Finding and Keeping an Agent

Finding and Keeping an Agent

There are no questions bandied about more in the industry than those concerning agents: Do I need one?  Where do I find one?  How do I know if mine is a good one?  What do I do when mine isn’t working out for me?  In the end, it’s up to you to make your own decisions on how, when and where an agent fits into your career plans as a novelist.  The author/agent relationship is every bit as personal as a marriage and I’m no matchmaker or Judge Judy.  What I can do is help you be a little bit more informed when it comes to making one of the most important business decisions of your career.

What is the purpose of having an agent?

An agent makes up one third of a successful publishing triumvirate consisting of you, the author, your agent and your editor.  There is one important thing that authors tend to forget: that’s the direction that this triangle moves in. The editor employees the author, the author employees the agent.  The agent is YOUR employee.  He or she works for you in your best interest.  You pay your agent a percentage of your earnings.  This issue sometimes gets confused because the checks go to the agent who then pays you.  But remember, it’s your money.  This does not and should not lessen the respect and honesty and sense of partnership that needs to exist in order for the publishing triangle to work at its optimum.

What do you need an agent for?

• an agent is a buffer between you and the publisher, the person who will get you what you need
• an agent will pair you with the right house, with the right editor
• an agent will negotiate for more money and larger percentages.  This is often an area in which author’s hesitate–an agent won’t
• an agent will negotiate for better contract terms–an author is often confused by or unaware of clauses or additions that can be changed to their benefit; such as reversion of rights, foreign distribution, film and electronic rights.

An agent is hired for three things: editorial input, sales/marketing support, and business expertise. You want an agent who can honestly and effectively evaluate and improve your work, who can market it in the right places, and make the best business decisions for you and your career.  They are there to act on your behalf if there are problems that develop between you and your editor, like over-due responses to a proposal, a late check, or even a conflict of personalities.  They are there to zealously defend your interests and protect you.

Do you need an agent?

That’s up to you.  If you are comfortable marketing yourself, asking for a raise and are confident in making your own career choices wisely, perhaps you don’t.  I negotiated the contracts for my first six books.  I got an agent when money and royalty percentages became a straining issue between my editor and myself.  I wanted to turn my attention to the creative side of the business and I wanted an agent to become “my heavy” for me.  That way I could maintain a good relationship with my editor (“You know I’d work for nothing but that greedy agent…)

Some argue that authors aiming for category lines don’t need agents, that the boilerplate contracts are carved in pig iron and are inalterable.  Yes, that’s true for the most part.  Some publishers don’t change contract basics for anyone, agented or no.  But what an agent can do is get you past that query hurdle.  They are backing you with their reputations and whether editors will say so or not, agented work is regarded more favorably, simply because another person has involved themselves in the process and is in fact, vouching for the author’s work.  More and more houses are looking at agented only work because of this factor.  Of course, the further up the food chain ladder you get, the more variables there are when it comes to negotiating, and the more it benefits you the author to have someone in your corner who can push for the best and the most and the long term.

When do you get an agent?

Some start looking the minute they decide to write a book.  Some wait until they have a product to market.  Some until they’ve had an editor express an interest.  Some when they want to move up in the pay or position ranks.  Some when they have a project that doesn’t easily fit into a slot.  Any of these is the right time if it’s right for you.  It’s time to get an agent when you feel you need extra support, input and expertise.  It’s time to get an agent when you feel you may be getting in over your head.  It’s time to get an agent when paying that 15% is worth its weight to free you up of anxiety.  Can you put an interested editor on hold while you run out to find an agent?  You bet. They’re used to that and they appreciate you wanting to have a professional representative who’ll understand the ins and outs of contract language.  Can you involve an agent once negotiations are finalized?  No.

What do you want your agent to do for you?

This is something you need to decide for yourself before you begin looking.  Do you want an agent who simply sells your work and negotiates contract terms?  Do you want an agent who’ll read everything you write before you submit it, becoming in effect a pre-editor?  Do you want an agent who’ll hold your hand and continually stroke your ego? Some authors are insecure and need this extra reassurance and validation.  Others don’t want to be ‘mothered.’ Do you expect your agent to make you a bestseller because one or more of his/her clients is?  Do you want an agent to handle only your current project or to be in it with you for the long haul?  Do you want to listen to your agent’s advice or make all the decisions yourself?  Answering these questions will help you go into the search with realistic expectations.

In order to have an agent represent and pursue your goals for you, you have to know what those goals are.  Do you want to zoom to the stars with a controversial bestseller?  Do you want to work consistently and comfortably within category writing three books a year?  Do you want to put out one historical annually?  Do you want to branch out into screenplays or mysteries or mainstream?  Know what you want and why you are doing what you’re doing.  Is it to pay the rent and put food on the table or because of an eclectic love affair with words?  Knowing these things about yourself will help you partner yourself up with the right agent: a warm-fuzzy nurturer or a no-holds-barred barracuda.

