry insider, so he should know—it’s information you need to know. It’s also a sad commentary on how our publishing industry operates (though that’s clearly not what he intended).

On research…

Q. When writing a novel, how important is research?

A. If you care what your readers think (and you should), you’ll want your facts to be ballpark accurate. Think of it this way: your readers are intelligent people, with knowledge bases spanning many careers and professions. It’s likely some of them are going to know about the topic you’re writing about. The last thing you want to do is to take the reader out of the fiction you’ve worked so hard to create—and one sure way is to state a fact that’s blatantly incorrect. You don’t want your reader saying, “This guy doesn’t know what he’s talking about. A Glock doesn’t have a safety!” Boom…what just happened? The reader is no longer thinking about your story, or your characters, or the suspense you’ve worked hard to create: he’s thinking about the facts you’ve gotten wrong.

Q. Are all your facts always correct?

A. I guess this was the next obvious question. The answer is no. Over the course of 400 pages, there are many different topics and concepts you’ll encounter. Even the most diligent writer can’t get it all right all the time. You can only do your best.

That said, sometimes you’ll want to, or need to, take literary license—change or stretch the truth to move a story along, maintain pacing, avoid confusing the reader, or enabling a plot point to work. It’s still important to know what’s correct so you can judge how much you want to stray from the truth. About twenty years ago, Ridley Pearson told me he works hard to ensure the accuracy of his facts so that when he introduces a “fictional fact” to further his story, the reader won’t know which facts are real and which aren’t.

One final note on research: the old writing adage of “write what you know” is flawed—because there aren’t any Renaissance men or women around these days—and life was much simpler when they did exist. No computers, no Internet of Things—hell, no Internet. No cars, no planes, no forensics, no microbiology, no genetics. Medical knowledge was a fraction of what we understand today. The sheer volume of information that exists nowadays virtually guarantees that you won’t know a lot about most things—so if you only wrote what you knew, you’d be forced to write in a very narrow band. When you’ve been writing as long as I have, keeping to that limited knowledge base would’ve become a problem sometime after my first novel! Researching your story means breaking through those chains.

When I wrote INMATE 1577, the San Francisco Chronicle wrote, “Alan Jacobson researches his books like a good newspaper reporter, and then pushes the envelope into reality more thoroughly than the typical crime novel could ever allow.” That was a tremendous compliment—and illustrates my point. What did I know about crime and policework back in 1994 when I started writing professionally? Not a whole lot. But I changed that.

Q. As a writer, how important are contacts in conducting your research?

A. Contacts are invaluable. Other than the obvious—providing you with information you wouldn’t otherwise be able to access—they sometimes think of something or say something that takes your story in an entirely different direction. For example, while researching FALSE ACCUSATIONS, my FBI contact took me to the Department of Justice’s Division of Law Enforcement indoor shooting range and showed me a variety of handguns. It was his opinion that in order to write about guns, I’d first have to experience what it felt like to fire them. He was absolutely right. And though I don’t think the word “gun” is even mentioned in FALSE ACCUSATIONS, guns have played a role of some kind in every novel I’ve written since. His instruction and the experience he gave me was invaluable in understanding the power a character holds in his or her hand when he or she points the weapon at someone.

After I wrote THE HUNTED (OPSIG Team Black #1), I received an email from a lieutenant commander in charge of the US chemical weapons depot in the Pacific Northwest. He told me he loved The Hunted but that I’d gotten something wrong relative to the MP5 semiautomatic submachine gun. I was mortified! I’d learned how to shoot the MP5 at the FBI Academy—as well as how to disassemble and clean it. How could I have gotten anything wrong? I consulted my notes and video, then replied, telling the Lt. commander that I thought I was correct—and explained why. Three days later he wrote back. He checked with his SWAT commander, and it turned out I was right. He became an important resource for me when I wrote HARD TARGET (OPSIG Team Black #2), and for years beyond.

I believe anytime a writer can experience something in life, it’s enormously beneficial. You may not be writing a book that involves guns, or skydiving, or even meat packing. But once you experience it, you’ll carry that memory around with you forever. And it’ll inevitably end up in a book—at which point you may even know who to ask for more info about it.

DISCLAIMER: Any “advice” or information provided on this website is based on the author’s experience and knowledge, and is intended only as background and for purposes of general interest. It is NOT LEGAL ADVICE, and could be incorrect. If you have questions about this information, how it applies to your particular situation, or anything else of a legal nature, CONSULT AN ATTORNEY.