Picking at Crumbs? Considerations in Finding the Right Literary Agent

Putting Mo Attitude to Work for You

What you see on this site is an honest reflection of me.  Morgen Rich.  Most of the time, you see a gentle, helpful Morgen, who might even send visitors to other sites because they have content I think is important or that will be of interest to visitors.  You see the writer who thinks she’s lucky to be able to pursue writing as a career.  You see the Morgen who is proud of being a positive and open-minded thinker.  And you see the Morgen who truly wants to nurture other writers.  To that last end, I say, “It’s time for a little Mo Attitude.”

Those who know me personally know that I’ve been wavering for some time about the publishing path that is best for me.  I’ve jumped through the “find an agent, then hope to be published” hoops of traditional publishing (still have queries outstanding).  I’ve investigated self-publishing and becoming an Indie publisher.  I don’t know everything about any of those paths, but I’ve learned a lot, and I’ve formed some impressions.  In this post, I’d like to share some observations and opinions with writers who are choosing the traditional path to publication.

TIME TO FIND A LITERARY AGENT !

Let’s assume you’ve polished your manuscript, pulled together a smashing query and synopsis (and maybe a bio), and established a presence on the Web (blog, social media, etc.).  Now, you have to choose an agent (or multiple agents) to query.  Without being aware of it, writers can make choices that are the equivalent of picking at crumbs instead of eating a healthy slice of agent bread.

This is the point at which writers need to get a little Mo Attitude of their own.  The focus in the traditional publishing industry model has been on writers scrambling for agents because writers outnumber agents.  Agents, of course, have their own scramble to sell books, because there are a lot more publishable books than there are spots for them on publishers’ production schedules.  Recently, an agent sent me a rejection letter that summed up the current market for debut and midlist writers as “narrow.”  That said, writers don’t have to settle for crumbs.  If you’ve written a novel worthy of traditional publication (not passing judgment on other paths, just making a point), you need to have an attitude that reflects your worthiness.  You need to FEEL worthy of being published and FEEL worthy of finding the right agent!

You’re a writer, not a beggar, and YOU are conducting interviews for the position of “MY AGENT.”  You’re looking to hire a business partner for a long-term relationship.  Before you send out a query, you’re the only person in that potential relationship who is doing the interviewing.  You get to conduct the interview in private, without the agent even knowing that you’re interviewing him/her when you do the research necessary to find the right agent for you.  The agent’s response to a query may terminate the interview you’re conducting and not apply for the job if it’s a rejection (Don’t think of it as rejection.  Think of it as weeding out a candidate who isn’t right for the job.  You don’t want to hire an agent who isn’t in love with your work.).  Or the agent may ask to see more of your work and, in so doing, transform a single-sided interview by you into a mutual interview (you are being interviewed in every email exchange and social media post, as well as through the full manuscript you’ll send to the agent, so do NOT forget that!).

Finding the right agent for you and your work is paramount.  Think in terms of a long-term relationship.

  • First and foremost, your career is at stake.  If an agent isn’t interested in guiding you through what can be very murky water, then your career will suffer.  At best, you’ll be left to make decisions that you don’t have time to make without extensive research.  Authors are always in charge of their own careers, but the advice of an agent can be worth gold when it comes to directions, trends, and opportunities in a traditional publishing environment.  Recently, I read about a situation in which an author who had received a contract from a publisher contacted an agent for representation.  The agent declined because s/he didn’t think there was a job left for her to do on that project (no selling, no contract negotiation).  In fairness, I didn’t ask the agent if s/he replied and explained the situation to the author and then asked if he had more work she could take a look at.  However, I find it puzzling that any agent wouldn’t do at least that much.  After all, an author who is being traditionally published has written a book that a publisher bought out of the slush pile (rather than through an agent contact who is familiar with an editor’s “wish list”), and that’s not an easy feat for an author to accomplish.  This author clearly has determination and skill.  Isn’t that what agents are looking for?  Good books and authors serious about their careers?

