the right agent, the right author

Let’s say you wrote an excellent query.
And sent it to an agent.
And the agent liked it and asked for a submission.
And then the agent calls and offers representation.
You accept.
Regrefully, some while later, you discover you and the agent are not a good match after all.
And it’s really no one’s fault – no one has been unprofessional.
You just aren’t meant to be together.
Hopefully this is a minority situation but there are enough stories told to suggest it’s not uncommon.

The question is — could you have figured that out beforehand? And how would you go about doing that?

I do a workshop about choosing the agent who is right for you, based on a variety of qualities (level of editorial feedback, size of the agency, etc.). At the last conference I attended it got wildly differing responses (the conference in question actually provides anonymous attendee commentary, which I found really interesting as I’d never seen those feedback sheets at previous conferences). Several people really liked it and said it got them thinking. Which is what it’s designed to do. Words like “helpful, informative, great” were applied. But at least one person found it “lacking direction” and not useful. I’m not entirely sure why they had that reaction. Maybe they were just having a bad day. Or maybe they had different expectations based on the description I gave for the program.

Expectations. It should be a four letter word. Sometimes I think it’s behind many of the situations in the above sceneario, where either the author or the agent doesn’t make clear what they want out of the relationship. Or one of them wants things that aren’t realistic within the contraints of publishing. And somehow none of this seems to come out in that part of the story that happens between an offer of representation and the acceptance thereof.

Or maybe there are other things that contribute. As an agent, I find my evaluation is based largely, and necessarily, on the manuscript. Which is at it should be since that is what will also be the project to sell. But how much can be assessed from the small amount of correspondence and the one, maybe two, phone calls that occur before representation is offered about the person behind the writing? Or, phrased another way, when you apply for a job, how do you know you’re a good fit for the company environment?

What’s it look like from the author side? What do you think you need or want to know before you sign up with an agent in order to avoid this potential pitfall?

69 responses to “the right agent, the right author

  1. I must be reading this from inexperience.
    I haven’t had the need to seek an agent. But when I do it will be initially for the business side. So, I really don’t see why if everything on the business of it works why isn’t it overall working? Personality conflicts?
    This post thread will be enlightening to watch, I’m thinking.

    • You’d think it would be that easy, but somehow it isn’t.
      And for philosophical purposes, please define “everything on the business side working” (because I don’t even think my entire client list would agree on that either).

      • Again, this is undoubtedly tinted by my inexperience. But from your break-down above, it appears that the agent-author business arrangement worked out. Perhaps it would have been better said, “why if it appears that the business side is working” instead of that “everything” I slipped in there.
        As an agent you get my book into doors that would be closed to me normally. So, for me, I’d want you for your track record and the business side. And if the personalities work, then heck, icing on the cake!

        • I would argue that “the business side” and “the personality side” can’t be separated as easily as you make it sound here. An agent’s personality comes through in his or her style of conducting business (as it would in any business), and your professional goals and aspirations as a writer spring from your personality. Issues like the amount of editing done by the agent, amount of time spent on your book vs. other clients’ books, and your vision for your career vs. the agent’s vision for it (and willingness to work with you to achieve it) seem to fall somewhere in the gray area — and could potentially be points of contention if you differ too greatly in your views.

          • Thank you! That’s exactly the kinds of things I’m wondering about. Now to just figure out how to quantify them and ways to figure them out without being able to meet the people involved. That’s where I’m stymied.

            • Hmmmmmmm.
              Questions that I, in my near-total inexperience, think of are:
              • How much editing does the author expect / want? (I’m currently paring down my behemoth because of an agent who got about 50 pages in, and pointed out exactly where some of my weaknesses are, and why the blighted thing’s too long. I’m not sure if I can implement the suggestions, but at least I’m pointed in the right direction and not, well, flailing.)
              • How well does the agent grok the material — such that suggestions are not received with, “…you entirely miss the point of my work” but instead get a, “Oh, crud, how did I miss that! Thank you!”
              • How much communication does the author expect? Daily, weekly, monthly, yearly… And in what form? A quick email? A long phone call? A detailed letter? A Powerpoint slide in Quicktime?
              • How much effort does the author expect (versus how much the agent can provide, versus how much any agent could humanly provide)? There is a wide range between “I stick it in a drawer and try to remember to mention it to editors” and “…you want me to be talking to movie directors every day? Whut?”
              • Can the agent stand the author going all bouncy and enthusiastic at random intervals in email? *beth looks shiftyeyed* Or does this puppylike display cause the agent to avoid the author, and thus not do the best job marketing the work (for the subconscious knows an actual sale would require, ugh, dealing with puppyslobber…)? I’m not sure that I can properly imagine the other way around, where a laconic author might not mesh with an effusive agent; I’d think many agents’d be too busy to poing at any one author.
              That’s top-of-my-head things that might cause personal agent-author distress…

