How to be an online authority in 1 easy step

Janet Grant

Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant

A few weeks ago I read an article on Writers Digest’s blog about what to consider when selecting an agent. The post was written by a blogger who had received a publishing contract within weeks of shopping his manuscript himself. Yeah, I know, it’s tempting not to like the guy already.

So let’s pause and think about how, even though it seemed easy for him to get a contract, he probabMany People Sharing Opinions Critics Talking Word Opinion Stock Photography - Image: 31864352ly had been slaving away for years to build his blog readership. He had a nice idea and a great title for a nonfiction book based on his blog. In other words, some easily-discernible reasons got him a contract, and he readily found an agent. Now he was writing  to other author wannabes about how to find an agent.

Wait. The guy has what credentials to write about such a topic? Well, he found an agent. But how hard was that when he could wave a publishing contract in front of the agent’s face, and he had a strong online presence? I’m sure, if he’d taken the time to sift through agencies, he could have had a cruise ship of agents interested in him. So we know he isn’t a “normal” writer looking for an agent.

But did he offer some helpful tips?

Here were the criteria he offered:

  • Is the agent looking for new clients? Most agents would say yes to this fellow, but he apparently didn’t know that. All agents are open to new clients; you just have to provide the right profile to pique an agent’s interest, and some are much harder to pique than others.
  • Does the agent represent what you write? That’s a smart way to find the right sort of agent for you. It’s amazing how many queries our office receives every day for material that we specify on our website and in agent directories is not for us.
  • Will the agent negotiate what’s important to you in your contract? Um, this guy wanted to find a literary agent who had the connections to potentially get him a film/TV deal. He mentioned other contractual details that might mean a lot to an author–foreign rights, for example. Wow. These aren’t exactly the heart of the matter, as far as I’m concerned, when you’re considering an agent. The film-thing and foreign rights are flim-flam when it comes to negotiating a good contract. It’s not that they aren’t important; it’s that they are straightforward. No, what you want is an agent who understands this stuff is window-dressing compared the thorny issues of noncompetes and reversion of rights. It’s easy to think about the window display stuff when you’ve never been published before.  What you really want to know is whether this is someone with serious negotiating chops who can take care of your career in areas you don’t even know exist.
  • The blog writer’s fourth criterion was whether he had anything in common with the agent. If, for example, you’re writing a book about WWII, does the agent watch every PBS WWII program? Bingo! You’ve got a match.

To which I reply, what about the stuff that really counts? Like are you comfortable with the person? Is this someone you think you can trust to take care of you when the going gets tough (as opposed to not returning your phone calls)? Sure, it’s nice to have points of commonality with your agent, but this is a business relationship, not a friendship. When you go to a new doctor, do you make your decision based on whether you and the doctor pursue the same recreational activities? You’re looking for a doctor with the skills to take care of you. Same goes for your agent. Obviously you want  someone who shares your values (as opposed to an unethical, game-playing agent) and someone you’re proud to be associated with. But you don’t need a new best friend. (Maybe you do, but…well, you get the point.)

So who appointed this guy to write about finding an agent when he was  pretty much guessing about how to do such a thing? While I have no idea, one lesson I took from reading his post was that I need to not take a blog as being authoritative unless it’s written by an authority. Online everyone has an opinion–and a right to express it–but not everyone is an authority. Check out what credentials bloggers are bringing to the party.

What criteria do you use to determine if someone is an authority or just an opinionated writer?

How do you separate the wheat from the chaff in all the opinions you read everyday online?

What aspects of choosing an agent do you think are weightier than the ones the blogger considered?

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52 Comments

  • Anne Love says:

    Good points Janet.

    Your comment: “What you really want to know is whether this is someone with serious negotiating chops who can take care of your career in areas you don’t even know exist.”–that’s it for me. I need someone who sees what I don’t know and cares enough to steer me in the right direction.

    As to authority? I try to listen to what the experts suggest. Right now I’m working through Michael Hyatt’s Writing a Winning Proposal. He’s been pointed out as an expert. He has a history in the industry, and credentials to match.

    • Excellent criterion, Anne.
      1. Other reliable sources point to him as an expert.
      2. Success in the industry.
      3. Credentials that line up with his offered area of expertise.

  • Sarah Thomas says:

    In those early days I was ready to soak up anything that sounded like advice. Eventually I learned to take everything with a grain of salt until I’d heard it at least three times. Now that’s my rule of thumb in advice and edits. When the third person says it, take it seriously.

