Agent Prerequisites?

Wendy Lawton

Blogger: Wendy Lawton

Let’s talk prerequisites. Education requires prerequisites for many classes. Career moves often require prerequisites before climbing the ladder. What about approaching an agent? Are there prerequisites? Let’s look at three often-recommended prerequisites:

1. Before I approach an agent, should I have my book completed? That’s a good question to which there are a number of answers. (a) If you are writing a nonfiction book and have some writing experience, it’s usually unnecessary. Most nonfiction books are sold based on the complete proposal– including a chapter-by-chapter summary–and three chapters. (b) If you are a published author, chances are the agent you’ve pinpointed will read your published work to decide. All she’ll need to see from you is your proposal–including synopsis–and about fifty pages. (c) If you are a much-published novelist, you probably won’t even need your next book synopsis–the agent will already be familiar with your work. Just pick up the phone. (d) If you are a debut novelist, you’ll need to have the proposal, including synopsis, and the complete manuscript.dreamstime_xs_23921527

2. Before I approach an agent should I have my manuscript professionally edited? No. Okay, let me soften that a bit. It depends on how much the editor does. An agent needs to judge your work and your voice. Unless you and the professional editor come as a package deal for every future project, how can the agent tell which part is you and which part is the editor? It’s like having your mom help with your homework. That’s not to say you shouldn’t have other eyes look at your manuscript. Critique groups are great for pointing out gaps in your story or illogical jumps in your reasoning. The difference is, they usually don’t fix it. You solve the problems yourself. That said, some editing services do that very kind of editing for you–pointing out the weak spots and letting you solve the problems yourself. That kind of editing is fine.

But what about copy editing for spelling and grammar? There’s probably nothing inherently wrong with this since the manuscript needs to be near-perfect, but if you’re going to be a writer, isn’t this one of those skills you need to attain yourself?

3. Before I approach an agent, what should I know about that agent? As much as you can. I’d love to see a study done comparing the effectiveness of targeted queries vs. the shotgun approach. I’m guessing that no matter how wide the shotgun scatter, the targeted, individual query nets far better results. These days it’s so easy to research agents. Their websites spell out their distinctives; their likes and dislikes; and highlight many of their projects and clients. You can almost always find submission guidelines on the site as well. Instead of sending out a “dear agent” email, you select the agents with whom you’d most enjoy working. When you query the agent, you do it by name, and you explain why you chose them.

We see far too many queries that are scatter-gunned out there, sometimes by the author and way too often by a supposed agent-find service. One quick look tells us that the writer has no idea what we do or who we are. If, at this honeymoon stage, a writer can’t invest in due diligence and target his queries, why would we think he’d be able to study the market and target his readers? Yes, it takes a huge investment of time. And yes, the process is slow and tortuous, but this is nothing compared to the next steps. Being a working writer is not for the faint of heart.

But here’s the good part: Once you’ve found your agent, she’s made the sale, and you are connecting with your readers, I’m guessing you’ll be the first to raise your hand and confess that it’s all the worth the pain.

Now it’s your turn. What “Before I Approach an Agent” question did I forget to address?

36 Responses

Leave a Reply

  1. Great post, Wendy!
    * I’d add the question, “Am I Ready For Success?”
    * Success in finding an agent means that the writer’s efforts are part of that agent’s rice bowl. Are you, dear writer, ready to accept the responsibility, in part, for someone else’s livelihood?
    * Success as a writer means being willing to address career continuity, a requirement (so they say) for a long-term relationship with an agent. Can you balance the need for a second book that’s even better than the first.against the existing demands on your time?
    * Success as a person means being able to admit what you don’t know, and take direction from a professional…your agent. Can you do that, or will you trip over your ego and thus tangle your agent’s feet as well?
    * Success as a Christian means being able to follow WWJD without distraction. Can you remain loyal to your agent through lean times, after she’s been loyal to you at the beginning of your career? Or will you jump ship to get the best advantage for yourself?

