What do you want from an agent?

Recently, I had the great pleasure of teaching a class on how to craft attention-grabbing queries, full of intelligent, well-prepared students. (If you would like to be added to my notification list for my next set of classes, please give me your e-mail address via the COMMENTS function, below.) These writers had really done their homework, and most of them had novels and NF books very close to being ready to be sent out the door. Best of luck to all of them!

As widely diverse as their writing projects were, I was struck, as I always am, by the great similarity of their dream agents. Everyone, without exception, wanted a well-established agent at a well-known agency to fall in love with the book in question, particularly with the writing, and represent it with intelligence and verve.

“That;s great,” I said, when the last student had expressed this hope. “What else do you want?”

The room fell silent.

I am used to this; it always happens at this point. “What about an agent with experience in selling your type of book?” I suggested. “An agent who has built up the connections to be able to get your book or book proposal under the right eyes right away?”

Well, yes, the students conceded, that would be nice.

I persisted. “What about an agent who is hungry? Would you be happy to be represented by someone with a hundred clients, so the success of your book will be only a small proportion of her year’s income, or would you prefer to be one of twenty, where each sale counts more to the agent?”

It was difficult to get the students to talk about it; again, these are bright, talented, well-read people, yet their body language made it obvious that the very idea of setting anything but the most minimal expectations for representation rendered them uncomfortable. It was unfamiliar territory, and in a sense, by even asking them to think about it, I had broken one of the most sacred of the writers’ conference taboos: implying the possibility that not every agent who likes an author’s work is necessarily a good fit for it.

What the heck, I’m just going to go ahead and state it: I have very often seen good writers’ careers stymied by agents who, while not actually bad at their jobs, at least do not apparently share the same goals for the book in question. Anyone who has ever attended a writing conference has probably met at least one writer who gave her soul to an agent for a year or two, only to find herself dropped when the book did not sell right away.

To a writer who has yet to find representation — and if you are one of these, don’t be hard on yourself; there are plenty of brilliant writers out there who do not have agents — it may be hard to feel sympathy for a writer in this situation. Some are tempted to conclude that if the book did not sell, or if the agent stopped sending it out, or if the agent never sent it out at all, it was because the book itself had some irredeemable fault.

Don’t censure yourself if you are one of the many who would automatically assume this: it is something that writers are taught to believe, and the source of countless hours of self-doubt. Most of the writing manuals and pretty much all of the classes and conferences teach us to believe that the blame must lie with either the book or the writer. There is a reason that this is the case: what the manuals and experts are selling, generally speaking, are ways in which the writer can alter the book, the pitch, the query letter, even her own work habits, in order to make the book more marketable.

I regularly teach this type of class myself, regarding it as a way to arm writers with the tools that will help them succeed in a genuinely difficult endeavor: getting their work noticed by people who can bring it to publication. After all, it would make little sense to teach “Ten Tips on Being a Better Agent” or “Sharpen Your Eye for Talent: Make Yourself a Better Editor” to groups of aspiring writers. The fact remains, though, that even the best-prepared author of the best-written book is hugely dependent upon the skills, tastes, and connections of her agent and ultimately, her editor.

As I have pointed out in earlier postings, the power that agents wield has gone up astronomically within our lifetimes. The reason for this is simple: the consolidation of the major publishing houses. Now, none of the majors will read unagented fiction at all, as a matter of policy. (Bear that in mind, the next time an editor from a major house tells you to send a chapter or a synopsis of your novel after you have met at a writers’ conference. Even if the editor absolutely falls in love with your work — in the unlikely event that it is indeed that editor who reads over your material, and not an assistant — the absolute best-case scenario is that the editor will recommend you to an agent, not that the editor will immediately buy your work.) Some nonfiction is still sold directly, but even that has become relatively rare.

The result is that agents and editors at small publishing houses (who usually also prefer to work with agented writers, but often make exceptions) have become the arbiters of what does and doesn’t get published in the United States. The editors at the major houses see only a hand-picked minority of the writing actually being produced.

Since you are probably already aware of the importance of having an agent, I shall not harp upon this point, except to say: since the author now does not participate in the selling process, it is more vital than ever to find an agent who will represent your work well.

My students did not like this conclusion at all. “If an agent loves my work,” one of them asked, “won’t he automatically represent it well?”

The short answer is a resounding NO, but the long version requires a two-part answer. First, a certain percentage of the people working in any field will be still learning how to do it, and in the publishing industry, where success is so heavily based upon connections and luck, the agent who likes your book best (or, as usually happens, the one who likes your book FIRST) may not necessarily be the one with the right connections. Thus, that story we have so often heard: the agent falls in love with a book, signs the author pronto, sends the book out to an editor or two — then sits helpless after the first few contacts reject it. Since it is traditional for a book to be submitted to only one editor at each imprint, having your work sent out by an agent with the wrong contacts may actually endanger its chances of being seen by the right editor.

Lest you think that this is just the smug analysis of a writer who has already passed the gauntlet, I speak from personal experience here: my wonderful agent, S.G., is in fact my THIRD agent. As longtime readers of this blog are already aware, #1 wanted me to turn a serious literary novel on sexual harassment into a romance novel (that, or dump it entirely and write a self-help book, as she evidently believed everyone with a Ph.D. is qualified to do. I tried in vain to explain to her that not every doctorate is in psychology, to no avail), and #2 sent a cookbook to three editors, then I never heard from him again. Neither of these stories is at all unusual; I could introduce you to literally dozens of good writers still mourning similar experiences.

