Friday, 5 November 2010

MISCONCEPTIONS: AGENTS

There are a lot of misconceptions about agents, particularly amongst aspiring writers who are trying to get one.

One of the misconceptions is that once you have an agent, you will never have an unsold project again, that the agent will wave a magic wand and sell everything you write, or even everything that he or she has approved and believes in.

No.

There are three sorts of agent:
  1. The Hot-Shot Uber-Agent - often referred to as a shark by publishers and a god by authors - who only takes on sure-fire commercial winners, and therefore sells pretty much everything, all around the world and with champagne at every international book fair. This agent works damned hard to get as much money as possible for his authors, which is great for those authors, but those authors will be carefully selected for selling power: the agent is enormously tactical about who he accepts as clients. Nothing wrong with that, but it's not going to work for most authors.
  2. The Jolly Decent Very Professional agent who obviously hopes for some commercial winners but also believes in a whole range of books and is prepared to take YOUR book simply because he loves it and will fight for its right to be published. This agent works damned hard to nurture your career, whether you're a literary fiction writer or a children's writer or a historian, and even if he knows you probably won't be a No 1 best-seller because you write a different kind of book. But some projects won't sell, because this agent is taking more risks.
  3. The Crappy Agent who couldn't sell a pair of boots to me or else who wouldn't know a termination clause if it came up and bit him. But he'll say yes to all sorts of writers because then he can say he's got some clients. He is either not really serious about this job, or is useless. If he sells anything it will be to a terrible publisher who will take anything. Sometimes these agents also call themselves publishers. Which is a rather large conflict of interest. (To avoid confusion, let me stress that I'm not referring to Andrew Wylie, who falls into the shark-god category, and his plan to publish his clients' e-books is a whole different kettle of sharks. No, I'm talking about three recent examples that have crossed my field of vision, in which the parties concerned have shown a huge misunderstanding of how agents work for authors, which should involve the agent looking for the best publisher, not themselves.)
What category of agent you get is most likely to depend on what sort of book you've written.Think about it.

Trying to get an agent is often a deeply and horribly frustrating process. Remember, I have been there. I was there for a very long time. During that time, I ranted and railed against what I perceived as the blindness, the slowness, the vagueness, the contradictions. And I now believe that understanding the thought-processes of good agents (in categories 1 and 2 above), and the markets within which they work, will really help your equilibrium during the process when you go through it.

And there is no better way to understand how good agents think than to go and read Rachelle Gardner's post here, in which she sends you over to another series of posts from another good agent. Go read, and think, and understand. And then go get yourself the right agent for you.

19 comments:

Alison Stevens said...

Thanks, Nicola, this is great! I'm just preparing my first queries, and I need all the help I can get. :)

catdownunder said...

Sigh - thankfully there is some good advice around!

Sarah Callejo said...

"go get an agent for yourself" This made me laugh, I could picture them on shelves waiting to be picked up. I wish it was easy, but of course, the good ones are the difficult ones to get. Thanks for this post.

Joanna St. James said...

Thanks for the info, Like Alison i'm just getting into the research for query stage. Any helpful info I can get is much appreciated

Emma Darwin said...

Great stuff, Nicola.

One thought: there is an overlap between One and Two: the shark-gods who also take on the occasional author who'll never make a zillion quid, but whose work is just wonderful, and sellable into a niche market. As we all know, crocodiles have as many teeth as a shark, are worshipped as deities in some cultures, but also make the most tender and loving parents: do we need a new category for the crocodile agent?

And one related question/rumination - for you, Nicola, and any other commenters.

What is the etiquette, when an aspiring writer friend is thrilled to bits to be taken on by an agent, but you have quite a bit of circumstantial evidence from one or more other writers to suggest that the agent is crap? What does you do?

Such an agent isn't fraudulent, and you could be wrong about them, and besides you neither want to trample on your friend's hopes, nor get sued for slander. And, confidence is such an important part of keeping going as a writer, and having an agent is often the first sign that you are, actually, a writer-in-the-making. So you don't want to cast them into a slough of despond, since the next book will probably be the worse for it if you do. But nor do you want the book to be lost forever in the mire of a crap submissions process.

What, if anything, should the well-intentioned, well-agented author say or do, faced with a acquaintance glowing from every pore about being taken on by Suspectedly Crap Agent?

I hasten to add that I haven't got any acquaintances in this position at the moment. But I've known a good few in the past...

Liz Fichera said...

Well said and so true. Choose wisely. A bad agent is worse than not having an agent at all. Find someone who's not going to dump you when the going gets rough. Read their blogs; find out what others say about them. Check out their sales records through Publishers Marketplace or places like that. Then query.

Nick Cross said...