Be fair with yourself and your agent.  Be realistic about your expectations and your talent.  Communicate your goals, your strengths, your desires so that your agent can represent you to his or her best ability.  Then you can put together a reasonable career plan: where you want to be in six months, a year, six years and the steps you will take to get there.

What do you want in an agent?  You want someone who can sell your current book.  You want someone who can help you build a profitable career.  You want someone who gets excited about your work and your potential.  Someone who knows the marketplace and editor’s tastes.  One who is accessible, honest, professional , ethical and candid.  In other words, someone you would marry.  Someone with a style and goals compatible with your own.

Where do you look for an agent?

You want to make sure the agent represents books such as yours, who is familiar with where to send it and how to sell it.  You don’t want to send your horror screenplay to someone who only deals in children’s illustrated books.  You need to target your prospective agent as carefully as you research the publishing marketplace.  A good agent must know the business of publishing, have good editor contacts and have exceptional negotiating skills.  Are the only agents in New York?  No, not in this electronic age.  Is a big, high profile agency always in your best interest?  Not always.  The big name on the top usually won’t be the one handling you.  You’ll be channeled down to an associate who may or may not have the experience you need.  Sometimes a smaller, independent agent is better so you’re their big fish in a small pond and can receive more individual attention from them.  Large or small, track record is the important thing.

Finding the perfect agent is harder than finding that perfect publisher.  Of course, you want the best, but the best often isn’t available, especially to a new or unpublished writer.  Nothing will get you an agent or an editor faster than a good, strong book.  An agent wants to take on a client whose work he can sell, whose talent he can believe in, whose career he can groom and grow.  An author wants an agent who will treat her as if she’s her only client.  You want someone with references, someone with clout who is respected in the industry and has a track record for success.  Where do you find them?

The Writers Market is a good starting point, a reference book found in your local library that offers a detailed list of agents who have sold to at least two houses.  Jeff Herman’s Guide to Book Publishers, Editors and Literary Agents and Guide to Literary Agents also give a breakdown of agency personnel and what to send them–query, samples chapters, etc.  Make sure you get the most recent edition! The industry changes constantly. And of course, you can go to the horse’s mouth: The Association of Authors’ Representatives which can provide you with a list of member agents and the ethics they go by.  Don’t forget writers’ organizations like RWA® and Novelists Inc. who compile not only agent lists but complaints received against certain agencies. The Write Connection web site also compiles a list of agencies and publishers who have garnered complaints ranging from promoting co-op contracts to their authors, charging over $200 in evaluating fees, to being investigated for fraud.  Yikes, that’s something you should know up front.  If you’re in a hurry, you can go online to the Agent Research & Evaluation site <www.agentresearch.com> For a fee, they will provide a number of tailored services from investigating agents to tracking down the literary representatives of authors who produce work similar to yours.  They also have a free agent verification which will check for any public record listing good or bad business practices.  They also have a newsletter you can subscribe to.

Another source of information is word of mouth: Ask published authors who represents them and for their experiences.  When you do this, remember, that each author/agent marriage is totally different.  What works for one, may not work for another.  If there’s a particular author who writes work similar to what you’re doing, call that author’s publisher and ask the publicity department who represents them.  The best way to make a marriage is of course, face-to-face.  Go to conferences where agents will be in attendance.  Meet them.  Talk to them.  Get a feel for their personality. Also enter contests where an agent is one of the judges.

With all this information in hand, narrow down your list to the best half dozen candidates, then you’re ready to query them with a SASE enclosed.  Your query should be two pages max, be pertinent and professional, telling them:

• Who you are (always mention if you have met them and where) and what are you writing; where your work fits into the marketplace,
• A synopsis or summary of your book in four or five sentences, including setting, targeted line, word count and when the manuscript will be finished if it isn’t already,
• A short bio including any relevant information.

You can then judge the agents on their initial responses–promptness, tone, and interest. Give the agent time to review and evaluate your work, especially if it’s unsolicited.  Don’t call or become a pest.  Send a SASE with the material so you’ll know it’s been received. If you haven’t heard after several months, send a short note asking if they work was received and if it is still under consideration. Sometimes you will never get a response. Even if you get a rejection and the tone is encouraging, write back thanking them and asking if they’d be interested in seeing the work if it’s revised or something else you’ve written.

When the agent says he or she wants to work with you, don’t feel you have to give an immediate answer.  You owe it to yourself and your career to do your research and investigate further with questions like:
• Do you have an agency agreement (author/agent contract)?
• What is the sales commission (usually 10-15%)?
• Do you charge any fees?  Acceptable fees are for phone calls, copying, postage, etc. and shouldn’t be more than around $50 annually.
• Do you offer split accounting where the publisher sends one check to the author and one to the agent?
• What kind of editing or input will you have in the submissions?
• What are the terms for dissolving the relationship?

Personally, I would recommend a signed agreement.  It’s not a matter of trust, it’s one of business.  Would you send your manuscript to a publisher without a written contract?  It’s a legal document listing the terms of your arrangement–sort of a pre-nup agreement.