          • Well, honestly, I’d argue pretty much the same. There would have to be some basic compatibility between the outlooks of anyone involved together in any endeavor. However, I would think here that there was a connection from the get go, or it wouldn’t have reached as far as it did. If it is an editing issue, well, is it wrong me to feel, on a personal level, that it is MY job to have my book as clean as possible before trying to market it? I want the agent to sell the thing, not spend two years working with me to get it to a saleable level. I should have this pretty much accomplished before even seeking an agent.
            (I realize this is a “ideal” world scenario, but still. For me, it’s a gimme.)
            Also, career views are important. However, I cannot see how important they can be when you are looking to get that first novel out there. Perhaps this would be more an issue once you break into the field.
            Yes, I understand about how personality fits in. And all this is a personal view — I am know as an easy-going sort of fellow, and I get along with a wide range of personalities. If I had a query out to Ms. Jackson and she liked it enough to ask for the manuscript, I’d be wanting to fly it out in person! If edits would be needed, I’d say I’ll have them done yesterday, boss! and if she would have views about my writing career, I’d be the acolyte at her feet listening.
            However, this could well be different for the next person.

            • “Also, career views are important. However, I cannot see how important they can be when you are looking to get that first novel out there. Perhaps this would be more an issue once you break into the field.”
              Well, there’s a reason right there why you might decide an agent isn’t the right fit later on. I’m sure many writers at the beginning of their careers are willing to overlook or ignore a lot of incompatibilities in the interest of getting their foot in the door. That may be fine for getting the first book out, but might not work so well in the long run.

              • Conceded point. I know that I wouldn’t want a first novel out that I might be embarrassed of later in my writing career.
                And, in this perspective, I can see why viewpoints can differ. But for me, I can go right back to what I said before. IMO, the agent is the best source of guidance here. I’ve seen a few people over time shoot themselves in the foot by not listening, and not just in genre writing.
                I guess getting your foot in the door is one thing, just don’t get it shot off by letting it go to your head.

                • I’m not sure an embarrassing first novel has anything to do with it. But if my first brilliant novel is urban fantasy with a kick-ass heroine and my agent and I connect on that book, but later I start leaning towards hard sci-fi with a militaristic edge, my agent may not be as interested/versed in that literary direction and we start to disconnect — not through any professional failing on either of our parts but because we no longer ‘click’.

                  • Thanks for the illustration. I’m (slowly) getting the picture. It is not that agents cover genre in general, but are broken down into more specialized areas. Sorta like DAW Fantasy as compared with Baen MilSF.
                    I’m thinking that the “general” coverage would be agencies instead of independent agents. An agency would have agents specialized in sub-genre placement, right?
                    I can see where where issues could arise if the author begins to drift away from the catagory the agent specializes in.

                    • I don’t think agents are as specialized as you might think — for instance, my list covers military science fiction, urban fantasy, high fantasy, dark fantasy, romantic suspense, category romance, cozy mystery, thrillers, young adult… So, while some agencies may have agents that concentrate more in one area than another, that’s not always the case. In fact, among the agents, I know, that’s rarely the case.

                  • Losing the Magic
                    This is kind of what happened to me and my second agent! I write contemporary erotic romance and wanted to branch out. Don’t get me wrong, I love what I write but I also love cake–that doesn’t mean I want to eat it every day.
                    Anyway we went four rounds over a paranormal romance project that she ultimately said no to. Then she said no to a futuristic project because I said no to more sex.
                    Obviously I wanted to go in directions that she didn’t agree with. And when I sat down and interviewed agent #3 it was much easier to say, “This is what I want to write, this is where I want to ultimately be. Are you down with that?”
                    FWIW I’d still recommend #2 to anyone–we just ended up being a bad fit and I honestly believe that’s something we couldn’t have known ahead of time. *shrug* or maybe I’m wrong, but I think sometimes it really IS just trial and error.

            • personalities
              The thing is, the personality that you describe yourself having is not necessarily what every agent wants! Some would LOVE that, but others not so much. That’s why you have to match personalities as opposed to saying “this is business and only business and I’m only going to treat this like a business” and I think that’s what Jennifer is getting at. Some agents love developing writers, some hate it. So which author are you and how do you know what the agent is from one or two phone calls? Some come across as very hands-on, but when it comes down to it, they want a finished manuscript and nothing less. If you give them less, they submit it and say sorry when it doesn’t sell.
              I talk to my agent regularly, but I know writers who are perfectly happy to only talk to their agent when there’s a deal to be made and they can’t chit chat comfortably with their agent but that’s the way they both want it. If you put me with their agent or vice versa, then the match is off.
              While a business relationship can be strictly business in some capacities, like with your lawyer or accountant, writing is PERSONAL…thus PERSONALITY matters.

              • Re: personalities
                I guess the key point here is, “So which author are you…” in that balance in seeking the agent. Perhaps this is something that can only be discovered in contact, although it clearly didn’t completely work out in this situation.
                Hummm…lots to mull over while I get a novel written and get ready for the agent hunt…

    • Knowing that you only want an agent for the business side – not to help you become a better writer or to brainstorm ideas with you and give you career guidance – puts you ahead of many of us, but… what’s ‘working’ in your terms? Getting a book contract? Getting maximum money? Getting less money but a better promotion budget and a more enthusiastic editor? A long-term strategy? I can see any number of ways in which a writer/agent relationship would be seen to be ok from the outside – and not work in particular. And why one writer might be over the moon with an agent while another – who also got a good book deal through them – is not happy.

