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Category : Agents
So after reading over my previous posts on agent/author relationships, i created the list below, and suggested authors think about what they might want in an agent. For example, while working in my doctoral program back in the 80’s at the University of Oregon (Go Ducks!), I had a Graduate Teaching Fellowship and spent a couple years as an assistant director in the Career Planning and Placement Office. My focus was on helping students graduating in the arts figure out their career plan. So I’ve got strengths in the area of career planning and management for writers and artists that a lot of folks don’t have. But there are plenty of things I’m NOT strong at, and I may or may not be a fit for a particular author. Each agent has experience (writing, editing, negotiations, production, contracts, etc) that he or she brings to bear as an agent. Knowing what you need or what you’re looking for
Okay, with that as a starting point, here’s a checklist of things I think a literary agent needs to know…
- Recognize What Makes Great Writing
- Understands the Role of a Literary Agent
- Know how to Locate/Recognize New Clients
- Learn to Evaluate Submissions and Know How to Say “No” Politely
- Know How to Say “Yes” to Good Writers
- Understand the Wording in Agency Agreements
- Be Able to Assist with Creating a Strong Proposal
- Recognize the Balance Between Writing, Idea, and Platform
- Understand the Core of What Makes Great Fiction
- Be Able to Explain the Nonfiction Template of “Problem & Solution” or “Question & Answer”
- Know How to Sell a Book
- Working with Writers: Know how to help them Create the Plan
- Working with Writers: Be able to Get Authors Focused
- Working with Writers: Help Authors Clarify Platforms, Purpose, and Perspective on their Careers
- Working with Writers: Develop Career Plans
- Working with Writers: Assist with the Writing Calendar
- Working with Writers: Help them Clarify
Someone wrote to ask, “Can you tell me what a good author/agent relationship should look like?”
I can try. Keep in mind that there’s no “perfect agent style” that suits everyone. One writer needs an agent who is a strong editor-and-story-idea person, another writer needs an agent who is a contracts-and-negotiation person, and a third writer needs an agent who is counselor-and-chief-supporter. It’s why I always encourage authors to think carefully about what they need in a literary agent. I consider myself a good agent, having done this job for a longtime, contracted a lot of books, and developed a good track record of success. But I’ll be the first to say I’m not the agent for everybody. My style doesn’t fit every author, nor can I provide everything each author needs. So sometimes I’ll meet a writer whose work I like, but we’ll both feel the vibe is wrong. We have to get along personally as well as professionally. Other times the author has expectations I know I can’t meet (such as wanting me to edit their entire manuscript). So finding a “good” agent is like finding a “good” friend — what works for you might not work for your neighbor.
A good author/agent relationship is usually one in which expectations are clear, and the agent helps the author succeed in those areas they’ve decided to focus on. It might be story development, or editing and fine-tuning a manuscript, or support and encouragement, or career management, or contract advice, or… the list is as varied as authors want to make it. If you don’t really know what you need, you’ll find yourself just going toward someone you like, or someone your friends like.
Keep in mind that most working literary agents come from one of four backgrounds. They are either (1) a former editor, so they have strong words skills, or (2) a former writer, so they understand
Someone asked, “What’s the first thing you look for in a proposal?”
Voice. I’m a sucker for great voice in a writer. If I see great voice, I’m almost always willing to take the next step with an author.
Another wrote to ask, “As an agent, do you ever ‘go after’ an author? I mean, do you see a person you think has good book potential, then try to track them down?”
Very rarely. I mean, it happens occasionally, but not often. I was in the air on September 11, had to make an emergency landing, saw first-hand the things going on in the air and at airports, and was emotionally impacted by the events of that day. So a couple days later, when Patti and I were watching the President speak, we saw him introduce the very poised Lisa Beamer. I turned to Patti and said, “She could do a great book.” So I started trying to connect with her, spoke to her pastor about how to handle media requests, and put her in touch with a publicist to help her manage all the people approaching her. Eventually Lisa and I met at her home, talked things through, and started shaping a book. I brought in Kenny Abraham, who did a fabulous job working with Lisa on her manuscript. That book hit #1 on the New York Times list, and was the bestselling nonfiction book of the year. So, yeah, having an agent seek out an individual can happen… but not often. People with the platform of a Lisa Beamer don’t show up every day. Besides, most agents are seeing pretty good proposals on a regular basis, so there isn’t much of a need to chase anyone down.
