Choosing an Agent

I’ve been involved in publishing since 1978, when I took a job as a copy editor for Clearing Magazine in Portland, Oregon. Over the years I have made my living as a writer, editor, publisher, and longtime agent. In a business where many people call themselves “literary agent” but don’t know what they’re doing (and, consequently, don’t last very long), I have become well-known in the industry as a successful, hardworking agent with a pretty good reputation (more evidence of the mercy of God). Feel free to ask around and see what others say. Most people who know me will say I am not an agent evangelist. I’ll be the first one to tell you that not everybody needs an agent—there is that occasional author who understands the business as well as the writing of books. That said, here is one insider’s opinion about agents and agenting…

That depends. I’m not an evangelist for agents, but the simple fact is that publishers are moving toward relying on agents more and more. If you’re not a proven writer, or if you don’t have a completed novel manuscript, you probably don’t need an agent. But then again, you may not be ready for publication. If you won’t allow others to critique your work or can’t take rejection, you definitely don’t need an agent.

If you understand and enjoy both negotiations and the inner workings of publishing contracts, you may not need an agent. (I’m not being facetious…some people like that stuff. They’re probably off their medication.) Finally, if you feel like you are “losing” fifteen percent of your writing income, rather than investing it for help with ideas, writing, editing, proposals, negotiations, and ensuring contract compliance, then you aren’t ready for an agent.

When the agent fairy arrives and sprinkles “publishing dust” on you. If you have a dynamite idea and/or proposal, that’ll help. You may want to ask around and talk to experienced authors. Do your friends in publishing believe you should be talking to an agent?

An agent should help you evaluate ideas, including publishing trends. He or she should help you create GREAT proposals, help you know the industry, and tell you the truth. He should get you editing/writing help if you need it, introduce your work to key acquisition people, and sell your proposal. The experienced agent will negotiate a good deal for you by paying special attention to key contract issues while facilitating a partnership with your publisher.

A good agent will also ensure contract compliance, be persistent when you need someone to kick things into gear, and take care of some of the detail work like reading royalty statements and spotting errors (most royalty statements were created by lawyers for whom English is apparently not their first language—they are considered “successful” only when they are totally indecipherable). An agent should also be conversant with marketing/publicist types in order to assist with various aspects of marketing. Finally, your agent should be your biggest fan and encourager. The good agent will assist you with career planning and champion your projects while offering experienced counsel.

Your agent shouldn’t be expected to write your books and proposals for you. Or handle your personal finances. Or be your mom. Again, The MOST IMPORTANT thing a good agent should offer is career guidance. Most of the authors I represent aren’t starting out—they are published authors who have had some success and realized they need help to achieve bigger success.

You can look in any of the “find an agent” books currently on the market. Or meet prospective agents at writer conferences. You can meet them at BEA or at publishing functions such as editor conferences. Send in your materials, ask a friend to introduce you, or simply stop by and introduce yourself. But the key thought is that you should create a good presentation—after all, you are selling yourself. So put together a great cover letter that tells about YOU. Include facts about your previous writing and book sales. Show the agent a great proposal—in fact, have it ready to show to publishers. Be ready to talk about yourself, your books, your ideas, and your platform. An author who shows huge potential for the future is much more apt to link up with an agent.

I was once on an agent panel at a writer’s conference in which everybody was asking all the wrong questions. Having done this job for many years, it’s my view that it takes a new agent at least a year just to figure out exactly what he or she needs to be doing. Some questions to ask the next time you spot an agent in the wild:

