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Category : Agents
I’ve had several questions about literary agents recently, including…
Some wrote and asked, “I just waited four-and-a-half months for an agent to give me a response to my proposal. Why does this take so long?”
Well, any good agent is busy, so it takes a while to sort through the ever-increasing stack of ideas. We used to get in between 200 and 400 proposals each month, many of them from people I’d never heard of or had any contact with. Many of those we simply delete, since it’s not my job (nor do I feel a moral obligation) to personally coach every wannabe author. The ones with promise we’d review. But there’s no guarantee that I’ll respond to a cold submission. So let’s be clear about one thing: If you just send in a blind query, to an agent you’ve never met nor talked to, you may never hear from that agent. I don’t respond to most unsolicited queries. I have someone look at all of them, and if something strikes us as interesting we might ask for more information, but I don’t have the time or inclination to respond to everyone who wants to write me. On the other hand, I do respond to all projects I ask to see, and try to get back in a couple months.
I’d say the normal response time for most agents is usually in the 6 to 8 week range, and I think it’s fair to say at some times of the year we get busy, and it takes us longer. But it’s not that we’re trying to take a long time — I’ve got people I already represent who need me, and that’s the first priority for any agent. I state clearly on my website that I don’t have the staff required to manage every unsolicited request, since the bulk of my time goes toward my current authors, but I understand
Someone wrote to say, “Authors spend big bucks to attend writers’ conferences and meet agents. Are most agents checked out and invited to participate because they have good reputations?”
I think every conference director wants to offer the best faculty possible. None of them are going to bring in an agent who is a known scam artist. Everybody wants to bring in quality faculty, and a writing conference is generally a good place to meet agents. (In fact, it’s often one of the few places left where you can be face-to-face with literary agents.)
That said, I’ve been on the faculty at more than 100 writing conferences, and on occasion I’ve certainly shared the stage with some agents who don’t know what they’re doing. (And in re-reading that, yes, I realize I sound like an arrogant putz. Sorry.) If you’re going to a conference and planning to meet agents, check them out. Look at their websites, check Preditors & Editors and Writer Beware, talk to editors and authors at the conference. Most importantly, ask questions of the agent. Who do they represent, what types of books have they placed, who have they done deals with, how many deals have they done recently, how long have they been in business, do they charge fees,what is their policy on collecting and distributing funds, what commissions do they earn, etc. (If you look through my previous “agents” posts, you’ll find a number of questions to ask.) Just because a guy shows up at investment seminar doesn’t make him a millionaire, and just because a guy shows up wearing an “agent” badge at a conference doesn’t make him a legitimate agent.
You can still meet good agents at a writing conference, but you need to do your homework to make sure you meet someone who is a potential fit for you and your work.
And someone asked, “If I meet an agent, is it
Several questions have come in lately regarding relationships with agents…
One person asked, “Is it okay to take a proposal that you previously submitted to an agent, rework it to resolve the problems, then resubmit to them, explaining that you took their advice to heart and made the changes they suggested?
It depends on the agent and the situation. Here’s how I approach it… If I see potential in your writing, but I’m not crazy about the particular proposal I’m looking at, I may say to you, “This has potential, but it also has problems. Here’s what I’d suggest you do in order to improve it. Try this, this, and this. Then you’re welcome to send it back to me for another look.” I don’t do that often, but occasionally I’ll see talent in a writer and that causes me to want to work with them a bit more. Other times I’ll just say to an author, “You have talent, but this story isn’t working. Why don’t you write something else, then resubmit.” (I do this even less frequently.) If an agent invites an author to resubmit, that means the agent sees something they like in the author’s work — so by all means follow up, do the reshaping, and resubmit.
The same person wrote this: “I had an agent send me a letter, but he didn’t really decline my project. He just said it’s not a fit for his agency. What does that mean? Should I reshape it and try again?”
It means he’s declining the chance to represent you. I receive hundreds of proposals. Sometimes it’s clear the author just isn’t ready. The writing is weak or the story is bad. In those cases, I just decline. I’ll usually say we’re declining without giving a reason. Why? Because it’s not my job to fix all the bad writers in the world. Unless they’re paying me to do an
While on an agent’s panel at ACFW in September, I sat next to Lee Hough, one of the smartest and hardest working agents in the business. While we all fielded the typical questions we get as panelists, someone asked a question about the current state of affairs in publishing, and how agents are faring.
I tend to take a positive, entrepreneurial, and philosophical approach when answering questions about the challenges of publishing.