  2. I haven’t started the agent search yet, so a big thing for me, when I get to that point, is knowing the agent is patient and willing to talk through the processes we’d encounter as a team. (ie willing to answer all the stooopid questions that newbies think up). Granted, the author should be doing her homework, but there will still be a lot she’ll need to be taught along the way.
    Editorial feedback – would definitely want this in a future agent.
    Other obvious things – Are the author and agent hot on the same genre, do they agree on the book’s potential, do they communicate well, or is there a steady stream of misunderstandings even before the contract is signed.
    I don’t even know if it’s appropriate to ask, but I’d want to know what the agent sees in my book, what publishers would be a potential fit, what the preferred work style is.
    Sandra

  3. I just signed with an agent and it was massively important to me that we sort-of ‘clicked’ on the phone. I know – as you point out – it’s incredibly hard to figure that out from a couple of phone calls, but still… I trust my intuition on this, and after chatting about all sorts of things – as well as business, of course – I knew she was someone I’d love to work with. That sense of ‘connection’ was crucial to me – here was someone I wouldn’t be afraid to approach and talk to.
    It wouldn’t have mattered if I could tick all the things on my list of questions in terms of ‘business’/publishing and my manuscript and future work… If that connection had been missing I wouldn’t have accepted.
    Oh, and it’s so important to write down all your questions beforehand. It sounds obvious, but the amount of times I hear of people not doing it…

  4. I’m not sure you can know the match between agent and writer won’t work beforehand until you try it. Dunno.
    I look for the same things I hope a good agent looks for in me: professionalism and dedication both on a personal and a professional level.

  5. I know someone who was in a mis-match relationship.
    The author told me that the agent in question was concentrating on the ‘big list’ writers–which, for that agent, might be good business, but doesn’t help the newer authors very much. As I consider this author brilliant, I have to think it’s a shame that they ever got together (and it also makes me leary of picking cavalierly).
    Beyond looking at the client list, I think word of mouth is probably the best way to determine a fit. However, the editorial end of it? I’ve never really heard anyone talk about that too much. I’ll have to listen more closely now…
    Thanks for bringing it up (as I am currently participating in the above process.) It’s something I need to give more consideration.

  6. Beggars/Choosers?
    From the author side, one interestingly complicated element must be: What are the odds of my getting another agent? as well as, or let alone, What are the odds of my getting a better agent?
    Sure some authors have some flexibility (contract terms permitting). But it seems presumptuous for beginning authors to imagine that fresh agents are just dangling on the vine, waiting to be plucked, y’know?

    • Re: Beggars/Choosers?
      I take your point… but there’s that saying: “A bad agent is worse than no agent at all.” And I guess I’m wondering above whether “an agent who is not right for you” falls into a similar category. And how do you tell the type before you get stuck in the relationship? It’s sort of extension on the workshop. Somebody mentioned “clicking” above, which is another abstract aspect. How do you convey this to an audience that wants to understand it? The peculiar reverse power dynamic (the author is hiring the agent, but the agent gets to be the picker and chooser) seems to make it even more challenging.

      • Re: Beggars/Choosers?
        I think it’s a bet from both ends of the author/agent transaction.
        I’ve seen advice to authors which says, “Be sure you ask the following questions before you accept a business relationship with a potential agent: [list of questions].” And I’ve seen many agents who say they want to know as much as possible about potential clients. All of this makes sense, especially as a way of ensuring the “click.”
        But jeez… I know agents must think of looking for the perfect client as hunting for a slightly straighter needle in a field of bent ones. For authors looking for the perfect agent, it feels a little more like hunting for a needle in the vastness of interstellar space. 🙂
        You’re absolutely right on target about the reverse power dynamic.

      • Re: Beggars/Choosers?
        I know I’m leaving lots of comments here as I read the others’, but this topic is near and dear to me. This is how you find out…research. Yes, I know, everyone is out there researching who’s taking queries, what they’re looking for, etc. But have you, the writer, asked the agent who is reading your full for a list of books they’ve sold that you can read? Did you actually read them? Did you check the acknowledgments to see how the writer gushed about their agent (or didn’t)? Have you scanned their author’s websites for the things they’ve said about their agents (mine has lots of great stuff about how I love my agent)? Have you read a book and thought, “Wow! Any agent who would sell this would love me, so I’ll query them?” This is how I approached it my second time (the first was much more general) and I do not believe it was luck that I ended up with my current agent. While he was reading my full, I was finding out everything I could about him. I didn’t “just know”. I KNEW we were a match because I’d done the legwork.

