Getting an agent. Here we open an institutional-size can of worms.
A bad agent is worse than no agent at all. A really bad agent is worse than not being a writer. Getting past the “no unagented submissions” barrier is not sufficient justification for hooking up with a bad agent.
The easiest time to get an agent is when you’ve just gotten an offer on a book. The editor phones you and says, “I want to buy your book.”
“Wow! Gosh! Gee Whiz!” you say coherently. Then you thank the editor, make sure you have their correct phone number, and tell them you’ll get right back to them. Call the agent who’s your first choice. Politely explain that you’ve just gotten an offer, and would they be interested in having you as a client? If they say they’re not interested, call your second choice. It’s hard to imagine your having to call a third choice. You’re offering them a commission on a book you sold.
It’s harder if you haven’t sold a book. Selling short stories helps. Having a really good novel in hand also helps.
(If you’ve never sold anything, and one of the top agents in the genre not only takes you on as a client, but gives you his Saturday-night dinner timeslot at the next Worldcon, please believe that he’s taking your prospects very seriously indeed. You know who you are.)
Least appreciated fact about agents: There are very few real ones. Of the gormless, the not very helpful, and the confirmed scammers, there are a great many.
Real agents learn how to be agents by working for other real agents. It’s like a medieval apprenticeship, except the authorities don’t bring back the ones that run away. After a while the young assistant becomes a sort of junior agent (I’m a little vague on this part) and starts taking on authors. Eventually they decide to set up on their own, taking some fraction of their former employer’s client list with them. This is not always accomplished without friction, but as far as we can tell, that’s part of the natural life cycle of the agent.
Gormless agents aren’t consciously dishonest. They just think it would be a swell thing to be a literary agent, and they don’t see why they shouldn’t be one. Trouble is, they don’t know how agenting and publishing work. They trade ignorance with others of their kind. Many of them have gotten their ideas about how the industry works by reading websites maintained by scammers. They may have the best intentions in the world, but they can’t figure out a standard contract, much less negotiate an advantageous one, and they don’t know who’s who and who’s doing what.
Note: Sometimes benign-but-gormless agents metamorphose into scam agents, kickback bookdoctors, or vanity publishers. There may be one or two who’ve metamorphosed into real agents, but if so I’ve never heard of them.
Not very helpful agents have some knowledge of and connection with the industry, but what they know isn’t current, and the people who were their best connections at various houses no longer hold those positions. They tend to have one or two notable clients plus a bunch of small fry and marginal types. These agents have two virtues: they won’t deliberately cheat you, and they can get you past the “agented mss. only” barriers. It’s still a bit like marrying someone you don’t care for because at least that way you’ll get laid: the imagined benefits will rapidly pall, while the underlying discontents will only become more irritating.Scam agents are legion. The wiliest ones are constantly refining their approach, and the merely sneaky ones steal riffs from them, so I won’t even try to describe their current cabana acts. For that, see Writer Beware and the Preditors & Editors mirrored sites. Meanwhile, observe the following rules:
1. Never pay them. The real ones make their money by collecting a percentage of what the publisher pays you, and they collect it after the publisher pays it out.And now I’m off to work. I have books to make.
2. Ask to see their client list. If for any reason they refuse to show it to you, run away. If you don’t recognize their authors, be suspicious. If their authors turn out to be published by vanity or subsidy outfits, run away even faster.
3. If they try to refer you to a book doctor or freelance editor, start edging away. If they tell you that “No publisher will look at your book unless it’s been professionally edited,” see earlier remarks regarding fast getaways. (Note: It’s okay for them to do some editing—it’s a normal, if not an invariable practice—as long as they don’t charge anything and it’s a competent edit.)
4. If they try to place your book via a deal that has you paying anything (that includes PublishAmerica’s deal), vide supra.
5. The internet may have given scam agents a vast new playground for their operations, but Google is on your side, not theirs. Use it.
6. In a pinch, Victoria Strauss and Yog Sysop (a.k.a. Jim Macdonald) will always give you the straight dope. If they’re not available, ask at The Rumor Mill, specifically the “Caveat Scrivener” section. They may not know the answers right off, and you sometimes get scammers posting bad information there, but the board has a good track record for collectively muddling through to the truth.