BWS 09.03.22 report: “Finding the Right Literary Agent for You” with emmy

emmy (they/them) holds a PhD in justice-oriented social work. In 2019, they made a lateral career move into publishing after four years as a bookseller at a local indie, and they now work as a literary agent at Westwood Creative Artists. emmy lives with their partner, a Deaf Dalmatian, and two formerly feral Maine coon cats. 

Agents and CanLit

As a literary agent with Westwood Creative Artists, I constantly get asked what it is that I do day to day, and whether or not an author needs an agent. I usually use real estate to help explain to people what it is that I do in my work as a lit agent. On a basic level, as a real estate agent can help someone sell a building, I help people sell books to publishers. If you know the real estate industry at all, or you’re like me and you watch a lot of real estate TV shows, you can think of it this way – I am a listing agent for a book, only it’s a perpetual buyers’ market out there!

Not every author in a healthy publishing ecosystem needs an agent. Some authors have the perfect skill set for self-publishing, while others have the legal and industry literacy to be able to negotiate their own contracts with reputable independent publishers, and still others write in genres or categories that don’t benefit much from literary representation. That said, if you are an author whose goal it is to be published by a large, corporate, trade publisher, your best advocate is your literary agent.

The good news for those seeking an agent is that you’re not limited by geography. No matter where you live, you can be represented by agents from anywhere in the world. That said, Canada’s literary landscape is a bit different from other markets, so no matter who you choose to represent you, make sure that they have a working knowledge of Canadian literary awards, Arts Council grant opportunities, tax structures, Public Lending Rights, and imprints. We also have great, accomplished literary agencies based in Canada, and for Canadian authors, they are a great place to start looking for the representative who might be the right fit for you. Those that are the most established include CookeMcDermid, PS Literary, Transatlantic, The Rights Factory, and the agency that I work for, Westwood Creative Artists.

There are lots of places to start researching other agents and agencies, including PACLA, the AALA, Publishers Marketplace, ManuscriptWishlist.com, workshops and conferences, Twitter pitch parties, book launches and events, through your literary networks, and podcasts (for example, The Shit No One Tells You About Writing). The most important thing is to try to seek out the agent who is the best fit for you and your process!

When you start querying, be sure to do your research and follow the specific submission guidelines for each individual agent that you reach out to. There is an expected, three-paragraph, industry standard query letter format that agents are expecting to receive, so make sure that you adhere to these expectations as much as possible. You can query multiple agents at once from different agencies, but be mindful to stay on top of your communication! If you receive an offer of representation, let everyone else who you reached out to know. If you want them to consider competing to work with you, be sure to give them ample time to read your materials and think them through thoroughly – usually, most agents will want a couple of weeks to do this. Above all, don’t be afraid to ask questions. You want to make sure that this relationship will work in the long term for you, the agent, and the agency, and that should be the goal on the agent’s side as well! Understand what you’re getting into, and what your shared expectations of one another will be before you sign an agency agreement.

I have shared a lot of query tips on my Twitter feed, but one that I go back to over and over is that if you have a manuscript that has already been self-published or posted for free online, except in very rare cases, that means that the book isn’t eligible for submission to publishers, and therefore, agents can’t represent it! When you’re working on a book, keep your end goal in mind, and don’t let your anxiety get the better of you. Nothing makes me sadder than books being self-published out of desperation, and missing chances at getting to reach their full potential.

Good luck out there to anyone who’s seeking an agent in this competitive landscape. I’m currently only accepting non-fiction queries because of my workload, but my Twitter DMs are always open if folks have questions. I can be found at @emmy_of_spines.

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