Hello, readers –
I feel as though my blogs have been waxing a bit theoretical lately, so I thought I should concentrate on some very, very practical information for awhile. In fact, it’s hard for me to imagine information more practical than today’s, at least for those of you who are planning to attend this summer’s PNWA conference: it’s information that will help you decide how to rank your agent choices on the conference application.
And you thought I didn’t love you.
It can be quite hard to tell the agents apart, based just upon their write-ups, can it not? Some agents choose to share a little, some share a lot; there seems to be no standard for an agent blurb in a conference brochure. A lot of them are quite vague, and others merely list the agents’ best-known clients. Usually, the titles included were sold quite some time ago, so you can’t always be sure that the agent still represents that kind of work.
In case you were curious, the agents don’t list old sales in blurbs and agent guides to be misleading: they are trying to use titles that a prospective client might be able to find in a bookstore. Because the fact is, if an agent sold a book within the last year and a half, it almost certainly is not in bookstores yet for you to find.
For those of you who were shocked my last statement, let me fill you in on why: unless a press is trying to coincide with a specific event (such as a presidential election) or capitalize on a major catastrophe (such as Hurricane Katrina), the MINIMUM time between a book’s sale and its release is generally a year. Often, it’s longer. And you have only to talk to virtually any agented author to learn that the length of time between signing with an agent and the first sale is frequently as long or longer than production time after the sale.
So, realistically, the books you are seeing on the shelf today are probably much more representative of what any given agent was interested in three or four years ago than today. A lot can happen in a person’s life in three years, and even more in the publishing industry. (Three years ago, for instance, memoirs were not primarily regarded as potential lawsuit traps — thank you, James Frey — but as rich sources of highly reader-grabbing material.)
Sometimes, too, we misread the specialties listed in the blurb, rushing to read through all of them before making ranking decisions, or do not know that a particular agent does not want to see certain kinds of work at all. Yes, it seems a little nasty when an agent says he won’t even consider certain genres, but once you’ve been at it awhile, you’ll come to recognize that those who are upfront about their dislikes are giving you a gift: you know not to waste your time, or theirs, if you write work they do not like.
At the risk of sounding jaded (and who wouldn’t, after a decade of attending writers’ conferences all over the country?), it’s been my experience that in reading these blurbs, it’s a good idea to remember that these people sell things for a living. Sometimes, an agent who sounds warm and friendly on paper turns out in real life to be…well, let’s be charitable, shall we, and say unwelcoming?
Sometimes, the opposite is true, where a hostile-sounding blurb conceals a warm and wonderful agent. And often, it’s hard to tell whether an agent sounds eager to find new talent because she genuinely is, or because that’s her standard line, or because she’s brand-new to the publishing world and hungry for sales.
Again, how can you tell who is a good bet for you?
For all of these reasons, it’s often quite a jolt when you get to the conference, appointment card in hand, and hear your assigned agent speak at the agents’ forum: you catch yourself thinking, if only I knew all this a few months ago, when I made my agent choices. So you scramble around, trying to switch your appointment with others’. The best way to avoid this situation, of course, is to do advance research on the agents who will be attending.
It also makes possible a very graceful opening line for your meeting: “You represent so-and-so, don’t you? I just love his/her work!” Trust me, there isn’t an agent in the world who doesn’t like to hear that. A word to the wise, though: if you use that opener, you had better be familiar with any book you mention. Because a significant proportion of the time, the agent so accosted will want to talk about it. Go figure.
So doing your homework about agents is smart conference preparation. Sometimes, however, finding out which writers they represent can be hard work. Agents often seem amazingly unaware of this, or even incredulous when writers point it out: it’s a relatively small industry, so everyone within it knows who represents whom. But if you, like pretty much every aspiring writer who did not go to school with someone in the industry, don’t know the affiliations, how are you to find out?
More to the point, how do you find out what the agent in question is selling NOW, rather than a couple of years ago?
I’m going to tell you how I handle it, personally: I check industry publications to see not only who and what the agent represents, but also what books the agent has sold recently. As in this year and last, the stuff that isn’t on the shelves yet. While all of that information is a matter of public record, not everyone has access to it easily.
But I do. And I’m going to share it with you, so you can make informed decisions, as well as gaining some insight on how to read agents’ blurbs productively. Please note, though: this is information based upon publishing databases, so it may not be entirely up-to-date or totally accurate. Also, it will reflect only those clients for whom these agents have actually sold books, rather than their entire client lists, which may not give a truly representative (so to speak) picture.
Please note, too, that I am presenting these agents in alphabetical order, not ranked in any sort of hierarchy of excellence or interest, and over enough days’ blogs to justify the length of time it took to track the information down. (Seriously – I hadn’t gone through this process in a couple of years, and time had whitewashed my sense of how time-consuming the research is.) And since I have spent so much space today explaining why I think this is a good idea in the first place, I’m only going to go over one agent today, Stephen Barbara of the Donald Maass Literary Agency, tops in the alphabetical list. Here’s his official blurb, gleaned from elsewhere on this very website:
”Stephen Barbara (Agent) is an agent and contracts director at the Donald Maass Literary Agency. Prior to this, he worked as a junior agent at the Fifi Oscard Agency, an editorial assistant at Regan Books, and an intern at the Kaplan Agency. He is interested in literary fiction, YA and middle grade novels, narrative non-fiction, historical and topical non-fiction, and a variety of commercial fiction genres.”