Is having a bad agent better than having no agent? 

No! Anyone can call themselves an agent and set themselves up in business, and oftentimes that business is bad business where the author is concerned.  Aside from checking to see if this representative is a member of the AAR, here are some warning signs:

• If an agent charges a reading fee they are highly suspect.  Reading fees aren’t condoned by the AAR.  It can be called many things: reading fee, processing fee, contract fee–what’s in a name?  Agents charging fees in the 100s of dollars are making their money off the writer, not by selling that writer’s work.
• If an agent refers you to a ‘book doctor’ be very wary.  Any agent who says your manuscript needs editing should provide a list of independent editors and then allow you to pick one.  There should be NO financial connection between the agent and that editor.
• If an agent refers you to a co-op or subsidy press, RUN don’t walk away.  No reputable agent would ever do that.
• If an agent you’ve never heard of out of the blue solicits your work, warning bells should ring.  REAL literary agents have to fight off clients not go hunting for them.  Be wary of an agent who advertises via direct mail, the internet, or in writers’ magazines. Remember just because it’s in a reputable magazine like Writers Digest, doesn’t mean that magazine is offering an endorsement.
• An agent should be willing to provide you with a list of sales and clients.  Verify that these books and authors exist at your bookstore or on Amazon.com.  If they claim to be a member of AAR, check with AAR to see if they are on that list.  Crooks have no compunction about lying to you.  You shouldn’t have any about checking up on them.
• If an agent tells you your work is a masterpiece and that it’s a sure bestseller, no matter how much you want to believe it, trustworthy agents won’t tell you that.
• NEVER pay a vanity press or subsidy publisher.  Self-publishing will get you more for your money.  Check a printer’s references before you contract with them to do your work.  Is it beginning to sound like you can’t trust anybody?  Also, be forewarned, chain book stores rarely stock self-published books.

What happens once I get an agent?

Once you sign, your agent will start selling for you.  Keep the lines of communication open.  Your agent will let you know who has seen your work and their responses to it.  Let your agent know if you want to see this feedback.  Hopefully, it will lead to a sale where your agent will work on your behalf to get the best possible deal.  Trust your agent’s input.  Listen to their advice, but remember the ultimate choice on anything to do with your career, is yours. How often and when you contact them is between the two of you but remember, you are not their only client.  Don’t monopolize their times with trivial problems, frivolous questions or just plain chitchat.  This is a business relationship not a bosom friendship.  Your agent’s time is money and hopefully her time will lead to your money.  By all means, call to discuss a new venture or line you want to consider.  Call to bounce ideas for a proposal.  Ask if he/she wants to see your PR clippings and reviews before you send them.  Some do, some don’t have the time to look at them.  Once you’ve had a manuscript sent out to one or more houses, learn to wait.  Your agent WILL call you when they hear something.  It is professional to check in every month or so just to see if anything is happening and to ask what action your agent is planning to take and when.  It is harassment to call, pester, whine, e-mail or go over your agent’s head directly to the editor unless you already have a good relationship with that editor.  If you suspect the agent has done nothing, ask for log dates for where and who your work was submitted.  By and large, just stand back and let your agent do his/her job and you do yours.  Go on to the next project so there’ll be something else to sell in the future.

What do you do if your agent doesn’t work out?

Sometimes, it’s no one’s fault.  The chemistry just isn’t there.  The goals just don’t jive.  Maybe the element of trust is lost.  How do you sever the relationship?  First, be very realistic about what and why things aren’t working?  Don’t blame your agent if you aren’t receiving the same advances as her other clients.  Don’t blame your agent if they’ve done their best and the work just won’t sell.  It’s a bad habit to kill the messenger. If your book isn’t salable, firing one agent and jumping to another won’t make it read any better. But if talking to your agent becomes more stressful then going to the dentist (no offense meant to my DDS critique partner!), if you have to check up on what your agent tells you, if your work isn’t being submitted, your calls aren’t returned, your opinions aren’t considered, maybe it’s time to end the relationship.

It isn’t easy.  It’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do and also the best thing that could have happened to my career.  My advice is, don’t call.  Don’t open yourself up for an emotional confrontation.  Draft a professional letter stating your reasons for being dissatisfied with the association.  Don’t be petty, don’t cast blame, just be very final.  “Thank you, but in the best interest of my career, I am severing our arrangement as of this notice.”  Remember, even if you sever the association, that agent represents whatever contracts he/she has negotiated throughout the life of the book, so try to keep things on good terms.  Another piece of advice, don’t aggressively search for a new agent until you’ve ending the current arrangement.  It’s not professional and it puts the new agent in an awkward position.

Do your homework up front.  Check credentials.  There are tons of sites on the Web devoted to agents, good and bad.  Be realistic in your goals and expectations and communicate them in order to form the best possible partnership.   And if it isn’t working, remember you are the employer.  And writing is your business.

© 2010 by Nancy Gideon