The most frequently asked PRO question is “How do I get an agent?” My most frequent answer is, “That’s the wrong question.” The right question is “What kind of career do I want, and what kind of agent can help me get that career, and how do I find her once I know what I need?” (Note: I’m using “she” as a universal pronoun to indicate both male and female. Because it’s my essay, that’s why.) Most beginning writers (and many experienced writers) think that all they have to do is get an agent, any agent, who will sell their books and all their problems will be over. But if they get an agent who only sells their books, their problems are just beginning. A publishing career is not a goal, it’s a journey, a long soul-sucking, self-esteem-destroying ride, and you deserve somebody sitting shotgun who understands your needs and supports you and will not annoy the hell out of you by singing show tunes or losing interest in the middle of the trip. Did you ever see the Indiana Jones grail movie? The one where at the end the villain lunges for the brightest, shiniest cup without thinking things through and ends up a screaming pile of dust?; Keep that image in mind as you begin your agent search.
The Good Agent
A good agent is not a salesperson, a good agent is a player. A good agent gets up in the morning, takes the train into New York, hears an inner whistle in her head and thinks, “Game time.” A good agent loves strategy, loves publishing gossip because it helps her with her strategy, loves publishing in general because it’s the greatest game in the world, and loves, loves, LOVES negotiating. A good agent, in short, sees publishing as a Monopoly game, and while she fully intends to put hotels on Boardwalk and Park Place, she’s also keeping an eye on those railroads and establishing a baseline on Baltic Avenue.
So when a good agent is looking for a client, she’s looking for somebody that will keep her in the game for awhile. She wants somebody she can discuss a career plan with and build a career plan for. She wants to see the long view and the short view, so she can design the most effective strategy because she wants to win. But most of all, she’s looking for somebody whose work she loves. And if she’s good, she doesn’t love everybody as long as they’re published or dismiss anybody because that person isn’t published. In fact, a good agent probably dreams about discovering the unpublished author she can make a star.
But this is about you, not her, about what you need, not what she needs. Which is why you start with a career plan before you go looking for her. An agent cannot help you with your career if you can’t tell her what the sucker looks like. So how do you make a career plan? We did that in the last PRO column two months ago, Jane. How soon we forget. But as a quick and dirty reference:
You determine what kind of books you write, what makes them uniquely yours so that you can talk about them with both clarity and enthusiasm. (This will help her talk about them with clarity and enthusiasm later).
You calculate how long it will take you to write a good book given your writing speed and the demands of your personal life. (Do not give up a personal life to write, it’s bad for your writing.)
You list everything you want from your career, everything you might want to do in the future, your hopes, your dreams, the whole nine yards. Then cross out the inessentials like “Marry Brad Pitt now that he’s free.” A good agent will only fix that up for you if she thinks it’s a good career move. Which it would be. Where was I?
Right, a career plan. Make one and then go looking for the agent who can best make it happen.
You start by asking everybody you know who her agent is or if she knows the name of a good agent or if she has any information about agents. I just had lunch with three friends, all published writers. One of them said, “I’m looking for an agent,” and we couldn’t give her advice fast enough. When we were finished, she had a short list of five really good agents, which is a great place to start. That doesn’t mean she’ll end up with any of them, they might not be right for her, but she will undoubtedly go on to her next lunch and say, “I’m looking for an agent,” and get another set of names to add to the first. If you don’t eat that much lunch with other writers, try looking on the net to find out who reps your favorite authors. Ask your online group, your RWA chapter, the people at the next conference you attend. Do not worry about boring the group; any time three writers gather, mentioning the word “agent” is like dropping chum in the water.
Write down every name you hear that sounds promising and then start researching. (Do not assume that anybody is too big or too successful for you to get. Always aim high. The only thing aiming low leads to is shooting yourself in the foot.)
First, find out who they represent. Look at those authors; are they like you in some way? Same genre, same personality, same goals and dreams? Remember this is not only a business relationship, it is in many ways a partnership. It’s best to have some common ground to meet on.