In this case, however, the author might have stood a better chance at acceptance had he  queried the agent with a new project and made sure to note in the query that he already was contracted directly with a publisher for a previous book (noting projected publication date and publisher, of course).

  • Be proud of your accomplishments and showcase them.
  • Be clear about what you need.  (I don’t know if the author clarified what he was looking for from the agent. Maybe he did have another project in the works and thought it high time to get an agent.  Maybe he thought he could side-step the query process, and, if so, that’s an unrealistic expectation.)

Take note that not all agents feel the way the agent mentioned above did.   Some are happy to take additional steps to learn more about the author who has received a contract offer or has signed a contract directly with a publisher (not something I’d recommend doing without, at minimum, perusal by a lawyer familiar with publishing law).

So, as you begin the process of finding the right agent for your career, you might consider the following:

  • Look for agents who demonstrate (not just saying so on their Web sites) they truly are invested in helping their clients develop and maintain careers, no matter what stage of the career the author is at.  If you’re a debut author, be sure the agent handles debut authors.  Not all do.
  • Read the agent’s social media to get a feel for the agent’s personality, philosophy, and business practices:  Twitter feeds, Facebook pages, blogs, and the Agency website (the last is absolutely required reading for any author seeking an agent!)
  • Read the comments from other authors who have submitted to that agent through QueryTracker.  Was the agent responsive within a reasonable time frame?  (Agents usually list response times on their profiles or Web sites, but not all do.  Don’t expect detailed, helpful feedback when you query.  More on courtesy below.)  Keep in mind that some of what you read may reflect lack of patience or bitterness on the part of rejected authors.  Take what you read with a grain of salt.
  • Look up deals contracted by the agent in Publisher’s Marketplace.  This will tell you the volume of sales an agent is making, but nothing about the sales the agent hasn’t been able to close.  Also keep in mind that some agents are fairly “young in the business,” and, like debut authors, they don’t have much of a track record yet.  That shouldn’t be an automatic disqualifier, though.  Agents rarely step into being full-time agents straight out of college.  Most have interned and worked in the publishing industry in one way or another for a number of years before they became agents.  Do your research on an agent’s background.  At worst, it will help you to learn more about the other party in the long-term relationship you desire and need.
  • Respect and courtesy are necessities in long-term relationships.  I’ve seen agents be publicly dismissive of queriers and/or authors.  I can imagine how frustrating an agent’s job could be, but I cannot imagine what would motivate an agent to show a lack of respect for an author unless the agent has limited (elitist) or no respect for authors.  Personally, seeing an agent demonstrate such a lack of respect would end my private interview of that agent.  I certainly don’t want to be in a long-term relationship with someone who doesn’t respect me and my peers for the work that we do.  And querying is part of that work.

Some agents publicly share their thoughts about and experience with queries, and they do so to help writers improve their querying skills.  In public forums, they make respectful comments like “weak character development, so I’ll pass” or “strong dialogue and pace, so I’ll ask for a full manuscript.” There is absolutely nothing disrespectful or discourteous about sharing this information (they always keep the author’s identity undisclosed) or about the way they share it.

Courtesy shouldn’t be thought of as a commodity to be doled out when someone feels the urge to do so.  When you interact with an agent (or any other person in the publishing or reading community or society at large!), be courteous, for heaven’s sake.  And expect the same.  This is a pet peeve filled with a little Mo Attitude.  If an agent invites query or other kinds of submissions, they are, in essence, saying, “Hey, we’re open for business.  Come on in!”  You are their potential customer, and they should treat you with the same courtesy a shopkeeper would treat a shopper who might become a customer (if not immediately, maybe down the line).  When you’re considering which agent(s) to query, check QueryTracker to see if other authors received replies to their queries.  Agents are very busy people (aren’t we all?).  It’s unrealistic and unfair to expect them to provide a critique in response to queries.  What is not unrealistic or unfair is to expect an answer (yes, no, need to read the manuscript).  We live in a digital age.  Most queries are submitted via e-mail or other online submission methods.  A form letter e-mail rejection is pretty standard.  Beware of agents who don’t show you, the potential client, enough courtesy to paste even so much as a pre-written rejection into an e-mail and hit the reply button.  Those agents may not be ideal candidates to be interviewed for a long-term relationship.  If you’ve followed their submission requirements, you’ve shown courtesy and respect for their time.  Shouldn’t you expect the same in return?  If agents are this rude in the beginning of a potential relationship, how rude will they be once the “newness” of the relationship wears off (i.e., between books)?  You’re in this for the long haul.  Think that way!  Get a little Mo Attitude.

