This months topic has been one I’ve been studying for five years, have interviewed at least 40 agented authors about, personally interviewed at least fourteen agents, and listened to countless tales of woe from both unpublished and published authors about their agent status. I’ve come to the conclusion that the problem with the agent hunt is unreasonable expectations. In my mind an agent is someone you hire for a specific reason–to keep on top of the publishing industry, to network with editors and publishers, and to negotiate contracts. Nothing more, nothing less. Just as I would hire a contractor to build my house because of his/her expertise, I would not expect that contractor to become my friend or to have dinner with my family. So, I have the same expectation of an agent. But I find I am often in the minority about this.
So, I ask the question? Why do you want an agent? What do you think will happen that is not happening now if you find one? Will you write more because you have an agent? Will you write better because someone is telling you what to write? Will you suddenly gain confidence in yourself, feel vindicated because someone besides you and your mother likes your book? Sadly, I think those are the expectations of many unpublished writers who paper the united states with hundreds of queries. Querying constantly instead of writing the next book.
I think many unpublished writers believe if they get an agent then their manuscript will sell, they will never have to market again, and their weary days of working for no pay or little pay are over. That’s a nice fantasy, but it is as unrealistic as the one about finding the perfect husband, having two children (one girl, one boy), living in the house on Leave It to Beaver street with the white picket fence, comfortably cooking dinner in heels and pearls while the entire family claps at your efforts and rewards you greatly.
This fantasy life is equivalent to the kid who runs away from home with his two best friends (his dog and his teddy bear) because when he finds a new home everything will be better, the new people will understand him and give him the opportunities he so rightly deserves. Okay enough with the metaphors.
An agent cannot make you a better writer, a better editor, or give you confidence. An agent cannot be the one you look to in order to validate that you ARE a writer or that what you write is good. Only you can do that. An agent cannot make a bad manuscript good, point you to the trends, or sell something (no matter how much she personally likes it) that no one is buying.
The reality is that agents, like any other businessman or woman, are highly variable. There is no requirement for a specific educational level, a specific experience background, or even a requirement for specific training to become an agent. All it takes to become a literary agent is to get a business license and let people know you exist. There are a lot of people out there that fall into this first category. I’ve met some of them and it’s scary. I signed with one fifteen years ago and wasted an entire year with my book until I realized I knew more about the publishing business than she did.
Some agents were editors at major houses then left to be an agent. Yes, they probably have some pretty good contacts, but are they good sales people? Are they good negotiators? Other agents were English majors who decided to become agents, and if your lucky they actually interned in a reputable agency before actually hanging out their shingle. But how many contacts do they have? Do they know how to negotiate a great contract? Some agents come from a purely sales background. They know how to close the deal, but do they know what’s best for your career? And yet others ran small businesses (perhaps a bookstore, a small press, or an art gallery). They may have business sense but what do they know about the publishing business?
Any of the above may become great agents or lousy agents. That’s the thing, it’s really hard to know. And putting all your hopes and dreams in the hands of someone you don’t really know and haven’t really researched can be disastrous. Maybe you’ll get lucky, but most people I know who don’t do the research don’t get lucky.
Even the very best known agent could be the worst agent for you. Four years ago, I had a well-known agent who loved my book and had all kinds of ideas about where to send it. I had been recommended to her by another author. The problem is at the same time, she got another new client–someone who’s book was picked up at auction (six figures) and set for bestseller status. In all the negotiation and follow-up for the six figure book, this agent completely forgot I existed, completely forgot my book was out there, didn’t get back to me or the editor who was interested in buying it. The editor left the house and six months later I finally pulled the book. Is this agent still a good agent? Sure. She represents some major best sellers. But she didn’t work for me. I wasn’t a big enough fish for her to spend time on. So, she wasn’t the right agent for me no matter her stellar reputation.
I’m not down on agents at all. In fact, like any business person I hire–I think the right agent is worth her weight in gold and the 15% they take is very reasonable. However, the wrong agent will likely harm your career and, in some cases, I’ve seen it turn a writer off the business for a long time or forever. You CAN sell novels without an agent. You can sell to ebooks, Harlequin, St. Martin’s, Tor, NAL, Tyndale, and most small presses without an agent. I think it’s important to not to put all your eggs in the agent basket. I think it’s important not to wait for an agent to be the only one who sends your manuscripts to editors. I think it’s important for you to query both.
To me an agent is a business partner–someone I hire for her expertise in networking with publishers and for her contract negotiation skills. However, as with any business partner, I don’t ignore that part of the business either. I also keep up to date on contract negotiation and networking just in case she misses something. In turn, she keeps up by reading widely, giving me feedback on my manuscripts, and giving me an honest opinion of their likely sales.
I’ve sold four non-fiction books and one children’s book without an agent and negotiated darn good contracts for them. Am I looking for an agent? Yes? Am I submitting directly to editors myself? Yes. If I get a call for a single-title novel will I find an agent to negotiate my contract? Yes. But it may be only a one-time negotiation. There are several reputable agents who are happy to do that without a commitment on either side.
Do I want an agent for the longer term? Yes, but I’m going to be careful, do lots of research, and only enter into a longer term relationship when I know this is the right one for the long haul. When I know that we both think the same way about the business, that we both support the same goals for my career, that we both understand that I am ultimately responsible for my career and I ultimately make all the decisions about my career. Then I’ll choose.
Unlike the mother in Leave it to Beaver, I’ve been through the marriage ringer. I did finally find the right man and the right relationship for me. But I had to overcome my own unreasonable expectations first, and I had to understand more about marriage and relationships, and I had to be comfortable and confident in my own right and know I could survive well on my own first. I think business relationships are very similar. If you don’t know what you are doing going in, then you are likely to get burned.