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Why Writers Need an Agent

I receive a fair amount of mail from readers asking how they should go about finding a publisher. The short answer is there is no difficulty in finding a publisher. There are many lists and directories that provide names, phone numbers and addresses of publishers. Remember, they are strangers and are surrounded by enough security to make the security set up of the US Embassy in Beirut look slack. The issue is gaining access to the right editor for your book.

Unless you are a publisher insider (or your uncle or mother owns a publishing house) it is unlikely that you will know who is looking for that romantic saga set in 14th century Burma. Part of the challenge for writers living in Asia is finding an agent who specializes in selling books from this part of the world. I suspect that few such agents exist. But that isn’t really a large problem. If your novel or non-fiction book is written in English or German or American then you should look for publishers located both inside and outside of Asia.

The best solution (imperfect as it is) requires you to find an agent to represent your book. That is no easy task. Just like not all publishers are created equal, neither are all agents. Some are famous, successful people who have considerable influence and power. They are bold face names in the New York Times. Think of them as the Manager of the New York Yankees. They are want to talent scout the starting pitcher for Random House in the Fall season. Their writers are heavy sluggers who will draw in a large crowd and sell a gazillon books. Other agents service the farm teams of publishing; they are often the one-person shows and may only take writers in specialized field. Like romance or SF novel writers. And there are agent scams to avoid.

Everyone wants to get published, and everyone learns sooner or later that agents operate the publishing filter a writer must squeeze through before being published. They are like the wide mouth killer shark diving through a sea of krill. Once in a while they find a tasty salmon and that makes a memorable meal. Publisher don’t want literary krill; they want only the salmon.

Agents bait the hook. They know that publishers live and die by one rule: follow the money. Only most of the time no one ever knows at the time what will become the next Da Vinci Code or Harry Potter novel. Not an agent, not a publisher.

When you approach any agent, they don’t know you as a person. That isn’t their business. What they want to know is simple: can you write? And second question, assuming you can write at the highest professional level (is your fast ball major league speed?), is whether you have written something an agent can sell?

Just because you have an agent doesn’t mean he or she will be able to sell your novel. But without an agent the chances of gaining access to the right editor for your book is next to impossible.

If you want to read about what agents do and what they don’t do, Daily Kos has an insightful article that explains the basics, including how to go about finding an agent.

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