Interview by Lori Russell
Writers Digest Books, an imprint of F+W Publications, publishes yearly market directories for writers as well as trade books that examine the craft and business of writing. Chuck Sambuchino is the editor of the 2008 Guide to Literary Agents, the founding editor of Screenwriter’s and Playwright’s Market (to be released in December 2008) and the assistant editor of Writer’s Market. He is also a produced playwright, a freelance editor and an award-winning journalist. Here, he discusses what writers need to know about finding an agent in the current marketplace.
How is finding an agent different today than in the past?
Thanks to the Internet, plenty of agencies have websites where they detail what they’re looking for, how to submit, etc. The ability to submit queries through email has sped up the reply process. You also have plenty of agent-related blogs, where you can learn all about proposals, queries, genres, synopses and everything else.
The bad news is that scammers are online looking for prey. Legitimate literary agencies charge no upfront fees. Look for agents who are part of the AAR; look for sales; look for individuals who have a history in the publishing world. If you’re hesitant, Google the agent. Chances are, you’ll find message boards and forums discussing the agent.
Do fiction and nonfiction writers need an agent?
Books that are small in scope-with relatively low expected sales-can indeed get published without the help of an agent, but most fiction needs an agent. Agents play an important role in negotiating contracts, dealing with payments, working with foreign agents, and so on. Publishers don’t have time to sift through all the bad writing; they need agents to find the gems for them.
A lot of nonfiction is sold directly to publishers-especially smaller houses. If your ultimate goal is to sell a huge diet book, business book or celebrity biography to Random House, you’ll need an agent to negotiate that deal.
Why are agents interested in a writer’s platform?
Publishing houses are very busy and don’t have the time or money to actively market most books. They need you to sell it for them. Platform is absolutely crucial if you want to sell a nonfiction book. With fiction, platform is always appreciated but not mandatory. The book will gain momentum and sell if it’s good enough.
Is the quality of one’s writing still important?
With fiction, the quality of the writing will always be important. Agents and editors read countless submissions, and the cream really does rise to the top. If a writer constructs a brilliant mystery, then the book should be an easy sell.
If a writer composes a story that’s a mix between romance, paranormal and western, then publishers have difficulty identifying who will buy the book. They’re likely to pass on the project, no matter how good the writing is.
Literary fiction writing competition has become very tough. Some very good books get published. A lot of good ones don’t.
With nonfiction, a book will sell depending on the idea/concept, its place in the market, and the writer’s platform. The quality of the writing is also important, but less so than fiction.
Why should writers purchase the 2008 Guide to Literary Agents? What will they find there?
The first 85 pages of the book contain articles that help writers learn the business of submitting a book proposal or a query letter. Everything is indexed, so if you’re looking for an agent that represents both young adult fiction and narrative nonfiction, you can find several easily enough. Every listing is verified each year by the agents themselves or a Writers Digest Books editor. We carefully screen for agents who charge fees and don’t list them. Also, the book has a huge directory of writers’ conferences. Most have agents in attendance who take pitches.
One of the most challenging things about the book is that it’s published only once a year. Thanks to the online directory at WritersMarket.com and the GLA blog, we can relay all changes and information as soon as we know them.
To sign up for Chuck Sambuchino’s new free newsletter or to read his blog, visit www.guidetoliteraryagents.com.
Lori Russell is an award-winning writer who has had the pleasure to work with several great editors in her 17 years as a freelancer. She is a contributing editor to Columbia Gorge Magazine and has been a regular contributor to Ruralite for more than a decade. Her articles have appeared in newspapers and magazines throughout the country and her short fiction and poetry has been published in several journals and anthologies. Lori recently completed her first novel, Light on Windy River.