Some of the biggest questions for authors who want to traditionally publish is, Will I find an agent to represent my book? What does a literary agent do? And if I want one, how do I best position myself for success?
That’s why we decided to sit down with our friend Lucinda Halpern, founder and President of Lucinda Literary, to get you all the deets. There’s a huge amount of goodness an agent can offer you and your writing career, so our conversation was rich! As Lucinda says, “Finding an agent is like finding a best friend and a partner for life.” See what she has to say about how an agent can help nurture you through a long-lasting writing career.
What Does a Literary Agent Do?
KN Literary: Nowadays, there’s a huge internal debate for authors: to self-publish, or to go the route of traditional publishing. One daunting aspect of that debate is that the bigger traditional houses require you to be represented by a literary agent. So, for those authors out there who are considering that route, please tell us what a literary agent does, and why they are necessary to traditional publishing.
Lucinda Halpern: A literary agent is not a real estate agent. There’s a common misconception that agents will step in, just to do the deal and then take a commission—but that’s only one aspect of the very important role that they serve.
I like to consider agents like a doula. You have your doctor who’s your publisher. There’s a fair amount of trust in that doctor, but sometimes there’s some distrust; the publisher is participating in the profits of your book and will have some degree of creative control. So, an agent comes in to see that you’re advocated for. Sometimes that’s being something of a best friend or a cheerleader or a therapist—much more than being just a dealmaker.
An agent can come in very early in the process and be there until the very end—it can be a lifelong marriage. You can get an agent at a point where you just have a blog or an article that’s performed well, and you know there’s a book in this blog post. An agent enters the equation to help develop the idea and shape the proposal with you, then uses their relationships with publishers to sell the book. All of these steps are important.
From there, we negotiate that contract to make sure that all of your interests are being protected and your needs are being served. Once the deal is done, we’re your advocates through the process—helping with the cover art and the packaging, and chasing payments for you, which is quite important! We make sure that once you deliver your manuscript, your editor is getting back to you in a timely way with edits. We’re involved in the marketing and distribution and publicity conversations. Essentially, we’re advocating for you at every step. A lot of our work isn’t visible because we’re having those conversations with the publishers, and then we’re separately having these conversations with you.
It’s true that there are agents who are just stepping in to do the deal, but as an agency that prides itself on being really nurturing to our clients, we’re very immersive and involved at Lucinda Literary.
One of the common things we see, which is problematic, is that writers receive a book contract and think, “Well, then, why do I need an agent? I’m already happy with what the publisher offered. So why, at that point, would I ever give away a percentage to an agent?” When you’re anticipating a book deal or contract, this is precisely when you should get an agent if you haven’t yet! Not only is a professional review essential, but maybe there’s a better offer to be made, or a better publishing house for your concept.
Finding an Agent Perfect for Your Project
KNL: How do literary agents decide what genres they’re looking for?
LH: I think we all enter publishing reading something, perhaps different than what we come to represent. Many of us were English majors, and we read literary fiction… maybe we aspired to be authors ourselves. Then, at some point early in your career, one book you work on becomes very successful and that puts you in the category of “Oh, you do this type of book.”
For me, I worked with Gretchen Rubin on The Happiness Project. I was not her agent; I was a marketing consultant for her, but in my experience working with her, I developed an interest and a degree of expertise in self-improvement, positive psychology-oriented prescriptive nonfiction. It wasn’t something I came into the business thinking I’d represent, or was even reading.
Today we represent bestselling authors in self-improvement like Chris Bailey, Cait Flanders, Ron Friedman, Susan Peirce Thompson, and more. It begins with one successful author… that person refers others, editors begin to know you for having a certain kind of taste, and suddenly you have a stable of authors in that genre.
Mistakes to Avoid When Looking for a Literary Agent
KNL: What are the top 3 mistakes you see new authors making when querying a literary agent?
LH: I’m so glad you asked that! The first is this misconception that we don’t care about you—that it’s only your story we care about. For me, it’s quite the reverse of that. Obviously, there’s an inspiration for your story; there’s a level of expertise, potentially, that you have since you’re writing it—even if that is “I worked for years in the healthcare industry, and now I’m writing a fictional Grey’s Anatomy,” for example. To me, that’s relevant! Always be sure that you are including something about yourself in your query, whether it’s a one-line bio or a statement such as, “I don’t have a massive following on Instagram, but I do have an engagement in this particular community.” I think it’s important to show an audience for your work. These are things I want to know that go into the overall package of your credentials—things publishers might be interested in.
Another thing we see at the query stage, which is really not recommended, is hiding information. For instance, that the author is currently working with an agent, or has been published before, or has self-published before. They might neglect these details because the first book didn’t do particularly well, or they’re not in a great relationship with their agent—they’re actually scouting for someone else. Be diplomatic, but upfront. “I’ve advised my agent that I’m looking for alternative representation.” There’s a delicate way to phrase bad news, such as, “My first book was self-published. I didn’t have a tremendous amount of marketing resources behind me, but I was still able to sell 5,000 copies of my book,” or “I was able to get it licensed in five different countries.” Offer a positive spin to what may be negative information, but don’t hide what we will ultimately find.
