First — If you are writing romance, join Romance Writers of America. You can check out their website at for information. It is better yet if you can find a chapter close enough to you to attend meetings on a regular basis. Each chapter is different in what they offer their members, but what all of them give you is friendship, understanding and support. Writing — as you must know by now — is hard, lonely work. You need support as you do it, and no matter how much your family and friends love you, they don’t understand a writers joys and sorrows like another writer. RWA membership is fairly expensive, but it is an investment in yourself that you will never regret.
Second — Agents. There are basically two sides to romance writing. There are category stories, those published monthly by Harlequin and Silhouette. They are sold in stores by number and in “bunches” — Desires, Intimate Moments etc.. Some people think of these as “little” books, but they take tremendous skill. Sort of like staging Swan Lake in a phone booth.
The contracts for Harlequin and Silhouette are more or less ironclad, and terms are pre-determined. You can pretty much sell a book and sign a contract with them without an agent — though do read it carefully and understand what you are agreeing to. It’s okay to ask them questions. Category writers can have agents, and if it will make you feel better, get one. Some authors get one after selling a couple of books themselves. Some never do.
Be aware that most agents charge 15% of everything they negotiate. Most don’t charge a reading fee. Honest ones probably won’t recommend you to a “book doctor,” someone whom you pay to “fix” your manuscript as a condition for taking you on as a client.
The books sold singularly — historicals (Amanda Quick, Mary Jo Putney, and me), thick contemporary titles (Danielle Steel, Susan Elizabeth Phillips), paranormal (ghost, time travel etc.), romantic suspense (Jane Krentz, Stella Cameron). And just to confuse things, Harlequin properties published under the Mira imprint — are individually negotiated. That means there are things in your contract you can dicker over. For that, you need someone who knows what they are doing, what industry standards are, and deals with the fine print every day. This would be an agent or literary lawyer.
How do you get one? Well — I suggest you contact RWA, look in Literary Market Place, or better yet ask the friends you’ve made in your chapter for recommendations. Another tip is to check the acknowledgments in books you like. Authors often credit their agents and editors for their help. You’re looking for someone who represents what it is you do. Someone who might have among your their clients other writers you admire.
In order to approach an agent, you need to write a query letter in which you introduce yourself, give any writing credits that might give you validity, and talk about the book you have IN HAND. It is always better for a first time author to approach an agent or an editor with a finished manuscript. Besides, it gives you the confidence that you can FINISH a book. When you tell them about it, be brief and to the point. Think what makes your book special and sell that.
If the agent is interested, he or she will ask to see a proposal — three chapters and a synopsis — or the whole manuscript. Be prepared for folks to say “thanks, but no thanks.” You’re bound to have a few of those; everyone does. You’ll never sell a book if you aren’t persistent.
Single title books do occasionally go in “over the transom,” which means someone just sends a book to a publishing house and hopes for the best. It takes forever to hear about books submitted that way, if you ever do, and some publishing houses send them back immediately. If you decide to submit a single title yourself, at least get the name of an editor who works on the kind of book you’re writing and query her. If she’s interested, she will ask for a proposal or a manuscript. Books do sell this way, but it is REALLY a long shot. If you’re writing single title stuff, my advice is to find an agent.
Good luck with your writing and your search. Selling a book and fulfilling that dream is a tremendous thrill. But don’t forget in your excitement that writing is a business, too. You need to protect yourself, and having a enthusiastic and competent agent is how you do that.
Let me know how you make out.