Blogger: Wendy Lawton
Location: Books & Such Central Valley Office
Agent blogs often talk about the writer’s side of finding an agent. We don’t often talk about the agent’s side–finding the perfect project, the perfect writer and offering representation. Much like an acquisitions editor, an agent is only as good as her instincts. We need to be able to spot a winning writer and a winning manuscript. We work hard to hone those skills, and we take great pride in our instincts.
I usually weight my decision heavily in favor of the author over the manuscript because we’re going to be a team long past that one manuscript. I look for an author I can really like. I look for potential. I look for someone with ideas, someone who is investing in his career, someone who is a hard worker and serious about her craft. I also look for someone who is professional.
But the manuscript matters as well. The best scenario is the manuscript that immediately makes me think of three or four editors who will love it. That’s not always the case, however. Sometimes I’m given a manuscript that won’t be easy to sell for a number of reasons. Perhaps it’s too literary. Maybe it is commercial women’s fiction but has a male main character– something that is a tough sell right now. Maybe it’s a nonfiction topic that is currently over-saturated in the market. Or maybe it’s one of those “neither fish nor fowl” manuscripts– too gritty for the CBA market and too spiritual for the ABA.
If I’m impressed with the writer and love the writing, I have have been known to offer representation even with a problem manuscript. After all, part of the work of an agent is to help the writer create a marketable manuscript. But I can end up with a client I believe in and a manuscript that is a potential problem. If I try to shop the manuscript, am I doing harm to the client’s future prospects? If I decide, against my better judgment, to give it a try, I usually come up against a brick wall.
Or, even worse, I may have a manuscript I’m crazy about. I can visualize the book, the cover, the marketing– everything. As I begin to shop it, the response is tepid at best. It doesn’t happen often because I’m pretty good at spotting commercially viable projects, but when it does, it is definite #agentfail. It’s that brick wall again.
There’s nothing I hate more than having to report back to the client and suggest that the manuscript go into a drawer. Sometimes that’s the reality, however. It may not be forever because the market is ever changing, but it’s always difficult news to hear.
I often tell my own story. The very first middle grade novel I wrote was Tinker’s Daughter— the story of John Bunyan’s daughter. It was set in Restoration England with a profoundly blind ten-year-old protagonist. Can you imagine a tougher sale? With my proposal I had offered five more mini-synopses for other potential books in the series. The editor liked the concept, liked the writing but chose to buy the yet unwritten Courage to Run, the story of young Harriet Tubman. When the book was finished, the publisher decided that two books would make a better impression on the shelf so my first book–the unsalable one–was published at the same time. Ten-plus years later they are both still in print. It offers hope for those unpublishable manuscripts.
But when we talk about #agentfail, we need to acknowledge that every book we take on does not find its way to the bookstore shelves. Truth: No agent sells 100%. Some of us have very good track records, but I’ve yet to meet an agent who bats 1000.
And it doesn’t happen often, but sometimes we offer representation and hit that brick wall with everything from that author. That’s when I come to the author with my sincere mea culpa and set them free to find another agent who can succeed where I didn’t.
I hope I haven’t depressed you with this bit of reality. So much is written about the frustration felt by writers. I can’t imagine a better job than being a literary agent, but we have our challenges as well. I guess it keeps us all humble.
Tomorrow I’m going to leave the topic of honest #agentfail and talk about bad agents–how to spot them and how to avoid them.
In the meantime, have I burst any bubbles? Despite all the ways writers can fail and agents can fail, tell us why this is the best job in the whole world.