FINDING, AND TRUSTING, AN AGENT
BY CHIP MACGREGOR
Someone wrote to say, “I heard an agent speak at our writing group. He sounded interesting, so I went to his website, which is interesting but I wasn’t sure I could trust it. You have to contract with them for a year and pay an up-front fee of $195, though it’s not clear if that is per project for for all your works. Is that the usual course?“
Yikes. Several thoughts come to mind . . .
First, don’t go to any agent that asks for an up-front fee. That screams rip-off. I don’t know of any credible literary agent who asks you to send him or her a check right off the bat. You can’t be a member of AAR by charging fees, and you’ll get listed in “Predators and Editors” if you do. Stay away from fee-based agents. (And if you’re interested in this topic, I highly recommend the book Ten Percent of Nothing, which offers a fine expose’ of scam agents.)
Second, you don’t want to sign up with an agent you know nothing about. Websites are marketing tools, and some of them over-promise when in reality the agent will under-deliver. I can claim anything I want on my website (that I’m the best agent in history, that I’ll make you a million dollars, that I look exactly like Brad Pitt), but if we don’t know each other, and if we’ve never met, HOW IN THE WORLD DO YOU KNOW WHAT TO BELIEVE? Be cautious over sites that over-promise. (For the record, I look exactly like Brad Pitt. Especially if you stand far away. And squint. And are blind.)
Third, be wary of agents trolling for business by sending you advertisements. It’s one thing to meet someone at a conference, or to begin a dialogue over a submission you’ve sent in — most of the authors we represent we met somewhere and had a discussion with, or they were introduced to us by current authors we represent. I think that’s true of most agents. What you’re describing is akin to a lawyer chasing ambulances. Sorry to sound negative, but this sounds like a scam.
As a follow-up, someone else wrote to say, “I have heard the best way to contact agents is to attend conferences. I’ve also heard it is possible to schedule a meeting in order to have the agent look at your material at a conference. Is that true? And if so, how does an author find out about conferences? And how does one go about scheduling an appointment with an agent at a conference?“
That’s true, in my view. There are few venues left for getting a face-to-face meeting with an agent any more, but a writers’ conference is one of the best. And many conferences will simply post meeting schedules, where you can sign up with an agent either before the conference or on the first day of meetings. Usually you’ll come in with your one-sheet or proposal, make a quick pitch, and have about 15 minutes to talk. You can’t totally “sell” them in such a short time (so don’t think you’re going to land an agent at a conference), but you can certainly start a conversation, make a good impression, and begin the process of working together. To find writing conferences in your area, just google “writers conference” or talk to your local bookseller. You can also check out an online writing group or join a writing association such as Romance Writers of America, International Thriller Writers, American Christian Fiction Writers, and the like. I’m a big fan of writing conferences because it puts writers and agents in touch with each other.
And another person wrote and noted, “A publisher requested my manuscript at a conference. They later sent me an evaluative memo with some editor notes and a request that I rewrite it and send it back. Is this worth mentioning in an agent query?”
Sure it is. Understand that many editors will request a proposal at a writers’ conference. Unfortunately, many time they aren’t really “requests.” They are more “resigns” — as in, “The editor was resigned to saying yes to every author who showed them a proposal.” That’s because the bulk of editors, while exceptionally nice people who know their jobs, are also big weenies. They hate looking you in the eye and saying “no, that doesn’t fit us” or “no, this isn’t ready” or “no, did you stop taking your medication?” Consequently, I’ll often hear authors tell me an editor requested a proposal, when in actuality the editor did nothing more than agree to look at it later, so as to reject it later, by letter, thus saving himself from having to tell the author “no” face to face. (Okay, I’m exaggerating. A bit.) However, if the editor has taken the time to review your work and make notes, then has suggested you do some revising and re-submit, that shows genuine interest. So yes, I’d tell a prospective agent that bit of news. I hope that helps.
What questions do you have about agents and agenting?
Sure, Chip. Here’s one I’ve wondered about: do agents within an agency cross over among themselves to work with an author? For example, if you represent an author who is looking for feedback about his social network sites, do you pull in another agent like Amanda, who seems to be your social networking guru (and token Cubs fan)? Or do you each work only with your own authors?
Sure we do, Ron. I’ve found that to be true both at MacGregor Literary and at Alive, where I worked for years. Having multiple people in the company is an advantage. Certainly ANY time I can go to Amanda for marketing help, it’s a big advantage.