    • Re: Beggars/Choosers?
      It’s all a relative business, of course, but it appears that for most people if they have one agent interested (particularly if they have a book published) they can interest several others. The people I know who have changed agents for ‘not for me’ reasons (and who are professional about it) seem to have found the second agent relatively quickly – they’re professional, they know what they’re looking for, they have a track record.
      Sticking with a relationship because you’re afraid you won’t find better is always a bad idea. Once you know it’s not working, you’re better off getting out. If you *know* you’re not a good fit, do you trust that you remain your current agent’s priority and that they will invest a lot of time and effort to get you the best conditions they can negotiate for?
      Even if they mean well, my feeling would be that they will not.

  7. Initially, I would like to *find* an agent who would work with me. That seems to be a big limiter. 🙂 But, I also have a good idea of what feedback/responses I need and about how much maintenance I need as a writer (if using my prior publishing experience as a guideline). So, knowing if an agent can handle my specific interaction requirements would be good/nice.
    I do like professionalism, but for me, its responses. With my first book, I would get responses weeks or months later from the publisher, which make it more frustrating. I don’t send frequent emails and I’m pretty self-sufficient, but when I do have questions or answers, I like reasonable time to response.

  8. In the spirit of full disclosure I am a freelance editor having formerly worked for Del Rey Books and my husband is a published author of stuff so some of this is from my experience having dealt with agents as an editor and some of it is from dealing with a lot of authors.
    For me I want an agent that has a good reputation and sales record within the genre I want to publish in. Fiction agents can be very hard pressed to place a non-fiction book. I don’t want to be the manuscript that the agent first presents to the editors within a genre esp. if it is a limited as to the number of.
    Who an agent has worked with previously can be very important to me and how the relationship with that editor was. And believe me that sort of thing whispers around the industry as to who will work with whom and which agents proposals tend to sit longer because the editor just dreads dealing with them.
    I want an agent that will go to bat for me when needed. They need to be able (or their assistant) to keep up when payments are due. Authors need money too and if the agent doesn’t follow up on late payments then the bills don’t get paid on time.
    I want an agent to do what they say they are going to do. I have heard too many stories about agents who promise big and talk a good game but their follow-through is pretty lame. Conversely I have a problem with authors who talk better than they can produce.

    • Thanks for this reply. Very interesting. And, of course, since you work within the field that gives you some advantages. The workshop in question tends to be given at writers conferences where I suspect 70-90% of the authors are new and unpublished, or only have a handful of small credits, which doesn’t give them the benefit of things like industry gossip. Frex, telling whether an agent was going to “talk a good game” but not have good follow-through might be tough if you’re not in a position to be plugged in. How do you learn if you’re a new writer? Where do you start?
      I am curious about one thing — what would you do in a situation where (hypothetically) the agent who called to offer representation was a newer agent either (1) recently crossed from the editorial fold, (2) recently left a big agency to go out on their own, or (3) new agent at an agency with a good reputation. I ask because every agent has to start at the beginning when it comes to clients lists and sales histories, which may not at that point be relevant to their ability to sell and build careers.

      • (1) oftentimes that I’ve seen this, the editor joined an established agency, so not problem with me querying this person. They have the contacts themselves, they’ve been in the business, and they work at an established place where they can find guidence.
        (2)if they were sucessfull and still have a list of clients following them, no problem here for me either. It’s when an agent left and all of sudden they have none of their clients that send up the waving red flag
        (3) works the same as the editor. They have guidence there that can help along the way. Then of course, there’s always teh question, “If something happens to you, what happens to me as a client and my material?”
        I’m adding a (4) When the agent is new and is establishing a new agency. I’m more carefull here. Looking at a track record of sales and who they sold to can influence my decision to join them. I know every agent has to start somewhere and a new agent can grow and be the most sought after agent in the market, but I’m more of a cautios person and don’t have the courage to take that leap without a track-record.

      • Speaking for myself, in each of those three cases I don’t think I’d have a problem… as long as they didn’t seem, umm, promiscuously interested in my work. Enthusiasm is great, I can’t think of an attribute (including experience) which I’d value more. But too much enthusiasm might translate as too little discernment.

      • Honestly, I would start by asking authors I meet and admire if they would tell me who their agent is. I knew quite a bit about who was repping whom before I joined editorial because as the time I had a book I wanted to shop around. So I used conventions to network with the authors. From there I would do some research about the agency itself.
        Locus (if you are trying to sell SF or Fantasy) is a good resource for this since they have that great section about who sold what to whom. Publishers Weekly was something else I would look at because there is a lot of information for what was bought and sold and who is repping whom. I tend to stay away from the strictly writing magazine and look at the industry rags for information. It gives you a feel for who is out there.
        I am not adversed to working with a new agent. Heck some of my first purchases as an editor was from an editor who had become an agent. People who come from the large agencies I have some trust in because at least they know how the game is played. As to a new agent at an agency, at least there I know that they have the support system to make a good of it.
        I am leery of people who just hang their shingle out there and call themselves agents because they know people in the industry (supposedly). I know plenty of people in the industry but my grasp of contract law is rudimentary at best and contracts is something an agent should either know or have someone with the legal expertise since that is such a big part of being an agent. More so since some of these really weird contracts where the author is signing over all rights and their first born to see a book published (ie TokyoPop)

      • FWIW
        My current agent falls between 2 and 3. She went out to build her list, but (and?) one of the agents at her former agency glowingly recommended her which really helped tip the scales for me.

