Q: What is the best way to go about getting an agent for publishing a book? Any tricks of the trade?
A: Disclaimer: I don't have a book agent, so let's just say I've been around long enough to have heard a thing or two.
There are two ways that I know of to get a book agent. The first is to Google for a list of legit agents I say legit because there are plenty of scammers out there who offer expensive "editing services" and the like. These hucksters prey upon starry-eyed newbies who are desperate for representation. In other words, be cautious. Once you find a reputable source of agency names, go to their websites and see what their submission guidelines are. Is a certain agency repping books like yours? If not, don't bother. If you write hard sci-fi and the agency you're thinking of contacting mostly represents romance authors, move on or you'll just end up looking stupid. I only say this because I've read complaints from agents who are the victims of blanket "Dear Agent" queries where it's obvious the author has done little or no research on the agency they're querying. It's a waste of your time and theirs.
Once you've found an agency that looks like they might be a good fit, check their guidelines to see if they're accepting submissions, and send them a query letter in which you briefly describe the project and ask them if they'll take a look. Books like "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Publishing Children's Books" and "Children's Writer's & Illustrator's Market" offer lots of helpful advice regarding agents and how to get one.
The other way is an old classic. Ask a repped author you know for a referral. I briefly had an agent when "Nonsense! He Yelled" was first published. My editor was kind enough to set things up. The agent was a nice person, but I quickly discovered that she wasn't really interested in building the career of a beginning picture book author (no $). In retrospect, I probably should have waited until I had more successful books on my list.
Side Note: With the rise of self-publishing, many authors are not even bothering to query agents--feeling, frankly, that since they're not seeking publication with one of the big houses, they don't need an agent. Personally, I'm in this camp...until the right agent comes along. ;)
That being said, if you're agent-less and are fortunate enough to be offered a contract by a publisher (it happens), it wouldn't be a bad idea to spend a few bucks and have an attorney who specializes in book contracts take a look at it. It's not that the publishing houses are an evil lot who will try and rip you off (most of the contracts are standard "boiler plate" affairs), it's that they'll be acting more in their own interest than yours.
For example, let's say that you come up with a chapter book that has the potential to become a series. There might be wording in the contract that states you'll be paid the same dollar amount in advance money for all subsequent titles. What if your first book is a mega hit? Wouldn't you like to be in the position to negotiate a larger advance for the next book? Having a pro (agent or attorney) look at your contract will pay off in the long run.
I'm sure some of my author friends have thoughts about getting an agent, and I invite them to share these thoughts in the comments.
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