In Publish or Perish , Tony Tulathimutte dispenses subjective, unsolicited, and frankly sort of aggro advice on the practical aspects of a building a writing career.
When the final draft of your book manuscript is finished and sitting there on your desk covered in blood and placenta, it’s time to start looking for an agent.
The first thing to know is that New York publishing is a monopolistic cartel. I don’t know anyone who would even disagree, except the capitalist bullshitters who run it. But people join cartels for a reason, and selling your book to one of the “Big Five” publishers (Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin Random House, Simon and Schuster) or venerable indies (Graywolf, New Directions, Coffee House Press, Sarabande, ~*~*CATAPULT*~*~ , etc.) has many perks: higher advances, talented editors, publicity and marketing support, wider distribution. If you want to join the cartel, you’ll need a literary agent.
Yes, and stop interrupting. Truly, this gatekeeping system sucks massive eggplants, but, like, I didn’t come up with it. There are alternatives: Most small presses will consider unagented books, and publishing a book with a small press can even attract an agent later on. Self-publishing is an option too, but I don’t know anything about it; personally, I’d rather take the guaranteed money of a book advance, instead of risking a complete bust if the book doesn’t sell. And it goes tragically without saying that poets don’t need agents because only small presses publish them.
You might balk at the 15 percent commission that agents skim from your earnings, but selling a book without an agent is like defending a murder charge without a lawyer. A good agent knows what a book contract should include, only makes money when you do, and handles all your complex rights and bigger deals. While you’re shopping your book around, she stealth-hypes you, and her editorial connections give you better odds of publishing at bigger places. Editors also occasionally solicit agents for pieces they want written, and agents will point them your way. Once my agent convinced a magazine editor to commission a short story from me; when she offered $7,000, which I thought was plenty , my agent talked them up to 8K, which is more than all my organs are worth combined, including my brain.
Where do I find an agent, besides the guano-splattered caves where they sleep?
The most common advice is to hit Google, or the acknowledgments pages of books, and see who represents your favorite authors. Famous writers are usually represented by fancy agents who don’t have much room on their lists for new clients, but other agents at the same agency are usually just as good. Sometimes, when you win an award or publish something that gets the internet squirming, agents will parachute into your inbox.
If you want some advice from my cheap brain, though, I’d say do your research and build a deep list of about thirty potential agents. (Use my submissions spreadsheet to keep track of them under the “Contacts” tab.) Visit reputable agencies’ websites and read the agents’ bios, which usually state the types of books they’re interested in and some authors they represent. Poets & Writers maintains a nice plump database of agencies, but here’s a bunch for starters: The Wylie Agency , International Creative Management (ICM), William Morris Endeavor (WME), Georges Borchardt , Aevitas , Trident , Curtis Brown , McCormick Literary , Massie & McQuilkin , David Black Agency , Hill Nadell , Foundry , Sterling Lord Literistic , Fletcher & Company , Writers House , The Gernert Company , The Book Group , and Janklow & Nesbit (which is an actual agency, not a law firm in a Dickens novel).
You might get approached by an editor before you even have an agent, which is a sweet deal. But if an editor offers to hook you up with an agent, I’d still play the field; it never hurts to have options, and there’s no real rush.
Frauds are rare but they exist. Fortunately, they’re easy to spot: They ask you for money. Legit agents ONLY make money off of commissions from selling your work. If an agent ever asks you for money, send her a picture of an unflushed toilet.
How do I introduce myself to an agent? I’ve tried cocaine and yelling?
“Querying” means reaching out to agents to see if they’d be interested in representing you. As with other submissions, follow the guidelines on the website, and don’t query more than one agent at the same agency.
Fiction manuscripts should be completely polished before they go out, because you basically get one shot with an agent per manuscript; most agents won’t spend their time reading multiple drafts. Writers do sometimes get signed based on a partial manuscript or something else they’ve published, but your agent won’t have much to do until you have a complete manuscript anyway—she might even influence your book in unwanted ways—so just chill.
