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How to Find a Literary Agent with No Presence on Social Media

How to Find a Literary Agent with No Presence on Social Media


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Harry Seitz

3 years ago | 6 min read


The 80/20 rule applies to writing, and for aspiring writings who aren’t already famous, don’t know anyone in the industry, and don’t have a large presence on social media (50,000 plus followers), convincing a literary agent to invest in you, let alone getting published, is close to impossible.

Even assuming you do find an agent and get a book traditionally published, your chances of being able to earn a living solely from writing books are a statistical zero.

Walk through your local library and grab a book at random, then google the author. Chances are, they are not earning a living solely from writing, or even still writing in any professional capacity at all.

For those unfamiliar with the 80/20 rule, 20% of all published authors are responsible for 80% of sales, or revenue, and the 80/20 rule continues to apply to those 20%, meaning 4% of authors are responsible for 64% of sales, and approximately 1% of authors are responsible for 50% of sales.

Over the course of nearly a decade, Henry Miller submitted thousands of short stories and articles to hundreds of literary magazines, newspapers, and publishers who were actively soliciting content, and was accepted zero times. He knew his work was good, and his wife argued that he wasn’t being published because his work was good.

No successful writer is truly ahead of his or her time. They are representative of their time, and by definition, appeal to the lowest common denominator, or the tastes of the masses clustered around the mean. In other words, they write average books for average people.

But while June Miller’s contention was likely valid, the primary reasons for Henry Miller’s initial failure were that he wasn’t already famous, didn’t know anyone in the industry, and had no presence on social media (which, fortunately for the world, hadn’t been invented yet).

If you’re reading this article, you’ve probably already read similar ones that advise you to personalize queries to literary agents. They tell you to use the agent’s name in the query, mention the authors and books they’ve successfully represented, and substantiate why you think you’re a good fit.

Exactly how to do the last, they don’t say. They also suggest building a sizable social media presence, so you can bring 50,000 plus followers, or potential customers, to the table. Again, how to do this is not explicitly stated.

While doing these things probably won’t hurt you, it isn’t likely to help, either.

First, because everyone else is already trying to do the same things.

Second, because personalizing a query is not equivalent to actually knowing anyone.

And third, because 50,000 followers does not translate into any more than five or six sales at best, and publishing houses know this.

Getting 50,000 people to read your content on Quora or Medium for free does not translate into them buying your book. Even those who pay to read Medium are probably not paying solely to read you, and even if they are, the most popular content on Medium that overlaps with popular books is already available on Medium and in those books.

So why go with you when agents and publishers already have a pool of authors they’re used to working with who are already doing what you propose to do?

Going to bars where literary agents are known to congregate is not a viable option for most of us, especially now during a global pandemic.

While content is always in demand, and having or contributing to a popular blog or site can help you to build social connections, they typically aren’t the connections you need to get a book published, and even if by some fluke they are, again, they know that your popularity online does not automatically translate to book sales.

So what are you supposed to do? And once every other aspiring author reads this advice and starts using it, how is it going to separate you from the crowd?

The answer is that you do what works, and if it works, you don’t want to be separated from that crowd.

Literary agents have to sell books to publishers. Period. In order to do so, they have to convince publishers that what they’re pushing will sell. So what you have to do is surprisingly simple.

Do the literary agent’s job for them.

Research the top sellers in your genre. You can find out what they are on google or by checking the bestsellers on Amazon.

Identify what these bestsellers have in common. How many words are in the title? What color is the cover, and how many elements does it contain? How easy is it to recognize on a phone? You can use statistical analysis programs as simple as Excel to make a pitch grounded in cold, hard reality.

Next, identify whatever holes you can in a market. Harry Bosch is pushing 90 and people still want to read Harry Bosch books. Convince an agent you can fill that hole and that the author can’t.

Make the argument that the author is too tied to the character, and that readers don’t want anything else from him, and back up that argument with numbers like sales figures and library distribution. Want to figure out how many copies of a book a library has? Get on the holds list. If you don’t have to put a book on hold, or wait in line to borrow it, that’s an argument in itself.

Upon doing your due diligence and presenting your findings in the query, follow the agent’s submission requirements to the letter, and show them that you can produce content that is extremely similar to what is already selling.

The trick is to wrap whatever new or novel ideas you bring to the table in elements that are already familiar to the readers of that genre. Columbo is a sloppier, milder Dashiell Hammett detective; Harry Bosch is a sober one who also has to contend with bureaucracy and technology.

If you’re willing to go the extra mile, use SurveyMonkey. Target readers and ask them what they want, then show literary agents that you can give it to them.

Be easy to work with, be polite, and apply these techniques to the work that’s most important to you.

Authors tend to do the most market research for the books they care about the least. They write these books to make a little money on the side while working on their “real” book. It is a strange phenomenon, but anecdotally, a common one, and I suspect it’s nearly universal. It is akin to why most of us put so much more time and effort into jobs we don’t like than into whatever it is we supposedly care about most.

We’ll work overtime on Saturday, but neglect our novel in progress if we have the day off. An extra hour each evening answering work-related emails is fine, but a commensurate effort on OkCupid is considered to be flippant, even if we know that we’ve been lonely and single for far longer than is healthy.

The writing that is important to us has an aura of purity around it, and rightfully so. We write because we want to escape from the mundane and tell the world what we believe it desperately needs to hear, and are wary of our aspirations becoming just another chore. It’s difficult to accept that something so important to us is also a commodity.

A better way to look at it is to see your work as worthy of deserving the best possible chance you can give it, and to accept that in order to communicate effectively, you are going to have to make some compromises.

These compromises might feel like a betrayal, but they will ultimately benefit and empower you, and isn’t that the point of writing in the first place? What use is your voice, no matter how brilliant, if no one ever hears it?

Use data and analytics and be relentlessly honest with yourself. Take an adversarial position and fight to convince yourself with cold hard numbers. If the data tells you that you’ll fail, change your book or your approach and keep on working, and document what you learn each step of the way.

If, after all of this, you can convince yourself that you can write a book that has a real chance to succeed, you’ll probably be able to convince a literary agent, too. You might even discover that you no longer need one.

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