Lee, however, hit the mark when he said “It’s like the wild, wild west out there right now.” His summation about the new landscape of publishing has really stuck with me. In fact, it’s a new constant on the landscape of my daily work life these days — right alongside MacGregor Literary’s long-standing company philosophy that “good is always better than fast.”
As positive as I try to remain, I’ll admit, it’s felt exceptionally difficult to place books and find homes for authors these past few months. Even with the successes I’ve enjoyed this year in spite of it all, it feels like I’m on more uneven ground than ever. And I know agents aren’t the only ones who feel this way.
Marketers are constantly scrambling to orient themselves to what it takes to get readers to buy in a noisy online environment. Sales teams are faced with succeeding in spite of the literal crumbling of their brick & mortar customer base. Publicists are being asked to do more with less. Editors are overworked. Authors are no longer just invited by publishers to help market their books, but are expected to do so. In fact more and more, the strength of an author’s proposal is weighed as much for the type and number of readers they bring to the table as it is for the quality of their writing. Maybe more.
Top that off with the consideration that authors are not only competing with other authors for
A prospective author wrote me a note and asked, “What is the main reason you choose to accept or reject an author?”
An interesting question. The “rejection” part is easy: Most of the people whose projects I reject are NOT turned down because I don’t like them, or because they’re unknowns, or even because I dislike their ideas. Most authors are turned down because they can’t write. Simple as that. Not all, of course. I just saw a very good nonfiction idea, but I’m already trying to sell a similar project and felt it would be unfair to take on something so similar. And with the advent of so many good writing resources, I’m often seeing novels that are well-done, but not of the knock-my-socks-off quality. So a bunch of things I see aren’t bad, but they aren’t great. Or they are 70% done, and they need to be 100% done. I’d say under-writing and under-finishing and under-editing are the reasons so many projects with some merit don’t get picked up. The author gets started, but can’t get finished — or perhaps he or she doesn’t know now to finish. That’s why having a critique group or writing partner can help offer you perspective on your work. Another set of eyes can really make a difference on a manuscript.
Still, I do get sent some really crummy stuff. Bad ideas. Projects where the author doesn’t speak English. Proposals written in crayon (presumably because the wardens won’t let them play with anything sharp). I hesitate sharing some of them, since I’m always afraid I’m going to really tick off someone who sent me an idea they thought was brilliant, and I found laugh-out-loud bad. But…
A while back I got in a proposal for a book called “How to Make Out With Chicks.” The author was apparently thirteen, or at least stopped growing emotionally and intellectually at thirteen. (From the tenor
Rita wrote to say, "I've been offered a contract on my novel. Since I don't have an agent, should I seek one at this point? And if the agent accepts, should he or she still receive 15% of the deal, even if they didn't market my book or secure the deal for me? Would it be better to have the agent simply review the contract for a fee?"
There's quite a debate about this issue. I suppose many agents would say, "Sure — call me!" They'd be happy to get 15% for a deal they've done no work on. But my advice would be to think long term. Is there an agent you like and trust — someone you want to work with in the long term? If so, call him or her. Talk about the situation. They may be willing to take less in order to work with you. They may review the contract for a fee. If, for example, you've got a $10,000 advance coming, make sure it's worth the $1500 to have the agent assist with this contract. (It may be worth it — a complex situation, or a novel that is going to be made into a movie, or a potential bestseller probably call for a good agent to get involved). That said, it doesn't really seem fair to me to take the full comission for a book I didn't sell, though not everyone in the industry agrees with me. You can always talk with a contract-review specialist, who will review your contract for a flat fee (usually somewhere in the $300 range). You can also talk with an intellectual property rights attorney, but be careful — they're generally paid by the increment (anywhere from a six-minute to a 15-minute increment), and their goal is to keep the clock moving. The longer it takes them, the more they are paid. I know of at least one
Amy wrote to ask, "In your opinion, does a beginning writer need an agent?"
It depends on the writer. There are some authors who are well connected in the industry, don't mind dealing with contracts and negotiations, understand career direction, and can survive without an agent. But in my view, it's rare to do those things well while maintaining a writing career. I used to tell people that I'm not an evangelist for agents, and over the past 15 years or so I've tried to maintain a balance — I haven't always believed that every writer needs an agent in order to succeed. But I'm now changing my tune. Most publishers require you to have an agent or they won't look at your material. Things have changed significantly in the past few years, so that publishers are moving toward relying on agents to be the first line, reviewing proposals and weeding out the chaff. Working with an agent professionalizes the relationship — an agent is not as emotionally tied to a work as an author, so he or she can be more dispassionate about discussing a project, and the agent is going to be more familiar with the business of contracts, so ostensibly things will move along better for both sides. I recognize that some have said the future is in self-publishing, so that means authors won't need agents. I think that's completely wrong-headed. If you're going to be responsible for your book, you should think about working with someone who knows what they're doing and can help you. Think of the way realtors have changed the home buying market: You can still sell your home by owner, but it's gotten considerably more complex to do so. You've got to know the market, understand how to show your home, know how to get the word out, feel comfortable negotiating a price, and perhaps most importantly, understand how to fill out the
Clarice wrote to ask, "When is it appropriate to inquire on the status of a submission to an editor or agent? I sent something in to an agent four months ago, but have yet to hear."