I think there's an aspect of trust that overrides some of this stuff. I worked with my agent for nearly 5 months before she signed me, and at the end of that process we were both very aware of our working methods and our relative strengths and weaknesses. That was a hard period for me, but ultimately rewarding in terms of our ongoing relationship.

Of course, I had no real idea of what she was like at selling books, but luckily she seems to be doing a pretty good job so far!

Wynter Daniels said...

Good post - thanks. Like Nick, my agent worked with me for a month or so before she offered representation. I searched for many years and thankfully found the journey well worth the anguish.

Anonymous said...

So true, and I'm thankful it's been said aloud by a pro!

Sadly, I had Agent #3, despite believing I'd done "all the right stuff" to avoid such a thing - as much research as possible both before querying and again after being made an offer of rep., asking a SLEW of careful questions before signing, etc. And this agent claimed to both love my work and have several houses he thought would show definite interest. (Granted, it is a tricky sell as it is a non-fic about a particularly taboo subject matter, but the semi-celeb I ghosted it for comes with a built in platform/several streams of marketing)

But after little/no progress in a year, the realization that I was not the only client who rarely heard from him, and my (few and far between) polite follow-ups being dismissed harshly, I knew it was time to leave. When I addressed my concerns and wanted to work out possible solutions, or simply what has to happen next, I was e-mailed a letter of termination the next day, and some rather unprofessional comments were made from his end. I know that other clients had contacted him in the same manner, and he was clearly frustrated. (He is a legit agent, has some sales, it just seemed to many of us that he had simply stopped pushing for most of us, and the efforts he did make seemed to be misplaced/ill-timed)

Strangely, after I'd dreamed of finding an agent, and being ecstatic to finally sign with one, I actually felt rather free now that our contract was no longer in place. I could start again, find an agent who really wanted to champion my work!

Thus began the period of hearing, "You can write, this is a fresh take on the subject matter, but it's already been shopped (albeit fairly haphazardly to just a few houses), so it's considered used goods" - over and over again.

Finally one agent (one I very much respect) smacked me with the harsh words I suppose I needed to hear:

"Yes, it sucks that this might have been placed if another agent had signed you first, but you cannot erase the fact that things unfolded in the manner that they did. Shelve it, and move on to your next work".

(And yes, I DO have several other works on the go, I would never have just sat with the one project and "shopped it for life" - I am a writer, I write whenever I have a spare second)

But I am (almost) to the point at which I have to call the "Time of Death" on this project. I have subbed it to some smaller indie houses that do not require an agent, and, once hearing their responses, may need to just "box it up" and throw my efforts entirely elsewhere. I've always been the "never give up" girl, but in this case, there may be a time to "fold 'em", and this may be it.

So yes, a bad agent can definitely do more harm than no agent.

But I will say this - in the past year or two, I have learned more about the publishing industry than I could have ever imagined, and have had the chance to make contact/chat with some BRILLIANT agents who (despite having insane workloads themselves) have often taken the time to give constructive advice, sometimes even referring me to other agents, or stating that they'd be willing to look at future works of mine based on what they have read.

Yes, going through the process was TRULY frustrating and a bit heartbreaking as others of you out there may know. We are often told that securing representation can be one of the toughest hurdles, and though we all understand that there's no guarantee our book will garner a deal or make it to shelves, there's just this little piece of ELATION that comes with knowing you have signed with an agent. Someone now has your back and is fighting for you! But now, when my latest work is finished, I will query agents with all that I have learned sitting freshly in the back of my mind, and will know that I really have to feel as if I have found the right fit before signing!

Anonymous said...

So true, and I'm thankful it's been said aloud by a pro!

Sadly, I had Agent #3, despite believing I'd done "all the right stuff" to avoid such a thing - as much research as possible both before querying and again after being made an offer of rep., asking a SLEW of careful questions before signing, etc. And this agent claimed to both love my work and have several houses he thought would show definite interest. (Granted, it is a tricky sell as it is a non-fic about a particularly taboo subject matter, but the semi-celeb I ghosted it for comes with a built in platform/several streams of marketing)

But after little/no progress in a year, the realization that I was not the only client who rarely heard from him, and my (few and far between) polite follow-ups being dismissed harshly, I knew it was time to leave. When I addressed my concerns and wanted to work out possible solutions, or simply what has to happen next, I was e-mailed a letter of termination the next day, and some rather unprofessional comments were made from his end. I know that other clients had contacted him in the same manner, and he was clearly frustrated. (He is a legit agent, has some sales, it just seemed to many of us that he had simply stopped pushing for most of us, and the efforts he did make seemed to be misplaced/ill-timed)

Strangely, after I'd dreamed of finding an agent, and being ecstatic to finally sign with one, I actually felt rather free now that our contract was no longer in place. I could start again, find an agent who really wanted to champion my work!

