Landing an Agent

© 1997 and 2000 by Robert J. Sawyer

[wm note: You can find more helpful articles by Robert J. Sawyer, including this one, at his award winning site: www.sfwriter.com]

It's very hard to get a good literary agent to represent your first novel unless you have substantial short-fiction or other relevant credentials. And a bad agent can be worse than no agent at all. Most authors sell their first novel by submitting it to publishers (one at a time) themselves; once they've got an offer in hand, they call up an agent.

If you're writing science fiction, get yourself a New York agent; even if you're Canadian, don't get a Toronto one (and if you decide to ignore that advice, don't even think about anyone who lives outside of those two cities: the whole point of having an agent is so that he/she can have lunch with editors on a regular basis; the major editors are in New York and Toronto, so your agent should be in one or the other -- as one writer put it, "My agent lives in New York so that I don't have to.").

One good way to find an agent is to identify authors whose work is similar to yours, and, of course, whom you think are getting well placed in the market. The SFWA Directory has an index at the back that tells you who represents whom; many authors acknowledge their agents at the beginnings of their books, too.

Here's a skeletonized version of the letter I used to land my own agent. I don't say it's an ideal approach, but it worked for me:

Dear [Agent's Name]:

I hope you will be interested in taking me on as a new client. I have completed a science fiction novel called [title] which I would like you to represent.

[Two sentences of description of the novel, avoiding hype]

As a sample of my work, I've enclosed a copy of the September 1988 issue of Amazing Stories, which has my novelette "Golden Fleece" as the cover story. "Golden Fleece" has made it to the preliminary Nebula Award ballot. [If you've got something impressive you can show him/her up front, do so -- but don't send the novel manuscript until asked to do so.]

[Two more short paragraphs summarizing your other credentials, if relevant; I mentioned my successful non-fiction writing career...]

I intend to produce a lot of books. I'm already hard at work on my second. [Agents have no use for one-book clients, since almost all first novels sell for peanuts -- the agent makes no real money unless you have an on-going career.] I'm approaching you before I query any other agents because I've been impressed by your columns in Locus. Having an agent who so clearly understands the forces that are shaping publishing is something I consider crucial. [Let the agent know why you're approaching him/her -- something more than "I saw your name in Writer's Digest."]

I would very much like to send you [title] for your consideration. SASE enclosed.

A few words about commissions: Most agents these days charge 15% commission on domestic sales (and, in the chauvinistic world of U.S. publishing, "domestic" refers to the United States and Canada combined). That 15% cut should be inclusive of all expenses. Some agents charge 10%, but also charge you expenses (such as photocopying, courier costs, long-distance phone costs, and so forth) -- that's a better deal (assuming the agent is equally good), but harder to get. Regardless, never under any circumstances should you pay expenses or any fees up front: the agent only receives money by deducting his or her 15% commission (or 10% commission plus expenses) from your eventual earnings. I recently heard of one agent telling new writers that she was charging 15% commission plus expenses -- that's a rip-off; don't agree to it.

Regardless of their domestic commission rate, most agents charge 15% on film and TV sales and 20% (or sometimes even 25%) on foreign sales (including British and translations). The 20% rate is justified because normally two agents are involved (the second one being in the foreign country), and they end up splitting the commission. You should never agree to paying over 25% commission for any type of sale.

Also: the Association of Authors Representatives, which is the professional organization of literary agents, forbids the charging of "reading fees." If an agent asks you to pay a fee for his or her "evaluation" of your manuscript, refuse. Remember, anyone can call himself or herself an agent, and a lot of unscrupulous people do just that, and grow fat off of reading fees.

Many authors and agents together on the basis of a simple handshake; others have signed contracts. In such a contract, the "sunset" clause -- the details of how you will sever your relationship, should the desire to do so arise -- is the most important. I firmly believe that an agent has rights only in contracts he or she has actually negotiated, not in the works the author has written.

Here's a sample author-agent agreement:

Author / Agent Agreement

This letter, dated _____________________, outlines the entire agreement between ____________________ ("the author"), who currently resides at ____________________, and ____________________ ("the agent"), currently principally doing business at ____________________. This letter supersedes all prior agreements.

So long as this agreement is in effect, the agent will act as the author's literary agent for book-length works of fiction and non-fiction (including story collections), and for any other works that they may mutually agree upon. All contracts negotiated by the agent are subject to the author's approval.

The agent charges the author 15% commission on the licensing of domestic rights, with no expenses charged to the author unless specifically approved by the author in writing.

The agent charges the author 15% commission on the licensing of motion picture, television, audiocassette, and videocassette rights, and 20% commission on the licensing of British and translation rights.

For all contracts covered under this agreement, the agent will collect moneys owed to the author and, within ten days of receipt, disburse the full share due to the author.

This agreement between the author and the agent is an executory contract and will remain in effect until it is terminated.

