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Copyright 2004 Tara K. Harper.  All rights reserved.

Tara K. Harper, FAQ:

1.  How did you get an agent?
2.  What is the best way for an aspiring writer to get an agent? -- updated!
3.  How long did it take you to find an agent?
4.  How many agents did you have to go through to get published? -- updated!
5.  How did you get your second agent?  -- NEW!
6.  If I get an agent, will I also get published?
7.  Does your agent represent you for short stories?

8.  What advice would you give to someone who is trying to get an agent? -- updated!
9.  Are agency reading fees legitimate? -- updated!
10.  Are there any fees an agency may legitimately charge a client? -- updated!
11.  What advice would you give someone who has just gotten an agent?


Publishers, the Publishing Industry, and Getting Published
Contracts - Terms and Negotiation
Links to author resources

1.  How Did You Get an Agent?

I purchased a Writer's Market and read through the agents' listing to find out which agents handled SF writers.  At that time, there were only eleven agents who said they handled SF writers.  I wrote to all eleven; and over the next five or six months, received six replies.  Three of those replies were yesses.

Of the three replies, only one mentioned marketing--a very polite suggestion to consider lengthening my manuscript to make the story more marketable.  (The big, NYC agency was cold and impersonal in their letter; the other agency was pushy.)   I chose the agent who spoke of marketing, to represent me.  He remained my agent for about ten years.

But if you want to know the story behind the story...

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2.  What Is the Best Way for an Aspiring Writer to Get an Agent?

Get an agent any way you can.  If it takes four dozen queries, write them without hesitation.  If it takes haunting genre-fiction conventions until you get a one-on-one with a resident agent or convention-participant agent, do so.  Whatever works for you is the right way to get an agent. Some sources for information about getting an agent include:  

1.  Writer's guides, including agents and editors listings.  Local bookstores and libraries carry these.

2.  Association of Author's Representatives - the organization of professional literary agents.  Note that agents not listed with the AAR may be of dubious legitimacy.

3.  Literary magazines, which often include how-to articles for first-time writers, such as how to get an agent.  However, be wary of any advertisement for clients by an agency.  Refer to book doctors in the edit file, and to the discussions about reading fees and legitimate fees later in this agents file.

4.  Web sites.  There is a great deal of information posted by professional authors, writer-oriented sites, publishing houses, and even agents themselves.  This information includes questions to ask agents, issues you might encounter with agents, and so on.  Remember that this information is made up of advice, anecdotes, and experiences--it's not a rule book (except for the rules about courtesy!).  It's a set of scenarios that worked for various people.  What works for you may very well be different again.

5.  Genre conventions.  Literary and media conventions often have agents and editors as guests.  Attend their panels, sign up for their workshops, and try to sign up for one-on-one sessions if these sessions are available.  A piece of advice:  be prepared, and don't exaggerate your work.  If your book isn't finished, don't claim that it is.  For example, at one convention, I watched an aspiring writer corner my editor.  Shelly told the writer that yes, she would be willing to look at the manuscript and to send it to her after the convention.  The writer--who had not been truthful about the state of the book--suddenly backed off, hemming and hawing and making excuses about how the manuscript couldn't be sent right away, and so on.  It became obvious that there was something seriously wrong with the writer's statements or with the supposedly completed manuscript.  I can't help but wonder what impression was left in my editor's mind as she heard that aspiring writer throw away the opportunity that others beg for.   What a waste!

6.  Genre organizations for professionals.  These organizations sometimes provide (to their members) listings of agents who handle fiction in the associated genres and categories.  Links to some genre organizations are provided on the links page of this site.

7.  Professional writers, who can provide information about agents who have been effective in representing those writers' works.  Professional writers often speak on this topic at genre conventions and appear as guest speakers at libraries, schools, conferences, and other events.  These are good places to ask your questions about literary agencies and about getting an agent yourself.

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3.  How Long Did It Take You to Find an Agent?

When I was an unknown, aspiring writer, it took about five months to find an agent.  I sent out one batch of eleven query letters.  The first "yes" reply to my queries came back around three and a half months; the second "yes" reply came in around four months; the last "yes" reply came in at five months.