  9. Delurking for a moment . . .
    I look for several things in an agent. First, of course, is interest in my work–not just the particular manuscript in question but my work in general. This breaks down into several things, including the agent’s interest in my chosen genres (fantasy, SF, mystery, thriller, literary humor, even horror), his/her interest in helping me develop as a writer and helping me increase my reputation (not at all the same thing, though one hopes they’re related), and interest in keeping pace with my workflow (some agents prefer clients to only do a book a year so they can concentrate on each one fully. I’d prefer one who could handle three books a year, since that’s more in keeping with my writing speed).
    Another big question for me would be attitude toward contracts and advances. I know there are plenty of agents who are cutthroat about getting the most possible on every deal. I’m not good at the money side–one of many reasons for needing an agent–but I believe it’s better to take a little less than the absolute maximum that could be wrung in order to maintain a stronger working relationship. I tend to think that leaving the editors happy with their purchase, and feeling they got a good deal, makes them more eager to promote the project and more eager to work together again in future. The best deal, IMHO, is one that leaves everyone happy–and I would want an agent that agreed with that.
    Another factor for me is accessibility. Not just “can I reach my agent when I need to?” and “Does my agent communicate with me regularly, even if it’s just to say ‘no news yet’?” but also the general question of being approachable and understandable. I’d want an agent I can talk to, one whose comments I can understand and digest without additional clarification, someone I feel understands what I’m trying to do with my work and agrees with it. Someone who is on the same page as I am about writing in general, and my writing in particular.
    I think the best way to know some of those first elements is by looking at the agent’s current client list, bio, want list, etc. But for many of the latter questions the only way is to talk to the agent, preferably in person but at least by email or phone, so that you can get a sense of them–and they can get a sense of you. If both parties are happy with the prospect of working together after a few conversations, cool. Otherwise it’s best for everyone to demur and find someone else.

  10. Tough question.
    The business issues are first. In that vein I’d be looking at the agent’s sales, the nature and reputation of the agency for which she works, the nature and reputation of the clients she represents, etc.
    The rest of what might make a relationship click is very touchy-feely. I’ve tried to get a feel for an agent’s personality/practices/thinking through the lens of their online presence (though this necessarily limits the field of potential agents — as not all are online — and also assumes that an online persona is somewhat indicative of the real-life persona). In particular, I look for enthusiasm for their work (as opposed to some agents who give a kind of world-weary so-it-goesism), professionalism that avoids stodginess, intelligence, a willingness to endure and even smile at the foibles of this business (does the agent mercilessly mock a newbie’s mistake, take umbrage at minor slights, etc. If so, not for me), and a sense of humor (just not a silly one, which annoys me after while :-)).
    FWIW.

    • Good point about learning about them online, but when you consider that there are hundreds of agents listed at agentquery.com and only a dozen or so active agent blogs, what do you do after that? And there are still agencies that don’t even have websites. Or have very minimal ones. So, are there warning signs that can be seen before an author even gets as far as submitting?

      • So, are there warning signs that can be seen before an author even gets as far as submitting?
        Honestly, I have some reservations about submitting to agencies that don’t have a robust web-presence. A web presence has been and is an integral part of my writing life, and while an agent and agency’s job is to sell to a publisher rather than promote represented authors online, I still think someone more interested in and in tune with the internet and the opportunities it presents would be a better fit for me than one that is a technological dinosaur. I’d still submit to those agents and agencies, I suppose, but they would be lower on my list (and I wouldn’t be able to screen them easily using the criteria I mentioned above, so I’d be shooting blind in terms of fit on the non-business side).

        • Honestly, I have some reservations about submitting to agencies that don’t have a robust web-presence. A web presence has been and is an integral part of my writing life, and while an agent and agency’s job is to sell to a publisher rather than promote represented authors online, I still think someone more interested in and in tune with the internet and the opportunities it presents would be a better fit for me than one that is a technological dinosaur.
          I’ll admit that I wish my agency had a more extensive website, but to me, their name, reputation, and effectiveness as an agency were major factors weighing in their favor, and put them toward the top of my list. And my agent makes awesome deals for her client and has a lot of experience and know-how. She DOES communicate extensively via email, so I guess all of those things (plus others) mean more to me personally than the fact the agency’s website is really only a splash page.

