All About Agents: What You Need to Know as an Indie Author

There’s a wonderful history of indie authors creating a great platform, getting noticed by traditional publishers and landing a publishing deal. 

The best tactic is to query an agent on the strength of your work and current accolades. It’s very rare to go directly to a publisher these days as they mostly work with agents. After you query an agent and secure their services, they will approach prospective publishers for you.

Finding an agent can be a long and tedious process, as they each have their own submission requirements and it can be months before you hear back from each with answers. 

With this in mind, here are some of our favorite resources for finding an agent:

  • Poets & Writers has a great amount of information on agents. They have a Literary Agents Database and a helpful Agent Advice column.
  • Publishers Lunch: We recommend looking over what deals have been made for mid-list authors each day. You don’t want a blockbuster agent because they’re already set financially. Info includes: genre, author, synopsis, agent and which publisher the work sold to. You can sign up for the free daily newsletter that will give you most of this info, or you sign up for a $25/month newsletter which has all of the details.
  • QueryTracker: This free database hosts plenty of agent data. Because the info can be outdated, it’s best to use this tool to create a list of agents who represent your genre, then crosscheck with each agent’s website to confirm who they represent and which publishers they work with.
  • Guide to Literary Agents An old standby, written by Robert Lee Brewer.
  • AAR – Association of Author’s Representatives: Here’s a list of member agents, with varying amounts of information about them.
  • Children’s authors can view the Rights Reports on PW. These reports cite which agents facilitated the deal for upcoming kids books.
  • Women Writers, Women’s Books also has an Agents Corner column where authors can share their agent success stories and offer advice.
  • Writer’s Digest Guide to Literary Agents Blog: They post notices about agents and agencies. There’s not a tremendous amount of information here, but it’s worth keeping an eye out for news.
  • We also recommend finding books that are comparable to yours in genre and audience, and seeing who the author’s agent is. These agents may be a good fit for you, so we recommend keeping a list and checking their websites, querying where it makes sense to do so.
  • Manuscript Wishlist is a helpful tool designed to help agents share information about the types of books they are looking for. Scan through to see if your manuscript is on anyone’s wishlist!

I know it feels like the possibilities are endless, and it’s not unusual for an author to query upwards of 100 agents. Casting a wide net will help make sure you’re paired with the right agent for your book.

Want to get the inside scoop on what an agent really thinks? Check out our interview with Natalie Lakosil here: https://booksforward.com/ask-an-expert-a-conversation-with-natalie-lakosil-about-being-a-literary-agent/

What does it mean to be a NYT bestselling author?

For many authors, writing a book that becomes a bestseller is their dream goal. But what does it really take to become a bestselling author?

In the most broad strokes, you’ll want to sell at least 5,000-10,000 books in a single week in order to be considered by any of the major bestseller lists. Unfortunately, there’s no magic number of sales that will guarantee you a spot on a list.

And when you focus on the New York Times bestseller list in particular — which is perhaps the most well-known and considered by many to be the most prestigious — things get even more hazy. 

The NYT bestseller list isn’t representative of pure sales data alone. After all, recording every sale of every book within the U.S. in a single week is an impossible task. So, there’s some wiggle room as far as accuracy goes. But, there are also other factors that appear to work for or against certain books.

Right away in the against category, we have certain genres that are excluded from the list. At the time of writing this article, NYT states that “the categories not actively tracked at this time are: perennial sellers, required classroom reading, textbooks, reference and test preparation guides, e-books available exclusively from a single vendor, journals, workbooks, calorie counters, shopping guides, periodicals and crossword puzzles.”

If not all genres are created equal in the eyes of The New York Times, the same can be said about retailers. 

NYT has said it receives sales reports from some, but not all, independent bookstores, along with (we assume) major retailers like Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Since not all stores report to The New York Times, some sales may go unrecorded.

It’s also been rumored that diversity in sales will work in a book’s favor. The idea is that if sales are coming in from retailers in different regions across the country, and if the retailers vary from indie stores to big-box chains, this will increase an author’s chance of hitting the list.

This approach has caused some authors who sell the majority of their books on Amazon, and who appear to have met sales quotas, to question why they’ve not been featured in the NYT’s list. It’s possible that NYT favors sales from indie bookstores and that these carry more weight than sales via Amazon. This could be for legitimacy reasons, as NYT tends to be suspicious of authors or publishers who try to game the system.

As far as we know, a list of all indie stores that report to The Times is not publically available. That said, many authors will try to identify stores they believe report to NYT, and then they will arrange events with those stores, hoping to boost their rankings. 

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this strategy. It’s always a good idea to connect with indie bookstores, and if they happen to report your sales, even better! But, some authors have taken to more aggressive sales-boosting strategies that NYT frowns upon.

For example, some authors have admitted to purchasing bulk orders of their book from NYT-reporting stores with the intention of hands-selling them later on. But, if a book’s sales appear to be artificially inflated by bulk orders, The Times may not count those sales at all. Or, if they do, they’ll place a dagger next to the book’s title to denote that the sales numbers may have been given an unfair boost.

We get why authors are keen on making the NYT bestseller list. It usually results in increased sales and it’s excellent for branding. It’s an honor that you can carry with you throughout your career. Any book you publish in the future can have the words “NYT bestselling author” on it!

However, there are no shortcuts to making the list. Many authors who appear to have done everything “right” by getting the 5,000-10,000 sales they hoped for are left disappointed when they don’t make the list. 