  • Exactly. I agree with your advice and the comments above.

    When I first started out writing and blogging, I not only absorbed everything I read I also passed the information along on my blog. I learned as so shall others. Well, let’s hope.

  • Spot on, Janet. When I started blogging about three years ago, I knew I couldn’t blog about writing. My credentials went way back to college, and I couldn’t see why anyone would accept me as an authority in writing when I didn’t have the current publications to back it up. I finally figured out that I might have something to say about being a Christian homeschooling SAHM since I’m in the trenches with six children every day. Once I started with that niche, the blog took off.

    I completely agree with Anne’s assessment above. I recently had a nickel-sized spot of skin cancer removed from my upper back, and, since all of life is potential for a blog post :), I took the opportunity to encourage my blog readers to cover up or use sunblock. One new reader left a lengthy comment telling me that the sun does not cause skin cancer and told me to google “the sun does not cause skin cancer.” (All my regular readers were sympathetic and encouraging.) She asserted that the first few links would be reliable sources. I did just that and found several personal blogs written by people without medical education or training. Apparently, what those bloggers wrote was enough for her, but I choose to believe my Indiana University educated surgical dermatologist as well as my mother’s IU educated dermatologist and the MD dermatologist who treated my biological grandfather. It was a simple battle of the authorities.

    • A FB friend posted a link to encourage people to use coconut oil as a sunblock as opposed to actual sunscreen.
      Yup, >> OIL << as a sunblock. The research was conducted on Pacific Islanders who've used coconut oil for centuries.
      Yeah, uh huh. Okaaay. Those nice people are somewhat more brown than alot of the people who actually use sunscreen.
      My husband calls that kind of stuff "junk science".

      • Exactly, Jennifer! So much of determining who is an authority is just plain common sense. I’m of German and Scandinavian descent and could never tolerate the sun that the Pacific Islanders can.

    • Meghan,

      First, I’m thankful that the spot was found and removed before the cancer spread, and I pray that that is the only experience with cancer you will ever have.

      Secondly, I am glad that your regular readers supported you. It’s a shame that that reader’s only response to your sharing your experience with cancer was to tell you that you didn’t have your facts straight. It makes me wonder what her issues were that she felt it more important to push her agenda than to respond to the human being at the other end of the internet.

      Finally, you mentioned two important qualifications for an expert: an academic degree and current experience in the field. Your dermatologists certainly have more authority than someone who gets her “education” from opinion blogs.

      Blessings of health and joy!

  • Jeanne T says:

    Janet, what a great post. I saw that WD blogpost, but I confess I never read it. I appreciate your insights about what to consider when seeking an agent. I can see where this blogger was coming from in his criteria for an agent, but I think you brought out the more important aspects. As someone above said, having an agent who knows how to help writers establish a long-term career is more important than one who can get a movie deal. I’d much rather have an agent with industry credibility who knows the ins and outs of the publishing industry and how to work within them, and has the wisdom to guide me in the best direction. Okay, that was a very long sentence.

    Thanks for sharing this post. It was very helpful.

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      I suspect the guy who wrote the blog did end up with a capable agent, but it wasn’t because he was measuring the best criteria. I’m sure he felt his back was to the wall, and he needed to find someone fast. Still, a bit more of a studied approach would have been a wiser course.

  • Ooo, interesting discussion here. For me, I look at the position and person’s experience (years in the biz). Someone who has been in the business for a longer amount of time can speak to a broader experience than someone with such a narrow view as this blogger seemed to have.

  • I put more stock in a long-term agent’s idea of how to find an agent than one author’s opinion, merely because each author’s story is different and they may only do it a few times in their publishing careers, while agents do this time and again.

    The term expert seems to be tossed around too easily these days, kind of like endorsements on LinkedIn. I’ve worked in online book promotion for six years; and though I write occasional blog posts on the topic, I still feel social media is changing so much it’s hard to be an expert on that topic. Perhaps you can be an expert on how to use Twitter or Facebook effectively, but online book promotion is such a large animal, I feel it would lay claim that you are an expert in that area.

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Cheryl, I regularly see authors who have published multiple books speak to publishing issues in ways that show their experience is limited to…their own career. Which makes sense. They can only know what they’ve experienced.
      But because everyone recognizes these authors’ names and they’ve had successful writing careers, newer writers think these authors really understand how publishing works.
      An agent, who has been in the biz for the same amount of time that author, will have observed hundreds of careers rise or nosedive. Imagine how much more knowledge that agent has gained.