      • I was going to echo Paul (except for the newbie stuff, Paul’s a newb, I’m like, old skool ) ) and chime in on exactly what you mentioned there —>being plugged in and tuned in.
        For me it is important for an agency to have a website. Websites are so 1990’s though… so it’s important to me even more that an agent has a blog, and if not their blog that some of their authors do.
        I hate to sound Techno-elitist but, in a big way I am. I’ve never worked in any “official” capacity in the publishing industry yet I know plenty about it from being tuned in and plugged in to authors, publishers, agents etc online…
        I look at the odds of being published abysmal anyway, so why not set my own standards? It doesn’t really affect the odds.
        While the ‘hawt industry gossip,’ and the big deals of the day may still happen at the lunch table, the trends are either spread or (in some cases) born here on the internet.
        If I want to know about an agent I can snag a few blogs and find out if the authors are *somewhat* like me, do they write similar stuff, do they talk about how great their agent is…or not at all (sometimes the silence speaks for itself).
        Agent blogs — and yours is no exception — tend to be a little more neutral toned, and understandably so (unless they are an anonymous agent blog). So while there’s usually an abundance of great guidance, the personality doesn’t necessarily shine through beyond: this is what I’m looking for/would love to see/ not interested in reading your post-apoc-chinese-western-elf-punk.
        I knowingly do a lot more research on the who/what especially when it comes to agents. My reasoning behind it is this: I’m not looking for someone to make one single sale for me; I’m looking for someone who is willing to work with me over the next 20-40 (or hey, longer…) years (ghods willing).

      • And there are still agencies that don’t even have websites. Or have very minimal ones.
        This is SO true! My agency has a website, but it only includes their logo and address, nothing substantive. Fortunately, there were several online interviews with my agent online so that made it easier to do research regarding her tastes, clients, etc.

      • warning signs
        The agent I signed with had a good sales record and is well-known. She did not even have a website, just a placeholder. A year later, she still has a placeholder (and I’m long gone). She did not send out the contract until I’d asked for it twice…eight weeks after the call. She did not respond to my emails. Why did I sign with her? Well, she was AMAZING during “the call”. She stroked my ego, told me my writing was fabulous, talked big numbers…I fell hard even though I had other offers from agents I knew more about…Basically it was just a mistake, but I would say if you have to ask for the contract twice and it still takes eight weeks for no apparent reason…run like hell.

  11. …when you apply for a job, how do you know you’re a good fit for the company environment?
    I think you hit the nail on the head here that it’s a lot like applying for a job, and what many job seekers forget is that the interview is supposed to go both ways.
    In other words, if you call me up about potentially repping me, it’s incumbent on you to also interview you back. Whatever it is that’s important to me, I should be asking. Anything that’s not clear, I should be asking. If the communication at the interview has been two-way, it should be clear to both parties whether it will be a good fit or not.
    As an agent, you can probably encourage writers to do that only by stating outright that you encourage and expect them to do so. You’ll never be able to psychically know what each individual author needs to hear before making a decision, but you can expressly tell them to ask lots of questions and make sure they don’t get off the phone until they have a good sense of who you are.

    • Hmm…. good point. The potential pitfall is the one I used to see from tech support people. They forget that everyone doesn’t know basic things because they’ve been doing them for so long. They assume you know how to boot up the computer, check connections, etc. — Now they all have scripts, which I find endlessly frustrating because I’ve already done everything on them before I called for help. But, I’m sure there’s an agent-author equivalent. Also, in my experience, many authors *don’t* ask questions during that conversation.

      • How about this:
        YOU: “Do you have any questions?”
        AUTHOR: “Ummmm…. no?”
        YOU: “OK, then hang up the phone, think one up, and call me back.”
        ;p

      • I have to be honest…I was so awestruck the week I got both my agent offers…I probably didn’t come across the most lucid on the phone calls. I DID make a list of questions ahead of time, but of course as always happens I thought of additional questions later, so I emailed them to the first agent, and called the second agent again to discuss since I wanted to speak with her again while I was trying to decide between the two.
        I think that a lot of authors make the mistake of not following up the initial phone call with either a more thought-out email or phone call asking questions. It’s perfectly okay to get nervous or intimidated, but this is your career and you should definitely feel comfortable enough to follow up with questions for the potential agent(s) you are considering signing with. They’re not going to bite! 😉

  12. I asked a couple standard questions of the three agents who offered to represent me. They were straight out of Miss Snark, because I was freaking out a little too much to think clearly.
    The one that really made my decision easy was: “What do you expect from me?”
    The agent I signed with had very concrete expectations: a book a year would be good/every nine months would be better. Anti-heroes made a book a harder sell. Stuff like that.
    I was somewhat confident in my ability to tell a story, but I was looking for someone who could set out some hard and fast boundaries for me. There were other considerations, too, but that was the heaviest stone on the scale.
    And it’s been great.

  13. Number one is obviously someone who loves and will be a good and effective advocate for my work.
    It would be nice if we could be friends, but I value efficiency more. A lot more.
    I’m a control freak enough that there is no way I wouldn’t read all my contracts etc before I signed them. At the same time, I need somebody who can handle the business end for me, since I want two careers, writer and something else.

  14. references
    I read in a book that an author should always ask an agent for three references- current clients that the author can “interview” to see what they think of the agent. That sounded SO presumptious to me, esp. as a new author, and hard to believe that other authors would be willing to serve as references. What do you think?

    • Re: references
      I’ve had potential clients ask this in the past, and have tried to arrange things — sometimes my current clients are under deadlines and unavailable, etc. And, of course, the other thing to be aware of is the fact that any references provided for a job will tend to favor parties likely to give a good review (e.g. college professor who always gave you A’s). The same is likely to be true in this situation.

