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How To Get An Agent

Colum McCann > Letters to Young Writers > How To Get An Agent

How do I get an agent?  If I had a dollar for every time I’ve been asked this, I wouldn’t have to have an agent. Do you need an agent? Yes, yes and (most of the time) yes. Finding one isn’t all that difficult, but finding the right one can change your life. First of all, find a writer whose work you admire. A younger writer, preferably. Someone who is already represented by an agency, but is on the cusp of making something with their career. Find out who their agent is. (Easily done — it’s the magic of Google, or the acknowledgement page, or trawling through a few website interviews). Write the agent a letter or an e-mail. Tell them you like their stable of writers. Mention you’d like to get a chance to be represented. Give them a little background, who you are, where you went to school, what you’ve already published. Ask if they’d like to read a few pages. Boast a little if you want. Cajole a little. Peacock a little. Strut your stuff. That’s alright. Agents are used to it. (Always tell them that you’re working on a novel… even if you’re not working on a novel yet). Be smart, be confident, be brief. If they do write back, don’t celebrate yet. If they don’t write back, to hell with them. But if they want you, call them, talk to them, visit them, check them out. Ask them questions. The most important thing you should know about an agent is that you employ them, they don’t employ you. Some of them may make you feel (especially at the beginning of your career) that they have you in a tight harness, but the truth of the matter is that freedom is feeling easy in the harness. A good agent doesn’t lay down the law. Rather, they allow the law to unfold. They make business decisions. They ease the tax implications. They chat with editors and publishers and reporters. They forward invitations. They cull some of the looney-tunes who might want to get in touch with you. They get you gigs. They talk you up. And, yes, they can change your life instantly. Yes, they can show you the money. Yes, they can get you a reservation in, at the very least, Bouley’s. But essentially you are your own agent, because the only thing it comes down to is the language on the page. You should be the governor of your own writing. Don’t change your writing to suit an agent unless you know – deep in your heart’s core – that the agent is correct. Even then you must make sure that you are not compromising yourself. This is your work, after all. Agents become agents because they want things to sell, not necessarily to sing (although a brilliant agent will sell and sing simultaneously). Listen to the agent, but be the agent of your own agency. What this takes is deep intuition. And a bit of style. And a good dose of humility. Don’t forget that you will be paying your agent anywhere up to twenty percent of your money, so a good agent will get you at least twenty-five percent more than you even imagined. Pay this chunk willingly. Don’t question their expense sheet. Don’t second-guess them. Don’t moan or whisper. Your agent should be on your side. If he is not, then remember that you are his employer and fire him. Excuse me? Fire him, I said, fire him. (But not until you’ve found another agent). Remember that this is your work. You got to the coalface every day. You know what it takes to lift that bucket of words up from the well. Be true to this instinct. You know where true value lies. Your words should jangle, not just your pocket. Now, go write.