Find out what authors have left them. This is not a bad thing; all agents lose clients. What you want to know is why the author left. If it was because of a difference in opinion on the writer’s career or because the author felt she needed a new approach to her plan, that’s a professional difference. If it was because the agent was snorting the author’s royalties or because the agent was belittling or browbeating the author, that’s not a professional difference, that’s an agent from hell.
Find out where they work. I like agents who work in New York because they have lunch and go to parties, and a lot of stuff gets bandied about at lunch and parties. Does that mean all good agents live in New York? No. Does that mean all New York agents are good? Are you kidding? It just means that if I were hunting for an agent, that would be a deciding factor for me because I want an agent who’s right there in the center of things.
Once they’ve made the cut on general things, you can get down to specifics. Go to conferences and listen to the agents on your short list. Sometimes listening to them for five minutes on a panel tells you everything you want to know. If there’s a Q&A afterward, have a question for the agent you’re interested in that is general enough to benefit everybody in the audience but specific enough to help you narrow your field. And if you have an agent appointment, have a list of questions.
Which brings me to agent appointments at National. These are much beloved and much feared by authors because it’s their Big Chance to sell their books, a career-defining moment. Except it’s not. Nobody ever sold a book through an agent appointment. Why? Because no agent in her right mind (or editor, for that matter) will agree to take on a book she hasn’t read. Any agent with any experience knows that many good authors cannot pitch a book to save themselves, and many lousy writers are brilliant pitchers. So unless the book an author pitches is something they just don’t represent, they’ll say, “Yes, send me the proposal.” At which point many authors are ecstatic because they think they’re close to getting an agent. And technically they are closer because they’re now sending a requested manuscript, not just flinging it into the slush pile. But chances are the agent has said that to everybody else, too, not because she’s indiscriminate but because she cannot tell if a book is good until she sees the writing.
So the first thing to know about agent appointments is to stop worrying about them because they cannot make or break your career.
The second thing to know about them is that they can be very helpful if you’ve got one with one of the agents on your list because you can use that time to interview her. She’s going to find out a lot more about you from the questions you ask than she will from a nervous pitch about a book she hasn’t seen yet. And you’ll both have a better time which means you might actually get to know something about her.
Someone told me the story of an agent at a past National who sat down in a room full of writers and said that he wasn’t interested in hearing their pitches, they were all invited to send proposals to him, but that he would tell them about his agency and answer any questions they had. The person who told me the story said the people in the appointment were outraged and thought he was being lazy and selfish. These people were wrong: He was being honest and forthright and giving them an excellent opportunity to actually get something useful from what is almost universally acknowledged by insiders to be a complete waste of everybody’s time. He knew the pitch would tell him nothing, so he said, “Just send it to me.” Then with all the time he saved, he offered to tell them anything they wanted to know about publishing in general and his approach to it in particular. He offered them gold, and they complained to the organization so the poor guy is probably now back to listening to the umpteenth version of “The Cowboy Baby’s Bride” being pitched to him by a writer who is so sure that her career in on the line that she’s sweating like a racehorse and trying hard not to cry. Listen, there’s a reason why so many agents refuse to do those appointments: Good agents don’t like making writers cry. Editors, sure; writers, no.
Okay, you’ve spent weeks, maybe months gathering information on your short list of agents. Now you make a chart with the agents’ names on one side and the aspects that you think are important across the top and assign everything a numeric value and tabulate the results . . .
Now you throw it all out. All your notes, all those details, forget ‘em.
Which of the agents you’ve researched did you like? Which one just felt right for you? Maybe she doesn’t work out of New York and that’s important to you, but you know, she just sounded right when she talked on that panel. Maybe she doesn’t represent anybody like you, but in that agent appointment, you trusted her, felt comfortable with her. Those are your first picks.
But what about all that research? Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book, Blink , is a terrific exploration of why the snap decisions we make are often better than the carefully researched decisions. But he points out that those decisions are often made by cutting through the wealth of information we have on a subject; it feels like a split-second decision, but it’s based on accumulated knowledge, some of it things that we’re not even aware we know. He calls it “thin-slicing,” and that’s what you have to do at the end of your research. You’ve made your career plan, you’ve studied how agenting works, you’ve researched agents . . . now ignore all the detail and go with your very well-educated gut.