      • Re: references
        And, of course, the other thing to be aware of is the fact that any references provided for a job will tend to favor parties likely to give a good review (e.g. college professor who always gave you A’s). The same is likely to be true in this situation.
        That is true, but in my experience the clients all gave concrete examples of the positives they saw about the agent, so that at least gave me a frame of reference for what to expect from our agent. And, of course, if my experience turned out differently from theirs, that’s a point of reference in itself.

  15. I’m not exactly sure how possible it is to find the “perfect match” before you begin working together. I do agree with what’s been said before about online presence, however. Even if the agent doesn’t blog, how much they decide to list about themselves on agentquery.com or the online writer’s market, their level of specificity, the number of clients they have, the types of clients they seek and are currently representing tells something about the agent’s work ethic, expectations, tastes, and personality.
    After the preliminary search for the cold hard facts on these websites, agent blogs do come in handy. Even if you are being neutral as an online, professional presence, I would have to say that personality does come through in your word choice, sentence structure, tone, etc.. You also tell us what you’re looking for. Your advice columns tell us what your expectations and hopes are in your clients. From there, I think it is up to us to look at ourselves and see if we can live up to that and if we can work right along. In that respect, it is possible to guess at what a working relationship would be like.
    Personally, though, it takes me a little while to warm up to someone enough to be myself and to settle into a comfort level where I feel I can truly get along instead of just going along with the rules of the office, so to speak. I’m not sure, in that aspect, if it is possible to know what a relationship with an agent (or with anyone, for that matter), would be like until a little time is spent working alongside them.

  16. I just read The Career Novelist and it gave me a lot to think about. I want someone who will help me plot my career. I’m working on my first novel, but I have other projects in various stages of completion. I would like an agent who will help me figure out where to go next. When I talk to an agent, I want someone who is not only excited about the manuscript I send them, but asks about other projects. I’m not one of those writers who doesn’t want anyone to touch her baby. Quite the opposite. I’m hoping that the agent has suggestions on things to change.
    I attended a workshop about writing the query letter. It was not only suggested to look at an agent’s client list or the acknowledgment section in books you love, but to write authors and ask them about their agents.
    Questions: Is the workshop you gave during this past weekend’s Craftfest? If so, do you know if it will be one of the ones that Writer’s Digest is putting up at their site? Do you know if Mr. Maass’ is going to be?

  17. not sure I’m there yet…
    When I get to the place where I am ready for an agent I want two things; I want someone who is competent and ethical. While it might be wishful thinking to ask for both of those qualities, I don’t believe it’s too much to ask for.
    Do I think it’s important that a literary agent nurture me or my work? (or do much else beyond selling it.) Not really. That’s my job. (and the job of an editor, which I am most certainly ready for.)

  18. This blog would help anyone who is thinking about querying you. You give a lot of information about what to expect from an agent, and, more specifically, from you. It also gives me a casual glance at your personality, which is one of the most important aspects of any professional relationship. That’s it then, all agents should get blogs!
    The writer/agent relationship seems like any other relationship that can either be great right away, a dismal failure or take time and energy to cultivate. I don’t see any other way to avoid the pitfall besides authors taking it upon themselves to learn the publishing business so they have realistic expectations.

  19. Yes, competent and ethical on the agent’s part is nice. Before I query, I know whether this person has made sales in my genre. Otherwise, why would I query them?
    With 35 years business experience, I’ve worked well with the complete spectrum: the good, the bad, and the ugly. I accommodate my own style to make the relationship work and hold fast when the other party wants to do something incredibly stupid.
    I’d expect I could continue this practice with an agent.
    I can promise that the difficult person won’t be me.

  20. I so wish you were going to the Surrey conference. I would love to take that workshop.
    I’ve had two previous agents, one for my children’s book and one for my thriller. At the time, I was so thrilled to get them I didn’t ask any questions aside from, “Is this a joke?”
    What would I ask now?
    What attracted you to the manuscript?
    How much revision do you think it needs?
    (If they say it’s perfect just the way it is, alarm bells might go off. Even though I plan on careful editing before submitting, I highly doubt it will be perfect. By the same token, if nothing is right then we have another problem.)
    What kind of service do you and your agency offer your clients? (I will have already researched that as much as possible, but I’d like to hear the agent tell me.)
    What do you expect from your clients?
    Where do you think this book will fit in the market?
    I realize agents are very, very busy, but I would like a phone call at some point. I want to hear their voice. I want to get a sense of their personality. I want to see if they have a sense of humor.
    What kind of contact do you want from me and how often? If you don’t tell me you’d like me to check in every _______ I will assume you don’t want me contacting you and I won’t be.
    What kind of progress reports will I get?
    What kind of career can we plan together? I’m in this for the long haul and I want to look down the road to the next project.
    What kind of special treats do you like? No one has room for more useless gadgets, but there is always room for consumables. I’d like to send you something you like when you sell my book. Also, so you can share, how many people in the office? Everyone gets to celebrate.