Keep in mind that every agent has his or her own system. I try to get to submissions once a week, but sometimes I go three or four weeks between looking. And that's just for a quick look — if I like something, I have to read it through, and that means I could have it for a month or two before I can give the author a firm response. In my experience, most agents would like to have two or three months to consider a proposal before they render a "yes" or "no." During busy times (like Christmas, summer vacation, and stints at rehab), it may take longer. So if you sent a project to an agent four months ago, and she hasn't responded to you, it might be very appropriate just to drop a friendly note — something like, "Hello, I'm just checking back with you on that proposal I sent you a few months back. I was wondering if you've had a chance to look it over yet. I know you're busy, so thanks very much for giving it your consideration."
On a related note, Hank wrote to complain that an agent hadn't responded to his proposal in a year… but when I checked with Hank, he noted that he'd never met the agent, nor had he queried via email or letter. In other words, he had just sent in a proposal cold. And that leads me to ask,"Where is it written that an agent must respond to you just because you wrote to him or her?"
Answer: It isn't. An agent isn't obligated to respond to everyone who writes him or her. I've got a
Elizabeth wrote to ask, "Can you tell me the basics of how to get an agent, when to get an agent, and how the agent relationship works?"
I have responded to this basic question in the past, so let me repeat some of my old ideas…
First, remember I’m a literary agent, so I'm either "experienced" or "biased," depending on your position. I’ve been in the publishing business for more than 20 years, full time as an agent for the last 14 or so. I made my living as an author and, later, as an editor before I fell away from the Lord and became an agent. I was with one of the top literary agencies in the business for many years, and now I’m out on my own – so I admittedly have my own perspective. Second, I’m pretty successful at what I do, in a business where some people call themselves “agents” but don’t seem to know what they’re doing (and, consequently, don’t last very long), I’m fairly well known in the industry and, by and large, have developed a pretty good reputation (more evidence for the existence of God). Feel free to ask around and see what others say. Third, most people who know me will tell you that I’m not an agent evangelist. I happen to know there are some very good things a literary agent can do for you (no matter what Jon Konrath says), but I’ll be the first one to tell you that not everybody needs an agent. And I’m fairly safe in talking about this because I’ve been saying the same stuff for years. So I’m going to give you my opinion…
When NOT to get an agent:
-When you're not a proven writer. Generally, publishers are looking for great ideas, expressed through great writing, and offered by a person with a great platform. Sometimes they get all three, usually they settle
Tiffany wrote to ask, "What do you think of writing contests? Are they a good idea for beginning novelists?"
Sure. Contests are a good way for beginning writers to get into the swing of writing. It means you have to write and polish, you've got to meet a deadline, and you are going to allow somebody else to evaluate your work. All of those are good steps. And there are a ton of contests that are good — the Genesis contest, the Writer's Digest Writing Competition, the James Jones First Novel contest. Many universities, magazines, and conferences have their own contests as well — check the most recent edition of Writer's Market or one of the various Writer's Market Guides for up-to-date information. Contests are a great way to gain some needed experience.
Keep in mind that a contest isn't generally a judge of actual talent — it's a competition between the writers who have chosen to participate. So if a bunch of weak writers all send in their manuscripts, then the winner might not be all that spectacular. But it doesn't hurt to tell a prospective agent or editor that you won a "New Writers Award" or the "Short Prose Competition." Publishers love seeing their authors win awards.
Holly wrote to say, "I have a non-fiction book contract and an agent who only represents non-fiction. Since I also want to write fiction, do I need another agent? Is there a way to leverage my current situation to increase my odds of getting a good publisher for my novel?"
Some agents only represent non-fiction projects (and some only fiction projects, or children's projects, or whatever). So yes, the possibility exists that you may need a different agent for your novel. If you're happy with your NF agent and getting good service from him or her, then I'd simply approach the agent and say, "I'm planning to write a