Okay, this is a good one for starters, because our good Mr. Barbara has given the savvy reader quite a bit of information in this blurb that might not be apparent to the less experienced eye, and his solo sales record is recent enough that searching the bookstores for his clients might not have been too helpful. So what can we learn here?
First, he works at an immense and prestigious literary agency, one very well known for genre fiction (it would make sense to ask him in a meeting who ELSE at his agency might be interested in your work), but he has not worked there very long (if my information is correct, he switched over within the last 6 months). This is probably a good sign: going from being a junior agent at one big agency to being an agent at another probably means that he didn’t bring a whole lot of clients with him. Translation: he needs a list.
Second, he is relatively new to agenting: if he were more advanced in his career, he probably would not have listed his editorial assistant or intern jobs. (Although actually, having an in at Regan Books is a definite asset.) Now, I can feel some of you turning off, wanting to hold out for a bigger-name agent, but think about it: who is more likely to sign a new writer, a hungry new agent or the head of an agency?
Long-time attendees of the PNWA conference may have already pitched to the boss in this case: Don Maass has honored our conference many times. And he is a BUSY man. He used to be president of AAR , the agents’ professional association, and he goes around the country, giving seminars on how to write better novels. He has written several books on same. It’s just my gut feeling, of course, but I suspect that such a busy agent doesn’t have a whole lot of spare time to lavish on previously unpublished writers at this point in his career. But an agent new to his agency might.
Aspiring writers, please be aware of this: a relatively junior agent at a major agency can be a very good bet for a first-time author. The agency will provide connections that a smaller agency might not, yet unlike the big-name agents, a relative newcomer may well have both more time and greater inclination to push a new discovery. (Remember, with a big-time agent, you may well end up being her 105th client, and thus perhaps a rather low priority.)
What else can we learn from this blurb? Well, the agent has told us what kind of discovery he hopes to make at PNWA: literary fiction, YA and middle grade novels, narrative NF, historical and topical NF, and commercial fiction. Not a lot of big surprises here — the Maass agency is known for commercial fiction; in fact, in the past, they’ve signed the winner of the PNWA mainstream novel category. Mssr. Maass has been telling conference-goers for years that he would like the agency to handle more literary fiction, and Mssr. Barbara has a solid track record in sales for the middle grade market.
How do I know that? Because I looked at his recent sales, that’s how. In the past two years, I was able to find three of his sales, which incidentally confirm our sense that he switched agencies recently:
In March, 2006, as an agent at the Maass agency, he made an impressive three-book deal with Margaret K. McElderry Books for middle grade author P.J. Bracegirdle’s THE JOY OF SPOOKING, “in which a girl must save her beloved hometown, Spooking, from being turned into an amusement park by a villain.”
His previous two sales (both in July, 2005) are listed under the aegis of the Fifi Oscard Agency. The first is a set of two middle grade books (with QUITE the impressive advance, I notice), Lisa Graff’s THE THING ABOUT GEORGIE, (“a young boy learns to overcome his small stature and his fears of being a not-so-big brother”) and BERNETTA WALLFLOWER: THE PROS AND CONS “about a 12-year-old girl in the summer after she gets kicked out of private school for running a cheating ring — the only problem being it isn’t true”). Oh, and in case you were wondering how his connections at Regan Books might help his clients, these works were sold to a subsidiary of HarperCollins; Regan Books is also a subsidiary of HarperCollins.
So I would estimate, based upon what we see here, that if you write for middle grade readers, this would be a GREAT agent appointment for you to have. Sign up for an appointment with him, pronto.
The other listing seems on its face as if it couldn’t be more dissimilar, a history/politics NF book by a retired Marine, defense analyst, and former professor, about the future of the draft and military service. This clearly fits under the rubric of historical and topical non-fiction, so we know that Mssr. Barbara already has some connections in that direction.
You may have noticed that the blurb mentioned a few other types of work Mr. Barbara is seeking; I was not able to find a history of sales in those other areas. (As I said, though, my databases aren’t infallible.) But, as I said, the Maass agency does have a very good track record in commercial fiction. My suggestion would be that if you write literary fiction, narrative NF, or genre fiction, you should go to the agency website and take a look at their overall client list, to see if your work would fit into their areas of demonstrated interest.
One more piece of advice: if you intend to list Mr. Barbara as one of your top agent picks for the conference (or plan to accost him after the agents’ forum or in the hallway), do bring a copy of the first 5 pages of your book. If memory serves, agents from the Maass agency routinely ask pitchers and queriers for a writing sample, and it’s best to be prepared, right?
Whew! That was a lot of information, wasn’t it? But I would urge you, if you do decide that Mssr. Barbara is going to be one of your top picks, to do additional research for yourself before the conference. The more you know before you walk into your appointment with an agent, the better you can refine your pitch for his ears.
If doing this level of background research on an agent with whom you may be having a 15-minute meeting three months from now seems nutty to you, let me remind you again that the publishing world actually isn’t terribly big. Agents and editors are used to the writers soliciting them knowing who they are; keep an ear out at the agents’ forum at the conference, and you may notice an edge to their voices when they speak of writers who have not done their homework. Think of being familiar with their recent sales as a gesture of respect to their professional acumen, a way you can step most gracefully into their world, to present your book as effectively as you can.
More info on agents scheduled to attend the conference follows over the day to come. Keep up the good work!
– Anne Mini