  21. my two cents
    This happened to me and my first agent. No one was unprofessional, nothing bad happened, we just didn’t match up and it took us a while to discover this. We parted on good terms and I have an agent I love now and who I totally click with very well. It really beat me up when the whole agent thing didn’t work out, but then I found out how many other writers had had this happen to them too. That got me thinking and I wrote an article (purchased for publication, but not published yet) about how to find the “right” agent as opposed to “an agent who wants to rep you.” The article will be in a future SCBWI bulletin, but if you want to see it, Jennifer, just drop me a line and I’ll email it to you privately.
    cheers,
    Joelle
    http://www.joelleanthony.com

  22. This is something I hope that I don’t experience once I start shopping my own manuscript around. But having had a former life in multiple bands, I’ve been in a lot of similarly incompatible situations.

  23. For me this is a difficult topic. I am not at the point of agent searching yet (and am beginning to wonder if I ever will get there), so I have no real information to work from.
    Having never worked with an agent before, how am I to know how much communication I will want? It seems to me most first time authors (based solely on posts and stories) think they don’t want their hand held but, compared to established authors and agent perspectives, they are like new mothers who have a thousand questions and concerns.
    Is it possible for me to know, never having been down that path, how much attention I will want? How can I predict what my preferred communication form will be? I may think I want regular phone calls but later realize I would rather have occasional emails. This could cause problems if the agent is a ‘technophobe’.
    I know the above may not seem like a huge issue, but it is the example I could think of on only one cup of coffee.
    This leads me to the following question as well.
    Do agents ever reassign authors to a different agent in the company/house if there is a match issue (post signing)?
    It seems to me that, if the answer is yes, this would give an advantage to agent to agents who work in a group versus stand alone agents who may not be able to refer the author to someone else.

  24. I’m not ready for an agent yet, but one of the ways I’m trying to safeguard against the situation you describe is by doing my homework now. I’m actively seeking out agents who blog, and information about agents who don’t. If I read a book I like, I try to note who the agent is, and then try to read a few other titles from that agent’s client list. The idea is that if I like an agent based on their blog, and if I have significant taste overlap with an agent, it’s probably a good sign. Of course this isn’t foolproof, but I don’t think it can hurt.

  25. If you can stand yet another comment from someone lacking such a relationship…
    Interviewing with agents at conventions feels like a really bad sitcom combo of speed dating and job interview with the additional pressure of 10-minute time limit AND the power differential you mention (one bazillion would-be hungry authors clamoring for one thousand hungry agents) front-and-center.
    I suck at it. Yes, I need get over myself and practice. But there has GOT to be a better way.
    What I would like from an agent, at this point, is some basic consistency. As an example:
    I’ve heard agents say that we should research agents, including the type of genre they represent. At the same conference, I hear agents say they’re trying to “round out their offerings” so please don’t give them anything too similar genre-wise to what’s already on their client list.
    I’ve seen a list on a website and in the convention brochure say Agent X is looking for N genre, only to have Agent X say, “well, N is okay, but what I really need is Y.”
    Okay, things change, I get that, but skeet really is not my skillset.
    That probably sounds horribly negative, and I don’t mean to be. I would HATE to be an agent at a convention. My god! Let the poor people eat and pee in peace, people!
    But hiring someone from a shark-filled, incredibly understocked pool before you know all of the skills you need that person to have — which is essentially what a newbie author does — is frustrating and unnerving. (And no, I don’t mangle metaphors that badly in my fiction. Honest.)

  26. Late to the party–not so fashionably. However, I do have to say that I think it’s like buying shoes. You try them on, you want comfort as well as style–but what it really boils down to is ‘how does it feel.’
    Writers have to learn to trust their instincts–hell, people do, too, but for writers the survival factor is higher. I think we’re mostly too willing to jump in and say, ‘yes’ — but for me the criteria has become does this give off the right vibe (and don’t I sound just oh so So Cal there).

  27. I look for professionalism, history of sales, author references and an advocate for clear goals for my work and my writing as a career which includes communication-communication-communication! And, in the end, it’s about personal connection — do we ‘click’? (Not as a friend, necessarily, but do we grok the same vibe? That’s important.)
    So at the risk of sounding ridiculously pie-in-the-sky, I have to add something else I didn’t know until I had to think about it: are they savvy technologically (themselves or their agency), i.e. do they understand/represent alternate media, website proficiency, viral marketing, social networking sites, alternative electronic promotion, etc. because in the publishing world where I, the author, am responsible for the bulk of my own book promotion, I need a partner in my corner that can help me get out there.
    And you are undoubtedly still the “something pretty awesome” authors look for!

  28. I signed with a top-notch agent from a top-notch agency. But during that initial phone call, my instincts told me we wouldn’t be a good match. She was business-like to the extreme and didn’t seem interested in anything but the ms at hand. The one thing that bothered me the most? She didn’t ask me any questions. Finally, I said, “Do you have any questions for me?”
    But heck, if I’d turned her down, what were the odds another agent would be interested? She did a fine job submitting my book and kept me in the loop. But when the book didn’t sell, she disappeared on me, so I was forced to terminate the contract.

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