So You Want To Be Published?

The market for black writers is hotter than ever. Here's your guide to landing your first book deal.

While going with a nonblack agent is an option, some writers feel that they are then burdened with the added duty of making sure that the agent understands and can represent the cultural nuances of their work. But whether or not you choose to be represented by a black agent, many proven agents are now requiring that their new clients have some sort of track record before they’ll represent them.
Mark August is a black South African-born writer who has been trying to publish his novel for more than a year. He says that finding an agent has indeed been an issue for him. “I’ve written a couple, but they’ve written back to say it’s not the kind of work they’re interested in,” says August. “I’ve spoken with other writers who say that getting an agent is becoming more difficult. In a perfect world, I’d like to believe that it’s because there are a lot more writers. But, I also think that agents are more often representing writers of notoriety.”

Before approaching an agent, one of the smartest things a writer can do is research the market. Some agents specialize in particular types of work or have had greater success in certain genres. Knowing this information will help you to decide whom to approach. One good way to identify potential agents is by checking the acknowledgment section in books that are similar to the type you wish to publish.

In addition to securing a publishing deal, an agent will negotiate your advance and other contractual terms, such as whether your publisher will issue both hardcover and paperback editions of your book. You will also be advised throughout the process of working with your editor. Since an agent often sets the tone for a writer’s relationship with the publisher, you’ll want to research the kinds of deals and relationships that the agent has developed for other clients.

An agent receives 15% of a client’s earnings. This hefty cut into a writer’s earnings coupled with the fact that finding an agent can be a lengthy process are the two most frequent reasons some writers choose not to use an agent at all. But you should  know that the process of getting to print can be shortened significantly once you have an agent; most likely, the agent can negotiate a better contract with a publisher than you. In addition, most editors won’t even consider a manuscript or book proposal that doesn’t come through an agent. Addison Wesley Books Executive Editor Liz Maguire says she sometimes considers work submitted directly by a writer, but admits that 80% of her authors are signed through agents. If you are unsure about seeking an agent, you may want to check out The Beginner’s Guide to Getting Published (Writer’s Digest Books), Be Your Own Literary Agent (by Martin Levin, Ten Speed Press) or The 1996 Guide to Literary Agents (Writer’s Digest Books).

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