The manuscript is finished. You've polished it to within an inch of your life! Now what?
If you just want to sell this particular manuscript, you can take your chances in the slush pile. But if you want a writing career, you need an agent.
It is probably true that it's as hard or perhaps harder to establish a working relationship with an agent as it is to find an editor who wants to publish your work. But the angst is worth it when you consider what an agent brings to the table.
A good agent knows the acquiring editors at all the publishing houses. He/she knows who's looking for what. An agent should have established credible relationships with the editors and a reputation for representing quality material, so that when they send in a submission, the manuscript jumps to the head of the TBR line. The agent, not you, gets to follow up and should be able to get an answer on your work in much less time. Your agent has your back in contract negotiations. He/she sweats all the details. A good agent can see on down the road to where you'll be in 5 years, and help you develop a plan to get there. Some agents even offer editorial imput to their clients. And every agent worth her salt has told me they'd rather be involved in a project from the first kernel of a idea than be called in only once an offer is on the table and there's little they can do to shape the contract but take their 15%.
Notice I prefaced the above by saying "good" agent. There are predators out there and this is definitely an "author beware" decision. You are getting into financial bed with this person. I've heard of authors being swindled out of their entire advance and subsequent royalties. It's time for due diligence. (Published authors, here's an opportunity for you to share your horror stories in order to save others. But for liability reasons, I ask that you not name names.)
So check out the agencies. Do a little friendly internet stalking of agents who interest you. (I got that tip from Anna DeStefano!) Check out their client list. Do they represent the type of story you write? Some agents have blogs. Follow them. You'll learn alot about how they operate.
Go for a face to face meet. You don't have to go to a national convention to meet top shelf agents. Many attend regional conferences. Check your local area and see who's coming to take appointments. It's worth a conference fee to be able to chat in person with someone who may be shaping your career. And if they've heard your pitch and are interested, you'll move to the head of their slushpile. (Yes, I'm sorry to say, agents have slushpiles, too.)
I titled this post The Agent Dance for a reason. Here's how the process works:
1. Author choses agent she would like to have represent her.
2. Author queries said agent.
3. Agent responds with "No, thank you" (in which case, you thank her politely and move on. Don't vent. Don't whine. Don't demand further explanation. Publishing is far too small a world to burn a single bridge. Your paths will cross again.) Or the agent wants to see more (in which case, you send him/her exactly what he/she asks for. No more, no less.)
4. Author waits.
5. Author waits some more.
6. Author starts working on the next manuscript and almost forgets she even submitted a manuscript to the agent.
7. Agent sends a rejection letter, a request for revisions, OR he/she calls with an offer of representation.
8. Author does not hop up and down and scream "Yes, Yes" orgasmically into the receiver. (Save that for after you hang up!)
9. Author interviews the agent. This is your opportunity to discover what the agent sees in your work (And if the agent does not use the L word, thank him/her politely and decline their offer. If your agent doesn't LOVE your writing, he/she is not the right agent for you.)
Find out what plans the agent might have for where the manuscript will be submitted and why that publishing house is a good fit. If the agent says, "Oh, we'll shop it everywhere. Someone will love it", thank them politely and move on.
Now is the time to set expectations for the relationship. How does the agent work with his/her clients? Don't expect them to hold your hand and stroke you constantly. They do have other clients and while you're at it, ask to speak to some of the agent's current clients (If they refuse to give you some names, thank them politely and run like the wind!)
10. If you like what you hear, you agree to form an agency relationship, put it in writing, and work productively together for many happy years.
Here are a few don'ts:
1. Never pay a "reading" fee. An agent should consider your work without an upfront charge to you.
2. I know I said to do a little cyber stalking, but don't do it for real. Agents are people too and don't appreciate being hounded. Be considerate of their time before and after you agree to work together.
3. Don't expect an agent to sell sloppy prose. The best agent in the world can't gloss over less than the best you can give her. She's an agent, not a miracle-worker.
4. Don't accept an offer of representation unless you feel strongly that this person will advance your career. Having no agent is better than having the wrong agent.
So that's what I know about the Agent Do-Si-Do. If someone posts a question I don't know the answer to, I'll be glad to ask my fabulous agent. Happy hunting.