My senior year in high school, I asked a girl to Prom. I know, not exactly earth-shattering news. She said yes, which was slightly more earth shattering. Then I discovered she had said yes to at least two other guys—which was seriously earth-shattering. To me at least.
I’m not sure how the other two guys reacted when they discovered this news. Who knows? She was cute. We had been co-leads in Don’t Drink the Water, the school play the year before, so she was fairly popular. Maybe they figured they’d share their prize, or fight it out, or whatever.
For me—and for most people, I suspect—the response was really easy. I dumped her.
These days it seems like there is practically a new formal dance every month. But back in the day, Prom was it. Yeah, there was a Valentine's Day
Massacre dance, and a Christmas dance, and the one where the girl asks you and you wear matching farmer clothes. But there was only one dance where you rented a tux, sometimes a limo, and made reservations at a fancy restaurant. Having already, rented the tux and all that stuff, it was a pretty big deal to be without a date that close to the dance. But I would rather have wasted the money than even considered going to a dance with the kind of girl who would do something like agreeing to go with three guys.
Finding an agent is kind of like asking a girl to prom. Or at least it would be if there were thousands of other people who all wanted to take the same girl to prom, and she was very picky, and you had to ask her out in writing with a self-addressed stamped envelope so she could send you a form rejection, or possibly even just assume the answer was no if you didn’t hear back by a certain date. Come to think of it, there probably were one or two girls like that in my high school.
Obviously this is an analogy done more for laughs than reality. True, agents are hard to get, and they are pretty picky, and most of the time—like the popular girl—they say no. But the difference is that if the girl agrees to go to prom with you, she isn’t committing to spend months and sometimes years on your behalf trying to advance your career with no guarantee of compensation unless she succeeds. And she isn’t putting her professional reputation (okay that sounds really bad in the prom date context!) on the line by agreeing to go out with you.
But one part of the analogy holds up surprisingly well. Most kids at my school wanted a date to the prom. And most writers want to get an agent. So much so, that just like a girl might say yes to a geeky guy like me just to have a date, many authors immediately accept the first offer of representation they get.
And a lot of times, that works out fine. Mostly because you generally ask someone you want to go out with on a date, and hopefully you are only querying agents you want to represent you. If that isn’t the case, (in either situation) you should be asking yourself why you are wasting both of your time.
But with all of that in mind, I can think of a half dozen authors off the top of my head whose first agent didn’t end up working out. Sometimes it was a real blow up—an agent that never submitted or didn’t return messages for weeks at a time, or was a complete scam. But most of the time, the differences were more subtle. Maybe the author started writing another genre or the agent stopped repping what the author wrote. Maybe they stopped seeing eye-to-eye on what the author was working on. Whatever the case, they reached a point where the relationship (because that’s what it is, no matter what the contract states) just quick working for one or both of them.
In my case, it was simply that I had started writing for MG/YA and at the time my agent wasn’t repping that age group. But having changed agents and seen other authors do the same, I’ve learned a few things I wish I had known when I first started out. And, being the all around nice guy that I am, I’m going to share them with you.
1) First and foremost do NOT query agents that don’t represent what you write. I remember being younger and dumber than I am now and reading that advice; then completely ignoring it. My thought process was, “Well the worst that can happen is they say no, right?”
Wrong. Yes it’s bad to waste your time and an agent’s time querying them with material they don’t represent. It’s rude—like going into a French restaurant and getting ticked off that they don’t serve Italian food. But, in my opinion, the worst thing that can happen is the agent loves your work so much that they agree to represent you.
Sounds crazy, I know. But if there is one thing I have learned about agents, it’s that a big part of their value is knowledge of the industry. Your agent could be the nicest person in the world, but if they don’t have their finger on the pulse of the genre and age group you are writing to, your chances for success go way, way down.
It’s not just knowing who to send what to. It’s understanding what is selling. It’s knowing who the best fit for your work is and how much is being paid for that kind of work. It’s the ability to tell you not only what house they are sending it to, but exactly which person and why. Trust me when I say that you are better off with no agent than one that doesn’t understand your space.
2) Without going into a lot of detail, my agent and I were having a conversation a couple of months ago. We weren’t disagreeing, but I was asking for clarification. He told me something that I have repeated multiple times since then. “I know you are focused on this one project. But I am focused on your career.”
It was just cool just to have an agent say refer to me and a “writing career” in the same sentence. Much more important than that, whether or not you ever become a full-time writer, you should be looking at your writing as a career. Do you want your life to be about hopping from one job to the next? Probably not. In the same way, your writing shouldn’t be about hopping from one book to the next. You need a direction, a plan. And who better than a great agent to help you focus on that plan?
