Wendy Lawton

Blogger:  Wendy Lawton

Location: Books & Such Central Valley Office

If you frequent agent blogs or follow agents on Twitter you’ll see plenty written about the many ways writers fail. From terrible queries to brash behavior, from craft errors to marketing omissions, from lack of skill to lack of ideas– all have been skewered online. I figured turnabout is fair play. Last week I attended a question and answer session at the Sierra Foothills Christian Writer’s Conference. Several of the questions form the basis for this series of blog posts.

The first four days of this week I’m going to open the curtain to let you see how we fail. Consider it my personal mea culpa. Today and tomorrow I will talk about how we fail those of you who are not yet our clients. Wednesday and Thursday I’ll talk about how we either fail our clients or inadvertently hold them up.  And on Friday, by contrast, I’ll talk about bad agents. (Yes, Virginia, there is such a thing as a bad agent.)

So let’s get started. . .

In a perfect world a literary agent would not only be a talent scout but would help develop that talent. She would spot potential and mentor that fledgling to soaring heights. Unfortunately we live in an imperfect world. Let’s talk about the sad realities.

  • Talent Scout. Here’s where we do the best we can with the time we have. Honestly? I’d have to take a failing grade here. There’s so much talent out there we can’t even begin to scratch the surface. I’ve talked about the broken query system in post after post, but we use queries to see if we spot that combination of brilliant concept, engaging writer and above-average skill. If you think writing a winning query is hard you should try to predict potential success based on a query. In that aforementioned perfect world we’d forget queries altogether and just read the manuscript and meet the writer. But here’s the truth: If we have a full client base we barely have time to look at queries at all, let alone get into the meat of potential project. I hate it! The writer wants to know why we can’t at least give him a little feedback or even an answer to his query. Again, the truth: there is no time.  The upshot is that we miss out on some wonderful books and amazing authors and there’s not a one of us who doesn’t mourn this loss.
  • Talent Developer: I was at the San Francisco Writer’s Conference when a writer pitched her idea to me. The title alone sold me– high concept with enormous commercial possibilities. I took a look at her writing and immediately saw that her skills were no match for the idea. There was no way she could pull it off. In that perfect world I would have taken her on, helping her develop her skills. But when I’m already having to turn away ready-to-publish authors, is it fair to my clients to take on an author who will require that much time to develop? Sadly, that book will probably never be published. Give me a #fail on this one as well.

You can see that I keep defaulting to a lack of time. That’s the sad reality. An agent needs to spend the bulk of her time working for her clients. The more successful clients an agent has, the less time an agent has for those writers who are not yet clients. Here at Books & Such we’ve made a commitment to try to help mentor non-clients by our commitment to daily blogging and by attending writer’s conferences. A writer who follows agent blogs can often get his question answered by asking it in the comment section. And, as he comments, he begins to get his name known as well.

Insider Tip: A writer stands a much better chance with a new agent who is in the process of building a clientele. Here at Books & Such we have a brand new agent, Mary Keeley. She’s got a depth of experience in publishing. In fact I used to pitch client projects to her when she was a nonfiction editor at Tyndale. If you have one of those fabulous projects, you can reach her with a query at [email protected] Put “For Mary Keeley” in the subject line.

We talked about that perfect world. If you were to design your perfect agent, what would he/she be like?

23 Responses

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  1. Nicole says:

    Perfection? Non-existent in the human conundrum. No perfect authors, no perfect publishers, no perfect agents. I would seek integrity and someone who “gets” me, in that my work clicks wthh their desires for the market and they’re willing to look outside the box if necessary for the right publisher.

    How can an agent find more time when there isn’t any? One thing I do view as an essential. Give those who query a specific timeframe in which you will reply. If you don’t want their work, send off a canned email. Anything is better than nothing.

  2. Nikole Hahn says:

    It would be great in a perfect world to have agents that mentor us newbies, but to be fair, we writers have a responsibility, too, in an agent-writer relationship. There are so many books to read out there. I start with the classics. I read history. I read today’s fiction in and out of my genre. I read about the publishing world and learn how to compete. It wouldn’t be such a prize to become “published” if the process were made too easy. LOL.

