Agencies and AGENCIES

After having spent the last couple of weeks giving you advice on how to track down agents OUTSIDE the standard agency guides, I think it’s only fair for me to spend a post or two talking a bit about the information you can glean from within them. Most guides will give you the same basic information: the agency’s name, address, contact person, member agents, book categories represented, whether they are currently accepting new clients, and preferred method of query.

In short, referring to any of the standard guides will help an aspiring writer avoid the single most common querying mistake, a Dear Agent letter. Almost any guide will give you a specific person to whom to address your query, so do it.

If you have been researching the subject a little, you may have noticed that the standard print guides, such as JEFF HERMAN’S GUIDE TO BOOK PUBLISHERS, EDITORS, & LITERARY AGENTS (where on earth did he come up with such a startlingly original title?) and Writers Digest Book’s GUIDE TO LITERARY AGENTS (ditto), do not always tell the reader much more than the very basic online guides, such as Preditors and Editors.

Even within an individual guide, listings can vary quite a bit: in the Herman Guide, the questions tend to be geared toward likes and dislikes, in the manner of centerfolds gone by (turn-ons: polite, well-written query letters; turn-offs, synopses rife with misspellings), but in the Writers Digest guide, the agents can say pretty much whatever they want. Or not, as the mood strikes them.

And that, dear friends, is the reason one agency will have a 2-page write-up in a guide while another equally prestigious one will have a scant paragraph. The major book guides rely almost exclusively upon what the agents themselves tell them about themselves on yearly questionnaires, so do be aware that the information you find there, over and above the basic facts of where the agency is located and what they’ve sold, is not always entirely objective.

Some things that writers of my acquaintance have found over the years that these listings may not always be totally objective about: how eager they are to receive queries; how much they enjoy helping new writers build their careers; how quickly they respond to queries; how quickly they respond to submissions; how much they like good writers and good writing (hint: they almost all say that they adore both). It’s not even all that uncommon for a writer to rely upon the specialties listed in these guides, send off a query, and receive in response a huffy form letter, saying the agency hasn’t handled that sort of material in YEARS.

Why should this be the case? Well, the questionnaires the guides send out are fairly long; why not just re-use the responses from last year? (The Herman guide seems to alter the questions slightly from year to year, to make this trick harder; I suspect that this is the reason that fewer agencies are listed there.) Publishing fads change FAST, so the agency hot for chick lit last year may well automatically reject every chick lit query this year. If this happens, don’t waste your energy repining: such a rejection has nothing to do with you or your book. Just cross the agency off your list and move on to the next.

You can – and should – rely upon what the agency listings say they absolutely DON’T want, however. Generally speaking, agencies err on the side of listing too many genres in their guide blurbs, rather than too few, so if they say they aren’t interested in something, they tend to mean it. As in: sending in a query for a type of book that they’ve ever indicated anywhere that they don’t like (even, annoyingly, if an agent has merely stated it in an interview) is a sure way to generate one of those huffy rejection forms.

Don’t say you didn’t hear it here first.

Why would an agency over-list its desired type of books? For the same reason that agents walk into conferences and spout ridiculously broad statements like, “I’m interested in any well-written fiction.” They’re afraid that they’re going to miss out on the next DA VINCI CODE. The smaller the agency, the more likely they are to mis-list; a wide net, they seem to believe, will catch better fish. But really, their agents have personal preferences, just like agents at great big agencies.

Just so you know, no matter what these agency blurbs say, no one represents everything — in fact, they shouldn’t. It would be flatly impossible to have the connections to represent every stripe of book. This is yet another reason it’s an excellent idea to check what an agent or agency has sold recently BEFORE you query: an agent may be as eager as you are to sell your book to a great publisher, but in order to get an editor to read a book, an agent has to be able to catch her attention. It’s simply a fact that it’s SUBSTANTIALLY easier for an agent who has already sold your type of book before to sell your book.

Think of it like eating in a fancy restaurant, where your agent wants to place the order (your book) with a busy wait staff (the editors). Eventually, every diner will probably get service, but some water glasses get refilled faster than others’, don’t they? The staff will take care of their regulars. And if the guy on Table 8 is well-known to be a big tipper, you can bet that half the waiters are going to magically appear by his side the moment he arches an eyebrow.

Obviously, an important agent has an easier time booking lunch dates (no metaphor this time: food, drinks, and/or coffee seems to be integral to the deal-making process) to talk about her clients’ books than someone just starting out. Perhaps less obviously, a junior agent at a big, important agency (like, I am happy to report, the one that represents yours truly, so I know whereat I speak) is often able to use the agency’s wide web of connections in order to get her clients’ work under the right editorial eyes, in a way that sometimes a better-established agent at a smaller agency cannot.