I held off making a decision (among the agents who were willing to represent my work) until I was sure I would have no other replies.  Since all the agents had said they responded to queries within three months, I figured five to six months was adequate time to expect them to respond.  I probably pushed it a bit, making my decision after five months instead of waiting for the rest of the replies, but since I never did receive replies from the other four agencies (the last agency had gone out of business), it ended up not being important.

Most agents say that they respond to queries in three months.  However, agents are inundated with queries and manuscripts,and it is not unusual for an agent to take six or nine months to reply.  If you don't receive a reply after six months, consider sending the query--or a rewritten, new query--again.

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4.  How Many Agents Did You Have to Go Through to Get Published?

Only one.  My first agent was able to get me published rather quickly in comparison to some fiction, and although my contract terms weren't great, he was able to start me out with an excellent SF house (Ballantine/Del Rey Books).  I stayed with that agent for about ten years.  At that point, we had a profound falling out over a specific issue, and I went to another agent.

Most writers have had more than one agent.  Many of these writers switch agents because they are dissatisfied with their agent or career--their career isn't moving fast enough; they don't get enough money; they're not being published at the top houses, they're not getting published at all, etc.  Some authors switch because they want a change.  Some switch because they want a bigger-name agent, whose clout will get them more favorable contracts and promotion.  I heard this quote about publishers, but I think it works also for agents:

It is with publishers as with wives:  
one always wants somebody else's

- Norman Douglas

Something to remember is that most newbie writers don't start out with the agent they will end up with.  Newbies have to take what they can get in order to get started at all.  This may mean hooking up with a low-end agent or even a "bottom feeder" as some less legitimate agents are called.  This is just paying your dues--it's like the entry-level job at the department store, where you learn some of the ropes before moving on to the supervisor position.  

Once you're published, once you start to show decent sales numbers, that you can complete more than one project, that you are serious about establishing a career, then you might have enough credentials to move on to a better or more powerful agent.  

How many agents will you have to go through to get published?  It depends on you, your writing, your agent's skills, what the market will bear, and a host of other elements.  Best-selling author, Jean Auel, went through three agents before she was ever published, and then, of course she hit big, big, big.  Third time, for her, was the charm.

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5.  How Did You Get Your Second Agent?

By the time I decided to switch agents, I was an established author with a history of earnings and awards nominees.  I also had some pro-writer contacts I could draw on, and a reputation that allowed me to contact other pros with whom I wasn't yet acquainted.  This put me in a significantly different position than being a new author with no credits, looking for her first agent.  

First, I interviewed various pro authors to find out what they liked or disliked, needed or didn't need in an agent, and who they thought was good, better, best.  I got information on "bottom-feeders" and the names to avoid.  I asked about reputations, clarification on rumors, and what exactly was the word in the industry about each person.  I ignored two of the names at the actual top of my list because they were "super-agents" who handled only Big Fry, such as Stephen King.  I then queried the top four names on my list:  one super-agent, two "A" agents, and one "A-" or "B" agent..

Three of the four I queried were interested in representing my work; the fourth (one of the "A" agents) gave me a flat refusal.  I interviewed the three that were interested.  What I was trying to do in the interviews was get a feel for potential issues, how easy or difficult it would be to work with each agent, and what they were really looking for in manuscripts.  Some of the inside information I heard about one agent knocked that representative off my list.

Of the two who were left, one gentleman's tastes were both esoteric and eclectic.  We both enjoyed reading almost any genre or topic, we enjoyed the same comedians, and so on.  As we talked, he offered comments that gave me significant insights into my work, raised questions I had never asked myself before.  I believe we could have worked extremely well together.  But I didn't choose this agent to work with.  Why not?  Perhaps this is unflattering to myself, but I was concerned that my fiction work was too genre for him.  That he would be bored with it after a while, unable to believe in it or promote it as he could the more quirky things he really loved.

The other agent had an excellent reputation and was, like the other, in every way the ideal agent.  However, he asked that, since he was so busy, would I consider being represented by one of his associates?  The associate and I didn't hit it off, so I asked that he reconsider representing me himself.  Since I was in the middle of a large contract, I didn't have any work for him to do immediately, and wouldn't for several years.  We agreed to work together, and I had a new agent.

