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Agents: It's not about being nice

I had intended to blog today about agents, and what to look for, but Victoria Strauss beat me to it, for the most part. So go read her post, and come on back. I'll wait.

The thing is, several times of late around the wide internets I've seen this subject come up, and I see comments about making sure you "click" with the agent, and making sure they're enthusiastic, and talking perhaps about where they see your career going. All of which is good advice, yes--for when you've got offers on the table.

But when deciding whom to query, you have no idea if you click with the agent or not. You may read their blog, if they have one, and decide you like them from that, which is fine.

The fact is, when sending queries there is only one matter of any importance. It's not their personality; it's not their blog; it's not that you met them at a conference and they were really fun and nice.

It's their sales, and only their sales*. What have they sold? Have those sales been to any of the big houses? An agent whose sales are only to small houses which don't require an agent suggests the agent in question doesn't have the necessary contacts at the major houses. An agent with no sales at all, also likely does not have the contacts*. An agent who's been in business for over a year without any sales likely does not have the contacts. These agents will not help your career; they will hinder it. An agent without any sales* doesn't know what's selling; they haven't yet picked a salesable manuscript (which is an agent's chief job; it's how they earn a living). Their submissions could very well be ignored by editors. If an editor does happen to take a look, and does happen to make an offer, this agent is very unlikely to be able to negotiate the best possible contract for you.

It doesn't matter if the agent is enthusiastic. It doesn't matter if they're nice. It doesn't matter if, in offering to represent you, they buy you a pony and some chocolates too. Because unless a pony and some chocolate is all you desire out of your career, chances are you'll never get further.

It doesn't matter if the agent is listed on Publisher's Marketplace; it doesn't matter if they attend conferences; it doesn't matter if they represent a friend of yours and that friend says the agent is just the nicest, happiest agent in the whole wide world. All that matters at the query stage is what they've sold.

If they don't have any sales*, they don't get your query. It's just that simple. Yes, publishing is a slow business, but that doesn't mean you can afford to waste a couple of years while your submissions go nowhere thanks to your ineffective agent.

If they don't have a website (and not all agents do; my own excellent agent doesn't have a site and isn't listed on PM; he rarely reports his sales [mine was reported because I asked him to; gotta love a man who tries to keep the ladies happy]; his internet presence, in short, in practically nonexistent) then Google is your friend. The sites Victoria listed are pretty good; I used both Agentquery.com and Litmatch.net, and followed up every agent who interested me with searches in the Bewares & Background Check forum on Absolute Write and extensive Googling before I decided whether or not to query them.

Meeting an agent at a conference is no guarantee. It depends on the conference; an agent taking pitch meetings at RWA Nationals, for example, has been vetted (I believe, anyway, that they have to be RWA-recognized in order to take appts. there); an agent who just shows up at RWA as a guest has NOT been vetted.

Seeing an agent keep a blog is no guarantee; I can think offhand of two agencies with blogs, whose sales records are either unimpressive or nonexistent (no, I don't recall their names, I just picture the sites in my head.)

A website is no guarantee; again, I can think of a few I've seen where they list "sales", but when I looked the titles up on Amazon (which is also your friend when it comes to agent-hunting) the books were either PA books or other vanity press books.

Quite frankly, just as there is little excuse in this day and age to give your book to a vanity-press scam like PublishAmerica, there is little excuse to query an agent you know nothing about, and no excuse in the world to sign with an agent with no sales*. This is pretty common-sense stuff here, really.

Just like an agent wouldn't sign YOU based on your pretty smile or charming personality if you'd never written a book, you shouldn't query an agent who's never sold one. Period. Remember when we talked about publishers and guinea pigs? It's the same thing.

You are not in this business to be somebody's practice round*. You are not in this business to help out new agents or give them a chance. You are not in this business to be a learning experience. You are in it to write books and make money from them.

Should you like your agent? Of course! Should you be comfortable with your agent? Of course. But all of that is to be determined later. When you start querying, the first and only thing that matters is what books they've sold. They represent your favorite writer, who's got four books on the shelves? Go for it. They represent your favorite writers who is a NYT Bestseller with dozens of books on the shelves? Go for it.

They represent some authors you know online, who are really great people and talented and say how much they love their agent, but none of them has a deal, and when you check the agent's website there are no sales listed? Nope, sorry. Throw back the little fish.

Mercenary? Perhaps. But trust me. You might feel bad deciding not to query that agent, but you'll feel a lot worse two years down the road, when five manuscripts have made the rounds and been rejected (and are therefore "dead" for all intents and purposes) and neither you nor any of your friends have actually sold any books.

And that's what I have to say on that subject.

I am forming a rather troubling addiction to a particular candy. They're called "Drumsticks"; they're a sort of raspberry-and-milk flavored taffy on a stick. I'm not sure why I like them so much, but I do, and I'm getting to a point where the day isn't complete without one. And it's not like an adult dessert (I baked a honey-and-chocolate cake on Saturday; not bad). This is taffy on a stick we're talking about. There is nothing more childlike than candy on a stick, seriously. Or any food on a stick, really, with the exception of kebabs which I dislike (the meat is always tough, and they always use red peppers which regular readers know I am violently allergic to). But even with kebabs you take the stick out.

So I'm doubly looking forward to Halloween, because the candy assortment we buy comes with many, many Drumsticks. Ahhh.

Also tried on my Halloween costume yesterday and put up our Halloween decorations, which was fun. Unfortunately the waist of the costume is a little high, which makes me look a bit stumpy, but so what. It's a sort of zombie dress with sheer sleeves and sheer panels on the stomach, on which bones are printed. I guess it's supposed to give them impression that my flesh is rotting away?

I will of course post pictures when I have some.

*NOTE: A new agent with an established agency is the exception to this. If Agent X is suddenly taking queries at Writer's House, or Fine Print, or Trident, or Dystel, or whatever established agency, chances are they not only used to be an assistant and thus have some contacts and experience, but one of the pros will be helping them. New agents at established agencies are an EXCELLENT bet for queries.


( 13 people said — Say something )
Oct. 20th, 2008 12:26 pm (UTC)
thanks for the great advice!!! and YAY for pictures! I am holding you to it! ;-)
Oct. 20th, 2008 12:57 pm (UTC)
What a great post! I'd say that new agents at established agencies could have good contacts. e.g. Writers House, who often promote assistants to being a full agent. In that case, it might be worth taking a 'chance' on them. But, yeah, I agree with what you say 100%.
Oct. 20th, 2008 01:19 pm (UTC)
Doh! I meant to mention that. Yes, new agents at established agencies are just fine; query away! :-)
Oct. 20th, 2008 01:48 pm (UTC)
You are awesome. You always have very level-headed, realistic, sans rose colored glasses advice and you are very generous with it.

I, for one, truly appreciate your effort to educate fellow writers and aspiring ones too.
Oct. 20th, 2008 03:50 pm (UTC)
Thanks! You know, you can always email me too. :-)
Oct. 20th, 2008 02:50 pm (UTC)
Excellent post! Thank you :)
Oct. 20th, 2008 03:48 pm (UTC)
I'm trying to figure out, with a Marlboro in one hand and a Drumstick in the other, how you type such insightful thoughts.
Oct. 20th, 2008 03:49 pm (UTC)
Nononono. CAMELS. I smoke CAMEL LIGHTS. :-)

And you know, it ain't easy, but somebody has to do it. :-)
Oct. 20th, 2008 05:15 pm (UTC)
You know, I went to put Camel and then convinced myself I had it backwards.

I can remember Lucky Strikes, since that's what my dad used to smoke. Want to switch for my convenience?
Oct. 21st, 2008 06:39 pm (UTC)
Agents are mythical creates, like fairies and unicorns. People "claim" to have seen them. Mostly on Maury and Jerry Springer. I was talking to the elves next door, who sneak into cobbler's workshops at night and make shoes, and they confirmed it. Agents existed once long ago, and a land far, far away. But they heard the Clarion Call of the Holy Host adn returned to Nevernever land.

Man, I really need to give up caffiene. Maybe drugs, too.
Oct. 21st, 2008 06:41 pm (UTC)
Re: Mythical
...mythical CREATURES....mythical creates are a whole nother story, which would require an agent to sell the story for me so you could read it. ::sigh::
Nov. 12th, 2008 03:32 pm (UTC)
Dead Manuscript
What do you mean by a dead manuscript. Once they make the round, it is dead.

Also, can you query more than one agent at a time?
Nov. 12th, 2008 04:21 pm (UTC)
Re: Dead Manuscript
A "dead" manuscript is a manuscript that has been rejected by all the NY editors it's possible to submit it to. They've seen it, and they don't want it for whatever reason; it can't be resubmitted, generally. (It can, sometimes, in certain circumstances--sometimes mss are resubmitted a few years later after extensive revisions, or something--your agent should know when it's possible.) But in general, yes, you're right. It's made the rounds, and didn't find a home, and it's usually considered pointless to resubmit it.

And YES!! Definitely query more than one agent at a time--if you don't, you're going to find yourself waiting forever to find representation. :-) Most people put together a few lists; I did an A List of Dream Agents, a B List of very good agents I'd love to work with, and a C List of agents who were very good but not necessarily my top choices for one reason or another; maybe I didn't think they'd really love the project but was taking a chance, for example.

I sent out queries in sets of 5-7, mixed between the three lists. The reason for that is, if you start querying the A List exclusively first, and they all reject the query and you revise the query and make it better, you can't requery the agents. So you want to make sure you're holding some agents in reserve in case you revise the query or whatever. So I'd usually query an A-Lister, several B-Listers, and a C Lister at the same time. They were all excellent agents, I don't mean to imply by "C-List" that I was querying bad agents.)

Then as rejections and requests started coming in, I'd send one or two more out. When I signed with my agent I had three partials mss and four or five fulls out, if memory serves; I had at least twenty or so more agents to query.

Agents expect you to query widely, so don't feel you have to mention in the query that you're sending several out. I've seen a few agents who say you should tell them if other agents are looking at partials or fulls, and if you see where an agent has said that you can tell them (if that's the case, and you do have requested samples out; again, they don't need to know you've got other queries out there) but I personally feel it's none of their business until an offer is made. I felt, and still feel, that they shouldn't need a boost to want to read my ms. I want/ed them to be excited about it on its own merits.

Some agents ask for exclusives on samples, at least on fulls (I would personally raise my eyebrows if an agent requested an exclusive on a partial; I've never heard of it happening.) It's generally up to you if you want to grant the exclusive or not. In general, NOT is the best reply, lol, but if you really, really want the agent in question and the exclusive period they're suggesting is short (always nail them down to a period of time, not longer than 30 days, if you're going to give an exclusive) you can grant the exclusive if you're in a position to. My agent wanted an exclusive but I couldn't grant it; I sent the ms anyway and luckily for both of us he read it.

Never, ever lie to an agent. Never tell them you have other samples out if you haven't; never grant them an exclusive if you do have other samples out there. Never, ever, ever tell them you've received an offer of representation if you haven't, in hopes it will get them to read faster. Agents talk. You will be found out and you probably will be dropped.

Honesty is always the best policy. :-) But like I said, with the exception of my agent who asked for an exclusive (and I had to tell him I had other fulls out already) I never told an agent that any other agents were reviewing my work. I just don't think it's any of their business; I love agents and think they're fantastic, hard-working people (with a few rare exceptions) but I didn't think the status of my submissions was something I needed to discuss with any of them until they'd offered representation (at which time I did tell him how many were out, and with whom.)

Does that help? :-) Good luck! And feel free to ask any other questions, I'm happy to answer them.
( 13 people said — Say something )

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