2018 BIO Conference Roundtable Discussion – Finding an Agent

Roger Williams, a Princeton, New Jersey-based agent, told attendees at the roundtable discussion he led, “Your job is to research and write.” His role as an agent, at a time when the business model of publishing has changed so dramatically, is to “handle the business side of publishing.” This includes being a marketing consultant, having a knowledge of publishing law, knowing how to help the author promote their work, and dealing with “the office politics” of the publishing house.

Williams used a question on advances to explain major changes in how publishers work now versus 15 years ago. “Acquisition editors have to fill out a profit-and-loss statement” in taking the proposal forward for possible publication, he explained. This happens before there is any consideration of a possible advance, no matter how small it might be. As a result, he said, “some agents make deals for no advances, but [for] higher royalties.”

Like many literary agencies, Williams has tips on his website on how to submit a proposal and what he is looking for. He also cited the online list of agents who subscribe to a code of ethics in dealing with authors and publishers, as a source for authors to explore. In short, it helps sort out the good from the bad. Don’t pay an agent to represent you, he stressed. Williams said he also makes a point of attending conferences, like BIO’s and the Washington Writers, so he can meet prospective clients and participates in the “speed-dating” meetings at those events.

Other sources for finding agents and advice on what writers should look out for include Publishers Marketplace; the acknowledgements of books authors have enjoyed, because they usually recognize the author’s agents; and Jeff Herman’s guidebook to agents, editors, and publishers.

When reaching out to agents, Williams said, “do not send broadcast email” to agents with a “Dear Sir, Madam, or Editor” salutation. Personalize the email or letter with the name of the person at the agency who the author is querying with the proposal. Williams added that agents expect authors to send out to multiple agencies and suggested that authors keep a list of agencies they contacted. He also suggested including a “please confirm receipt” request. He emphasized letting agents know if this proposal has been sent to any publishers.

Williams said he is looking for “a query paragraph, three or four sentences” that says what the book is about, a very short biography of the author, and the materials he asks for on his website.” Because of his own interest in history, his agency does a lot of work with that genre. He stressed having an intriguing title for the work, and in addition, Williams said his agency is looking for a solid “executive summary” or a “tip sheet” about the project, because it not only helps the agency in trying to place the book, it also helps the acquisition editor explain the project to the others in the house who make the decision on whether to publish.

Williams summed up his work by saying, in some respects, “a literary agency is like a real estate agent”—they are working for you.

—John Grady