    • Carol Ashby says:

      This is a great list, Andrew! I especially like your rice bowl analogy and the emphasis on loyalty over selfish ambition. It does us all good to remember Paul’s admonition to the Philippians to do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Those are temptations whether a person is “successful” or not.

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      Sorry I’m so late commenting. Tuesdays seem to have become my crazy days. The “rice bowl issue– I confess I don’t really consider that. My decision to represent someone comes instead with an implied burden. Responsibility is a better word. Can I make things happen for this person?

  2. 4. How much control over my book am I willing to hand off to someone else? This is like leaving my child with a babysitter. I choose the sitter carefully, but even so, it’s hard to put any of the responsibility for my baby into someone else’s hands. My sitter won’t be happy if I try to micromange their relationship. And a continual power struggle between me and the sitter won’t bring out the best in the baby.
    *Can I put my baby book in the pram, let go and give the agent charge of its precious cargo? If the agent will have to pray my fingers one by one from the handle bar, that’s gonna be a problem.

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      That’s a real dilemma. You will definitely be creating a team when you sign with an agent. Hopefully your agent already believes in you and your writing.

  3. Dear Sir or Madam: I have completed the definitive steampunk biography of Benjamin Disraeli. It will definitely interest Hollywood. I am going to send you the manuscript, and if you find a publisher for it I will for sure consider having you represent me for future projects!

  4. Jerusha Agen says:

    Thanks for this post, Wendy! I appreciate your take on the freelance edit question. You make a good point that too much editing in that context could wash out the writer’s voice before the agent gets to see it. The task of researching an agent, I’ve found, can be much more difficult than I would have expected. Some agency websites don’t seem to include a client list, and many don’t specify which agent represents which writer at the agency. But I find that agencies like Books and Such, which have a blog regularly written by its agents, can reveal a great deal about the agents. Sometimes I can learn more crucial information about an agent–such as beliefs, personality, knowledge, agenting style and philosophy–than I could from a contract history. I’m thankful that such blogs allow for a writer to make a more informed, targeted query!

  5. Have I connected to writers and agents? I definitely recommend agent blogs like this one to fellow writers, where you’ll make your best friends and gain support and a wealth of knowledge. The wisdom that you all pour into us each week is incredible. The wisdom you gain from fellow writers is incredible. If the door were to open for one, the foundation laid is already beginning to firm, enough to somewhat confidently step one foot inside. The framework of trust is already being raised.

  6. 4. How important is my platform (or lack of) to an agent?
    *These are great questions to consider, Wendy. I hear so much about platform and how important it is. I’d love your take on how important this aspect is for the Books and Such agents when they’re considering a new client.

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      I should write about this, Jeanne. We have differing views at Books & Such. And almost all the editors will say it’s vastly important, but I’ve sold 15 books so far in 2017 and I’d have to say that the majority of those including one very impressive multi-book program came from authors with no platform but a compelling idea.
      For fiction platform is much less important and I’m finding that it’s the ability to connect with people that matters. The quality rather than the quantity.

  7. Perhaps Rudyard Kipling had just this issue in mind when he wrote his best-loved poem, “If” –

    If you can keep your head when all about you
    Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
    If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
    But make allowance for their doubting too;
    If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
    Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
    Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
    And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

    If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
    If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
    If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
    And treat those two impostors just the same;
    If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
    Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
    Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
    And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:

    If you can make one heap of all your winnings
    And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
    And lose, and start again at your beginnings
    And never breathe a word about your loss;
    If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
    To serve your turn long after they are gone,
    And so hold on when there is nothing in you
    Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’

    If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
    Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
    If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
    If all men count with you, but none too much;
    If you can fill the unforgiving minute
    With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
    Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
    And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!

    • Katie Powner says:

      This is one of my favorite poems of all time, thanks Andrew. One part is particularly applicable to the writer: “If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools.” As a writer, can you bear it? This might be another prerequisite for seeking an agent. Can you handle it when your words are criticized, misunderstood, misrepresented…perhaps even twisted by knaves? Because it will happen.

    • Carol Ashby says:

      I LOVE this poem, Andrew, and I see a lot of you in it.