Again, it’s a good idea to check both what the agent and her agency have sold of late.

However, a big agency is not necessarily the right choice for everybody. As the client of a large agency, you do enjoy many benefits: the prestige of signing with a recognized name, more support staff to answer your questions (or not, depending upon how the agency feels about keeping its clients informed), and more collective experience upon which you can draw. Just as with a well-known agent, you are working with a known quantity, with verifiable connections.

With a new agency or new agent, it can be hard to assess connection claims until a track record of sales has been established (see earlier comment about the desirability of checking such things). Sometimes, the hungry can be excellent gambles — if your book sells quickly and/or well, you can be the favorite steed in the shiny, new stable. Before that (and often after), a hungry agent often offers services that a bigger agency or a busier agent might not provide. Extensive free editing, for instance. Intensive coaching through rewrites. Bolstering the always-tenuous authorial ego. If you are a writer who wants a lot of personal attention from an agent, the less busy agent might well be the way to go.

Still, you cannot deny the appeal of the contacts and oomph of a big agency, even if you are not represented by the most important agent in it. Personally, I am represented by a big agency, one that handles more than 300 clients (and very well, too, in my opinion). How much of a difference does it REALLY make, on a practical level? Well, you know how ALL nonfiction book proposals are presented to agents and editors in conservative dark blue or black folders, because a unique presentation is generally regarded as an indicator of a lack of professionalism?

My agency is influential enough to present its clients’ proposals in GRAY folders. Ooh, the power. The pageantry!

Yes, I am very lucky — contrary to what writers conference gurus and get-your-work-published books tell you, luck plays AT LEAST as great a role as talent in determining who gets signed by whom; people who tell you that the only possible reason a writer would have a hard time finding the right agent is lack of talent are either misinformed or misleading — and people in the industry recognize that. When I was deciding between agents, I attended a small writers’ conference in Montana, one of those gloriously intimate ones where perhaps only one agent attends, but you can talk with her for an hour.

Since I already had several irons on the fire, I was not about to be a dog in the manger. I did not approach the agent du jour, except to introduce a writer who I thought would interest her (I’m notorious for doing this; writers are often too shy to introduce themselves). By the end of the conference, the agent had heard that my book had won a major award and, her curiosity piqued, she sought me out to see if I had signed with anyone yet. A couple of minutes into our conversation, I mentioned who I was deciding between, and the agent instantly deflated. “Oh,” she said. “We’re talking THAT league.”

As I said, I have been very lucky: winning the PNWA contest got my work a hearing with many agents in THAT league. (In the unlikely event that I am being too subtle here: entering contests can shave years off the agent-seeking process!) I have also been lucky in that while I enjoy the benefits of a large agency, my agent makes the time to answer my questions and talk with me about my future and current writing: whether our quite-frequent contact is primarily the result of our respectively scintillating personalities or the roller-coaster ride my memoir has been taking on the way to publication, I leave you to speculate.

However, I have to be honest with you, if you write for one of the smaller niche markets, signing with an agent in THAT league may well leave you feeling like a shiny new toy a week after Christmas: the agent may love your book, but between the million-dollar projects and yours, which do you think is the most likely to be set aside for a rainy day? At a smaller agency, or with a less prestigious agent, your work may actually see the light of day faster.

Have I totally confused you, with so many pros and cons? It’s not my intention, I promise – I just want to help you decide how to target your queries to get the outcome you want. Since there are so many agents out there, both listed in the standard guides and not, I could easily spend every day in the year profiling a different one, without ever having time to discuss anything else of interest to writers. So if I can drop a set of sweeping generalities upon you from time to time, to help you navigate amongst the many, many querying choices, I like to do it.

Tomorrow, I shall talk a bit more about how big agency/small agency differences play out for the authors they represent. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

8 Replies to “Agencies and AGENCIES”

  1. Anne – Will you please speak to the issue of choosing an agent, taking into account not just the book a person is working on at the moment but future books? For example, one agent I am interested in represents my type of book well. But he does not represent another type of book I hope to write later. Should we writers being looking down the road a piece? And that leads to my next question: Can a writer publish in different genres or on several different topics without diluting her “product” and confusing the “customer?” I think having been a free-lance magazine writer has resulted in my thinking that I can hop from one fascinating topic to the next. Please do a blog or series sometime about strategizing a writing career. Thanks!

    1. Ooh, good questions, all. The second part is definitely worth a blog or two, and perhaps roping in some other authors to help me answer. But let me answer the first now.

