Eric Jager
Eric Jager

Eric Jager teaches medieval literature as a professor of English at UCLA. His 2004 book, “The Last Duel: A True Story of Crime, Scandal and Trial by Combat in Medieval France,” is being developed as a film. This piece appeared Oct. 14 in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Some years ago, after doing two books with academic presses, I took the plunge into trade publishing. After much trial and error, mostly error, I found a great literary agent who believed in my new book, a nonfiction thriller about a celebrated duel to the death in the Middle Ages, and he sold it to Broadway Books, a division of Random House.

The book eventually sold in eight foreign languages, was adapted for radio and television, and has been optioned twice for film. Colleagues eager to cross over into trade publishing sometimes ask my advice — via email, over lunch, or in stealthy hallway whispers. Here are their most frequent questions, along with what I tell them.

What are literary agents, and what do they actually do?
Agents are essentially brokers who use their knowledge and connections to sell authors’ books to publishers. Many of them have industry experience, often as editors, and they have access and clout because they represent successful writers. So they can get faster results, better contracts and higher advances for their clients.

Why do I need an agent?
Without one it’s hard to get your foot in the door, since many trade publishers no longer consider “unagented” manuscripts. The proverbial “slush pile” of unsolicited manuscripts has migrated over the years from publishers to agents, whom editors now rely on to screen authors. The thinking seems to be that a writer without an agent may not be worth an editor’s valuable time.

Don’t agents take a lot of your royalties?
The standard commission is 15 percent, and with a good agent, you’ll hardly feel even that. Many agents take pride in raising the publisher’s advance enough to absorb their own commissions, and then some. But since they work on commission, most are very selective about which clients they take on.

So don’t be angry if an agent rejects your book or proposal, or doesn’t reply to your query. It’s not personal, it’s business. And the agent may not be right for your book, anyway. In a highly competitive marketplace, you need an advocate who believes in your work, knows how to sell it, and to whom. (Caveat: Never give money to a so-called “agent.” Bona fide agents do not charge upfront fees and are paid only when you are paid.)

As the author, I know my book best, so why not “agent” it myself?
You may have built or remodeled your own home, but do you think “for sale by owner” will bring in more potential buyers than Coldwell Banker? As an author, you have a story to tell or something to say, but agents and editors are looking for books they can sell. They want to know: What’s the market for this book? Which other books is it like? (In trade parlance, what are its "comps"?) Does the author have a platform to promote it? How many copies will it move?

Without clear, positive answers to those questions, it will be hard to get trade publishers to take an interest. And without the right agent, your book may not get to the best publishers for it.

How do I find an agent?
Draw up a list of books similar to your own (in topic, genre, style or approach) and find out who sold them, and to whom. How do you get that information? By reading acknowledgment pages. By attending book talks or writers’ conferences and looking for leads. By studying trade magazines like Publishers Weekly and industry websites like Publishers Marketplace that report on recent book deals.

Yes, that’s more work, but after spending years on your book — all that research, all those drafts — why not invest some time and energy in finding a good agent for it?

OK, I’ve made a list of agents. Now, how do I get their attention?
Write a short, direct query letter that will make an agent sit bolt upright as though a gorilla just charged into the room. To change metaphors: The query (who you are, what your book’s about, why it will sell) should whet the agent’s appetite for the proposal, and in turn for the manuscript, completing a tasty three-course meal. A bland query won’t make her salivate for the next course; and a half-baked proposal won’t make him stick around for dessert. Serve every sentence of each course as though your publishing contract depends on it — because it does.

Will I have to change my writing style for a trade book?
Yes. You’ll have to lose the scholarly jargon and the tangles of theory and present your subject in clear, interesting prose that people will actually enjoy reading. With a trade book, unlike with an academic title, readers will not be forced to buy your book to keep up with their fields. They will have to want to buy it.

What topics or genres are in fashion right now in trade publishing?
Don’t worry about that. By the time you finish your trend-following book, publishers will have moved on to something new, and you’ll be behind the wave. Instead, find a topic in your own area of expertise that fascinates you and that you think also has popular appeal, and then work it up. If you’re a paleontologist, find a story about old and interesting bones. If you’re a psychologist, write a self-help book for people trying to navigate personal relationships or office politics. Whatever your field, look for the "hook" that makes your research interesting and relevant to nonspecialists.

Will it help me to read bestsellers?
It will if you’re looking for tips on what makes a book appealing to a wide readership (in general: short chapters, short sentences, and not too many unfamiliar words), but not so much if you need help selecting a topic.

There’s a revealing interview online at Poets & Writers with Jonathan Karp, who at the time was a Random House editor. He talks about how after the wild success of Laura Hillenbrand’s “Seabiscuit,” he was amused to see companies publishing all sorts of books about horse racing. But the success of that book wasn’t about the horse. "They completely missed the point," Karp says. "The book didn’t succeed because people were dying to read about horses. It succeeded because it was a beautifully written story that was emotionally satisfying and interesting from beginning to end." It was about a feat of heroic endurance, about overcoming long odds, about winning, and above all about the feeling that the book left its readers with. So if you study bestsellers for clues, make sure you study the right things.

My book is interdisciplinary and doesn’t fall into a neat category.
I recently heard an editor at a top university press — an editor who does lots of crossover books — tell a roomful of surprised graduate students and aspiring young academic authors why, from a publishing standpoint, she dislikes “interdisciplinary” books. Go to your local bookstore, she said, and look at the backs of the books. All of them have little labels in one corner that say history, psychology, self-help, and so forth. The labels tell the staff where to shelve the books, so readers can find them more easily. “Interdisciplinary” books fall between the shelves, so to speak. The bookstore doesn’t know where to put those books, and readers don’t know where to find them. The same thing is true at online booksellers, where titles are still sorted by subject and genre.

How can I pitch my book to the growing digital market?
Make sure the book jacket or cover is legible on digital platforms. Many readers no longer get their books in stores. They browse via their phones or tablets, so you’d better make sure your cover art is bold, bright, and attention-grabbing in a much smaller format. Think: postage stamp.