Nonfiction writers are blessed and cursed with the option of submitting book proposals; there are plenty of sample proposals and how-to guides online already, so I won’t squirt another one at you.
Some publishing novices get nervous about submitting their manuscripts, because they worry agencies might “steal their idea.” Listen and look into my beautiful eyes: That doesn’t happen . To do that, an agent would need to hire a ghostwriter who’d risk her career to rewrite your book from scratch, risk a copyright infringement lawsuit she’d definitely lose (since you’d have your submission email as proof), then risk wasting everything if the book didn’t sell. If she wanted your book that bad, why wouldn’t she just sign you as a client for free , work with you to revise it, and try to sell it? No competent agency is ever short of promising manuscripts and clients. Get over yourself, babycakes.
What should I include in my query letter? I have some flattering pictures of my abs.
Put those away. Your query email should contain just five things: a short intro paragraph (include your book’s title, word count, and genre), a ~100-word book pitch, and a short bio; attach your CV and manuscript separately. The pitch is the hard part. It’s not really a plot synopsis, but a paragraph that tantalizes the agent with the book’s chief appeal, sort of like the copy on the back of a published book. If it’s a character-driven novel, do a brief run-down of the characters and their circumstances; if it’s plot-driven, provide the plot setup. The exception is style—your cover letter shouldn’t necessarily sound like your book. Avoid gimmicks, humblebrags, and superlatives like brilliant or sensational or six-foot-four or swimmer’s build .
Here’s the query letter I used to land an agent, lightly edited to minimize shame:
Dear [AGENT NAME]:
I’m a writer seeking representation for my novel, Private Citizens . It’s about 90,000 words long.
Set in 2007, it’s about four recent Stanford grads in the Bay Area. Cory is a workaholic activist who inherits a struggling nonprofit; Will is an Asian-American web developer, codependent on his startup-crazed paraplegic girlfriend; Linda is a would-be writer who hustles hipsters for shelter; and Henrik, a chronically ill engineer with funding problems, gets involved with a free-spirited sex worker. The four estranged friends accidentally reunite as they navigate the subcultures of millennial San Francisco.
I graduated from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop fiction MFA program, and have written for AGNI, Threepenny Review, The New Yorker Currency , Michigan Quarterly Review, The American Reader, and elsewhere. I’ve also received a BS and MS in Symbolic Systems at Stanford, an O. Henry Award, a Pushcart Prize Special Mention, the Malahat Review Novella Prize, and various fellowships (MacDowell, Jentel Arts, Truman Capote). I used to work as a tech consultant in Silicon Valley.
My CV and full manuscript are attached; let me know if you’d like to chat.
Agents are usually pretty quick with responses—you can expect a reply in about a month tops. If you don’t hear back by then, send a quick one-line follow-up email to check the status of the query. If you still hear nothing, don’t get salty; it’s not personal. Just go get a smoothie and move on.
How do I know if an agent is any good?
An agent should not only be competent, but compatible. Even a fully competent one might not be the right fit for you. Your agent should not only like your book, but understand and share your vision for it. (Some agents told me how much they loved how my book “skewered the Millennial generation,” which . . . it did not.) There’s a saying that agents are like a combination of lawyer, accountant, psychiatrist, and mommy, but what’s important is that they get your book and can sell it. You’re not looking for a buddy, a confidante, or a yes-man. Chumminess is optional. Agents are often highly weird book-shilling savants who have rich friends and got invited to Chelsea Clinton’s wedding.
Have a track record of sales. Even the “young and hungry” agents will have spent time working on deals back when they worked for more experienced agents. Like I said: cartel.
Work in New York. It’s goddamn ludicrous, but every major publisher is based here and every big magazine has offices here. A literary agent who isn’t based in New York is playing polo without a horse, stick, or ball. But that doesn’t mean you have to live in New York, or own a horse, which is good because horse-parking here sucks.