The important note here is that this second process was fairly lengthy and required a lot of professional contacts.  It was possible only because I was already a professional author.  Other pro authors and editors were willing to talk with me, give me the inside information, the horse's-mouth version of an innuendo or rumor, etc.  The agents who were interested were willing to look at my work because, not only did I have an established career, but because I could provide them with the numbers (primary earnings, secondary-rights earnings) for the published work.  Those earnings statements translated into what I could earn for the agent.  A newbie or wannabe-writer will find it difficult to get the kind of consideration I did, since he won't have a reputation, earnings statements, established readership or a professional history to show.

For a professional author who is thinking about switching agents, I strongly suggest you consider the same process I used.  All the agents at the top of my list were professional and had decent reputations.  All were charming, witty, and seemed genuinely interested in my work.  My choices weren't based on the obvious information available about these agents, but on inside information that came out only by spending a lot of time talking with the agents themselves and asking about them throughout the industry.

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5.  If I Get an Agent, Will I Also Get Published?

Not necessarily.  Having an agent is not a guarantee of being published.  I know several authors who have "A-grade" or top agents, who are still unpublished.   I know an author with a "super-agent" who can't get anything published--hasn't for years.  Writing a great manuscript is not, in fact, a guarantee of getting published.

Even if an agent thinks your manuscript will sell, the publisher still might not want it.  For example, the publisher might feel luke-warm about the storyline; could have bought a manuscript just like it last week; might consider it to be yesterday's news; might hate your choice of protagonist; might believe the story too experimental, too similar to or too dissimilar from another author's work, too long or too short, etc.  The direction of the publishing house may be changing.  The imprint may be merging with another press that already has a backlist of similar work.  And so on, and so forth, ad nauseum.  There are a hundred reasons a manuscript can be rejected, regardless of how the agent feels about the work.

"Thank you for sending me a copy of your book - I'll waste no time reading it."
                    - Moses Hadas (1900-1966)

Remember, it is the editor, not the agent, who purchases the manuscript.  The agent simply tries to judge and market the work based on current (and as much as possible, future) market trends.  

So what good is getting an agent?  Simple.  First, he can get your (his) foot in the door.  A publisher is more likely to look at an agent's submission than one from yet another unpublished author, because the agent will have already slogged through hundreds of manuscripts to find one he thinks is worth presenting to that publisher.  That saves the publisher time and effort.  The agent in this scenario is performing the job of an assistant editor:  culling the herd, as it were.  

"Manuscript:   something submitted in haste and returned at leisure."
                - Oliver Herford

Second, once the editor offers to buy the manuscript, an agent can help negotiate a more favorable contract than the inexperienced author might accept.  This is because the agent has knowledge about the industry and can negotiate to strike out certain clauses in the basic contract that might not be advantageous to an author.  New authors (and their lawyers) are often concerned about dangerous-sounding clauses that will actually have little bearing on their careers.  They are not concerned enough about innocuous-sounding clauses that can have significant and long-term effects.  A good agent will know which clauses are which, and will be able to negotiate the best contract for the new author, while still satisfying the publisher and completing the sale of the manuscript.

Third, an agent can help you build a career by talking you up to the publisher, by obtaining better marketing for your work, and by guiding you through--and hopefully over--various pitfalls into which you might be inclined to step.  In some cases--such as for authors who never write more than one novel--it is not necessary for an agent to build a career for you, because, frankly, you don't usually have a career in that case; you have a single book.  If you have only one book to sell, or if you don't intend to make a commitment to writing, the agent cannot negotiate using the possibility of other novels to help establish you.  In other cases however, in which the author will write many books and seeks to create a career for himself, the agent has an on-going job of continuing to market the writer, not just the writer's work.

Is it worth it, then, to get an agent?  Well, an agent will cost you 10% to 15% of your earnings in commissions.  In some cases, the bottom-line question will be:  Is 85% of something better than 100% of nothing?  In other cases, the bottom-line question will be:  Can I afford to lose 10%-15% of my income to someone else, if I can do the agenting, marketing, and negotiating jobs myself?  If you decide against getting an agent, I strongly suggest that you learn from others' mistakes by discussing and researching the market before committing your mistakes with your own career on the line.  