      The short answer to the first part is yes and no: if an agent can help you in the short term but not in the long term, and it’s an agency that works on book-to-book contracts (rather than one measured in years), then it might well be a good idea to go with that agent, if he has the connections you need NOW. Then later on, when you are ready to market the next book, you can find a new agent. Or try to convince your agent to expand in the direction you want.

      Authors don’t switch agents very often, but it does happen, for precisely this reason. Obviously, it’s very nice when an agent wants to represent everything a client wants to write — as a genre-hopper myself, I was careful to find an agent who was open to that. It is practically unheard-of for an author to be represented by more than one agent at a time, which could technically be possible, in order to cover an array of genres.

      It IS common, though, at the larger agencies for different agents within the agency to handle a single author’s work. For example, if I suddenly decided that I wanted to write YA, which my agent doesn’t handle, she would hook me up with the agent within the agency who does. (Yet another reason to check your contract to see whether you are signing with the agency or the agent!) For those of us with wide-ranging interests, it’s a substantial benefit of signing with a larger agency.

      So it is worth your while to take a gander at who else at the agency represents what. It’s very possible that your next project might be able to remain in-house.

      Of course, the perfect situation is finding an agent you like with connections in every area where you want to write, someone you like who can help you plan your career. But honestly, if an agent is an absolutely perfect fit with the book you are trying to sell now, and you think he could do it more successfully than someone who represented a broader spectrum, it might be a better long-term move to go with the first. Why? Because no one in the world has an easier time finding a new agent than an already successful writer.

  2. I have had a book published but am having a heck of a time finding an agent. Everywhere I turn there’s a scam.

    1. Congratulations on the book’s publication, Kelly — but where are you looking for agents, that you are finding so many scams? Most agencies are perfectly respectable

  3. I’m considering querying a large agency with multiple agents. Each has a short bio on the website that lists the kind of work they represent. There are 2 which would be a good fit for my particular book. Should I query both?

    Also regarding genres- Since my work contains threads from more than one genre there has been a little uncertainty with choosing an agency. Often an agency will list one or several genres to which my book could be assigned as things they represent, for example fantasy and paranormal romance, but then state they don’t represent horror which would be another equally valid category for my work. I’m not sure if I ought to bother querying such an agent. Almost every agency out there says they don’t represent some genre that is a strong influence to my work if perhaps not the sum total.

    1. No, you shouldn’t, Brian — and if you read most agencies’ websites a little closer, I think you will find that they will tell queriers point-blank not to query more than one at a time. Just pick the one that seems like the best fit.

      On your second point, I’m going to refer you to the BOOK CATEGORIES posts on the archive list at right. Although many, many writers brand-new to publishing act as though choosing a book category for their work is an unconscionable act of tyranny, to an agent, presenting a book as crossing genres is just unprofessional. Books are marketed in categories — period, and if an agency lists a broad array of book categories, it’s probably just because the agency is large enough to have agents working in a lot of categories, not that a single agent would be working across all three that you list.

      If an agent takes you on, it will be because she has connections in the single book category in which she believes your book belongs — again, period — but just because an agent doesn’t actively represent a certain kind of story doesn’t necessarily mean that he will have trained his screeners to take one look at a fantasy query and say, “Oh, this contains elements of horror — I’m going to reject it on that basis alone.” The combination you describe is simply too common for that kind of rejection to be the norm.

      Because books are sold ONLY by category, an agent would also be likely to find your concern about finding the absolutely perfect agency before you even tried querying perplexing, at best. In the current market, it’s taking even very talented writers literally dozens, or even hundreds, of query attempts before finding the right fit. Querying widely is virtually always a better strategy than being too selective.

      1. Thank you, you’ve mostly answered my questions, but in the process raised another. Given what you say about how strict categories are, I’m left wondering if anyone will represent me. The best fit category for my work from your Book Categories listing is vampire fiction. However, in looking though the published guides to agencies I haven’t yet found one that specifically lists that as a genre they deal with. At the time I assumed it was because it was too specific and would likely fall under another more general category like fantasy or horror and I should be querying agents who did one or the other or preferably both. I’m now questioning that assumption. Are the book categories you list an industry standard or will each agency have different categories? In other words, might one agency lump vampire novels under horror and another give them a separate category all their own?

        1. The usual umbrella is Paranormal, but if each agency made up its own categories, the categories would be meaningless. The best way to figure out where you fall and who is likely to want to represent your work is to look not just at the categories themselves, but books in each possible category that have been released within the last 5 years. (Older than that, and you’re not really talking about the current book market.) If you can find books that are similar in major ways to yours, try the agents who represented them.

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