For the record, I am not suggesting that an author who receives a form letter rejection should do anything more than move on.  It’s rude and disrespectful to blast the agent, shoot out an angry e-mail to him/her, or demand more information about why the project was rejected.  Agents don’t deserve to be abused for not choosing to represent you.  They also don’t deserve abuse or owe you further explanation.  Put on your grown-up pants and move past rejection by focusing on the long-term and being professional!  You do not want a long-term relationship with an agent who isn’t passionate about your work.

  • Secondly, you are seeking a business relationship, and the kind of person you’re doing business with can make or break your career. See first bullet point.
  • Do your financial homework.  You may be able to find out through Publisher’s Marketplace and other online resources just how much an agent is garnering in advances for their clients.  If an agent is selling book after book but getting smaller than average advances (don’t blame the agent for industry trends), then maybe that agent isn’t a stellar negotiator but is a fantastic salesperson.  If you’re okay with getting published and paid less than the average (and some debut authors are), see if the agent fits other important criteria in your interview.  If s/he does, then snag the fantastic salesperson for an interview and send out the query post haste!
  • Find out how many authors the agent is handling (and who).  This is important if you want/need a lot of direction from an agent.  An agent with 20 authors on his/her client list will have more time to guide debut authors through the maze of promotion, for instance, than would an agent with 50 debut authors on his/her client list.
  • Find out if the agent has a network for selling foreign/film rights.  This information is usually on the agency’s website, but you can also find it through Publisher’s Marketplace if you search for deals by that agent.  The agent’s name usually comes up in a listing of foreign and film rights sales, even though someone else may have secured the deal on the agent’s behalf.
  • Know what you’re getting for your money.  Commission varies from 15% to 25%, depending on whether an agent handles foreign and film rights, what the agency charges as its standard fee, and other factors.  Always check Editors and Preditors and Author Beware to see if an agent or the agency they work for has been reported for conducting unethical practices, paying late, not providing clear and timely royalty reports/checks, etc.
  • Check association memberships.  Most agents proudly list their association memberships in their bios.  In some cases, an agency will be a member of an association (Association of Author Representatives) or information portal (like Publisher’s Marketplace) because the membership fees are costly.  Think about that.  If your agent doesn’t have a listing in Publisher’s Marketplace, why not?  Is the agent not making enough sales to be able to afford it?  This may not be a deal breaker, but if you get an offer for representation, you might want to ask the agent why s/he isn’t a member of those organizations.

Mo Attitude Wrap-Up

If you’ve decided to take the traditional publishing route, I hope you’ll take steps along the way that are good for your career, including gaining a little Mo Attitude about the process of finding the right agent for you, your career, and your work.  Don’t ever forget that you are in charge of your career, and you need to be proactive and assertive through every phase of it, especially in the beginning stages.  Have a thorough understanding of an agent’s submission requirements.  So doing is your demonstration of courtesy and respect, as it is disrespectful and rude to waste an agent’s time if the agent has clearly stated that s/he doesn’t represent a certain type of work (i.e., children’s picture books or science fiction).  Investigate potential agents, not just their submission requirements, though.  Consider information with a long-term relationship in mind.  Make sure the agent demonstrates respect and courtesy for authors.

Mo Attitude:   Accepting less than reciprocity in professionalism, long-term commitment, courtesy, and respect is picking at crumbs.  Both you and your career will starve!

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