I should point out: all three professed genuine love for my writing, and I have no reason to doubt their veracity on the subject. All three expressed great admiration for the projects they respectively represented — and only S.G. has been able to sell so much as a line that I have written. I like to think that she loves my writing more than the others, but I know for a fact that I owe a great deal to her acumen, her experience, and her connections.

The second answer to the question is less well-recognized amongst writers, or at any rate, most of the unpublished writers I meet are surprised when I mention it. Now, it is the NORM for good agents to ask for significant revisions on a book or a book proposal BEFORE sending it out to editors. Effectively, this means that the agent you choose — and who chooses you — is your first editor. Which means that it is absolutely vital to sign with an agent whose taste and integrity you trust.

I want to get the word out there about the edited-by-the-agent phenomenon, because I have found that most unagented writers are quite unaware of it. Not all agents require up-front revisions, but a significant minority amongst those who work with previously unpublished writers do. I spent the first two and a half months of my representation contract with S.G. revising and re-revising my book proposal, at her behest; one of the best novelists I know spent a YEAR AND A HALF in agent-required revisions before her agent so much as photocopied it.

Other agents prefer to suggest only minor tweaking before sending out the first round of submissions, then, once they have garnered significant editorial feedback, ask the author to revise the book in accordance with the changes editors said they would like to see. (Be warned in advance: if three editors saw it, in all probability two of them will ask from mutually contradictory changes. A good agent can help you figure out which advice is worth taking.) Here again, many first-time authors are astonished to find themselves, a year or two after signing with a terrific agent, still in the throes of revising an as-yet unsold book.

My students, by this point in my explanation, were sitting speechless, aghast and disappointed. It is my sincere hope that their work will sell well and immediately, but the fact is, a quick sale of an unrevised work to a major publishing house has become quite rare. Frankly, I think it is quite unfair to writers everywhere that the prevailing wisdom so often says otherwise. Yes, from the agents’ and editors’ points of view, publishing is a fast-moving business, but from the authors’, it sometimes seems as if it barely runs on electricity.

I feel a trifle disingenuous saying this, because actually, my process has been one of the few exceptions: from winning the 2004 PNWA Zola Award for NF to signing with S.G. to book sale was only eight months, which is lightning speed. To put this in perspective, though, my book was only being circulated to editors for the last two of those months. The period between when I signed with S.G. (October, 2004) through when the book was first sent out to editors (end of January, 2005) was entirely devoted to tweaking my book proposal at S.G.’s behest.

Let that sink in for a moment: that revision time was unusually QUICK, with my getting pages back to her significantly prior to the deadlines we had agreed upon.

This realization, as you may well imagine, made my students groan, as it would many writers. Since attracting an agent’s interest is so very arduous, the vast majority of unagented writers tend to idealize just how much of a relief it will be to sign that contract. “Phew!” they think. “I’m working my fingers to the elbow now, but once I sign with an agent, my period of hard work will be over. I can just hand my finished book (or book proposal) to my agent, and wait for her to sell it. And because she will adore my writing, that will happen in a matter of weeks.”

With such expectations, it’s no wonder that so many writers give little thought to the personality of their dream agent: they are not expecting to have much interaction with this paragon.

Please don’t make that too-common mistake of not taking the time to learn a little about an agent before you gasp a grateful “YES!” to that long-awaited offer of representation. Ask a few questions: will you be working with the agent directly, for instance, or an assistant? (If the latter, it is definitely worth your while to have a conversation with the assistant before you decide, too.) Will the agent want revisions to what you submitted, and if so, would she be open to setting aside some serious time to discuss them? What exactly does the agent LIKE about your book, your ideas, your writing style? If you are not a person who likes hand-holding, is the agent willing to give you your space to work?

And so forth. The AAR (Association of Artists’ Representatives) puts out an excellent list of preliminary questions new authors should ask agents, to get you started. While the answers are important to figuring out how the agent will expect you to work with her, the discussion actually serves an even more important secondary purpose: it gives you are foretaste of what it will be like in the weeks and months to come, when your new agent is ruling your writing life.

It behooves you, then, to make very sure that this person is someone with whom you would be willing to be in frequent e-mail contact; make sure that this is a person you would be comfortable picking up the phone to call if you run into problems with your editor. Ask about her taste in literature, to get some indication if this is a person you can trust to give you writing feedback. (You should ask the same question, incidentally, of ANYONE you ask for feedback, from your best friend to a freelance editor. If you do not like the same kinds of writing, chances are lower that the feedback will be truly useful to you.) Ask for a list of clients, and for a few days to rush to the bookstore and see what their books are like. You would even be well within your rights to ask if the agent to pass your phone number along to another client who writes similar books, so you can chat about what it is like to work with this particular agent.

See why I have been so adamantly pushing the idea of querying several good agents simultaneously? Ideally, I would like you to have the luxury, as I did, of having these conversations with several agents before you decide who should represent you and your work.

Because, again, I speak from experience: I spent an hour and a half on the phone the other day with my agent, and not just because she and I are both charming conversationalists. The very idea of spending that long in unalloyed contact with either of my first two agents is laughable; I would not have been comfortable enough to do it. Thank goodness I had listened to the excellent advice my more established writing friends had given me, and made absolutely certain that I was signing with an agent I LIKED.

Oh, and she loves my writing, too.

If you are at the point of signing with an agent, or if you are waiting to hear back from an agent who has asked to see your work, and would like to discuss your experience, please drop me a line via the COMMENTS function, below. It can be as confusing as it is exhilarating.

And to all, regardless of where you are in the process, keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

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