  • Ahhh, this reminds me of when movie stars or rock stars decided to speak out on political or health issues.
    Let’s pretend I’m at a press conference where someone famous is discussing deforestation in Eastern Canada. I’d ask “So, what are your data sources that you’ve read to indicate the lack of naturally occurring, old growth reforestation in an area devoid of a significant migratory pollen population and what are you doing to combat somatic embryogenesis in Piceas Pizzaria?”
    If they could pick out the mistakes in that question, I might listen to them.
    BUT…if my husband, the tree scientist with 40 published papers to his name, is weeping with laughter? Game over.

    If the ‘expert’ can back their knowledge with multiple examples, rock solid work and a gleaming reputation, I’ll be drawn to them. If they say “No, seriously, just trust me!” over and over again? Even with the long road to signing with an agent, I’d still say buh bye.

  • Wonderful post, Janet. Thank you.

    I read that WD blog too and basically enjoyed it. My reaction wasn’t as insightful as yours. I agreed with some points (that a writer should actually know what kinds of writing an agent represents before querying her / him) and disagreed with others (especially the criteria for choosing an agent). My main reaction, though, was that I hadn’t learned anything from the blog and that I could have written one that was at least as good. The main difference between him and me was that he had an agent and a publishing contract.

    Now, to be fair to him, he has managed to attract and maintain a large blog following. As you pointed out, he has to have done some serious work in order to accomplish that. And I think that is what his blog should have been about: how to create, grow, and maintain a successful blog presence. While, yes, he succeeded in getting an agent, his scenario is not, as you pointed out, typical of most writers.

    I have seen a number of “how I did it” blogs from writers who have just published a book or gotten an agent, and in all honesty, I’m not interested in their stories. I’d rather hear from agents about what makes them stand up and pay attention to a query letter or to a pitch at a conference. I have read and listened to a number of agents about this and I have heard many of the same things said consistently. Those are the things I’m going to pay attention to because, if I hear them from agent after agent, I know they aren’t personal preference things (send queries on lavender-colored, chocolate-scented stationary :) ). They are best practices and standard operating procedure.

    How do I evaluate whether or not someone is an expert? Years of successful experience in the field or topic area would be at the top of my list. I want to see a proven track record. Anyone can hit it lucky once. To continue to be successful requires more than luck. Also, I look to see if the person’s experience is current. I was a nurse back in the ’80s, but I wouldn’t presume to say that I know about the current state of the profession (even though I have friends who are currently nurses), let alone write about it as if I were an expert. Finally, I look to see if the person has any academic credentials. This, I own, is a bias. I work in academia and probably place too much value on a college degree, but a formal education does make one do research, evaluate and think. Also, academic papers require that the author back up what he / she says with facts, not opinions.

    Okay, I’ve slipped onto my teacher soapbox, so I’ll step down now.

    Thank you for this reminder that we should be critical thinkers / readers and check out who’s giving the advice before we follow it.

    Blessings on your week!

  • One really important thing (Oh, wow, Jennifer’s commenting again? Never saw THAT coming…)is for the agent whom I stalk/hover around/talk to in my sleep and say things like “Did you want cream in your coffee, Madam?”, to have a group of clients with whom I have a common of theme or message.
    I want a Christ centered agent for whom career is secondary. I want her to understand that when I hesitate on an issue and say “Let me pray about it”, she won’t smirk or roll her eyes. I want us to serve one Master.

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Prayerfully considered responses should always be respected regardless what the agent thinks of such an approach to life. You’re right, Jennifer, that’s a very important aspect of your writing life you want to be “one” with your agent on.

  • Janet, are you one of those agents whose interest is harder to pique than others? :-)
    Even if the agent represents what I write, their plate or quiver may be full at the moment. (I’m trying to appease myself with this comment as I sit in the waiting room of the query process)
    What’s important to me may not be the best case scenario for my writing career. I have a lot to learn still, and remaining teachable is key. I want to work with an agent who excels in looking at the big picture, and who has their finger on the pulse of what’s afoot in the CBA.
    Trust in a business relationship is huge. And so is being comfortable. It would be nice to know that my (future) agent will be gentle, yet firm, with the vulnerable areas of me that I splay out before them as I story build, and send proposals, and lean hard on the Lord for His strength.

    • Ohhhh, Jenni, isn’t the waiting room *fun*?
      I feel like a kid with my face up against the glass, hoping someone notices me and and sees beyond the mushed face and look of desperation, all the while yelling “pick me, I promise I’m not crazy!”.