  3. Lindsay Franklin says:

    Hmmm… my perfect agent… I guess that would be someone who is as excited about my work as I am. I’d also like them to be someone with whom I could see myself being friends. The agent/author relationship is a business relationship and should be treated as such, but it’s still a relationship. I wouldn’t want to work that closely with a person I didn’t really like, no matter how great she was at negotiating contracts.

  4. I think you made it clear that agents are doing the best they can with the time they have. Thats pretty close to perfection. 🙂

    Jacqueline Stefanowicz

  5. Jill Kemerer says:

    I can’t fault agents for not having the time to nurture raw talent. With so many writers–it sometimes seems as if there are millions–trying to get published, it would be impossible to help each promising writer get to a publishable level.

    Plus, writers have access to books on the writing craft, informative agent blogs, author websites, organizations, conferences, and even freelance editors. The sad reality is that I needed a few years of rejections to get my craft to the point it’s at. Frankly, I may need more time to get my writing to a breakthrough level. I’m sure I’m not alone.

    And on another note–welcome, Ms. Keeley! I look forward to reading your future posts.

  6. Jen says:

    There’s good and bad in every profession.
    Agents don’t want to waste their time with writers who haven’t learned their craft. Some are just better at communication. I’ve had great feedback from some agents, encouraging and helpful. I would definitely try them with new projects.

    At the other end, I’ve seen writers get totally cocky when they have an agent interested, and play one agent off against another, so writers aren’t always the good guys.

  7. Bonnie Len says:

    Wendy, don’t be so hard on yourself. It is a sad truth about time and there never being enough of it. That applies to many arenas, including writers–never enough time to do “it all”. I’m forever letting people down. I have a list of stories I want to tell, people I want to mentor, needs I long to fill in my church and on my blog and . . . well as I said there is a list.

    We need to trust that God places us where we need to be when we need to be there–that we will connect with those we should and be okay about the other God encounters that are take place outside our sphere of influence.

    I must say, I’m so thankful I was at the OCW Summer Conference the year you were teaching and the God encounter we had.

    Bless you dear lady.

  8. Would it help to know that we all feel that way about our busy lives? Too much to do and not enough time to do it well. Toss in family and church obligations, and as you said, we must do the best that we can with the time that is given to us. (hmmm, quoting Tolkien, are we?)
    BTW, you were AWESOME at the writers conference – thank you again!

  9. Lynn Dean says:

    I really appreciate this post, Wendy, but I’m pretty sure there’s a lot of good company in the never-enough-time boat. As professionals we do our best to be diligent and efficient, but in the end all you can do is all you can do. You say this blog is one attempt to mentor those you can’t reach one-on-one. I can’t tell you how effective it is! I’ve learned as much here over the years as I have from any other single source.

    My perfect agent, I suppose, would be a team partner–someone with similar ministry goals whose gifts complemented mine.

    And welcome, Mary Keeley! We look forward to hearing from you!

  10. Thanks for sharing so honestly!
    It helps me to know what sorts of things an agent is wrestling with through the whole query process, since I’m only (acutely) aware of the struggles on my own end.

    In the ongoing search for representation, I know one thing I’m hoping to find in an agent is someone willing to look past trends and the genre-lized boxes we tend to write ourselves into. I am interested in writing about a lot of different topics, but it does seem like the expectation is that an author will stick to one genre.

  11. Wendy Lawton says:

    J. M., it’s okay to experiment with different genre while you are learning but eventually you will have to stake your claim. Just think of your favorite author. How would you feel if she wrote a suspense, followed by a romance followed by literary fiction?

    We have so many choices of authors in the market– we want to know what we are going to get from that author. I guess we dream about being a “personality”– that readers will follow us wherever the muse happens to take us but that’s not reality.

