Deb: On Agents

I’ve been thinking a lot about agents lately. After nine published books, I’ve decided I need one. Backstory: I’ve had two agents before, but neither placed any of my work. Like much I’ve done with my writing (caution: don’t try this at home), I acquired my first agent without putting much thought into it. My thinking: I placed two books myself. I lived a long way from New York. My career would skyrocket with an advocate in the Big City. Any would do.

Any didn’t do. After a year, I realized grabbing the first agent I queried was a big mistake. Neither of us was taking a considered look at my work to perfect a match. Within weeks of severing our relationship, I’d found a great home for my third book. I bumped along like that for several more years, punctuated by what we agreed upfront would be a one-year contract with another agent. My thinking: I had two good manuscripts but no time or energy to either market them myself or make them exemplary. I rarely thought about the agent or my books, and while one of them (books, not agent) almost sold, the year was mostly a waste of effort for her. Good books don’t sell – not in this market. Great ones do.

Now, a new novel, one that’s gotten the time and attention the other two lacked. Will it sell? That remains to be seen. On the cusp of big changes in the industry, is this the wrong time to be seeking representation? In a general sense, maybe. But for me it’s the right time.

It’s best to acquire an agent through personal connections – referrals from writers who know your work, or face-to-face meetings at conferences. But as it turns out, my friends’ agents, for one reason or another, may not be the best fit for this project. And this year I have other travel obligations that preclude a conference. So I’m taking the least desirable route, culling through information about agents of writers whose work I know and respect, looking for the perfect match.

Thank heavens for the way we’ve all embraced the internet. Only ten years ago, the process was a lot harder. Reference books that became quickly outdated were the primary sources of agent information. Submissions were made mostly by snail mail, and multiple submissions were almost taboo, meaning writers could wait years for a match.

A few random observations from the beginning stages of my search:

• The odds aren’t so great. Good agents get thousands of queries a year. From those, they may pick up four or five clients.

• I’m drawn to female rather than male agents, mostly because I felt my first agent, a man, didn’t listen well. I feel the same way about doctors. I know, it’s a stereotype. But I still find myself filtering by gender. Male agents have made my preferred list, but not in anywhere close to the same numbers as women.

• There are lots of new agents – some casualties of the economic downturn. This is good, because they’re looking for clients. And bad, because there are only so many manuscripts that editors will accept. Therefore, it’s even less likely that having an agent will lead to publication.

• Having a New York agent feels less important than it did twelve or fifteen years ago. In terms of lifestyle and communications style, having an agent who’s not in NYC may be a better fit for an old-timey Alaskan like me.

• When my kids needed money for college and it was clear writing books wouldn’t help much, I became – for eight years – a successful real estate agent. Looking at agency from the perspective of an agent, I was more inclined to see the value of having one. Those years hanging out with agents reminded me that as in any other profession, there are good agents and bad. While agency is a significant relationship, one in which there are big things like houses and writing careers at stake, it doesn’t take much to become one. Lesson: be selective. The ideal agent has a great sales record AND is a good match for you.

• My years as a real estate agent also helped me understand why so many writers are less than happy with their agents. Literary agents can’t unload clients the way real estate agents can houses. As they add more, some are bound to feel short-changed.

• Lots of writers seem to be changing agents these days. A tough economy, changes in publishing, and a surplus of new agents may contribute to this phenomenon. Or may it’s just the writers I hang with, who after quite a few years in the business are ready to change things up.

Interested, as always, in your thoughts…

8 thoughts on “Deb: On Agents”

  1. Deb,

    I can't quite agree with your statement "Good books don't sell. Great ones do." You make it sound as if quality were the deciding factor. Do you really think that is true for bestsellers like X or Y? (Can't name any titles here, because of your blog's policy.)

    I think the market and trends determine a proposal's fate to a much larger degree.

    I agree, however, that an agent is not the big cure-all many of us expect before we find one. It's just as hard to find a good agent (good for your book, that is) as it is to find a good publisher.

  2. I agree with the personal connection point. After querying 25 or more agents, getting lots of praise, but grim predictions for how the book would do in this brutal market (it's an odd, slightly resistant non-fiction MS), I felt at a loss. If it was "a great book," as many said, why would no one take the risk? Then, I met an agent at a conference, a big, famous, ex-editor agent who did not even accept queries. And, we hit it off personally, just talking about books we loved. Eventually, we got around to talking about my book. And, now she's my agent. She believes in the book in its oddness, and though I have no guarantee that it will ever see the light of day, I think I've found a good match. I can't say how much of a relief it is to have someone besides me thinking about the manuscript.

    An anecdotal response to the gender question. A friend of mine who sold a big ($300,000 advance) book had a very big female agent and eventually dropped her for another very big male agent precisely because the former was not a great listener, and the latter was. She was snatched up by the first, and the second was much subtler and less intense, but a far better match for her. The point being, I think the chemistry–even among the "very big"–is far more important than the gender.

  3. Good luck on your search Deb. I'm dancing around this idea as well — which we might have talked about this winter. Excited to chat with few perspective folks at the SCBWI Western Washington Conference in April.

    Will let you know how it goes 🙂

  4. Good points, all. I think of the good books/great books distinction strictly from an author's perspective, prepping a manuscript. Most of us could no more explain the success of an author like Danielle Steele than we could write like her, so there's not much sense trying. And it's nice to hear testimonies of good matches made – sensibilities are indeed more important than gender.

    Let me know how the Western WA event pans out, Erik. Maybe next year I'll make it…

  5. My recent experience with a Hollywood agent pretty much falls in with your experiences. He was really gun-ho at first but, when the usual suspects (two major publishers and a movie studio) didn't jump on my books right away, he quickly lost interest.
    Relating to your real estate a career, I must be a real "fixer-upper," and in this market those might not be the best investments.

  6. The Alaskan agent hunt…a classic quandary. How does one find such elusive prey? I am fortunate that my own hunt is over, but the process often felt more like I was hunting for Sasquatch. Perhaps the odds of finding that beast were about the same as actually getting an agent. Fortunately, I found an agent who was interested in reading work from a bush Alaska kid. Had I actually found bigfoot, my career would have probably gone in a different direction.

    I've had the same agent for about five years now and he's been incredible in terms of advice and getting my manuscripts into the hands of major editors. From that point the writing has to do its job, and the planets have to align just so. A good agent is worth his/her weight in Pilot Crackers (in bush terms, that's better than gold). There is no better feeling than knowing that you've got someone who really knows the business going to bat for you.

    My advice for those searching for agents would be to make sure that you trust and believe in your agent as much as he/she believes in you and your work. If you've invested your heart in your writing then you want someone who will do the same for your career.

  7. A few agents must be lurking, reading this. What do you guys/gals think, do you get good clients because they find you, or do you find them?

  8. Deb, I'd love an occasional update on how your search develops. So far my experience with agents (one) has been disappointing. I've been putting off another attempt but know deep down that I need to try again. It would be great to hear from more people who are happy with their agents. How did the relationship come about?

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