Thursday, May 15, 2008

Hot Topic - Finding the Right Agent

Now that we've discussed the subject of whether or not a writer needs an agent, that brings us to the next logical question: How do you find the right one for you?

The agent article I wrote for Patty Briggs' site covers the basics of how to go about connecting with agents in the first place, and as soon as I have a link for that I'll post it here. No sense rewriting that whole article when we could just link to it. But I thought that for this blog, I'd take a moment to cover the question of how to determine which agent would be a good match for you.

The first thing you'll want to do when you start shopping for an agent is to look up a bio that tells what the agent represents. You can find agent bios in any good guide to literary agents, such as the Writers Digest "Guide to Literary Agents" for the current year. You should also be able to find this information online at places such as The bio will state which types of books the agent is seeking, as well as which ones he isn't seeking. Often, the writers of books similar to yours will acknowledge their agents in the front of their books, so be sure to check the dedications and acknowledgments sections of these as well. Please, please don't send a query letter for a fantasy novel to an agent who only does literary or cookbooks--or literary cookbooks. Find out whether the agent represents the type of thing you write. If you don't do this simple bit of homework, you'll look like an amateur.

The next thing you'll want to do is search out your chosen agent's track record. You don't have to have a huge list of detail on every specific sale. You mainly need to know whether the agent is considered reputable in the industry. Does he have recorded, legitimate sales? Is she rated as a "recommended" agent? Perhaps one of the best resources to find out whether any given agent is reputable is the site known as "Preditors and Editors." (And yes, they really do spell predators with an "i". Nevertheless, it's good, solid information.)

Once you've established that the agent represents what you write and is reputable, you have other things to consider. For example, does the agent have to be based in New York? Can they really sell books from across the country? The answers here are no, and yes--with a couple of caveats. First of all, having a New York-based agent is fantastic. He or she is poised for easier access, from local phone calls to personal meetings and power lunches with editors. It may not be so easy for a non-local agent to get access. However, the good non-local agents will not let the distance be a barrier to good communication with a publisher. Again, this brings us to the individual agent's track record and sales. Do a little homework to find out whether a prospective non-local agent is reliably selling books for her other clients or not. If she's routinely getting sales, then you probably don't have much to worry about. If, on the other hand, she's just starting out, lives in an obscure place and has no track record, then you might want to be cautious and go for someone at least better known, if not local to NY.

A related concern: Is a brand new agent a good choice for you? Well, that depends. Where did your prospective agent work before she became a literary agent? Did she work in a larger agency and then branch off to hang her own shingle? That's not bad; she's got some experience--maybe a lot of experience. Was he in publishing in another capacity? Some editors decide at some point to go to the other side of the desk and become agents; mine did. Again, lots of contacts possible there, and a lot of experience. Now, if your prospective agent used to sell used cars or work as a waiter before becoming an agent, that doesn't automatically mean he'll make a bad literary agent; it just means that he won't necessarily have the same contacts and clout that a well established agent who has worked in the publishing industry already has. Believe me, when you're a new writer and can't sell books based on your name and track record alone, you'll want as many factors working in your favor as possible.

On that same note: a friend recently pointed out that a new writer shouldn't just take the first agent that offers to represent his novel--not unless that agent is well established and reputable. If you do sign with an agent who has no sales record and little experience, you may do your career more harm than good, unless that agent works for one of the big-name agencies and thus has more experienced agents behind her and a reputable agency name to help get her started off on the right foot. While new agents have to get experience somewhere in order to become established agents, they shouldn't have to do it at your expense, so consider your options carefully.

Speaking of your expense, here's one more consideration for the day: fee-charging agents vs. non-fee-charging agents. Yes, Virginia, some agents actually do charge fees up front. Some of them are even reputable--so please don't think that just because an agent charges a fee, he's automatically bad news. The old-school fee-charging agent would usually charge fees for photocopying and other expenses incurred in sending out submissions--an understandable practice, if you consider that the bulk of the return on his investment of time and effort could take years to arrive. That said, it's also true that nowadays the common wisdom for new writers is never sign with an agent who demands up-front fees to market your work. The way it's supposed to work today is that you sign with an agent who then markets and hopefully sells your work, and then after you have a publisher's contract, the agent collects the check, takes out his or her standard 15% (domestic), or roughly 20% (foreign) share of the advance, and sends the rest to you. The agent will also send out 1099 forms, so it should all go very smoothly. Bottom line: she gets paid when you get paid.

Scam artists: Plenty of writers have been scammed by agents who claimed to need a "reading fee" to cover expenses so they could market an author's work; but after the writers sent in the money, they ended up with no feedback, no publishing contract, and indeed, no representation. In many cases, the so-called agents hadn't even sent out the manuscript at all; they'd charged the author money and done nothing to earn it. These are the false agents who made the original legitimate fee-charging agents look bad. There are scam artists in any field, and publishing is no exception; don't be taken in by one. Check the aforementioned "Preditors and Editors" site to make sure the agent of your dreams is legit and not--like the Pooka of Irish legend--about to take you on a wild, scary ride and then dump you in the mud.

The strongest recommendation I can make is that if you get the chance, go to a writers' conference and meet agents in person. Make appointments with them and put your very best foot forward on what amounts to a literary speed date. It's the best way I've ever found to find out how well you click with a particular agent. I've spoken to some I'm very glad I didn't sign with; we'd have driven each other nuts inside the first six months. I've also spoken to some I admired very much and found articulate, confident and professional. Some very good agents attend conferences to meet new writers. In fact, at a writers' conference a few years ago, I met the man who became my agent and remains my agent today. It's like any job interview; you can meet and hire people via snail mail or over the internet, but if you can meet them in person, it makes a big difference. Another advantage of pitching to an agent at a conference is that it takes out the whole query letter process and skips you straight to the submission stage--always a good thing in the slow-grinding world of publishing.

That's all I have for today. Good hunting.


Willow Goldentree said...

Thank you for this.

KHurley said...

You're welcome; I hope it helps.