When Is It Time to Approach An Agent?

Okay all you first time novelists, sit down before you read this post.

A couple of weeks ago, the Author’s Academy (hosted by the independent publisher Wheatmark) had literary agent Ann Rittenberg on to talk about literary agents and how to land an agent. Ms. Rittenberg represents some big names in fiction, including Dennis Lehane, C.J. Box, and Laura Whitcomb.

The best part of these calls is that they provide an opportunity for existing and aspiring authors to hear from experts about what it takes to be successful. And Rittenberg’s comments were candid if not sobering.

Rittenberg’s agency receives about 150 manuscripts a week. She picks up…maybe…one or two clients a year. She is excited enough about three to four submissions to read the entire manuscript…in any given year. So, do the math. It’s a competitive world.

So, how do you get your manuscript to stand out? Obviously, it has to be really, really, really good. And different. Perhaps even unique. And commercialy viable.

But, here’s the money piece of Rittenberg’s advice: Don’t even bother sending your manuscript to an agent until it is outstanding. As a rule of thumb, Rittenberg thinks writers need to be writing for about 10 years before they get good enough and polished enough to produce a manuscript that even has a shot at a major publisher. Agents can usually tell based on the first page or two whether it’s any good or not.

I actually don’t think her advice is too far off. Rittenberg referenced the book Outliers, where author Malcolm Gladwell notes that the greatest artists, minds, inventors and businessmen & women typically toil for at least 10,000 hours at their business or craft before they excell. (I also talked about this in one of my first posts on this blog, “The Long, Hard Road to Overnight Success.”)

The point is not to discourage new authors. Rather, it’s to acknowledge that writing is both skill and art, and the more practice you have the better you get at the craft. (Personally, I can see this maturity in my own work, comparing literary style of A Warrior’s Soul with the earlier The Pirate of Panther Bay, and both of these published books to my third yet unfinished novel Renegade.)

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