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Jim Brown's Blog

How to Get a Literary Agent and Publisher

Mark Malatesta, Founder of Literary Agent Undercover – Special Interview – How to Get a Literary Agent and Publisher – A Former NY Times Bestselling Literary Agent Shares Insider Secrets

What’s your philosophy on traditional publishing vs. self-publishing?

It’s almost always better to try and get a literary agent first, before self-publishing, so you have a chance of getting a traditional publisher like Random House (those who want to learn more about agents can get my free Guide to Literary Agents). Traditional publishing offers more benefits: no financial risk because someone else is paying for the privilege of publishing your book; a higher quality product thanks to professional editors and cover designers; more profit due to better sales, distribution, and publicity; greater subsidiary rights opportunities like merchandising, translations, TV, feature film, etc; increased credibility and more book reviews; and the ability to spend more time writing, promoting, and doing what you love. 99% of authors would be better off trying to get a literary agent and traditional publisher (preferably with the help of a coach/consultant).

How much of an advance should an author expect for their first book?

$0-30,000 is the norm, although there are exceptions. One of my coaching clients just got two offers from two different publishers last week, both bidding against each other and finally settling at $55,000. He’s an unpublished author and it’s his first book. Some publishers pay nothing or just a few hundred dollars, and every genre is different. Major publishers, obviously, have bigger budgets. And some lucky authors get six-figure advances or more. But it’s very rare and almost impossible to get that kind of advance without insider knowledge and/or the support of a coach/consultant.

How many query letters or author submissions did you receive as an agent?

Approximately 1,500 submissions a month.

What makes a query letter stand out for you?

I have a proprietary list of 150 possible “ingredients” that an author can put into his or her query letter. It’s the same list that I used when writing my pitch letters (as an agent) to publishers. Yes, even though a lot of my pitches were made in-person and/or by phone, agent still need to write their own query/cover letters to accompany a manuscript. So I can tell within the first 1-3 sentences if agents are going to continue reading your query and/or request more material. So make sure you put something strong at the beginning of your query. If you have a testimonial from someone famous, say that. If it’s your high-concept hook or premise, say that. Don’t assume that agents are going to read your entire letter. You have to give them a reason to do that, in the first few sentences. Another thing that you should do in your query letter is put your book in context. In other words, explain briefly what your book is like and/or not like (and why). Authors who show they’re knowledgeable about their market are much more likely to be writing books that capitalize on past and current trends… but also bring something fresh and unique to the market. For more info on this topic, click here to get my free 15-part Get A Literary Agent.

Can you give an example of something negative or unprofessional that authors repeatedly do?

One of the biggest mistake that authors make is getting lazy, defiant, or in denial when it comes to the query letter writing process. They spend weeks, months, or years pouring all of their passion into their book. Then they drop the ball with their query because they’re not sure what to do or how to do it. In essence, they let one email or piece of paper stand between them and getting a top agent, publisher, and book deal. I know that most writers would prefer to spend all their time writing in the genre or category that they’re most comfortable with. But you have to get educated and comfortable with query letters as well. They are their own art form, with their own separate learning curve. I think of queries as poetry, and they are… in their own way. But, more than anything, query letters are “sales letters.” And most authors don’t know a thing about sales letters (at least not at first).

How can an author tell a good literary agent from a bad one?

If an agent asks for you money up front, or recommends you to anyone that asks you for money, they’re NOT a reputable agent or member of the AAR (Association of Authors’ Representatives). Reputable agents don’t have affiliations or get kickbacks from editing companies or vanity presses or anything else. They simply get paid (15%) of whatever money you make AFTER they sell your book. And, if they charge you for expenses like photocopying and postage, that should come out of monies they made you as well. Reputable agents make money selling books… not by charging you to edit your book proposal or anything else “creative” on the side. For more info on this topic, click here for my free guide to finding the Best Literary Agent.

Once a book is accepted for publication, how long does it typically take before it is released for sale?

Usually 6-18 months. That’s how long it takes to edit the book, design a cover, write promotional copy for catalogs and websites, and let the sales team start getting orders. If it’s a new publisher, or an established publisher starting a new imprint, everything might go faster. If a publisher has to cancel one of their other titles or something happens in the world to make your topic more timely, your publication date might also get moved forward. On the other hand, if something like 9/11 happens, it could get pushed back.

