A recent query letter began:
Please forgive my sending you this query directly, but most of the literary agencies I have dealt with in the past have turned out to be fronts for editing houses or out-and-out scam artists.
Horrified, I visited one of the many websites that list agents and their wish lists, and fired off query letters to three of them, chosen at random. (Yes, Evil Editor does some writing on the side.) One agent asked to see my novel, one has yet to reply, and one sent an enormous (so big I annoyingly had to maximize my screen to see it) image of the cover of her book about how to get a literary agent. So, by my calculations, at least a third of agents are legit, and quite possibly two thirds.
Let's get one thing straight. An agent provides a service, not a product. And that service is to skim fifteen percent of your earnings off your paycheck, in return for which you get to feel like an athlete or a movie star by telling people, "I have an agent." Believe me, it's worth it; how many of those full-of-themselves egomaniacs you went to school with who look down on you now that they're doctors and lawyers, have agents?
Do you need an agent? You've probably considered sending your manuscript to some big-time publisher, only to discover, upon reading their submission guidelines, that they accept only "agented submissions." What this means is that they're so sure that whoever is writing the next Da Vinci Code has an agent, they're not going to hire a bunch of slush readers to deal with thousands of un-agented manuscripts, especially when most slush readers wouldn't recognize a good book if it jabbed them in the eye with its sharp corner. Of course, look who's talking. Evil Editor once rejected a manuscript just because I got a paper cut turning the pages.
The number of big-time publishers who will look at your work is severely limited if you don't have an agent. So you need an agent. But wait, the number of big-time agents who will look at your work is severely limited if you haven't been published. It's a Catch-22 (which, coincidentally, happened to be the title of the book I rejected because of the paper cut; not that that bothers me--I thought the movie was overrated, so how good could the book have been?).
Hiring an agent is great, because you don't have to pay her unless she sells your book. Imagine a law firm that advertised that their service was free unless they won the case.
Hiring an agent sucks, because you're hiring her to work for you, but she only works for you if she wants to. Imagine contacting a painter or landscaper to work on your home/yard, and they show up, look the place over, and say, "Sorry this doesn't look right for my current list."
Unfortunately, that's the way it has to be in the agent business, because there aren't enough agents to handle the four billion people who want to hire them. You're probably thinking, agents would make a lot more money if they just charged a flat rate for their services instead of taking a percentage of what might turn out to be nothing. Actually, there are literary agencies that will work for anyone, for a price. You send them your manuscript, they immediately assume it's trash (because why would you be hiring them instead of a legitimate agency if you were any good?), and charge you a huge reading fee and $600 postage for sending your history of World War I to twenty erotic fiction and gardening publishers.
A good agent is good to have, because if you aren't spending a lot of time printing and packaging and mailing manuscripts, you can be busy working on the sequel to the book your agent is selling for a million-dollar advance. The sequel that's a formulaic shell of the original, but that idiots will buy anyway now that your agent has made you hot hot hot.
But how do you get an agent when agents don't want to be gotten? Basically you're sending the agent the same query letter you would have sent to a publisher, the one in which you describe your book, except that before, you were trying to convince a publisher that his 35% of the profits were worth taking you on, while now you're trying to convince an agent that her 15% of your 6% of the profits are worth taking you on. Hmm. One could argue that this will be an even harder sell. Until you realize that your agent is also getting 15% of 6% of a couple dozen other clients' books. Then it hits you that your agent is making a lot more than you are, and you start thinking, with four billion writers and four hundred agencies out there, maybe you've chosen the wrong profession.
Tomorrow: Large Press, Small Press
Have a question about the writing profession for Evil Editor? A query letter you'd like critiqued? Send it as a comment, and we'll start a weekend q & a column.