More Agent Basics

Once you've narrowed the field and read up on the submission
requirements of agents of interest, I recommend that you query your top three to five choices simultaneously (life is way too short to do this one at a time) and evaluate their responses. If you receive only form rejections, you may wish to retool the query letter before sending out more submissions. If you receive a request for material, go ahead and send it, but you don't have to mention your other queries unless you're specifically asked for an exclusive.

If the agent requests an exclusive look at your material, it's
reasonable to allow this – if you limit the period. Thirty days is
more than adequate, and if you have more than one agent asking or a time-sensitive project, it's fine to offer a two-week exclusive (or whatever you and the agent mutually agree to).

When you're at the point where you feel an offer is likely, it's time
to ask around to see if you can get authors who are or have been
represented by this agent to comment of his/her working style. If the agent doesn't have a website listing clients, try Google or (Who Reresents is the section you'll need), and try sending polite e-mails explaining the situation to a few of the authors have website/e-mail contact information. If you belong to a writers' organization, you might use its e-mail loop to ask for off-list feedback from anyone who's had dealings with this agent.

Take what you hear with a grain of salt, though, because one author's dream agent is another's nightmare. Authors doing well in their careers are going to be happier than those who are having problems, which often aren't the fault of the agent. Instead, listen for clues about the agent's working style.

I've worked with several different agents over the past dozen years (all well-respected, AAR agents who sell many books), enough to tell you that they vary a great deal. Some are cheerleaders; others are business-like or even abrasive. Some edit their clients' work before it's sent out while others simply decide whether they believe the work is ready or not for submission. Still others, once they've
learned to trust the client, send out her work without even bothering to read it, especially when there's an established relationship with a particular editor.

It's important to remember that different styles suit different
authors. Some love the super-friendly type of agent while others are more comfortable with a "shark" who will shake loose every last dime from the publisher. Many appreciate being a client of a select, one- man/woman "boutique" agency while some would rather be represented by a large agency with lots of supporting players, such as contract departments and affiliated sub-rights agents, who attempt to sell the
work to foreign markets, audio, or the movies. (There are pros and cons to both large and small agencies.)

Another important agent quality has to do with his/her accessibility. Another time, I'll talk more about what it's reasonable to expect from your agent (and what isn't), but communication is key. If you can't reach your agent for days or weeks or longer, small concerns can mushroom into huge problems, so it's good to ask around about how quickly the agent returns calls or e-mails.

Probably the most important attribute to look for is integrity, since the agent usually handles all of the author's earnings. Be especially wary if you hear the agent's not passing through publisher money (less his/her commission) to the author in a timely fashion or if amounts are in dispute. Sadly, there have been cases where an agent's disappeared with client funds, but this is fortunately very rare among reputable, AAR agents.

When you're offered representation, be sure to ask the agent for specifics, including commissions and any other fees, marketing plans for the project, and whether the agency works on a "handshake" or requires a contract. (I've mostly worked with handshake agents, where either player can end the relationship at will, but I think a one-year contract is okay, or an open contract with a 30 to 90-day, at most, opt-out. I wouldn't want to commit myself for longer because no one profits from being stuck in an unhappy agent partnership.) Ask about communication style, frequency, and whether the agent prefers calls or e-mail. Ask about recent sales and about how the
relationship may be terminated if either of you decides it's not working. Take notes as you talk, and listen for the kind of enthusiasm that communicates itself to acquiring editors.

I would also recommend that you ask to see a copy of the agency clause inserted into publishing contracts so you can check its wording (more about this later). If you can contain yourself, tell the agent that you appreciate the offer, but you'd like a day or so to think it over since it's a very important decision. If other agents are looking at the manuscript, you may wish to contact them to gauge their interest before making a final decision. In some cases, you may end up with several choices.(This sounds great but is actually stressful. It's a big decision!)

Once you do accept an agent's offer, be sure to politely contact anyone else who's evaluating your material and respectfully withdraw your query/submission. I can't stress enough that you don't want to leave an agent spending hours or days reading your material only to have them find out someone else has beaten them to it. Agents and editors really hate this, and I can't blame them (no one enjoys having his/her time wasted), so be sure to extend this common courtesy. The industry's a small one, and it never pays to aggravate those you might end up dealing with later.

Later this week: Clauses and Contracts


Suzan Harden said…
Thanks for the insight, Colleen. I know I'm close to needing an agent, but that first step feels like the edge of the Grand Canyon.
It's a lot of work to do it right, Suzan, but connecting with the right agent is well worth the effort.

Thanks for stopping by!

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