Pick the one who feels right. If there’s more than one, good for you. If there are some on your list that should feel right, their qualifications are stellar but somehow, uh, not so much, deep six them. This is a decision where instinct counts.
Then query. The best approach is to tell the agent why you’ve chosen her, discussing her excellent taste in authors and her outstanding reputation and being sure to mention any of her clients who referred you specifically, and then follow that up with a brief description of your career so far (awards especially the GH, complete manuscripts, etc.). Include anything in your personal life that is reflected in your writing; that is, if you’re writing medical thrillers and you’re a doctor, that’s a big selling point. Then briefly pitch your current manuscript, making it sounds absolutely wonderful and new, a reflection of your individuality as a writer without making yourself sound like a loon (“a stirring tale of love in the Rockies” is not interesting; “Jane Doe is a mountain whisperer” makes a reader want to know more, even if she doesn’t know what a mountain whisperer is). End with a multitude of ways for her to contact you including the essential SASE (self-addressed stamped envelope). A query is usually answered pretty quickly but feel free to follow up if you haven’t heard back in two weeks, although I would have to take a very long second look at an agent who hadn’t bothered to answer me in two weeks.
If the agent says, “Yes, I’d like to talk more,” sit down and remind yourself again that you are interviewing her. That is, she can decline to take you as a client, but you are not a supplicant. Both of you are trying to find a good match in hopes of setting up a career-long partnership. If she says no, that’s not a setback, that’s a step forward because you’ve discovered that she does not appreciate the magnificence that is you and therefore, she’s not right for the job. It’s the opposite of Groucho Marx’s “I wouldn’t belong to any country club that would have me;” it’s “I don’t want any agent who can’t see how good I am.” That’s not arrogance. It is absolutely essential that your agent love your work.
Then talk to her. Have your career plan at the ready, have the questions you want to ask her before you. Listen carefully to her answers and discuss them with her; this isn’t you grilling her, this is the two of you exploring the possibilities of her implementing your plan. If she disagrees with some part of it, listen to her. Is she saying, “You’re not good enough to get that?” (in which case, you say, “Have a nice day” and hang up). Or is she saying, “Given your career goals, I don’t think that’s a good move” (in which case you say, “Why?” and discuss it with her.) If that sounds like too much work, get over it; this is the most important professional relationship you’ll form and you want to get it right. And any agent who says she doesn’t have the time for that kind of in-depth interviewing before hiring? If she’s too busy to talk about how she’ll guide your career, she’s too busy to represent you.
Then when you’ve found the agent you’re comfortable with, the agent who loves and understands your work, the agent who wants to represent you, hire her.
Yes, I can hear you muttering out there. It’s really difficult to get any agent, and I’m telling you to be picky?
Damn right. No agent at all is ten times better than the wrong agent, and if you don’t believe me, ask any writer who’s ever had to fire one and then rebuild her career from the ashes. When I first decided I wanted to be a writer, I queried nine agents, eight of whom ignored me and the ninth who told me I needed a new printer cartridge. After my first book came out, I queried another agent who told me that my work didn’t interest him. And I would like to thank all ten of them right now. It was a very good thing that it took me five years to find my agent because by the time I found her, I was smart enough about what I wanted from my career to know that she was the perfect person to help me get it, and I was good enough at what I was writing that she wanted to take me on.
So if you can’t get the agent you want, it may be because your writing just isn’t good enough yet, that you’re still learning your craft, finding your voice, exploring your story. The smart writer is not concerned with getting published quickly; she’s concerned with getting published well. And she would rather wait and work another year or two or five to get the career–and agent–she deserves, than throw herself away on an agent who isn’t right for her.
If you only take one thing away from this essay, let it be this: You deserve to be represented by somebody who thinks your books are terrific, to be partnered with somebody who respects and admires you. And the fact that maybe right now you’re a little short of terrific does not mean you settle, it means you keep working until you hit terrific and then you hire that agent who sees how great you are and who can get your writing to the editor who will love it as much as she does.
Your stories deserve no less. And so do you.
Bio: Jenny Crusie has the Perfect Agent, for whom she gives thanks daily.