In my opinion, yes, a good agent is definitely worth it.  However, if you understand the industry, are highly competent at contract negotiation, have developed a  long list of industry contacts, and can perform schmoozing with the best of them, perhaps then you do not need an agent.  Or, when you have acquired that knowledge, those contacts and skills, perhaps you will choose to break with your agent and perform those tasks yourself.  In either case, you should still research the market so that you understand what an agent can, should, and will be able to do for you.

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6.  Do Agents Represent Short Stories?

Not usually.  This isn't an important issue for me, since I don't usually write short stories--I hate to read them, and most of my ideas are novel-length ideas, not short-story ideas.  In thirty years, I've written four short stories, two of which were nonfiction.  But I've written over ten novels, sixty or so technical manuals and science volumes, well over a hundred articles for a technical magazine, and have over forty other novels plotted or started.  I'm just not a short-fiction person.

In general, it isn't worth an agent's time to try placing an author who writes only short stories--at least, this is what I've been told by both agents and publishers. There's not enough income generated by short fiction to offset the amount of work involved in placing that fiction. Most writers sell their short fiction themselves, not through an agency.

My agent-author agreement allows my agent to place my short fiction for me.  Since, as I said previously, I don't write much short fiction, this is not a big deal to me.  If you write primarily short stories and want an agent to represent you only for novel-length fiction, you should write that into your agent-author agreement up front.

Also, my agent represents me for fiction writing only.  When I write something that is in a nonfiction market, such as a science book or technical work, my agent does not represent that work, and I do not pay him an agenting fee from what I earn on that work.  Your agent-author agreement will (should) specify exactly which kinds of writing the agent will represent.  If the agreement doesn't specify this, you should bring it up as an issue that must be resolved before you sign (handshake) with that agent.

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7.  What Advice Would You Give Someone Who Is Trying to Get an Agent?

The way you're supposed to do it, according to my agent, other agents, and editors I've spoken with is either  1) get enough short stories published to acquire name-recognition and a readership, or  2) write a novel, send it to a publisher for review, and when you receive a contract offer, call an agent.

In either case, an agent will probably be willing to take you on as a new client.  In the first case the agent assumes that a) you've learned to write by writing enough good short fiction to be published more than once, and b) he will be able to sell your book-length fiction to a publisher based on your existing readership.  If, as in option #2, you have a manuscript accepted by a publisher, you've done most of the agent's work for him, and all he has to do then is negotiate the contract for you.

Of course, as usual, I didn't go about things (in this case, get an agent) the way you're supposed to.  I had a resume as long as my arm in technical writing and journalism, including awards for science writing, but that certainly didn't translate into a fiction audience.  I could only query agents based on my science writing and journalistic experience, since I had no readership and no name recognition in science-fiction writing.  Luckily for me, my agent accepted me on the basis of my query letter, making the assumption that, since I had been writing professionally (although not in fiction) so long, I should have enough skill to make a decent, complete manuscript.  Of course, he had to take his chances on my work being more interesting to read than an emulator manual.

Getting an agent is rather like having an operation.  It can be different for every writer.  My advice, if you're serious about getting published, is do whatever it takes to get an agent.  If that means writing short fiction for ten years to build a readership, then do that.  If it means spending ten years working on your first novel-length manuscript, then do that.  If it means bribing a personal recommendation out of your great aunt's closest friend's second cousin's daughter, the Famous Author, then sure, try that too.

It all comes down to this:  Prove yourself, and you'll probably get an agent.  Prove yourself to be a consistent, conscientious, dependable, writer whose work is increasingly smoothly written, grammatically clean, and intriguiging to read, and you'll probably get a better agent than the other aspiring writers who are in the fish pond with you.

Advice for getting an agent?  Write first and prove yourself.  Those "dues" will pay for a lot of attention from both agents and publishers.

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8.  Are Agency Reading Fees Legitimate?

No.  Not in my opinion nor in the opinions of many professional writers.

A reading fee is a fee paid to someone to read your manuscript and perhaps comment on it, but this reader is not necessarily someone who will give you a full, professional critique or edit.  The reader is sometimes an agent with dubious ethics who will charge you a reading fee, rather than work to sell your manuscript and thereby make his living from legitimately representing you.  No reputable agent should charge reading fees for manuscripts.  The professional organization of author's representatives (agents) does not recognize reading fees as legitimate expenses an agent can charge a client.  Legitimate agents earn their money only from commissions from selling your work.  