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Jenni, considering how many clients I’ve taken this spring and summer, you’d never think my interest is hard to pique, but it is. I just received a spate of projects that called my name.
      If an agent’s quiver is full right now, it won’t stay that way. Agents have pressure from publishers to add new clients. When we sit down with an editor, we are inevitably asked, “What do you have that’s new and exciting?” We always want to answer that question well.

      • How fun to be able to lay out possibilities that you believe in.
        If someone asked me what I had (story wise) that was new and exciting, I’d have a hard time not gushing all over the table. I’m familiar with the glazed look in my family’s eyes when I respond to this question, but thankful they ask anyway. I guess those are the moments where the short and tantalizing pitch comes in handy.

    • So well said, Jenni, as usual. I agree one hundred percent.

    • Jeanne T says:

      Jenni, I love your thoughts here. 100% agree!

  • Brian Taylor says:

    I have often wondered myself what qualifies one to call him/herself an expert or authority on anything. The only conclusion I come to is evidence in personal application. Unfortunately,one’s personal experiences aren’t always easily duplicated by others. To me, those who can reproduce in other’s what they have achieved really validate them as an expert.

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Brian, duplication of a result is an excellent way to determine the breadth of transferable information. Thanks for adding that insight to the discussion.

  • I would have to say I’d like my agent to read similar books to the ones I read, or at least enjoy the manuscript she’s negotiating for me. I want her to be excited for my story and for that to show to editors and publishers. However, I hope she has different skills than I have. Otherwise I wouldn’t need her, would I. I’m not particularly organized (except where I have to be), my brain hurts after reading legalese, and though I try to stay current on the publishing biz, I need someone who makes that her sole business, so I can write. It gives me great comfort to know there is someone understanding and taking care of “that other stuff.”

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Connie, yes, you want an agent who is excited about your story. If an agent has enthusiasm for it, that shines through when he or she pitches your project. We like doing “the other stuff” so you don’t have to. That makes us happy.

  • Yes, sounds like that dude wasn’t looking at the big picture of his writing CAREER, Janet–just the one project. I agree that there are bigger things to consider.

    And wheat from the chaff…hmm. Like Sarah T, at first I took literally everything writers who were more advanced in their careers told me. But at some point I realized we all have our own stories. My journey to an agent won’t be the same as yours. My blog won’t have the same audience as yours. In the end, we have to believe in our writing enough to find the best ways for our books to shine. Might be a large online crit group for some. Might be 1-2 trusted/insightful beta readers for others. Might be a more editorial agent.

    Come to think of it, that’s a crucial thing to nail down–do you want an editorial agent–one who does heavy line or content edits on your entire MS (usually these agents are editors)? Do you want one who is more of a salesperson? Maybe one who is well-known at conferences? Do you want one who’s up-to-speed on supporting/growing hybrid authors? These kinds of things are career-building decisions.

    But in the end, the best blessing of all is finding an agent who believes in your book and gets excited about your writing.

  • Peter DeHaan says:

    It seems there are many so-called experts who take their unique experience and treat it as normative. They turn their experience into a formula, sharing (or selling) their proven method that everyone can use to find an agent/publisher (or build a platform, use Facebook, develop a blog following, write a successful query letter/proposal, etc.).

    If they’ve only done something once, I assume it’s more likely they were lucky than good. If they can reliably repeat it, then I will hail them as an expert.

    Thanks for a great post!

  • Without reading the blog (since I already have the best agent in the universe), I would say that it seems to me that the writer was looking for a “one trick pony.” What I mean by that is he wasn’t thinking about building a writing career. He just wanted someone to get him the movie deal, after which he will retire in splendor to the island of his choice. That’s fine if that’s all a writer wants. THIS contract. THIS deal. But if a writer is looking to build a career in an industry where changes are happening at the speed of light … that’s a different ball game entirely.

  • Linda Adams says:

    I’ve really started paying attention to what the writer has published and how much. Too many people proclaim they are experts and actually don’t have any qualifications. There’s a blogger who is very well known. She’s self-pubbed two best selling non-fiction books. What does she blog on? Writing fiction.

    I keep looking at the posts and looking at her credentials and wondering why people think she’s an expert when she’s not.

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Linda, the correlation between that blogger and her topic is odd; it seems like a disconnect. But her popular blog indicates how uncritical many blog readers are.

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