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Agent Tales (and Tell-All)

salesman_with_contractAfter the recent ACFW conference, several writer friends posted “praise reports” about having acquired an agent. For traditionalists like me, acquiring an agent is a big deal. Upon completing my first novel back in ’05 /’06, I immediately set out querying agents far and wide. Now, almost a decade later, things have changed, both for the place of agents in the publishing industry and me personally. Frankly, seeing the glee of these newly-agented authors, I can only shake my head and smile knowingly. If they only knew how tenuous and unpredictable the world of author / agent relationships can be.

Please don’t misinterpret this as me downplaying literary agents. Or dissing them. It’s just, the longer I’ve conversed with writers, the more I’ve realized that getting an agent is hardly a slam-dunk for your career. Sure, agents CAN get your book into places you can’t. They can provide sound career advice and, if all goes well, land a lucrative contract for the both of you. However, sometimes agents can be a drag, a source of headaches and perpetual frustration.

I’ve had three significant “agent experiences,” which I’d like to share with you.

The Agent Who Just Didn’t Feel Right. The first literary agent who was ever interested in me was a local, meaning they were in the LA area. I’d sent out queries far and wide, and they requested my full manuscript. A week later, they contacted me about meeting for dinner and offered to represent me. It was my first ever face-to-face with an agent. I was nervous and very excited. Their agency was mid-level, with only one or two “big name” authors. Their spouse attended the dinner and we had a cordial conversation over pasta. Yet something didn’t sit right with me. I didn’t feel like we… clicked.  For a newbie author shopping for agents, turning down offers is a bit of a risk. But that’s what I did — I politely declined representation.

The Agent Who Couldn’t Get My Stuff Sold. After a few more rounds of rejections, I was signed by a well-known CBA agent. They shopped my first novel, mostly in the CBA. It seemed to take forever. Long stretches of nothing, followed by glimmers of hope, soon dashed by rejection. The agent finally admitted the manuscript was not CBA-friendly and had been everywhere. And they had limited ABA connections. Nevertheless, we decided to go there. Surprisingly, a large NY house took interest. After years of nothing, I was elated. The novel went to committee. We held our breath. And… they passed on it. It was a HUGE let-down. Felt like years of work just evaporated. My agent admitted they had exhausted all their connections. We agreed to part ways. Was it me? Was it my agent? Was it my book? Did it matter?

The Agent Who I’m Still Getting to Know. After a month of depression and self-pity, I dragged myself out of the pit and started submitting the book myself. And… I landed a two-book contract. Heh. But I was agent-less. Did that matter? Many would say “no.” But I thought / think it does. Having a two-book contract in hand while shopping for agents doesn’t suck. So I contacted an agent I knew and we agreed to terms. (I wrote in detail about how I got my agent HERE. ) We’ve been together since 2010 and just now things are getting interesting. My two-book contract obligation is fulfilled and I’m on to new projects. Technically, my current agent hasn’t sold anything of mine, which makes these new projects important in light of our relationship. Thus far, I’m very happy with my agent. But in between us now are two books which, I suppose, will play a part in our relationship.

So you see what I mean about the “agent thing” being a bit of a journey. Heck, one of the authors in my writing group is on her fourth agent. Along the way, some agents moved too slow. Some gave her bad editorial advice. And some just didn’t have enough market connections. Point is, there’s a lot of different factors that make an author / agent relationship work.

There should be a handbook for authors and agents. You know, something like:

“Getting to Know Your Agent”

or

“Ten Things Your Authors Need from You.”

From my perspective, most authors aren’t clear about how and when to approach their agents. Conversely, many agents aren’t clear on how they want approached by clients. This often leads to frustrations on both ends. There’s the high-need client who wants to know every detail about every submission and needs consolation after every rejection. Then there’s those who turn over their manuscript, never hear from the agent, and never follow-up because they don’t want to be a bug. Listen,  your agent can’t read your mind. If you have concerns, then tell them. And agents, your clients want to know they and their projects have not been shelved, abandoned, or buried under more “profitable” clients.