Thus began the period of hearing, "You can write, this is a fresh take on the subject matter, but it's already been shopped (albeit fairly haphazardly to just a few houses), so it's considered used goods" - over and over again.

Finally one agent (one I very much respect) smacked me with the harsh words I suppose I needed to hear:

"Yes, it sucks that this might have been placed if another agent had signed you first, but you cannot erase the fact that things unfolded in the manner that they did. Shelve it, and move on to your next work".

(And yes, I DO have several other works on the go, I would never have just sat with the one project and "shopped it for life" - I am a writer, I write whenever I have a spare second)

But I am (almost) to the point at which I have to call the "Time of Death" on this project. I have subbed it to some smaller indie houses that do not require an agent, and, once hearing their responses, may need to just "box it up" and throw my efforts entirely elsewhere. I've always been the "never give up" girl, but in this case, there may be a time to "fold 'em", and this may be it.

So yes, a bad agent can definitely do more harm than no agent.

But I will say this - in the past year or two, I have learned more about the publishing industry than I could have ever imagined, and have had the chance to make contact/chat with some BRILLIANT agents who (despite having insane workloads themselves) have often taken the time to give constructive advice, sometimes even referring me to other agents, or stating that they'd be willing to look at future works of mine based on what they have read.

Yes, going through the process was TRULY frustrating and a bit heartbreaking as others of you out there may know. We are often told that securing representation can be one of the toughest hurdles, and though we all understand that there's no guarantee our book will garner a deal or make it to shelves, there's just this little piece of ELATION that comes with knowing you have signed with an agent. Someone now has your back and is fighting for you! But now, when my latest work is finished, I will query agents with all that I have learned sitting freshly in the back of my mind, and will know that I really have to feel as if I have found the right fit before signing!

Nadia said...

Thanks for the advice, Nicole. I'm preparing my queries too and am distinctly nervous about running out of agents before I get a chance to even agonise over this type of decision!

Jean said...

I had an agent about ten years ago. She was well-known, well-respected and (wonder of wonders) she loved my manuscript. It didn't sell. Apparently I had some 'near misses' with mainstream publishers, but 'rave rejections' are still rejections.

When this agent signed me up, after all the difficulties in getting an agent, I felt sure I was at last on my way. It wasn't to be then and, in this instance, not the agent's fault. It just sometimes happens.

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Spider Griffin said...

Hi Nicola, your blog post stirred up memories similar to those from Jean, concerning losing my agent in the 80's. I went a bit overboard getting my true pain off of my chest concerning this but it wasn't the right time or place – and certainly not helpful to anyone – apologies there.

So I've deleted my comment, along with 3 identical versions! Every time I went to post, I was told it failed but obviously it didn't hence the multiple posts.

Good luck with everyone finding an agent; never give up; and definitely never give up writing like I did for 20 years!

:-)

Derek said...

I think there might be a sub-category to the third type of agent. The one who has no telephone or email skills and is clearly in desperate need of stamps. How else could I explain 8 months of waiting for a response across three different media? Perhaps I should be glad they haven't offered me a contract!

Alice Turing said...

This is all briliant stuff, and of course true. But one of the problems with agent-searching is in fact a problem with Being Human and Trying to Survive This Wretched Thing We Call Life... and it's all about shades of grey.

I had an agent who ticked most of the Good Agent tick boxes. They had a good background and track record in the industry. They were building up a new list, and therefore had room for new clients - and some time to spend reading submissions. They were (I believe) genuinely passionate about my book. They were prepared to play the long game and didn't insist that every client had to be an instant success. They were prepared to have editorial discussions and give input and advice. They were neither dictatorial nor sycophantic.

But they turned out to be fundamentally flawed in a key area. Professionalism prevents me from going into it in any detail in a public forum, but my point is this:

People rarely fit into neat categories and boxes. As the best character-writers know, villains always have redeeming features - and vice versa. What if you are desperate to have an agent (well, duh), and find someone who ticks so many boxes? Someone you like, gel with, and desperately want to trust? You have to decide whether niggling doubts are due to over-caution, or your own self-destructive tendencies, or are worth acting on. If the choice is between not-quite-sure-about agent and no agent at all, it's incredibly hard to know how to play it.

Sadly another thing I discovered is that nobody in the industry is going to confirm any doubts you have unless the agent in question is an out-and-out charlatan. I tried checking with various professionals and professional bodies, but (quite rightly, from a professional and legal standpoint) none of them were in a position to back up what I was half-vaguely worried about. Later (too late) these turned out to be well grounded fears.

This isn't a criticism of this blog post, just a reminder that life is a horribly complicated thing, and hindsight is no use without a time machine. Dagnabbit.