What Happens After You Find a Literary Agent?
If you’re like me, you often see articles about what it takes to land a literary agent in today’s crowded world of publishing, and to be blunt, much of the advice is the same. Be patient. Persevere. And don’t forget to have a fully complete and well-polished manuscript, an amazing, attention-grabbing query letter, and an awesome hook that no one can deny. And while all of that is well and good (and not all that easy to accomplish), what you don’t seem to find is many articles that speak to what happens after you get an offer of representation from an agent, and what you, the would-be published author, can expect out of the experience.
Imagine that you have just written the last word of your first novel and you are very proud. It’s not only a page-turner, but it is also edited, refined, and every single one of your beta-readers thinks it is fantastic. You’ve always had a dream to one day be a published author, and feeling like you’ve got both everything, and nothing, to lose, you decide to take the next step, and try to land a literary agent. After putting in the time to do the research, you find the right agents to contact, and you send each one a magnificent query letter with a delicious hook. Maybe a few agents ask for a partial, or even a full manuscript, but most simply ignore your query, or are too busy to respond. Some time goes by, maybe only a few days, maybe a few months, but you persevere nonetheless, and finally one day the fates align, and the next thing you know, an agent has given you an offer of representation.
“…simply having a literary agent offer to represent you is like winning the lottery…”
For most would-be authors, simply having a literary agent offer to represent you is like winning the lottery, but just like a lottery winner, it’s really only the beginning of what can feel like a terrifying roller-coaster ride for the uninitiated. First of all, you must decide if the agent is right for you. In my case, that was the easy part. I had done the research, and when Mark Gottlieb, one of the top agents at the world’s top literary agency offers to represent you, you do two things. One, you do your best to try to stop your head from spinning, and two, you simply smile wide and say “Yes, and thank you very much.” Now, once you verbally accept the offer of representation, and even if it is only a “handshake agreement” (meaning no formal contracts have been signed between author and agent) there are a few things you need to do before anything else. First, you need to consider any other agents you have been in contact with and let them know that you are now off the market. Some authors might try and use this as a means to negotiate with multiple agents before committing to one, but that’s a slippery slope that I had no desire to set foot upon, and it is also looked down upon in the industry. In any case, a quick email is typically enough to satisfy professional courtesy, not to mention that it also feels pretty good to let the other agents know that they missed out on your one of kind manuscript.
So, after you agree to representation, what happens next? Does the agent immediately take your work and send it off to the big five publishers and wait for the offers to roll in? Maybe. Do you quit your day job and start making plans for your upcoming global book tour? Probably not quite yet. The reality is that there is a good chance that the manuscript you thought was perfect still needs some work, and that you will need to once again dive back into the story. In my case, once Mark Gottlieb offered to represent me, he made it very clear that my novel, Dark Tomorrow, was simply too long for the Young Adult audience I was seeking. In fact, at over 140,000 words, it was way too long. Publishers may not be willing to take a chance on books from first-time authors that exceed the average word count for the genre, and whether it comes down to what reader’s want or something as simple as printing costs, it’s important to give the publisher what they want. Fortunately, Mark and I both recognized a natural point to split the book into two parts, and after another month of re-structuring, editing, and re-writing, we not only had two books ready to go, but an outline for a third book as well.
“...it is crucial that the agent has a good idea of other comparable novels...”
Still, even with a finished manuscript, we were not ready to start looking for publishers quite yet. When pitching a book to a publisher, it is crucial that the agent has a good idea of other comparable novels, and Mark needed to know what current books we could use as “comps.” That too took some time and more research, as you want “comps” that reflect what your book is about, and also what it might become. It is vital that you pick the right novels, and while The Hunger Games might share some comparable features to my book, I had to think twice about comparing Dark Tomorrow to such a massive, global franchise, and instead found several other post-apocalyptic Young Adult novels that were both comparable and successful in their own right.
Once we had the “comps” decided upon, I drafted a summary of the book and we put together a package that we could send to potential publishers. From that point on, it became something of a waiting game, and while I worked on the draft of the third novel of the trilogy, Mark Gottlieb began shopping the first two books, focusing on publishers that had a strong interest in the YA genre. Within a few months, Mark had made the rounds, and I was ecstatic that we had a strong offer to buy both books (with an option for the third). At first, I had illusions of my book being on the shelf at Barnes & Noble within the next few months, but as we entered the contract negotiations, I soon realized that there was much more happening behind the scenes than I realized. With attorneys for both sides going through the contract line by line, it was another several months before the docs were ready, and by that time I was more than eager to sign the papers and get to work. And while Mark reassured me that it was somewhat unusual for the contract negotiations to go on as long as they did, he also encouraged me to use that time to complete the third book, and by the time the contract was signed, the book was nearly done and I was primed to jump into the editing process with the publisher.
“…at some point you are going to have to trust that your agent has your best interests at heart…”
Looking back some two years later, (and with my first book now on the shelf at Barnes & Noble) it was an amazing learning experience and one that I will never forget. And while my experience may have been unique in some respects, in many ways it was simply par for the course. My best advice for both the would-be and newly-represented author is to do the research and educate yourself as much as you can beforehand. The more you know about the industry and how it really works, the less overwhelmed you will be once the machine gets moving. Still, at some point you are going to have to trust that your agent has your best interests at heart, and having a professional like Mark Gottlieb to guide me through the process has proven invaluable. Whether it was answering questions only a long-time insider would know, or simply letting me vent, my appreciation for his insight and encouragement continues to grow. In the end, Mark saw something in my writing that piqued his interest, and with his ongoing support and direction, I now get to share that writing with the world.
Jeremiah Franklin is a former private investigator, arm-chair survivalist, and author of the Dark Tomorrow trilogy. When he is not creating thrilling post-apocalyptic worlds, or discussing himself in the third person, the author enjoys reading, staying active, and spending time outdoors with family and friends. He holds a Bachelor's Degree in Psychology, a Master's Degree in Education, and several other certifications that no one really cares about. He lives, writes, and plays in beautiful central Oregon, USA.