Anyway, my encouragement to newly-agented authors is to temper your expectations. Ask your agent what they expect your relationship to look like. Are you free to text them? Can you call them at any time? How much contact is too much? How much contact is not enough? Do you want them to contact you with every rejection? Maybe it’s better to not hear from them until something blips the radar. Pick their brain about the state of the industry. Let them know what you’re doing to grow as a writer and expand your platform. If you feel like you’re slipping through the cracks, tell them. But please, don’t be that client who leeches life and time from an already busy professional who represents a lot of other writers.

So go ahead and celebrate signing with your first agent! Just know that this writing journey can be long and rather treacherous. And, unless you’ve signed in blood, your relationship with an agent will always be evolving.

Do you have any “agent tales”? If you have / had an agent/s, what are some of the things you’ve learned along the way about navigating the relationship?

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{ 14 comments… add one }
  • Shawn Smucker September 23, 2013, 7:42 AM

    Thanks, Mike. Informative post.

  • Kevin Lucia September 23, 2013, 8:00 AM

    I see/hear similar stories like this in the horror market all the time. I have friends who’ve gone through multiple “agents” who’ve done nothing for them, friends who’ve never signed with an agent and done fine – including landing movie deals – and friends who signed with an agent only after a certain point. Right now, I couldn’t imagine dealing with an agent, or even think that one would work all that hard for me, given where I am at the moment. HOWEVER, I’m playing it like you did: when I actually sign to something significant, I’ll probably approach an agent then.

  • Jill September 23, 2013, 8:01 AM

    Someday soon, I’m going to jump back in the game and look for an agent to represent my nonfiction. I’ve never had an agent, so can’t share in the tale exchange. But I might as well put in a little plug for myself in case of roving agents: I’m the non-needy type who always meets deadlines. 🙂 I don’t always like the way the industry works, or how agents operate, but I tend to suck it up when it comes to a business contract that will be mutually beneficial. I could imagine remaining in a bad agent relationship much longer than necessary. Oh, well. Best to you and the books your agent is currently shopping.

  • Kat Heckenbach September 23, 2013, 8:04 AM

    The only agent tales I have involve big fat rejection letters. No, let me correct that–little, puny rejection letters, and more often a lack of rejection letters to go with the rejections.

    Oh, that sounds bitter, doesn’t it? Honestly, I’m not bitter. If I’d gotten an agent, I may have landed a bigger publisher rather than the small press I’m with now, OR I may still be waiting to find a publisher altogether right now. And my experience with the small press has taught me so much, I really don’t think I’d trade that.

    Also, I keep seeing more and more stories like yours, where authors land their own first publishing contracts and THEN find an agent. Or they publish with a small press, and when their sales reach a certain level they can use that as leverage in finding an agent. Anyway, what it seems to boil down to is the idea that agents want to minimize risk. Again–no bitterness. That’s perfectly understandable. Why would they not accept authors that are already proving themselves over authors that are total risks?

    But it’s making me doubt my desire to find an agent. The stuff I said above and the nightmare stories I’ve heard from friends. Which makes me sad. I want so badly to have faith in the system, in the process of agent-to-big-press, but I’m not seeing it. I’m seeing authors with immense talent being passed over, sometimes for years and years, while I pick up book after book by large presses that I can’t even finish. 🙁

    • Kristen Stieffel September 25, 2013, 8:40 AM

      Yep, it sure looks like agents are focusing on writers who’ve already made names for themselves. Which makes me question the value of agents. I mean, if you have to get the contract yourself, why pay an agent a percentage just to negotiate it? I see a big opportunity here for agent types who are willing to work on a flat-fee basis rather than a commission doing contract negotiations for writers like you and me who did the deals ourselves.

  • Jessica E. Thomas September 23, 2013, 8:21 AM

    If I could have one ‘helper’ for my writing career right now, it would be an awesome proofreader who works for free or cheap (cause I can’t afford to pay much). :/ That’s what I need more than anything.

    Can agents proofread?

    • Heather Day Gilbert September 23, 2013, 1:35 PM

      Jessica–some agents are more editorial and some are not. That’s an important distinction to make when you are agent-hunting…not proofreading, but some have some amazing editorial skills that rival publishing houses, so when your MS goes out, it’s super-clean. But you can also just maintain a handful of beta readers/critters who will help you catch those mistakes.

    • Katherine Coble September 23, 2013, 2:27 PM

      Jessica–I’ll do it.