Be willing and able to handle all your career needs. In the short term you might be looking for an agent to sell your book, but they’ll be handling everything else, too. That includes placing articles and stories at large magazines and helping you with film, TV, foreign, and audiobook rights. Most agencies aren’t “full-service” firms with in-house film or foreign rights departments, but they should have partnerships or connections with other agencies that can handle those.
Be easy to communicate with. They should respond to emails promptly (within a business day or two), give non-vague answers to questions, and be forthright about what they don’t know. If they communicate by emitting pheromones and slamming against your window screen, they’re probably a cloud of angry bees.
What do I say when I meet the agent, assuming they’re not bees?
If an agent is piqued by your query, you’ll schedule a chat. It’s like a Tinder date, except you’re trying to find out if she won’t fuck you. If you meet in person for lunch, she will pay. One time I ordered a $26 lobster roll and three beers. This is literally the only monetary perk of being a writer, so dream big.
Ask these questions:
What edits would you anticipate suggesting before sending this manuscript out? These days, agents do as much editing as editors. They want to make sure that your manuscript has the absolute best chance of selling before it goes out, so you can expect to do several months’ worth of intense back-and-forth with them, even if you think your book is fine. For that reason, you’ll want to make sure they won’t insist on any deal-breaking changes. If you disagree with their suggestions, you can tell them that you’re willing to make edits, but you won’t budge on that particular issue. A few very skilled agents said they wouldn’t sign me unless I changed my novel’s ending; I tore off my lobster bib, filled up my tote bag with bread rolls, and bid them good day.
Which publishing houses and editors would you have in mind for this book? This is a lowkey trick question. You’re not really trying to preemptively strategize about where to sell your book; you’re testing whether they have working relationships with editors and publishers that they can rattle off from their mental Rolodex.
How would you pitch the book to them? This will help you understand how your agent sees your manuscript, and what they consider its selling points. The publishing industry is obsessed with “comp titles”—other books to compare yours to—so don’t be surprised when they start mentioning your book alongside topically similar, worse ones.
What is your client list generally like? What genres, forms, and topics interest you, and where do I fit in? If they’ve sold nothing but low-carb cookbooks for young adult vampire CEOs, and you’ve written a 700-page novel about an eighteenth-century Welsh mercer with herpes, you’ll want to make sure they really understand what you’re going for and can effectively vouch for it.
Who are your favorite writers? Again, just a question to feel out their tastes. You can expect them to namecheck a few recent critical / commercial darlings and one or two from the canon. One agent I asked just said, “Dostoyevsky,” which I both loved and hated.
Who will handle foreign / film / TV rights? It’s funniest if you ask this right after a hard bong rip.
You’ll want to meet with everyone in a relatively narrow time frame, so that you don’t keep anyone waiting—say, a few months. Some agents might want to rush you, but no matter how psyched you are, shop around first, because an agent relationship is about as tough to dissolve as a marriage. If you come to a hard impasse over edits, or your agent becomes checked out and unresponsive, voice your concerns; if things don’t get better, politely offer that things aren’t working out, and suggest you part ways. If there’s a contract involved (there usually is), ask them how it’ll be dissolved. If they won’t let you go, fake your death and start over somewhere fresh. Bangkok’s nice.
Last thing: You can trust your agent to have your career interests in mind, but not necessarily your artistic goals. It’s her job to make it as sellable as possible, which isn’t the same as making it better—that’s on you. Nobody will tell you how much of a say you have in the process, but you’re not obligated to blindly implement anyone’s recommendations. If you come to a disagreement, explain your choices thoroughly and civilly, making it clear that you are open to working with them, but that any changes you make would have to retain whatever’s important to you. The most useful trick is to edit what your agent points out to you, but not necessarily in the way she recommends you to do it. Still, take your agent’s feedback to heart; she really does want a book that you’re both happy with, has probably edited a lot more books than you, and might actually be smarter and hotter.
That’s all for Publish or Perish . I made tons of cash off of this. I leave you with these pieces of evergreen writing wisdom: