Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Agent Dance

The manuscript is finished. You've polished it to within an inch of your life! Now what?

If you just want to sell this particular manuscript, you can take your chances in the slush pile. But if you want a writing career, you need an agent.

It is probably true that it's as hard or perhaps harder to establish a working relationship with an agent as it is to find an editor who wants to publish your work. But the angst is worth it when you consider what an agent brings to the table.

A good agent knows the acquiring editors at all the publishing houses. He/she knows who's looking for what. An agent should have established credible relationships with the editors and a reputation for representing quality material, so that when they send in a submission, the manuscript jumps to the head of the TBR line. The agent, not you, gets to follow up and should be able to get an answer on your work in much less time. Your agent has your back in contract negotiations. He/she sweats all the details. A good agent can see on down the road to where you'll be in 5 years, and help you develop a plan to get there. Some agents even offer editorial imput to their clients. And every agent worth her salt has told me they'd rather be involved in a project from the first kernel of a idea than be called in only once an offer is on the table and there's little they can do to shape the contract but take their 15%.

Notice I prefaced the above by saying "good" agent. There are predators out there and this is definitely an "author beware" decision. You are getting into financial bed with this person. I've heard of authors being swindled out of their entire advance and subsequent royalties. It's time for due diligence. (Published authors, here's an opportunity for you to share your horror stories in order to save others. But for liability reasons, I ask that you not name names.)

So check out the agencies. Do a little friendly internet stalking of agents who interest you. (I got that tip from Anna DeStefano!) Check out their client list. Do they represent the type of story you write? Some agents have blogs. Follow them. You'll learn alot about how they operate.

Go for a face to face meet. You don't have to go to a national convention to meet top shelf agents. Many attend regional conferences. Check your local area and see who's coming to take appointments. It's worth a conference fee to be able to chat in person with someone who may be shaping your career. And if they've heard your pitch and are interested, you'll move to the head of their slushpile. (Yes, I'm sorry to say, agents have slushpiles, too.)

I titled this post The Agent Dance for a reason. Here's how the process works:

1. Author choses agent she would like to have represent her.

2. Author queries said agent.

3. Agent responds with "No, thank you" (in which case, you thank her politely and move on. Don't vent. Don't whine. Don't demand further explanation. Publishing is far too small a world to burn a single bridge. Your paths will cross again.) Or the agent wants to see more (in which case, you send him/her exactly what he/she asks for. No more, no less.)

4. Author waits.

5. Author waits some more.

6. Author starts working on the next manuscript and almost forgets she even submitted a manuscript to the agent.

7. Agent sends a rejection letter, a request for revisions, OR he/she calls with an offer of representation.

8. Author does not hop up and down and scream "Yes, Yes" orgasmically into the receiver. (Save that for after you hang up!)

9. Author interviews the agent. This is your opportunity to discover what the agent sees in your work (And if the agent does not use the L word, thank him/her politely and decline their offer. If your agent doesn't LOVE your writing, he/she is not the right agent for you.)

Find out what plans the agent might have for where the manuscript will be submitted and why that publishing house is a good fit. If the agent says, "Oh, we'll shop it everywhere. Someone will love it", thank them politely and move on.

Now is the time to set expectations for the relationship. How does the agent work with his/her clients? Don't expect them to hold your hand and stroke you constantly. They do have other clients and while you're at it, ask to speak to some of the agent's current clients (If they refuse to give you some names, thank them politely and run like the wind!)

10. If you like what you hear, you agree to form an agency relationship, put it in writing, and work productively together for many happy years.

Here are a few don'ts:

1. Never pay a "reading" fee. An agent should consider your work without an upfront charge to you.

2. I know I said to do a little cyber stalking, but don't do it for real. Agents are people too and don't appreciate being hounded. Be considerate of their time before and after you agree to work together.

3. Don't expect an agent to sell sloppy prose. The best agent in the world can't gloss over less than the best you can give her. She's an agent, not a miracle-worker.

4. Don't accept an offer of representation unless you feel strongly that this person will advance your career. Having no agent is better than having the wrong agent.

So that's what I know about the Agent Do-Si-Do. If someone posts a question I don't know the answer to, I'll be glad to ask my fabulous agent. Happy hunting.


Jane L said...

Emily, Great advise! I do have a question.

I sent out four things on the same day, one of those items was requested material to an agent. I was informed that two of my items never reached their destination, I am afraid the agent did not get her package either. Would it be polite to inquire? or not? Any advise, anyone???

EmilyBryan said...

How long has it been? Did you enclose a self-addressed postcard that the agent could just drop in the mail to let you know the package arrived? (Ok, that question was thinly disguised advice to fix the problem in the future!)

If it's been a couple weeks, it's ok to send an email or even make a quick phone call to see if the package was received since you suspect you may have had mailing problems. Don't expect any comments on the material itself at this time.

People often wonder how long they should wait for an answer once they submit. Check your potential agent's guidelines. If they say 6 months, expect to wait that long and DO NOT call before then wanting an answer.

If the time period has come and gone, move on to the next agent on your list. As a courtesy to the first agent, drop him/her a note and thank them for their consideration of your material, but enough time has expired for you to submit it elsewhere. This may put enough of a burr under their saddle to get your material read if they haven't already.

But chances are, if they haven't called, they weren't intending to. Shame on them for not letting you know.

This however falls under the "Agents are People, too" category. It's hard to say no. And they have to do that more often than they say yes. Let's all agree to cut them a little slack.

Shannon McKelden said...

Great advice, Emily! I would add, too, never give up. My agent and I "danced" together for a bit with a manuscript she loved, but wasn't sure she could sell. She asked for another book. I sent her another. She didn't like it as much and reread the first manuscript again. She liked it even more the second time and told me (over the phone) to send me something else, but if another agent offered representation, to call her back right away.

Well, it never got that far, because by later in the day, she came up with some other ideas for which editors would like that first book and decided if she'd take me if another agent would take me, then she better just take me in the first place. (Can you imagine this crazy dance playing out on the dance floor?!)

Anyway, we are still together, after 6 years. So, while being careful with stalking is great advice, also don't give up!

Maureen said...

Shannon, your dance sounds like a good tango...

Thanks for the advice, Em. I'm taking notes and keeping them handy...

EmilyBryan said...

Well, that was quite a little jig, Shannon! Glad it ended well for both of you.

Shannon's story brings up a really good point. An agent may love the quality of your writing, but not love the premise of the book. That's why her agent wanted something else from her.

I think that's one reason good agents like to be in on projects early. That way if you're considering something as out-of-the-box as "Viking Elves in Tahiti" for your next paranormal, your agent can head you off at the pass before you invest 400 pages in something they can't sell.

And as with everything else in this business, it's ALL subjective. (But I think the no Viking Elves in Tahiti is a good call.)

Be sure to check out Shannon's Venus Envy! It's such a clever premise, it's one of those "boy, I wish I'd thought of that sort of things!"

EmilyBryan said...

Chance--Everyone's dance is different. And sometimes authors forget that you may decide to bow out, too. The agency relationship has to work both ways.

Beth said...

Great post. Appreciate the agent tips. I'll be seeking agents in the next couple of months and have a list of my top five. I've been following their blogs for several months.

Now, I'm in the final editing phase of my contemporary women's fiction novel. I've written "The End" (woo hoo) but need to do some more tweaking, I'm sure.

This summer has been hell--company here for three weeks (eek), my father-in-law had surgery out of town for two weeks and is still recovering, and my dear, sweet grandmother just passed away over the weekend. She had just turned

Therefore, my writing and editing have stalled. Can't wait to get back to normal. Thanks for all the great posts.

EmilyBryan said...

Beth, congratulations on typing THE END. You are light-years ahead of so many. It takes dedication to finish a manuscript and I commend you! Good luck on your agent hunt. Sounds like you're off to a promising start.

So sorry your personal life has had so much sadness and upheaval. Hope your father-in-law is doing better.

And I grieve with you for your grandma. I was blessed to have mine till she was 92 (She was from the deep end of the gene pool!) She had the gift of gab and was a wonderful storyteller. I still miss her. Sending a prayer that your faith and memories sustain you.

Barb H said...


Thanks for the good information. I have heard it cautioned so often that no agent is better than a bad agent. And all the information you offered really helps.

It used to be said that if the agent isn't in New York, s/he isn't as effective. With the internet now, that may be different.

What's your opinion on that?

EmilyBryan said...

Good question, Barb. I think at one time a NY agent was the gold standard, but now with phone/fax/internet, that's less important. My agent, Natasha Kern is in White Salmon, Washington. (Doesn't that sound like a lovely place?) But Natasha was an editor for Bantam and Ballantine in NY before she started her literary agency, so she's very wired in to the NY publishers.

The Knight Agency, which sells plenty of romance titles isn't in NY. Ditto Three Seas, which represents plenty of romance authors.

I think it's more important that the agent attends plenty of conferences where they can develop working relationships with the editors.

Patricia Barraclough said...

Sounds like very good advice. I've heard of several writers who have been taken advantage of by both agents and publishers. It is hard enough to get a book written and polished for publication, you shouldn't have to worry about sharks at the other end. Thanks for giving some very important points to consider.

EmilyBryan said...

Pat, I'm a basically trusting person. It's hard for me not to take people at face value. However, I've heard enough horror stories to convince me that this is an area where an author needs to tread carefully.

I'm very comfortable with my current agent and feel confident she's looking out for my best interests. Writing is a full plate by itself. I can't expend the time and emotional energy selling my work and sweating all the minutia involved in contract details. (I confess sometimes when she explains certain clauses, my eyes cross a bit!) But writing is a business. And securing a good agent is one of an author's most important business decisions.

Shirley said...

Hi Emily,

Thanks for posting on this subject. I, too, am ready to submit to agents. I have a Y/A suspense as well as a Silhouette Desire. I've been told that I need to find the same agent for both books. Do you agree? Or at least see if the same agents wants both books.

Author Kelly Moran said...

Awesome post, Emily! I just started the agent hunt, and did my homework with a lot of research. Long road. This is very helpful. I'm in WISRWA with ya. Following you now. I've got all things books over on mine if interested.

EmilyBryan said...

Shirley, I'd say yes, the same agent can handle both genres. And the agent should be able to give you the career advice needed to help you grow in both of them. Or to settle into one specific sub-genre.

Growing a reading audience in more than one genre is a good trick especially since you aren't likely to have much overlap between a Silhouette and a YA. An agent can help you sort that out. I know established authors jump from historical to contemporary to paranormal, but they have a readership that will follow them already. It's a more difficult trick for a newbie.

EmilyBryan said...

Hey Kelly, thanks for stopping by. (and reminding me I need to send in my WisRWA renewal!) And thanks for hitting the Follow button. I appreciate it.

Your blog is terrific!

Kath said...

Thank you so much for this very helpful information, Emily. I will definitely keep all this in mind as I continue my journey.

EmilyBryan said...

Kathryneo, you're right that a writing career is a journey. I learn something every day--about the craft, about relationships, about myself.

Hope your journey is a fulfilling one!

Glynis Peters said...

I have just written about agents and my feeling that it was time to search for one. I had emails and comments to encourage me to finish my novel, and to start on ideas for others, then find one.
I was so wound up about looking, I could not write.

The advice that I received was valuable as it took pressure off of me.I am writing again, will file this fabulous post for future reference and eventually type THE END, then become a stalker. ;0

Beth said...

Thanks for your kind, thoughtful and encouraging words. I hope I can get out of my funk to finish editing and send off my ms soon. It's been a rough summer and I've been at a standstill for two months.

So glad you had your grandmother around for a long, long time. They're often the glue that holds the family together.

EmilyBryan said...


You know, in some ways, it's good to put a little distance between you and your manuscript. If I've been able to lay something aside for even just a couple weeks, I see it with fresh eyes. I catch dropped words. I hear word echoes. I come across things that make me say, "Dang! That's good! Who wrote this?" and things that make me say, "Pew! This is awful! Who wrote this?" But the point is, I'm detached enough to judge my writing's worth.

And frankly, there are few things better than losing yourself in your story for a while. Give yourself permission to get lost.

Sending cyber-hugs.