Instead of making bestseller status your primary goal, try setting your sights on the stepping stones that may lead you there, such as building strong, lasting relationships with indie booksellers, or growing your fanbase and running a successful pre-order campaign. 

You may surprise yourself by all you can accomplish, and after each milestone achievement, you may even find yourself an unexpected bestseller. 

So you got a book review — now what?

Ah, the coveted book review. Every author wants them, and everyone in the industry talks about how important they are.

But have you ever stopped to think about why that might be and how exactly you can use a review to benefit your book and author brand?

First thing’s first, let’s talk about ways you can secure book reviews:

  • Be sure you are ready to start soliciting reviews. ARCs are perfectly fine, but create these after the copy editing and proofread process.
  • Consider your goal of why you want reviews and how you plan to utilize them, and this will help you decide between consumer and professional reviews (a mix of reader buzz and premiere publications is best!)
  • If you’re a new publisher, start a blurb program with authors you have published. If you’re an author, reach out personally to fellow authors on similar publishing journeys who write in your genre.
  • Reach out to authors of comparable books, as well as the reviewers, influencers and media outlets that have covered them.
  • Submit the book for free and/or paid review programs with industry publications (Foreword, BookLife, BookPage, Kirkus, School Library Journal, etc.)
  • Consider other options with media if the book is not accepted for review (reading list, excerpt, guest article from the author, etc.)
  • List the book on NetGalley and Edelweiss.
  • Coordinate a Goodreads giveaway, as well as a giveaway with LibraryThing.
  • Think outside the box: Does the author have any bookseller or librarian supporters who may provide a blurb?
  • Pull reader reviews from retail listings.
  • Follow submission guidelines closely: Be mindful of deadlines, editorial calendars and specific information requested – whether for a trade publication or book blogger.

Now that you’ve built up reviews, blurbs and other accolades, what in the world do you do with them? There are plenty of ways you can maximize the impact of your reviews:

  • Add the most compelling review quotes and premiere endorsements to the book’s front and/or back cover, and use additional quotes on an inside praise page.
  • Also highlight the catchiest and most compelling quotes at the start of the book description on online retail pages, as well as others in the Editorial Reviews section on Amazon and metadata with Ingram to help populate things like the Overview section on Barnes & Noble.
  • Add reviews to the press kit and any other marketing materials.
  • Mention the earliest reviews and blurbs garnered when reaching out to secure other potential reviews.
  • Include quotes on NetGalley and Edelweiss listings.
  • Have the author add reviews and other media coverage to their author website.
  • Use them in advertising copy.

These effective book marketing tactics will help you take your book to the next level!

How the pandemic transformed publishing

The pandemic has changed everything, including the publishing industry. In our new “State of the Industry” blog series, we’ll be breaking down exactly how the pandemic has changed the game for publishers, booksellers, authors, and readers. By understanding how the publishing industry has rapidly transformed in 2020 and 2021, writers and authors will be better prepared to navigate the new state of the industry in 2022.

Let’s start with a question: How did the pandemic in 2020 change the game for publishers?

Answer: They started out rough and finished strong.
According to a December 2020 article in The New York Times, (“Surprise Ending for Publishers: In 2020, Business Was Good”) book sales dropped sharply in March and April 2020 as panic and closures disrupted daily life. But demand increased beyond pre-pandemic level in June 2020 as buying habits and stores transitioned.

2020 concluded with:
Print sales up by 8% (NPD Bookscan)
Audiobooks up 17% over the same period in 2019 (Association of American Publishers)
Ebooks up more than 16% after a several year decline (NYT)

So, how did the events of 2020 influence book-buying habits and genre trends?
The short answer is that books on race and antiracism, politics, home DIY projects, and escapist literature like YA fantasy had a VERY good year.

Sales were UP in the following categories:

Sales were DOWN in the following categories:

Perhaps one of the most surprising developments in 2020 was a surprise sales boost for backlist titles as well as frontlist titles. Publishers are notorious for investing resources in frontlist titles, but requiring nearly immediate success for the book to be considered “a hit.” But in 2020, the postponement of new releases, coupled with an increased reading demand during lockdown and quarantine, proved that both backlist and frontlist titles could be financial successes. This could very possibly mean that publishers will be more willing to invest more in backlist titles in the future (particularly those tied to culturally momentous events within any given year) than they have in the past.

Where did the publishing market stand at the end of 2020?
Publishers saw a 10% increase in sales in 2020. Despite major issues with supply chains and staff layoffs, buying trends in 2020 that supported backlist as well as frontlist titles helped publishers succeed, and gave them more leeway to delay the release of new titles.

Amazon deprioritized books amid increased demand for medical supplies and household items, giving Barnes & Noble and Bookshop.org a previously unforeseen edge.

Against all odds, 2020 was a profitable year for major publishers. The key takeaways here are:

  • Readers don’t necessarily care if a book is a new release, or a backlist title: if the subject is in-demand, they will buy it. Considering that backlist sales helped major publishing houses succeed in 2020, publishers are now more aware than ever of the financial potential of their backlist.
  • Genre trends are driven by reader demand, and what is or isn’t in-demand can change rapidly. Publishers may influence some genre trends intentionally, but at the end of the day readers drive the market, and publishers will work to fulfill reader demand. A savvy author will be paying close attention to the demands and behaviors of their target audience, so they can write to meet the needs of their demographic. A great book is a great book–but a timely book sells.

How else did the pandemic change the publishing industry? Despite major rapid innovations, independent bookstores experienced major struggles and surprising successes. Learn more in next month’s post: How the Pandemic Transformed Bookselling.