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By author Katie Waitman

Should I get an agent?

A hundred years ago, you could send a manuscript directly to an editor and, if he/she liked it, he/she would work with you very closely to prepare the book for publication. Few writers had agents or needed them.

Today, however, with writing courses offered at every college in the country and the proliferation of personal computers, it seems everyone has a story, script, novel, poem, or cookbook they want to sell, and publishers are flooded with manuscripts. Even with an army of readers, editors can't devote the kind of time to these manuscripts that their 19th-century counterparts could. As a result, most of them won't accept unsolicited manuscripts and many insist that the manuscripts come through an agent. Those editors who do accept unsolicited material will usually set it aside in favor of something they've solicited or something recommended by another professional. Agent recommendations help editors hack through the jungle of submissions so they can find the likeliest candidates for publication.

Also, agents (the good ones anyway) will know which publishers and which editors are most likely to publish the kind of book you have written. They will know that Janet Jones can't stand fantasies with elves or Bill Smith is dying to find a great science fiction piece that has nothing to do with aliens or outer space. They will also negotiate the contract. Unless you're an attorney--and even if you are--you should let a professional familiar with the industry handle it.

How do I get an agent?

If there's an easy way, I don't know what it is since, when I began looking for an agent, I did not have a track record--no string of Hugo-nominated short stories or Emmy-caliber "Star Trek" scripts--and I didn't know anyone in the publishing world. Sometimes you can get names from established writers or writing instructors, but, more often than not, you have to do the postal version of pounding the pavement: looking up agents in Literary Market Place, Writers' Market, Science Fiction Writers' Market, and Literary Agents of North America and sending them a one-page query letter and one-page synopsis. Since some of these reference books (Literary Agents of North America, for example) are found primarily in libraries and libraries have little money these days, they may be several years out of date. I sent out query letters in chunks of thirty. Out of that thirty, a third were returned because the address was no longer current, the agent had retired, or the agent no longer handled fiction. Another percentage already had more clients than they could handle, were not interested in science fiction (no matter what the reference book said), wanted to charge money to read and/or edit the manuscript (do not do this!), or simply weren't interested. Less than a quarter of the agents wanted sample chapters and then decided after reading them that they did not think they could devote the time the manuscript needed, that the material wasn't what they were looking for, or that they didn't like it (which is their prerogative--try not to take it personally).

In the end, it took me a year and a half to find an agent, but it was worth the wait and the trouble.