  • C.L. Dyck September 23, 2013, 11:57 AM

    Currently, my reason for seeking an agent is to satisfy submission requirements for contacts I make myself. Because I’m in Canada and working to the USA, I’m primarily concerned about having an accountant and an IP lawyer, so I don’t do things that leave an intangible mess for my kids.

    I had one of those non-click face to face meetings as well. It caused me to swear a solemn vow never to hire without an in-person interview, because I just wouldn’t have known otherwise.

  • Heather Day Gilbert September 23, 2013, 1:41 PM

    Hm. One thing I’ve learned about agents…is that I don’t talk much about my agents. Grin. I have had three. I think each agent comes with a set of skills and contacts. The key is matching up with the right one. I have had two stellar agents and one had a strong editorial bent, the other more of a sales bent. I think as writers, sometimes our needs change mid-career. Another thing to watch for is communication. If the agent doesn’t communicate enough pre-signing, chances are they won’t communicate enough post-signing. And communication is key with ANY agent.

  • Katherine Coble September 23, 2013, 2:53 PM

    I’ve seen a lot of people go into agenting who really aren’t what I would consider to be suited for the job. Brokerage of any type is always perceived as glamorous in some circles when it’s really just largely thankless.

    If you aren’t good at making contacts, working odd hours, working with all different types of people and handling massive stress….DO NOT BECOME AN AGENT.

    Authors: if you are approached by someone who wants to represent you remember that they work for you and only make money if you make money. By the same token, they keep you from other possible opportunities. Be very wary of any agent who:
    –has never worked in traditional publishing in any form prior to becoming an agent. “Failed author repurposing his contacts” does not count as a qualification.
    –has never placed a book with any publishing house other than one or two small presses.

  • Lee September 24, 2013, 7:45 AM

    My agent retired a few months before we planned on taking a five-year project of mine to publishers. She literally had a nervous breakdown because of all the stress she was under! I ended up being able to pursue a relationship with a publisher that had been made under her and inked the deal without her which meant more for me. So it worked out but for a while there I was fit to be tied!

  • Sherry Thompson September 25, 2013, 3:02 PM

    You missed a category: “Ghost Agent” 😀
    I met Holly McClure of Sullivan Maxx at a PhilCon back in Nov 2003.
    She agreed to look at my fantasy novel manuscript, “Seabird”. A couple of months later, June Hegstrom wrote to me, saying that the agency was interested in representing me and that Holly had asked June to serve as my agent.

    I never signed a formal contract. I’m happy to say that I also never sent them a dime. But for almost two years, I considered June to be my agent. Even as a novice, I was dubious about whether anything was being done on my behalf. I was always the one to contact the agency & I never received a viable email address from them. I wrote snail mail letters, sent them copies of the manuscript and occasionally made phone calls to St Simons, GA.

    As time passed, I grew increasingly dubious about the agency as a whole. I searched the web for information. Betty Beamguard’s site indicated that Sullivan Maxx was her agency. We exchanged letters briefly in late 2004 or early 2005 and nothing I heard from BB was particularly reassuring.

    When an opportunity arose to send my manuscript to Henry Holt in March 2005, I contacted June. We discussed the matter for a couple of days by phone and she asked me to send down two new copies of the manuscript with cover letter and other materials required by the publisher. I felt that I was walking -her- through all of the steps of submission. I never heard back from Henry Holt and I now believe they never received the submission.

    June 2005, I had a story published in an anthology. As a little test, I sent a signed copy of the book to June. She never sent a response. I never wrote to her after that. With her silence I concluded I had no representation.

    BettyB sent me a catch-up email in March 2006, “I came across our correspondence that followed your visiting my Web site. Is June still your agent? I ended our working relationship about 6 months ago because she wasn’t sending out my novel or making contact with me. I did it as nicely as possible and am glad I did.”

    I responded, “Thank you for sending me the update. I haven’t heard anything from June since about this time last year. That was because I contacted her. I never even heard from her late last June, when I sent her a signed copy of an anthology…”

    BB responded, “I’m glad I ran across your name. … Holly didn’t ask me to come back when I talked to her that day. Really, it was her responsibility to notify people that June was no longer working for her. …They definitely should have let you know. It’s bad to treat people that way.”

  • Lyn Perry September 25, 2013, 3:56 PM

    The myth of needing an agent, a la Dean Wesley Smith:
    http://www.deanwesleysmith.com/?p=10103

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