Writer’s Market, 2002 Agent Q&A

Here’s Ted Weinstein to Answer Some More Reader Questions

It feels like I’ve tried to get an agent forever. Only, I never seem to come close to getting one. I’ve queried at least a dozen agents, with no success to show for it. Why should I even care if I have an agent? For all the rejection I receive, what makes an agent worth the hard work?

Dear Maria,

Agents serve many important purposes for writers. Finding a reputable agent to represent you is almost always worth the effort. Here are just some of the ways good agents help their clients:

1. Impartial feedback. Every writer benefits from expert feedback. Friends and family may sugarcoat their comments, or they may simply not be sophisticated writing critics. A good agent is a publishing professional whose sole incentive is to help you tune your writing so it has the best chance of commercial success.

2. Market knowledge. “Write what you know” is great advice for any writer, but what you know may or may not be what editors are looking to buy right now. A good agent is deeply immersed in the publishing marketplace and can help you understand what kinds of writing are most likely to sell.

3. Contacts and access. Most major publishing houses no longer accept unagented submissions. More important, agents spend enormous amounts of time making and cultivating trusting relationships with editors, so they know just who would be most interested in a particular type of work. The writing on the page is always the most important factor in acquisition decisions, but getting a proposal or manuscript into the right hands usually requires a personal touch.

4. Contract negotiation. Congratulations! A major publisher wants to publish your work. Are you prepared to negotiate on your own the details of a lengthy legal document with an acquisitions editor who does this many times a year? Do you understand the intricacies of copyright law, subsidiary rights, reversion clauses, indemnification and all the other elements of a publishing contract, so you can adequately protect yourself? Do you know how much books similar to yours have sold for recently, so you can ensure you are getting the highest possible advances and royalties? A good agent is a skilled, knowledgeable expert in all of these areas.

5. Accounting and paperwork. If all goes well, you will be receiving advances and on-going royalties from sales of your writing. Royalty statements, however, are among the most confusing, incomplete accounting documents ever created. A good agent reviews every line of every royalty statement to determine that their clients are being paid on time and completely.

6. Career guidance and continuity. In the modern publishing world, editors jump between publishing houses abruptly and often. Many a successful writer has stories of how their book was “orphaned” when the editor who acquired it changed publishers. For many writers the only continuity will be their relationship with their agent, who has a vested interest in helping each client build the most successful possible career.

So, should you have an agent? To put all this in perspective, I have a literary agent who represents the book I have written. I am delighted to be represented by her for all of these reasons and more.

I’ve published a few books over the years and have a job in publishing. I’ve got an agent, but I really don’t know the specifics of her daily duties. I know that all agents come from different backgrounds, but how do you know to start an agency? How do you get established?


Dear Ashley,

There are as many paths to becoming an agent as there are people in the business. Most commonly, agents have one or more of these types of professional experience:
* editorial
* book promotion and marketing
* sales
* law or negotiation

Effective agenting requires a combination of publishing industry knowledge, editorial judgment, marketing savvy, negotiation skills and sales ability. All it takes to get started as an agent is desire and drive – success will come from mastering all these different areas.

I’ve been an IT professional for some years now. I haven’t started it yet, but how successful would a book on viruses be? I need to know so that I can decide whether writing such a book is a good idea or not. Any help you can give would be appreciated.


Dear Harold,

Here are some of the questions that a writer should ask before starting a book, since they are the questions agents and editors will ask when evaluating its potential:

* How big is the potential audience? How many people would be interested in buying and reading your book? Using sales information for the similar books you identified and the wealth of other information available in your library and on the Internet, estimate the likely sales for a book such as yours.

* What books on the topic already exist, and what makes your book unique? If there are many other books covering the same material, the opportunity for one more book on the topic is limited. On the other hand, if there are no books anything like yours, perhaps there is a reason. But if other books prove that yours covers an area of interest, and at the same time you have a unique slant on the topic, you may have identified a great opportunity.

* How will you promote your book? How can you help a publisher market and generate publicity for your book? Do you have a public profile or “platform” that will help you draw attention to it?

* Can you write a good book? Ask yourself the hard question: do you have the expertise, the talent, and the discipline to write a great book? What are your credentials on the topic? Have you written other works before? Even if you have published articles, do you have the energy and stamina to complete a full-length book?

Ask yourself these questions and if you can answer them the right way, I encourage you to sit down right now and start writing a great book.

Ted Weinstein is a literary agent with Ted Weinstein Literary Management located in San Francisco. Prior to becoming an agent, Mr. Weinstein was the VP of marketing and business development at Nolo Press, head of licensing and electronic publishing at Miller Freeman Publishing, and a freelance journalist.