I know, I know, the publishing world is changing almost daily. And there are plenty of people forecasting the fall of bookstores, publishers, and agents. Personally, I’m not buying it anymore than I bought the idea that all brick and mortar stores would be replaced by internet sites when I was the CEO of a an internet comparison shopping company.
Yes, things are changing. I won’t even pretend that I have the first clue how things will shake out as far as e-books vs. print books or book stores vs. shopping portals. I know that I will always go to book stores. I love them. I can never get out of a signing without buying several books.
But, personally, I’m not concerned about that. I believe a couple of things. Good stories will always have a home. People are going to be buying as many or more books than ever in whatever format. Publishers will adapt and succeed. Having a knowledgeable. industry savvy professional guiding you will continue to be invaluable. When you look for an agent, find one you want to guide your career. Not just sell your book.
3) If you are good enough to get one legitimate agent, you are good enough to get the right agent. Going back to the date analogy again, let’s say you have been waiting for a guy to ask you to prom. (I know that girls ask guys now, but stay with me) Instead of the guy you really want to go with, another guy asks you. He seems okay. He bathes more or less regularly. He either wears matching socks, no socks, or intentionally mismatched socks (‘cause that can be cool.)
What you have to ask yourself is are you the kind of person who is so desperate for a date that she will go with whoever asks? or are you going wait for Mr. Right? Ginger Clark over at Curtis Brown has a great blog post about what to do when you get an offer.
Notice that she says she expects you to ask questions and do research on her. Not she will suffer through it, or try not to be offended. E-X-P-E-C-T-S. Nowhere does she say she expects you to leap at the chance to have her. And she’s a great agent.
Why does she expect you to ask questions? For the same reason I got nervous when I interviewed a prospective employee and she didn’t ask me questions after I finished interviewing her. Do you really care that little about the person who will hold your career in his or her hands? Don’t you at least want to ask who they will send your work to? What they like about it? How they communicate with their authors? Maybe get a reference or two?
Let me repeat. If you are good enough to get one legitimate agent, you are good enough to get the right agent.
Before I ever pitched my YA novel, Demon Spawn (the novel I signed my agent with), I did a ton of research. I started by casting a wide net, then narrowed it down through blogs, interviews, a $20 Publisher Marketplace subscription, and Predators and Editors. I knew I wasn’t submitting to anyone I wouldn’t be willing to work with when I sent out my first query.
When I did get an offer, it was from an agent I would have been thrilled to death to work with. But before I signed with her, I did exactly what Ginger suggests. And guess what? I ended up having four awesome agents to choose from.
What finally sold me on Michael was that his authors love him. He knew right away who he would send to and how he would position my novel. And I loved his vision. I could absolutely have been happy with any of the four agents who offered to work with me. But the difference was that for me and my book, Michael was the right agent.
4) Lastly, let me say this. I completely understand the desire to self-publish. Obviously it has worked well for many authors. And if you choose to self-pub, I hope it works great for you. But even if you are wildly successful, there is still a very good chance that you will work with an agent at some point.
Is an agent a gatekeeper? I guess. In the same way that a prospective employer, or a future spouse, or a good friend, or a reader is. Like all of them, an agent has to choose who they will work with. But that is such a tiny part of what an agent is.
An agent is a counselor, helping you make good choices along your writing path. An agent is an editor telling you what works and what doesn’t when your best friends are afraid or unwilling to. An agent is an industry professional with access to other professionals in the field. An agent is a supporter, encouraging you when you think the whole world is out to get you. An agent helps you brainstorm the idea, write the book, make the initial sale, negotiate terms, make additional sales—of both additional books and movie rights, foreign rights, etc.And perhaps, most importantly, an agent is a visionary who will help you see the big picture when you are focused on the minutia of a single manuscript.
I know the publishing world (or not publishing world as is so often the case) is crazy. As writers we swing from high to low and back again in a matter minutes sometimes. Many of us have waited for an agent so long that as soon as one finally says yes, we want to snap them up before they can possibly change their mind.
Just remember that behind that scary title is a real person who wants you to succeed as much as you do. And the best way to make that happen is to be as sure as you can under the circumstances that you have made the best choice for both of you. Just like an agent can tell you that you are not the best fit for them, you can do your own homework and tell the agent they aren’t the best match for you.
And, in case you were wondering, yes, I did find another date to the prom.
I’m the goofy-looking guy with the long hair and mustache.