    If you are wanting to build a career and a loyal readership you will have to pick the genre for which you’ll become known.

  12. Caroline says:

    I appreciate your insights on the agent side of the querying process. Honestly, by blogging about this as you have, you are helping me (and perhaps other writers out there) to do what we all need to do – get the focus off of ourselves. I am always so nervous about feedback and the wait for replies on queries, yet you have your own struggles and pressures in your position as well. Well done on helping us remember this important point. To truly have a servant’s heart, we need to focus on others. I am thankful you’ve written this post.

    Now, to switch the focus back on us writers (haha)… the perfect agent? One who communicates regularly and is interested in helping me during my writing career (instead of over just one project). One who edits as well as markets the project. Having a few personality or family commonalities would be great as well!

    I’m looking forward to the rest of the posts this week!

  13. Wendy, when all you can do is all you can do, then that’s all you can do. By blogging, speaking, and communicating with writers at conferences you’re helping all of us. I hope you realize how much we appreciate what you and the others at Books and Such do for those of us you don’t represent.

  14. Larry B Gray says:

    Wendy, I find reading agent blogs a great source of insight into this new world I am trying to enter. Between the blogs and also the comments there is a lot of info to be gleaned. Thanks

  15. I agree with those who have commented on the time issue. We all struggle. We all wish we could serve in so many more ways.

    As for an agent relationship, I’d like it to be one of a business partner. I need direction in career choices, understanding contractual agreements, knowing how to deal with the publisher and the many departments involved in producing/marketing my book and planning the next step. That said, in seeing the example of good partnering that my husband experienced in his business, it would also help to have similar goals and personalities that compliment each other. Maybe I’m asking too much?

  16. Hmmm… I’m not sure I’d want a perfect agent because I’m not a perfect writer and I’d be the oddball in the relationship 🙂

    I would want an agent who gets my writing, is honest with me (even the hurting kind of honesty) and sees potential inside of me and makes me live up to it.

  17. Brenda Jackson says:

    Hmm..interesting thing that struck me reading this is that, even if I were an agent and had all the time in the world, I don’t think I’d want to read the full manuscript of all the submissions right off the bat. While I believe there is considerable potential to miss a great book b/c the writer isn’t equally skilled in query writing, it also inherently builds a level of “try harder” for the writer.

    And it wouldn’t matter if I had much time or a little, I’d want to use it wisely.

  18. Nancy Nelson says:

    As a baby “newbie” I so appreciate your insights and your honesty. Though I am not yet in the market for an agent, honesty and a desire to mentor, along with integrity and likeability, are what would draw me to an agent. Since my interest is in non-fiction, I look forward to “meeting” Mary.

  19. I follow the publishing industry’s current problems closely and, being sure that I would never get an agent, I self published my most recent book. I knew from the start that the sales would come from my own efforts at marketing the book, and I have focused on learning the techniques of marketing online. I may try to get an agent for the series of mysteries that I am now writing, but I don’t hold out much hope for all the reasons that Wendy outlines.

    My burning question is: If it’s so hard to get an agent as the only way to get published, why are there so many really bad books in the bookstores?

  20. This was a very interesting post, Wendy. Thanks for sharing!

  21. Mary E Hanks says:

    Thank you for so wonderfully–and honestly– telling the agent’s side of the story. As I read all of the blogs and posts about the market, getting a book published seems impossible. But then I read someone’s debut novel testimony and it lifts my spirits. Thanks for letting us see that as an agent, you would like to be able to help us personally, if you could. Blessings.

  22. Hi, great post! Look forward to the rest. I just want to know if you told the writer that her skills were no match for her idea. Wouldn’t it be good for her to know this? Or is that considered unprofessional to shatter ones dreams like that?

  23. Jill says:

    Because I’ve made all the writer errors above, I’d have to say the perfect agent would have to be forgiving. And vice versa. And in love with my work. And willing to work with me (and vice versa). Thank you for this. Due to the amount of frustration writers feel, it’s refreshing to read posts like this.