How to Find the Right Book Agent for You

Agents are a good and necessary thing if you plan to make your living writing books, screenplays, TV series or other major formats. They enable you to write while they go out and try to sell your work to the right people at the highest price and the most favorable terms. Virtually all literary agents are book agents or agents for book-length manuscripts such as movie or television scripts. Very few represent short stories, articles, poetry, greeting cards or essays. Start your agent search only after you've got that first book either completed or to the point that you can write a winning book proposal that includes sample chapters. Never submit anything less than your best work to an agent. Most surveys indicate that literary agents reject 98 percent of everything they receive. Although they are hard to get, a literary agent is becoming increasingly necessary for those wishing to sell to large publishing firms, who often will not consider unagented manuscripts. So your first job will be to identify a large group of agents who specialize in your subject matter.

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Breaking Down the Walls of Publishing

Andy Kessler and WALL STREET MEAT achieve a bullish breakthrough
"My agent (now ex-agent) never suggested self-publishing,” says Andy Kessler, self-published author of Wall Street Meat, one of the surprise indie hits of 2003. “Quite the contrary, she tried to talk me out of it -- probably because it was a threat to her self-interest, and to a system that she pulls 15% from."

Kessler’s authorial and entrepreneurial savvy and success won him lots of media attention, brisk sales and, eventually, a contract with Harper Business. We reprint below his recent op-ed piece for the Wall Street Journal’s online Opinion Journal.

"As far as marketing your book, you have to do it yourself anyway,” says Kessler. “Be sure and have good contacts, and have something compelling to say. At the time my book came out I was an individual author trying to be heard -- and people listened. Maybe that only works once, but it sure worked that time."

  "I will say, that despite all the hard work it was a fun experience. I would wake up everyday and think of new ways to get around an entrenched system. I hit a lot of walls, but broke down a few, too."

Walls, indeed. Kessler found ways to break through in a big way. The book maintains a huge presence around the Web, and has garnered testimonials from big finance pundits like Michael Lewis, Rich Karlgaard, and George Gilder, who calls Meat “the most riotous, insightful, poignant, gossipy, and gallivanting book on Wall Street ever written.”

Self-publishing sure is fun when you sell books…

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Self-Publish And Be Damned? Not Always.
I brought out my own book and beat the odds.


This article originally appeared in the Opinion Journal January 20, 2004

You can write an op-ed today that runs tomorrow, set up a Web site that sells toys in a day or two, get a million signatures and recall a governor in a couple of months. But for some reason, it takes two years to get a book published.

Last January, I wrote a book about my days as a Wall Street analyst--fun stories about working with the suddenly infamous Jack Grubman, Frank Quattrone and Mary Meeker. After three weeks of flailing away, I sent an early draft to an agent (my second of many), who promised to make some calls.

"Feedback says it's too topical," she quickly let me know. "What?" I asked, my voice going up an octave. "Well, even with a rush, the earliest you can get this out is spring of '04, more like fall '04. You might want to consider a long magazine article." This is agent-speak for “go away.”

What did I want from a publishing house? An advance against future slim royalties -- i.e., lending me my own money. What a deal.

I had been warned against self-publishing. You can't get reviews, you can't get shelf space, and you can't get respect. One hundred thousand books are published every year, so you need an imprint to stand out from the noise. Being naive, and used to being treated like Rodney Dangerfield, I decided to publish my book anyway.

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I finished writing it on Jan. 31, 2003. The Web helped me find everything else I needed. In February, I had it edited by two women in Texas, while a couple in Florida put together the cover, dropping in a Jeff Danziger illustration. ISBN numbers, bar codes, Bowker databases and Library of Congress numbers, no sweat. I found a printer near Boston that could turn out thousands of copies in two weeks. A printer in Michigan took four weeks but, for two bucks each, produced tens of thousands of stitched-binding, store-quality copies. Ready or not, I was now in the publishing business. I opened an Advantage account on and had Wall Street Meat for sale on March 17. Not even spring of '03. Ha.

I put together dozens of bound galleys and sent them to reviewers, the usual places -- Publishers Weekly, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal. I sat back and waited for the glowing reviews to roll in, but was met with the sounds of silence. I checked through back channels and, sure enough, I got stiffed. They just don't review self-published books. I was on my own.

So like Bill Clinton in his '92 campaign, I went around the traditional gatekeepers. I sent out copies to friends and old contacts at newspapers, business magazines and TV, like CNBC. I didn't get any classic book reviews, but probably something better--mentions in articles, short little "hey, I liked this new book" mentions.

I also hit the Web. Nice pieces showed up in a bunch of daily e-mails sent to financial types. Author Michael Lewis said some nice things in a column, and the book shot up to No. 26 on Amazon. I did get one real review on Slashdot, whose moniker is "News for Nerds. Stuff That Matters," and that morning my server got flooded with hits.

And a funny thing happened--the book sold well. I think it struck a nerve on Wall Street. Amazon was sending e-mails twice a day requesting more copies. I got to know the FedEx and UPS dudes by name. I finally signed up a distributor in Maryland to handle not only Amazon, but bookstores too. I was a one-man sales force (and PR firm and fulfillment shop) completely without a clue.

I sent some store-quality samples to Barnes & Noble, Borders and Costco. Eliot Spitzer was nice enough to hit up Wall Street for a $1.4 billion settlement, and I followed him on a segment that night on CNBC's "Kudlow & Cramer." An e-mail the next morning from the business-book buyer at Barnes & Noble asked how many copies were in print and how fast he could get them. I told him there were 10,000 in a warehouse somewhere in Maryland and he could have them tomorrow.

Then came an article in the Sunday New York Times rather than a review, a snippet in the Washington Post, a summer reading-list selection at CNBC--these things were all fantastic. I had my own booth at the annual Book Expo, sandwiched between a bookmark jewelry vendor and a pet spirituality publisher. Well, maybe this self-publishing thing was limited. What worked best, of course, was word of mouth -- there seemed to be these ripples through networks that I could sometimes track. One friend told me the good news is that he read my book and liked it, but the bad news is that he had borrowed the copy. Great.

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The publishing business is tough. One story I heard was that some fancy-shmancy consulting company, McKinsey perhaps, did an exhaustive study of one imprint and came to the conclusion that it could make more money if it published only bestsellers.

In the age of digital page layout and Web marketing, you can do it yourself. Quick to market will eventually change the big guys. I'd love to bash the publishing business on and on, for being slow, cheap, faddish, finicky and out of touch. But over the summer, HarperCollins called and bought the paperback rights, which I didn't even know you could sell. They also agreed to publish another book. I asked if they could get it out by March 2004. No way, give us until September, was the reply. Aaargh. But at least it's a start.

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Mr. Kessler is author of Wall Street Meat: My Narrow Escape From the Stock Market Grinder. His website is