Someone noted, “It seems like agents either sell manuscripts or screenplays. Is it too much to ask one agent to do both? If I decide to write a screenplay, do I
An author wrote me to say, “Many publishing houses will not accept manuscripts from un-agented authors, but many good agents will not accept manuscripts from unpublished authors. How then do I solicit an agent?”
This is the common conundrum faced by beginning writers. You can’t get a publishing deal unless you have an agent, but you can’t get an agent unless you have had a publishing deal. My response? You’re screwed. But that’s the writer’s life.
The best way to find an agent is still to approach the problem professionally. First, write a great manuscript. Next, do some research. Find out who represents the sort of thing you write. Try to figure out a way to meet and talk, if at all possible. Go to a conference or two and try to meet the agents you’ve discovered. See if you have a mutual friend who can arrange an introduction. Write to them and ask them to take a look at your work. Be persistent, but not a pest. And be professional. Every agent I know is interested in seeing a great manuscript, even from a new writer. It’s true that it’s harder for a newbie to get started, but that’s true in any field — it’s hard for a new musician to get bookings, or a new painter to get into galleries, or a new life insurance salesman to land clients.
So one word about new authors: Make sure you’re really good. You see, the majority of stuff I see from newer authors isn’t turned down because the writer is new; it’s turned down because the writing isn’t all that great. I see proposals all the time that are about 60% done, and they’re asking me to consider it before it’s ready. Don’t assume you’re a genius just because your mom (or spouse, or best friend, or priest) told you so. Get some professional opinions, listen to others, and become
Someone wrote to ask this: “I read that new authors should not bother submitting to agents. One famous author’s blog claims that a beginning writer doesn’t really want an agent, since most (if not all) of the money paid on a book will go to the agent. Would you say that is true or false?”
False. Unquestionably false. Most new authors don’t have the experience or the relationships to get their work in front of editors, so they have a hard time selling their words. Most will find that a good agent will help you get your work ready to show, then get it in front of the right people (and if it doesn’t sell, offer advice on how to self-publish it successfully). And an agent is going to be paid 15% of the deal — the other 85% is going to be paid to the author. That should always be true. I’m thinking you might have misunderstood what that famous author was saying on his or her blog.
One note: There are some fake “book doctors/agents” who charge fees to offer editorial assistance, ask for a check to have a career planning meeting, even charge something extra to take your proposal out to publishers. (I know of one author who spent $35,000 for this sort of “help.”) If the agent is charging you fees, chances are it’s a scam. Walk away.
Someone else asked, “Are agents willing to look at manuscripts if they come recommended by authors they already represent?”
Almost every agent is willing to look at the manuscripts that come recommended by current clients. Just make sure the established author has really read your work and is willing to say, “I genuinely think this new writer has talent.” All of us get some projects sent to us from people who are owed a favor. And I’m always ready to look at friends of my current
Continuing with questions people have about agents, someone wrote to say this: “I received different advice about my manuscript from my agent than I received from an editing service I hired. What’s the best approach to take when you get different advice from trusted sources?”
Here at MacGregor Literary, we always rely on divine guidance. I toss the Urim and Thummim, read sheep entrails, and — Voila! God reveals the answer. So I’m never wrong. However, for those not as spiritual as me, you might want to assume that even good people can disagree. I mean, there’s no one right way to write a book. So take the time to think things over, and move ahead slowly with the decision that feels right.
You know, many agent have editorial experience, and are good at talking through your ideas. Other agents may not have a lot of editorial experience, so the advice they’re giving you may be just to try and sound smart. What’s your experience with the agent? In the same way, in-house editors have the best interests of the publisher at heart. (That’s not a criticism, by the way. I’m just saying they’ll want to make your book fit their line.) Or, if it’s a freelancer, he or she may have a particular way they like to spin a manuscript. And it’s no secret that some editorial services are using unpublished authors at editors, who may not really have the experience or wisdom needed to assist you. So ask some questions. If you’re going to work with your agent long-term, talk it through with him or her. Make sure you understand what the different sources are saying. And remember this bit of Scottish wisdom: “Good is always better than fast.” Don’t be in a hurry to get something decided.
Another author wrote to say, “I terminated my agent’s contract after he apologized for being hard to reach and told
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