Either the agent or the author (or, if the author is deceased, the heir to the author's literary estate) may voluntarily terminate this agreement upon thirty days' written notice to the other party by certified mail, return receipt requested. During that final thirty-day period, if it so desires, the agent may attempt to complete to the author's satisfaction any current contract negotiations already underway. After such termination, the agent shall continue to administer, in good faith and to the author's best advantage, any contracts that it negotiated while this agreement was still in force, including any contracts completed to the author's satisfaction during the final thirty-day period. The agent shall be entitled to commissions from revenues earned on these existing contracts at the appropriate percentages specified above, but shall have no other claim to any share of any future revenues from any of the author's works.

This contract immediately terminates involuntarily if the agent goes bankrupt. In the event of bankruptcy, the author will advise all publishers with whom contracts negotiated by the agent on the author's behalf are still in effect to make payments of the author's share of all revenues directly to the author and to separately remit any agent's commissions the agent is entitled to under those contracts to the agent.

Agreed to by:

X___________________________ Date: ______________
The author

X___________________________ Date: ______________
The agent

Finally, here's a list [updated November 1999] of all the American literary agents who represent three or more members of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, not including themselves (this doesn't constitute an endorsement, of course). You can find current addresses for all of these in the publication Literary Market Place ("LMP"), available at large libraries.

James Allen, Milford, PA
Matthew Bialer (of William Morris), New York, NY
Joshua Bilmes (of JABerwocky Agency), Sunnyside, NY
Barbara Bova, Naples, FL
Curtis Brown, New York, NY
Algis Budrys (of Unifont), Evanston, IL
Frances Collin, Wayne, PA
Richard Curtis, New York, NY
Ethan Ellenberg, New York, NY
James Frenkel, Madison, WI
Russell Galen (of Scovil Chichak Galen), New York, NY
Susan Gleason, New York, NY
Robert Gottlieb, New York, NY
Ashley Grayson, San Pedro, CA
Merrilee Heifetz (of Writers' House), New York, NY
Richard Henshaw, New York, NY
Sharon Jarvis, Laceyville, PA
Virginia Kidd, Milford, PA
Perry Knowlton, New York, NY
Donald Maass, New York, NY
Ricia Mainhardt, Brooklyn, NY
Jonathan Matson (of Harold Matson), New York, NY
Shawna McCarthy, New York, NY
Kay McCauley (of Pimlico), New York, NY
Kirby McCauley (of Pimlico), New York, NY
Martha Millard, Madison, NJ
Howard Morhaim, New York, NY
William Morris, Inc., New York, NY
Jean Naggar, New York, NY
Owlswick Literary Agency, King of Prussia, PA
Lori Perkins, Riverdale, NY
Linn Prentiss, Milford, PA
Susan Ann Protter, New York, NY
Scovil Chichak Galen, New York, NY
Nat Sobel, New York, NY
Valerie Smith, Modena, NY
Spectrum Literary Agency, New York, NY
Larry Sternig & Jack Byrne, Milwaukee, WI
Ralph M. Vicinanza, New York, NY
Cherry Weiner, Manalapan, NJ
Eleanor Wood (of Spectrum), New York, NY
Writers' House, New York, NY
Andrew Zack (of The Zack Company), New York, NY

Webmaster's note: HWA members can find additional agents listed in the Agents section of the Members Only area.



Robert J. Sawyer is "the dean of Canadian Science Fiction," according to The Ottawa Citizen. He has written fifteen novels including Golden Fleece (Warner); Far-Seer, Fossil Hunter, Foreigner, End of an Era, Starplex, and Illegal Alien (Berkley/Ace); The Terminal Experiment (HarperCollins); Frameshift, Factoring Humanity, Flashforward, Calculating God, and three forthcoming titles (Tor). His The Terminal Experiment won the 1995 Nebula Award for Best Novel of the Year, as well as winning seven Aurora Awards (Canada's top honor in SF writing), an Arthur Ellis Award from the Crime Writers of Canada, Science Fiction Chronicle's Reader Award, Japan's Seiun Award, France's Le Grand Prix de l'Imaginaire, and Spain's Premio UPC de Ciencia Ficción, the world's largest cash prize for SF writing. He has been a finalist five times for the Hugo.

Rob is The Canadian Encyclopedia's authority on Science Fiction, a commentator on SF for CBC Radio's Ideas series, and a frequent commentator on SF for The Discovery Channel Canada. Rob is Past President (and first non-American to hold that spot) of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, Inc., the world's oldest and largest association of SF professionals. His award-winning World Wide Web site at www.sfwriter.com -- which has been called "the best author's page on the Internet" -- contains over 900,000 words of short stories, sample chapters, articles, interviews, and reviews.

© 1997 / 2000 by Robert J. Sawyer. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced or distributed without the author's written permission. Permission is granted only for posting on the World Wide Web at http://www.horror.org/, though hyperlinks to the article at this URL are encouraged.

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