A few weeks ago, Tamela posted answers to the question, “What should I expect from my agent?” That, of course, assumes that you have an agent. I’m going to step back a bit and talk about how to find the perfect agent. As someone with the dubious distinction of having had (and fired) four agents before finding Joyce, I thought I’d share some of the things I’ve learned along the way.
First of all, there’s a difference between finding an agent and finding the perfect agent. You’ve probably heard that a bad agent is worse than none at all. It’s true. A bad agent can keep you from selling a manuscript, simply by not sending it out or by sending it to the wrong house.
Secondly, the perfect agent for someone else may not be the right one for you. One of my neighbors thinks her hybrid is the perfect car. Another wouldn’t drive anything other than his full size truck. Although those are the ideal vehicles for them, neither one suits my driving style. It’s the same with agents. So, here’s my five step program for finding the perfect agent for you.
Step One – Identify your needs. Before you start your search for an agent, it’s important to decide what you want your agent to do for you. Are you looking for one who’ll edit your work before sending it out? Terrific, but not all agents have the background or the time to do that. Do you want extensive career planning advice? Again, some agents provide that; others do not. There’s no right or wrong here. What matters is what you need or want an agent to do for you. Remember, the agent works for you.
Step Two – Do your homework. Although I know some authors who send out blanket queries to agents, that can be a waste of time and, if you’re sending those queries by snail mail, money. Why query agents who hate mysteries if that’s what you’re writing? I recommend a targeted approach, where you learn as much as you can about an agent before querying him or her. How do you do that? Start with the Internet. My opinion, which I’ll admit not everyone shares, is that if an agent doesn’t have a web site, I’m not interested. A well-designed agency web site gives me the answers to key questions at the click of a mouse.
What are those key questions?
Has the agent sold books similar to the one you’re writing? Remember that agents are like editors. They have preferences, and if they’re not enthusiastic about your work, they will not be effective advocates.
Have those sales been recent? An agent who hasn’t sold within the last year may be experiencing personal problems or have other concerns that create obstacles to sales.
Have the sales been to your “dream list” of publishers? An agent who’s sold to small or obscure publishers may not fit your career plan.
Does the agent represent authors you admire? While that’s no guarantee that this is the right agent for you, it’s one more point to consider.
If the answers to any of the first three questions are ‘no,’ this is not the agent for you.
Step Three – Network. Once you’ve narrowed down the list of possible agents, it’s time to check references. If you happen to know any of the agent’s current clients, ask them about their experiences with the agent. The questions I find most helpful are “What do you like most about your agent?” and “If there were one thing you could change about your agent, what would it be?” Those open-ended questions have elicited some interesting – and revealing – answers and have kept me from making yet another mistake in choosing the wrong agent.
If you don’t know any of the agent’s clients, ask other writing friends if they’ve heard anything. Most of us belong to writers’ organizations. Check with them. When I sent out a request for experiences with a particular agent, I learned that he had a reputation for being extremely slow in paying his clients’ share of advances and royalties. I guess he hadn’t heard “Thou shalt not steal.”
Step Four – Query your short-list of agents. Now that you’ve culled the long list of agents into a short list of potentially perfect ones, it’s time to send out queries. Odds are some will be ignored, while others will elicit a polite rejection. No matter how discouraging a rejection is, remember that if an agent doesn’t love your work, he or she is not the perfect one for you. Be glad you found that out before you wasted any more time.
So, what do you do when an agent says, “I love your work, and I want to represent you”? Although your first reaction will probably be a shout of glee, don’t be too quick to sign a contract. There’s one last step you need to take.
Step Five – Do a Style Check. No, I’m not talking about hair or clothing. The agent-author relationship is just that – a relationship – and it’s important to ensure that it will be a productive one. Before you sign a contract with any agency, you need to have a conversation. Even if you’ve been communicating via email, this is time for a talk. Ideally, you’ll be able to meet your agent face-to-face, but if that’s not possible, pick up the phone. Your goal is to determine whether or not you and your potential agent have compatible working styles.
Some questions you may want to ask the agent are:
How do you prefer to communicate? If your agent thinks email is the greatest invention of the twentieth century but you prefer the phone, you may not be happy working together.
How do you notify clients about the status of their proposals? If the agent normally tells clients only when she’s made a sale but you prefer to know when each publisher has received the proposal and what response was received, even if it’s a rejection, unless the agent is willing to accommodate your needs, she’s not the perfect agent for you.
What contract clauses have you negotiated for other clients? Most agents are highly skilled in negotiating those clauses related to royalties and advances, but some are uncomfortable with others, including reversion of rights and non-compete. One of my former agents told me that asking to have some clauses changed was an insult to the editor. Wrong answer! She and I parted ways very quickly.
The key is knowing your comfort level and making sure that it matches your agent’s. Perfect agents do exist. I know, because I’ve found her.