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Literary Agents: Midwives for New Authors

IT'S done! Your first novel. But for one detail. The manuscript in your hand is not a book in a reader's hand. You still are not a published author. For first-time writers of fiction, picking the right agent can be as daunting as writing itself. What is the role of a literary agent, the literary equivalent of a midwife? Is one necessary? Just how does an agent get an author published, make him or her famous, and hopefully, rich?

``The relationship with the agent [and ultimately with the editor and publisher] is established over the book first, and then with the author,'' says Richard Curtis, author and president of Richard Curtis Associates, a New York-based literary agency.

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``We don't solicit authors,'' says Mary Evans of the New York-based Virginia Barbara Literary Agency. ``A referral is the most common way'' a first novelist approaches us, she says. Writers will socialize with other writers, and when they do, one of the things they talk about are their agents, she says.

A reputable agent is not looking for a one-time sale. ``I am always thinking of the writer's career,'' says Franklin Dennis, an independent agent, also in New York. ``In the larger frame, which house [publisher] will prove most congenial for an author's career.'' This gets as nitty-gritty as the agent choosing a publisher who may not pay as much up front for a property but would be ``apt to ride along with an author as the author hones his talents,'' he says.

The agent must help the writer ``realize his dream,'' Mr. Curtis says. And this often entails defining it first. A writer must distinguish between a mainstream work of literature or a first novel within a specific genre [science fiction, travel, nature writing, etc.], he says. The role of the agent, especially a New York-based agent, becomes much more important if the first work is mainstream fiction because ``most of the action among the major publishers of fiction occurs in New York City,'' he says.

Publishers receive thousands of unsolicited manuscripts a year. Many go unread, often not even sent back with a rejection notice. In his book, ``Beyond the Bestseller: A Literary Agent Takes you Inside the Book Business'' (Penguin), Curtis gives a cogent and convincing argument for the need of an agent: ``[P]ublishing in the last three decades has become highly conglomeratized and bureaucratized, decisions that used to be made by just one person who was accountable to nobody are now made by committee. Consensus is achieved by the input not merely of editors but of financial, legal, production, marketing, advertising, design, art, promotional, publicity and advertising specialists. ... It is no longer a matter of bullying, coaxing, or charming one person but of manipulating an entire system.''

Or, as he further explained his use of the word manipulate in a telephone interview, today's agent is, ``More Don Juan than Machiavelli. [Planting a book with a publisher] is done with charm.''

``I like to think I prove my tastes, that they have been born out,'' says Evans. ``Publishers and editors verify this,'' when a book sells.

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