  8. These are great thoughts, Wendy, thank you! Especially as I’ve completed my manuscript (SQUEE!!) and am now in the polishing phase and delving deeper into agent research as I gear up to start pitching in the somewhat near future (though I know polishing will take awhile). Maybe that’s a good question: I’ve heard some author friends say they’re going to focus on polishing those first three chapters first, then work in the rest of it while they’re awaiting agent responses. What are your thoughts on that? Is that an effective use of time? Or do you recommend having the entire manuscript polished before pitching at all?

  9. Good afternoon, Wendy! I truly appreciate these how-to-approach-an-agent posts. Is sending a FB message akin to picking up the phone? I’m not a “much-published novelist,” but my next proposal is just about ready to submit. There are so many different ways to communicate and so many levels of familiarity that it can be tricky to know how best to approach someone.

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      When you are known by name and a relationship has developed– like if an agent knew that your kids are Bible Bee celebrities– you can write directly to them. I’d say most of our blog community “regulars” are welcome to connect in a more significant way.

  10. Wendy, thank you–as always–for giving us thorough answers to our publishing questions. I’ve heard it’s a waste of time for a newbie-nobody to query an agent with a memoir manuscript; apparently an unpublished writer is better off self-publishing it. Any thoughts or suggestions besides: Win a Nobel prize in something first? 🙂 #CuriousCanadian
    Blessings ~ Wendy Mac
    P.S. Amen to Shelli’s comment.

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      I don’t agree. Memoir is about the voice and the style and the meat of the manuscript. It can be hard because only a few memoirs will rise to the top each year and so publishers are careful and choosy but I think I’d say a beautifully written with universal themes but a compelling story would have an equal chance with a mid-level celebrity memoir. A-list celebs have pretty much an open door.
      If Ms. Gaga presented a faith based memoir this week, she’d have us all lining up to represent. 🙂

      • Wendy, this is one time I’m ecstatic to have an agent disagree with something I’ve assumed. Hmm…voice, style, and meat. I’ve got meat in the first chapter when I meet a Mr. Muscles kind-of-guy at a barbecue; however, I’m sure that’s not what you meant. And I don’t have much in common with Ms. Gaga unless you count the chapter where I’m on a stage in front of a large audience with next-to-nothing on (And that’s what it feels like having other writers critique my manuscript–bless their gracious hearts; I need them and love them.) If you haven’t fainted from my stage confession–my daughter almost did–I just want add: Thank you, Wendy; and may Ms. Gaga query you when she’s written a faith-based memoir (I’ll want to read it–A.S.A.P.).

  11. Elaine Faber says:

    Wendy – I follow your blog daily but usually don’t comment. Today is an exception as your comments about seeking an agent before editing our novel surprised me, but were understandable when you explain the reasons. Very interesting concept. One would think that having the book thoroughly edited would be an editor’s choice. Thanks for sharing your wealth of information with us ‘wannabee’ authors. Your wisdom helps us grow.

  12. Great rundown, Wendy. Thank you for sharing. I especially appreciated your thoughts on an edit before submission.

    I heard Rachelle mention that many Amazon-self-pubbed authors go traditional down the road. How does that affect an agent’s decision, and what do they expect to see?

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      Unless you’ve sold a substantial number of copies, say 4 or 5 thousand (which would be a real step up) I think self publishing is generally a neutral. I would have said negative a few years ago but now we’ve seen that it doesn’t necessarily help but it doesn’t hurt.

  13. One question I have pondered as I feel my way through the process of seeking and securing representation is whether a given agent is looking to represent the writer, or the written work. Perhaps this differs from one agent to the next.

    My preference is to contract with one agent, to build a long-term relationship with that agent, perhaps even a good friendship that will span years.

    What say the rest of ye?

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      Good question. There are a number of agents who prefer a book by book relationship and sign you based on the book. Most agents in the CBA are whole career agents. We believe in building from book to book and building careers.

  14. Julie Sunne says:

    I appreciate the insight, Wendy. How about, before I approach an agent, what do I want from this agent? Merely to find a home for my book or to walk with me through my career and development as an author?