  • How long have you been doing this?
  • How many contracts have you negotiated for authors?
  • Whom do you represent? May I have their contact information so I can check your references?
  • Which editorial personnel have you done deals with? May I ask them what they think?
  • What sort of authors and projects do you represent?
  • What do you like to read? (Ask for titles!)
  • Can you give me a book title you sold that you loved?
  • Can you give me a book idea you created and sold?
  • What would you say are your best skills?
  • What’s unique about your agency?
  • What percentage do you earn on a book deal?
  • Are there any hidden fees or charges? Any up-front costs? Do you charge back all your expenses?
  • Have you ever worked in publishing or done any editing or writing? (If the answer is “no,” ask yourself if this agent can give you what you need.)
  • How do you approach career planning?
  • Do you work by yourself?
  • When you have a dynamite proposal that a publisher will fall in love with—the agent can maximize the deal
  • When you don’t know who to go to. The agent should have strong relationships in publishing… an agent lives or dies on his or her ability to work well with people
  • When you are unfamiliar with contracts (they are legal documents that can impact your life for years)
  • When you don’t know what a good deal or a bad deal is
  • When you don’t know how to read a royalty statement
  • When you don’t know how to market your book
  • When you don’t have time on your hands and don’t want to negotiate with the publisher yourself
  • When you already know the people who make publishing decisions, have befriended them, are ready to negotiate with them, and have researched publishing contracts.
  • When you’re not a proven writer. I’ve taken on some unproven writers because I liked an idea or the writing, but understand that I work MUCH harder for an unknown author and get less return than I do for a proven author; that’s why agents prefer to work with proven authors.
  • When you don’t have either a full manuscript, if it’s fiction, or a dynamite proposal and sample chapters, if it’s nonfiction. Without the writing, you’re simply not ready.
  • When you won’t let others critique your work. Criticism is how we get better. If you’re not ready to hear the cold, hard facts, you’re probably not ready to be published.
  • When you’re not ready for rejection. This is a tough business. If you can’t take hearing “no,” or if you can’t take direction, this probably isn’t the business for you.
  • When you feel like you’re giving away 15 percent of your income. The authors I work with don’t resent my percentage; they know I help them earn more than they’d get on their own.
  • When you enjoy selling books and negotiating contracts.

Once you settle on someone, make a commitment to work with him or her long term. A good agent should talk with you about your writing career. My goal is to work with the authors I represent for the next 20 years so we can all retire together and still be friends. That said, always ask the agent you’re considering if he or she relies on a “term” agreement or an “at will” agreement.

I don’t even bring up contracts between myself and authors unless the author asks. Most people are represented on nothing more than a handshake, which has always worked for me. But if an author really wants a written contract, I’ll give them a letter that serves as an at-will agreement. There’s no term—it starts the day we sign it; it ends when we start calling each other names and throwing copies of manuscripts at each other. I’ve talked with too many authors who got locked into really bad term agreements: “I’d like to have you represent me, Chip, but I’m stuck with Mr. Bonehead for the next two years.”

The biggest complaint most represented authors have about their agent is “lack of contact.” That’s why you want a pleasant, likable agent — someone you get along with (love covering a multitude of sins, and all that). To the person who says they haven’t heard from their agent in six months . . . to my way of thinking, that’s terrible. I guess every author is different. Some want to hear from their agent every week. Others are happy connecting twice a year. Talk about your expectations with your agent and make sure you both can live with them. But do remember that most agents are working with lots of authors, so be willing to understand his/her business and adjust your thinking if necessary.

Remember MacGregor’s Law of Agenting: You have to LIKE the person. Make sure you genuinely like the agent you’re talking to. There’s nothing worse that having to do business regularly with people you don’t like, so if you don’t LIKE the individual, don’t hire him. I LIKE the authors I represent. Most are personal friends. I can’t imagine working in my office, having the phone ring, hearing the receptionist say “Mr. Farnsworth is on the phone,” and me going into a spasm of disgust: “Yikes! Farnsworth! I HATE that guy! Tell him I’m not here!” Life is too short. I routinely tell authors I’m not the agent for everyone. My personal style is fairly gentle (believe it or not…I’m not nearly the smart aleck in real life as I appear in print). I’m pretty soft-spoken at meetings, so I’m not the right guy for a writer who wants Mr. Take-Charge.

I always tell would-be agents to (a) only represent people you like, and (b) only represent good writers. I’ve been able to hold to that, and done really well in the business.

That should get you started. Just so you know, there are some WONDERFUL agents out there—people I really respect and admire; people who I wouldn’t mind asking to represent ME. And then there are . . . um . . . some not-quite-so great agents. People who I wouldn’t have represent me. Or you. Or my dog.

So make sure you meet the agent, you like him or her, and are comfortable in the relationship. Have a good idea of what the expectations are on both sides. Above all, you need to TRUST your agent. So while it’s nice to go visit some agent web sites, I think a better system is to ask around about an agent’s reputation—because a good agent’s name will win out. Working with a tried and true agent who knows the ropes will make your transition to representation easy and keep your focus where it needs to be . . . on writing.

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