The third thing is comps, comps, comps! Be really succinct and sell to a literary agent why your book has appeal, why it has promise. Likely, as a writer, you think, “This book has never been done before. It’s a genre bender—it fits into so many genres!” Publishers need to know what shelf you fit on, so be focused with your one-line elevator pitch. “This is SciFi, and it resembles X with a cross of Y.” Or, more specifically, “It has the wit of this particular novel with the heart of this particular novel.” By referencing comps, you’re making both your promise and your shelf clear.
Behind the Scenes: Review, Review, Review
KNL: Once an author gets a request for a full manuscript, what’s happening behind the scenes on your end?
LH: For our agency—and probably for many others—there’s a pass-off when it comes to unsolicited material. There’s someone who’s looking through the so-called “slush pile” to do a first read. Then, once that material is requested, someone in a managerial position is looking as well, and finally one of our literary agents will review, because it’s now been vouched for by various readers at the agency.
Taking a look could be a process of several weeks or even months of time. Or, if there’s some heat around a project—someone’s contacted us on referral, they have offers pending, or a publisher has already offered them a contract—the timeline can accelerate. We’re reading, we’re discussing, we’re logging in our spreadsheet, and often we’re also in touch with the writer at the same time with critical questions such as, “We really like this aspect of your book. Would you consider revising it around X?” The authors we enter into partnership with are generally responsive to that question.
As I always say, “Silence isn’t necessarily a bad thing.”
Receiving an Offer
KNL: What should an author do once they receive an offer of representation from a literary agent? What are some things that they should consider?
LH: They should definitely have someone other than themselves read the contract. If it’s not a lawyer, maybe it’s someone they trust in their family or friend network, with a good grasp of contracts. They should really look at what they’re signing and have a good sense of who they are getting into business with. That’s not as simple as just, “I’ve seen their website,” or “this person does all these fabulous books, so, of course, I want to be on their list.” You want a real conversation with that agent. You want to make sure that that person shares your vision and is going to be a great advocate for you. Are you going to be dealing with that literary agent or dealing more with their assistant? Who is your point person? Will you have access to the list of publishers that the agent goes through the submission process with? I would ask all these questions before or once you receive a contract.
KNL: Once an author signs with you, what is your role on their behalf? What do you do for the 15% the author pays you?
LH: You’re paying for an agent to negotiate your deal, but most often, you are also paying for expertise and relationships you wouldn’t have access to as a writer without an agent. Most of the publishers, in particular the major publishers, but also any number of independents, are looking at an agent to be a gatekeeper for them. They have reciprocal relationships and trust, and this matters not only at the outset of the deal, but also in terms of the ongoing advocacy on your behalf throughout the process.
A good agent is also developing your book with you editorially. Our agency is deeply, editorially helping you shape your product—often times that title concept or that chapter idea came from the agent! There’s equity in this. That is also part of that 15% that we’re taking—for the editorial work we did on your book to get it ready for publishers to see.
Your Role as the Author
KNL: Does the author have any role or say-so in the negotiations process, once you find them a publisher?
LH: Yes, absolutely. We’re not in a position to accept an offer on behalf of an author without that person saying yes—until we get that green light. This permission goes beyond finances: any agent involved should already elevate the fee proposed. What I’m discussing is more about rights… perhaps you’re a journalist and need the freedom to publish related stories for various publications. Or you’re a podcaster who wishes to keep the audio rights to your book. Or you’re well-known in China, and so you wish to reserve that territory rather than give it to the publisher to license in. There are any number of asks that an agent can obtain for you, and we always collaborate on those with the author.
KNL: What happens if you aren’t able to sell a book for an author you’ve signed?
LH: That does happen; it happens to everyone. It’s a gamble for agents taking on new authors. It’s a gamble for publishers! At Lucinda Literary, we’re incredibly tenacious—I don’t stop until I sell something. But if your project doesn’t sell, the best thing to do is take all the feedback received from editors—that you’ve had the privilege of receiving because of the agent relationship working on your behalf—and re-calibrate. Sometimes it was the wrong idea, or you didn’t have the right platform for that particular idea. In those cases, an agent should say: “Let’s scrap that one, and let’s come up with the right thing for you.”
Resources for New Writers
KNL: I’ve heard a lot about your efforts to help new writers through your Letter Better Workshops. Tell us more about that.
LH: This is a brand-new initiative. When I founded my company nine years ago, I primarily acted as a consultant, working with authors on their social media and publicity efforts. That had been my background, so I was bringing that expertise to bear. As time went on, my company grew and literary and speaking representation became full-time for us. But with a larger team to now support that business, I’m getting back in touch with our roots: to advocate for, innovate for, and really counsel those writers who we wouldn’t be able to service as agents, but who probably could find literary agents if they knew how to write a good query letter, which is so critically important. Our monthly Letter Better Workshops, held via Zoom call at midday or in the evening, cover everything from the art of titling your book, to introducing your concept, to capturing an agent’s imagination—because fundamentally the query letter is a marketing document.
These workshops offer me the opportunity to hear from and make an impact for all kinds of new writers with whom I might not otherwise interact. To me, that’s incredibly exciting.