Charges of excessive copying, postage, etc., required for promoting the sale of some clients' works may, in some cases, be legitimately deducted from subsequent monies earned by those works.  Refer to the next discussion, "Are there any fees an agency may legitimately charge a client?"

If the agency with which you are corresponding charges reading fees, you should consider taking the following actions before continuing any correspondence with that agency:
1. Contact a professional writer's organization and inquire about the agency's reputation.        
2. Check agent listings, advice columns, and articles in writer's guides, bulletins, journals, etc., for information about that agency.  If you have access to the world-wide web, consider searching out author and watch-dog sites that include agency listings.  Many sites exist now that include listings of dubious agencies, agencies that charge reading fees, and agencies that are embroiled in lawsuits over inappropriate practices.  Be aware that information on the web is not necessarily accurate, and that mistakes on the web propagate like gossip, since they are often copied from one site or newsgroup to another without verification of the information involved.
3. Contact the Association of Author's Representatives (AAR) to find out if the agency is listed with the organization.  If the agency is not listed with the AAR, it could very well be illegitimate or of dubious reputation.  If this is the case, you should check agency watchdog sites for cautions, complaints, or lawsuits against the agency.  In other cases, an unlisted agency might be a multidisicpline agency which provides other services to the writer.  For example, an editor (such as for short stories for a literary magazine) who is also an agent cannot be a member of AAR.  AAR requires that their members be paid only from a commission from the sale of a work.  AAR does not allow editors or agent-editors to be members.  This is to help protect the AAR from less-legitimate agencies (refer to the discussions on agency fees and book doctors).  This policy also prevents a few legitimate agent-editors from being members, since these editors charge for their editing services separately from agenting services.  The question to ask:  is your representative an editor or an agent?  An agency that has successfully been in business for a significant amount of time, has had no lawsuits or complaints filed against it (for fraud, etc.), and has a good business reputation among legitimate publishers and other agents could be a legitimate agency, regardless of membership (or lack of) in AAR.

Personally?  I would not sign with an agency that charged reading fees.  Also, I would report such an agency to the writers' organizations so that the agency may be checked out and, if necessary, listed (or blacklisted) among other agencies of dubious legitimacy.

There have been many online discussions in popular writing groups of book doctors and agency reading fees.  For more information, including the names of some notorious agencies that charge such fees without providing fair return of product (an edit) to the writer, look into writing groups, professional agency guidelines, professional writer's organizations, etc.

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9.  Are There Any Fees an Agency May Legitimately Charge a Client?

An agency should not be charging you for anything.  A legitimate agency may only pass along to you, in some circumstances, costs associated with unusual or excessive charges incurred in the actual sale of a book/story.  For example:  personal courrier fees involved in overseas sales, wire-transfer fees, excessive copying,  purchases of excessive numbers of books for distribution to other affiliates, and/or currency-exchange fees for the sale of foreign rights.  All of those are costs that may be legitimately deducted from the writer's earnings.  However, those costs are not charged to the writer up front---the writer should not be paying the agency anything.  Deductions for unusual expenses incurred in the sale of a particular work are taken out of the monies earned by the actual sale of that book.

Aspiring writers sometimes confuse excessive costs involved in the sale of a book with agency fees charged for looking at or processing a writer's work.  Yes, legitimate agents incur costs that include phone charges, postage, and business trips on the writer's behalf.  However, in general, those are not costs that should be passed along to the writer.  Those are simply the agency's cost of doing business--just as printing and mailing a manuscript to the agent is part of the writer's cost of doing business.  I have heard some writers claim that their agents take such deductions in addition to the agents' commissions, but I question the legitimacy of such deductions.

In contrast, agency fees are monies charged for services the agency supposedly performs for the writer.  These fees might be described as assessment fees, evaluation fees, reading fees, editing fees, and critiquing fees.  Some agencies also charge processing fees and contract fees.  The Association of Author's Representatives (AAR) does not recognize any of those fees as legitimate fees an agency may charge a client.  A legitimate agent earns his commission only from a percentage from the sale of your work.  

