How size matters, part II

I was talking yesterday about the differences between big agencies and small agencies. After I posted it, a small voice in the back of my mind (or perhaps it was in the vast web of psychic connection between me and my readers) kept nagging at me: “Wasn’t that just a tad insensitive? Sure, you had the luxury of choosing between agents, but that was a contest-generated fluke: most aspiring writers query until they’re blue in the face. So where do you get off, suggesting that they limit their choices?”

Here’s where I get off, little voice: I’ve met far too many good writers who focus their queries solely upon the great big agencies, on the theory that only a well-known name is going to be able to represent their work well. It’s just not true. I’ve also knows a whole lot of authors represented by the aforementioned gigantic agencies and “My God, how did you get HIM to read your work?!?” agents who have found themselves desperately unhappy with their representation.

When targeting an agent, I honestly don’t think that the rule should be location, location, location, as though your talent were just looking to park itself on the most expensive piece of Manhattan real estate that will accept it. A far better rule of thumb would be intention, intention, intention — in my experience, writers are MUCH better off if they figure out first what they want from their future agents, and target accordingly.

So, in short, I am writing about agency size in order to give you some background with which to take a radical evolutionary step in how you think about landing an agent: considering not just whether you and your book would be a good fit for the targeted agent, but whether the targeted agent would be a good fit for YOU.

Finding such an agent requires more than researching the profession; it necessitates self-knowledge. What DO you want from your prospective agent, over and above the simple definition of her job, selling her clients’ books to publishers?

If this question sounds vaguely familiar to you long-time readers out there, blame the PNWA. Remember just before conference season, when I asked you to give some good, hard thought to what you want from your agent, over and above representation? And HOW you want to be represented? Querying time is also an excellent period for considering these questions, because agencies – and individual agents – have wildly different representation styles.

Consider very, very carefully how important personal contact is to you, because if this relationship works out, you will be living with your decision for a very long time. Will you go nuts if a month or two goes by silently while an editor has your manuscript, or would you prefer not to hear from your agent until she has concrete news? Would you be happy with the occasional e-mail to answer your questions or keep you updated, or would you prefer telephone calls? Do you want to hear the feedback of editors who have rejected your work, so you can revise accordingly between submissions, or would you rather get through as many submissions as quickly as possible?

Let me let you in on a secret the agented learn very, very quickly: all of these behaviors are very much dependent upon how busy the agent is, and what kind of demands the agency places upon her time. Generally speaking, the bigger the agency, the busier the agent. Similarly, the fewer the agents at an agency, the busier, as a rule.

The second makes immediate sense — a sole proprietorship is obviously more dependent upon one particular agent’s efforts than a communal endeavor, right? — but the big = busy formula is a bit counter-intuitive, isn’t it? Big agencies have greater resources for support staff, whereas in a small agency (or with a stand-alone agent) the agents may be doing support work as well; it would make sense if the small agency agents had less time to lavish on their clients.

However, nowhere is the old adage “tasks expand in direct proportion to the time available to perform them” more evident than in the publishing industry: as an agent becomes more important, he takes on more clients. Big equals powerful here.

There are exceptions to this rule, of course. A few “boutique agencies” deliberately keep themselves small in order to occupy a very specific niche, but it is rare. There’s no missing these agencies, by the way — they ALWAYS identify themselves as boutique in their blurbs, lest anyone mistakenly think that they were small because they were unsuccessful. (See earlier comment about big = powerful.) Often, boutique agencies sharply limit the proportion of unpublished writers that they will represent, or do not represent the unpublished at all. They do, however, tend to lavish attention upon the few they do select.

As do, admittedly, some agents at major agencies, but do bear in mind that no matter who represents you, no matter how much your agent loves your work, you will be only ONE of the authors on the agent’s list. Time is not infinitely flexible, despite anyone’s best intentions. Before you commit to a big agency or a major agent, ask yourself: do I really want to be someone’s 101rst client?

This may sound like a flippant question, but actually, it is a very practical one, and one that speaks very directly to your personal level of security about your work. (And no, that’s not a value judgment about the quality of anyone’s writing; very good writers need positive encouragement and support, just like anybody else, especially when they are under the industry’s patented last-minute revision deadlines. But of those, more tomorrow.)

Big agencies and important agents have made their names, generally speaking, on high-ticket clients; often, as I have discussed in recent weeks, that high-recognition client is the reason aspiring writers covet their representation skills. However, it takes time to cater to a bigwig client — that necessarily is not available for Big Agent’s lesser-known clients.

How much time are we talking about? Well, I once had a lovely chat with a past president of AAR who handled one of the biggest mystery writers in the biz. Apart from handling her book negotiations, he told me, he also spent a week with her every winter ensconced in her mountain retreat — not skiing or snowboarding, but micro-editing her next work to make its market appeal as broad as possible.

Yeah, I know. Nice support if you can get it.

Before you float off into fantasies about being successful enough to command your own personal slave editor and/or mountain lodge, stop and think about the implications of being one of this agent’s OTHER clients. That’s a week a year when he is not available to pay even the vaguest attention to the needs of Clients 2 – 143. So who do you think ends up handling those other clients’ concerns? That’s right: not the bigwig agent at all, but his I’m-working-my-way-up-the-ladder assistant agent.

Who, I have it on reliable authority, is somewhat overworked. So how much time do you think the junior agent has to devote to his own clients?
Getting the picture about why a major agency might not always be the best choice for a new writer? Think about it: if Big Agent’s 144th client is actually dealing most of the time with the agent’s junior partner, rather than Mr. Big himself, with whom is the long-term, mutually beneficial interaction occurring? And with whom is the writer building a lifetime relationship?

Clients of small agencies seldom get the mountain-cabin treatment, of course, but just as a matter of time management, an agent who handles 25 clients is usually going to be spending more of it on each than an agent with 100; to stay in business (and agencies go out of business ALL THE TIME), a smaller agency is going to need to sell its clients’ books a bit faster, more lucratively, or both — which, in turn, is often harder for them to do, because they tend to lack the connections.

This pressure can be a significant drawback if your book is a sleeper, or one targeted to a very tight niche market: while a major agent or big agency can afford to keep a client whose books are not selling, a petite agency does not really have that luxury. Being a major agent’s unremunerative pet project may be better for an author than being the slow-selling albatross around a minor’s agent’s neck.

Both of those descriptions, incidentally, could describe exactly the same book. As they say in international relations circles, where you stand depends upon where you sit.

Long-time readers, chant it with me now: it honestly is a good idea to try to get some sense of who your agent is, and what the working conditions are at the agency, beyond the cold statistics of her clients’ sales. This is yet another good reason to go to writers’ conferences and book readings, of course – to meet writers and ask what working with their agents is like.

This practicality is a surprisingly infrequent question at readings, I am astonished to report. Yet who would know better what it’s like to be a writer represented by an agency than a writer who IS represented by that agency? But before you can ask this kind of question fruitfully, you need to figure out what you do and don’t want in your agent.

This is a funny business, you know – the industry is never tired of telling writers that we are a dime a dozen. Yet so are agents, if you think about it. The guides are full of ‘em. You don’t have to attend very many conferences before you meet your first hungry new agent, willing to promise the moon, nor to meet your first 100-client bigwig.

There are a lot of alternatives in between, of course, but the only way you are going to find your best fit is to give some hard thought to what you want and ask good questions until you figure out if the agent who wants you is in fact the best choice for you and your work.

And speaking of your good work: keep it up!

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