Attracting an Agent It Takes More than Good Writing

by Erin Brown

You’ve written an epic novel (The Sound and the Fury, Part Two: The Really Loud and the Really Mad), or the next great self-help book (You: A Renter’s Manual) and you figure, “That’s it. Now this puppy will sell itself. Agents and editors will realize the gold mine they have on their desk and the rest is history!” Right? Wrong. You might well have the next best thing since sliced bread and your writing talent could be genuinely brilliant, but if you don’t present yourself well to an agent (and an editor!), then you could very well shoot yourself in the foot. Sure, writing a fantabulous manuscript is essential to landing an agent and selling the book. But presenting yourself as an amenable author that an agent and publishing house wants to work with is a huge component too. Remember that an agent isn’t only signing your book, but you as well. They will be devoting an inordinate amount of time to you and your work, and will want to work with someone that they like, or at least an author who isn’t a total jackass. So how do you present yourself in the best way possible, increasing your chances for representation and ultimately publication? (*Note: bribery is so 2007, so up the ante or switch tactics if that’s not working.)

Here are the Dos and Don’ts: 

DO get your manuscript into the best shape possible before submitting to agents. As I’ve mentioned before, hire an editor or join a critique group; copyedit and proofread your manuscript. Get that bad boy in tip-top shape. Presenting a solid and clean manuscript reflects well on you. The opposite is also true (i.e. “If an author can’t bother to take the time to proof their manuscript, then why should our agency invest our time in him or her?”) 

DO sell yourself. Look at the submission process as a job interview. You’ll want to include anything and everything in your query, proposal, etc., that will make you more appealing than the next candidate. To give yourself a leg up, include your platform: previous writing experience and awards, your web site (build one), or your popular blog (write one). If you don’t have a platform, start one. Consider writing a monthly column for a magazine, newspaper, web site, or journal that is in some way related to writing or your subject matter. All of these things help sell you, your book, and show the agent that you’re serious, motivated, ambitious, and creative. Each one of these characteristics will tip the scales in your favor. 

DO put your best foot forward. When corresponding with an agent—by phone or email—be polite and respectful, even if they aren’t or (especially!) if they say something you don’t want to hear. Even if an agent is rejecting you, don’t write back with some snarky comment. (“I’m sorry that you’re not interested in representing me at this time. What time would work better for you?”) Agents and editors live in a small world. Your rude response might be passed around, and you’ll quickly be on the “do not represent” list, no matter how good your material might be.

DON’T let your ego ruin your chances of success. As I mentioned in last month’s article, there’s nothing that agents and editors detest more than an author who thinks he’s all that (there’s a fine line between confidence and being a narcissistic blowhard). Be humble, polite, and respectful of an agent or editor’s time. Remember that even if your book is fantastic (but especially if it’s not, but you think it is), an agent doesn’t want to work with an egomaniac if they can help it. You’ll make their lives miserable and even for a respectable advance, life’s too short. So at least try and keep your ego in check if you don’t want to pay for the therapy to work out your issues. 

DON’T be difficult. If you just now thought, “Easier said than done,” then you’re one of the difficult people, so do something about it before you blow your chance. Be open to editorial suggestions and don’t turn every tiny thing into a battle. When you’ve sold the same number of books as Janet Evanovich and Ernest Hemingway, you’ve earned the right to be difficult. However, most bestselling authors are ultimately very kind and amenable and know where their bread is buttered. 

DON’T harass an agent. Getting off on the wrong foot by constantly checking up on an agent will put you in the “annoying and difficult” column (and they might eventually press charges). If an agent says they’ll get back to you, they will. It’s fine to eventually send along a polite reminder or check in, but don’t go overboard. Trust me, they’re getting your emails. Another tip: do not call an agent unless they specifically ask you to do so. 

As you can surmise, these rules are the basic principles of selling yourself in any aspect of life, whether it is in a job interview, while dating (especially the harassing rule—you hear that, Johnny F. from McCullough Middle School who called my house, like, twenty times a night?!), or pitching a business idea to prospective partners. You want to present yourself well—as respectable, amenable, polite, ambitious, responsible, and a snazzy dresser! So polish those loafers, put on your “good manners” cap, load up the briefcase with your own personal selling points, and get the hell out there. Because it’s not just about selling your book, it’s about selling yourself!



Erin Brown worked as an editor in New York City for over eight years. She recently left Manhattan to start her own freelance editorial business. To learn more about Erin, visit her website at

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