Can you describe the relationship between an author and their literary agent?

It varies greatly, depending on the personality of the agent and their chemistry with you. Some agents never get on the phone with clients and do everything by email and letters. Amazing, but true. Other agents are happy to meet with you face-to-face once in a while or at least once. The author/agent relationship is, first and foremost, a professional relationship, but some of those relationships develop into friendships. Some agents do a lot of book and/or career development. Most don’t. The only thing an author should really expect is that the agent is qualified to sell their book. Every agent should know which editors/publishers to approach and be good at negotiating deals and contracts.

How do you help authors as a consultant and book marketing coach?

Literary Agent Undercover offers a free weekly newsletter, insider articles, audio and video training (including interviews with top literary agents), an online Directory of Literary Agents, an interactive “Ask a Literary Agent” area on our website, and 1-on-1 consulting. You can get instant access to all of those things here at Literary Agent Undercover. Founded in August 2011, Literary Agent Undercover has already helped dozens of authors (in the United States and abroad) get the attention of literary agents and/or get book deals with major publishing houses.

What types of authors do you help through Literary Agent Undercover?

Literary Agent Undercover is for authors around the world, writing in any genre, that fit into one of the following three categories:

1. Unpublished authors that are just starting to write (or pitch) their book(s).
2. Self-published authors who now want to find a real (traditional) publisher like Random House.
3. Previously published authors who’ve lost their agent and/or publisher and want to find a new one.

Do you still represent authors as a literary agent?

No. The only work that I do with authors now is in a coaching/consulting capacity.

Why did you stop being a literary agent?

The main reason I became a literary agent was to learn how to get my own books published. Since I was a young aspiring author at the time (25 years old), I saw managing (and later owning) a literary agency as the chance of a lifetime – for a while. After a few years, however, I knew everything I needed to know to get my own books published. And I started getting the itch to get my own books out there. I also hated the most important part of my job as a literary agent: constantly staying on top of the wants/needs of every single editor and publishing house. Since I was based in South Florida, and didn’t have thirty years of experience and contacts in the industry, I was the proverbial fish trying to swim upstream. I had to work twice as hard to gain the attention and trust of editors and publishers. Obviously, based on my sales record (above) I was able to do it. But it felt like a grind. The thing that pushed me over the edge though was getting married. At that point I knew that I had to “get serious” about being an agent, long-term, and move to NYC… or close the agency to pursue my own writing and other things I wanted to do. I decided to close the agency, but I didn’t just “drop” my authors. I made personal referrals to other agents that I’d gotten to know so my authors wouldn’t get “orphaned.” I’m still in touch with a lot of them today.

What last bit of advice can you give to authors trying to secure a literary agent?

There are only two reasons talented writers don’t get published. First, they aren’t educated enough about the publishing process. Second, most writers that are educated about the publishing process, aren’t willing to do the work that it takes to get published. Now I know that might sound simple, but it IS simple. Not easy, but simple. That’s the most valuable lesson that I learned (as a writer) going “undercover” as an agent for many years. Getting published isn’t luck, it’s a decision. Visit my website at Literary Agent Undercover and sign up for instant access to my article and audio library, as well as my Directory of Literary Agents. You can also post questions on my blog about writing, literary agents, and/or getting published. I respond to every question personally, and, of course, I offer author coaching programs. Click here to learn more at Book Marketing with Mark Malatesta.


MARK MALATESTA is the author who went “undercover” as a literary agent for five years to find out how to get his own books published. During that time, Mark helped many previously unpublished authors launch their writing careers with major publishers like Random House. Mark’s authors have gotten 6-figure advances, been on the NY Times bestseller list, and been picked up for TV, stage, and feature film (with companies like Paramount Pictures and DreamWorks). Now Mark helps authors of all genres get top agents, publishers, and book deals through his new consulting company called Literary Agent Undercover. Get free access to Mark’s articles, audio training, and Directory of Literary Agents at Literary Agent Undercover.
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