To summarize:
Assessment, evaluation, and reading fees are not legitimate charges.  It is part of the basic job of being an agent that he read or assess the market value of the work before trying to place it at an appropriate publishing house.  This is part of the way the agent earns his commission.        
Editing and critiquing fees are inappropriate charges and are usually incurred only by agencies of dubious legitimacy.  The agent can make as many suggestions as he likes to help you improve the quality and marketability of your work, but those suggestions are exactly that:  suggestions from an agent, not a thorough edit from a professional editor.  Yes, it is his job to help you make your manuscript as marketable as possible, but it is not his job to edit the manuscript unless you also have an editor-author agreement with him.  His job is to get your work placed with a professional editor at a legitimate publishing house--and at that point, the publisher should be paying you for the rights to your work, rather than the writer paying for the edit.  Finding a professional editor for your work is another part of the way the agent earns his commission.
Processing fees are a scam.  A legitimate agent should not be charging the writer a fee to become his client.
Contract fees are a scam.  Again, a legitimate agent should not be charging the writer a fee to sign a contract to become a client.  (Contract negotiation for publishing contracts is part of the basic job of an agent, and is part of the way the agent earns his commission.)

Your agent-author agreement, whether verbal (handshake) or written (signed contract), should make it clear what kinds of costs the agent might pass on to you.  A legitimate agent will also notify you ahead of time if he thinks there might be unusual costs involved with a particular project.  It is then your decision whether or not to proceed and under what conditions.

Have I seen deductions from my own monies for unusual services?  Yes.  For example, the foreign affiliate passed some courrier fees along to me--costs which sometimes amounted to several hundred dollars.  These charges were acceptable to me because that particular foreign agent was effective in selling my work overseas.  The exchange fees for foreign payments are also deducted from my foreign-rights checks.  Occasionally, when the paperwork has not been processed quickly enough, I have seen foreign taxes taken out of the money.  In those cases, I receive refund checks for the taxes (because I am already taxed in America for that income).  I have never seen, from either agent, deductions for phone charges, copying, or mailing costs.  

Remember, legitimate agents earn their money only from commissions from actual sales of your work.  If an agency admits to charging other fees, be immediately wary of dubious and/or fraudulent business practices.

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10.  What Advice Would You Give Someone Who Has just Gotten an Agent?

Snippets of advice:

  1. Talk to other writers.  Find out what they want in an agent and why they want that particular attribute.  Make sure you understand what an agent can and cannot do for you.
  2. Consider the list of authors that agent handles.  If he does not currently handle other writers in your genre, you might want to consider a different agency that has more experience with the publishers who might be interested in your work.
  3. Do not assume that you have the right to the names, addresses, and phone numbers of every author an agent handles.  Although you will find many agency-watchdog sites advising that you talk to an agent's other clients, be aware that many professional authors do not give their agents permission to pass out their phone numbers and home addresses to aspiring writers.  If you want to find out what the authors have published, call a bookstore, use an online search engine, or contact a professional writer's organization in the appropriate genre.
  4. Do not sign a contract that locks you into a relationship with an agent for more than three months.  You should have the right to leave an agency after giving reasonable notice.  (My agreement specifies 30-day notice from either party in order to terminate the agent-author relationship.)
  5. Look carefully at the costs your agent will be incurring on your behalf and which will be deducted from any monies you earn--extra copies of books, shipping charges, etc..  Watch out for excessive deductions.  Refer to the previous discussion, "Are There Any Fees an Agency May Legitimately Charge a Client?"
  6. Find out what will happen to your work if your agent retires, quits, becomes disabled, dies, or otherwise leaves his agency.  In some cases, your work will automatically be agented by the person he designates as the "heir" of his author list.  If you want to have the choice of selecting your own agent, you might want to write that into your agent-author agreement.

Remember that a relationship with an agent, as with an editor, takes time to develop.  If you're the kind of author who wants to know the people with whom you do business, make sure you build that relationship so that you can talk with your agent, not just at him.

Links to author resources, including agent listings
Publishers and getting published

Additional resources  for writers:  
Association of Author's Representatives (AAR), AAR Canon of Ethics, etc.

Copyright 2004 Tara K. Harper

All rights reserved.  It is illegal to reproduce or transmit in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, any part of this copyrighted file without permission in writing from Tara K. Harper.  Permission to download this file for personal use only is hereby granted by Tara K. Harper.

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