Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant
What process does a literary agent use to acquire clients? That question popped up in the comments to my blog last week, in which I discussed how a publishing committee decides if it will offer you a contract.
1. Find a Client.
Although this step is obvious in many ways and those writers without a literay agent think they’re making themselves clearly available, locating the project and person that are the right match with the agent is deceptively difficult.
All projects looks alike.
Sadly, much of what we literary agents receive over the transom and at writers conferences is mind numbingly the same. We’re on the lookout for a fresh approach to a perennial topic. If, say, I’m open to finding a historical fiction writer, I want more than someone who writes well, has a strong sense of character development, and showcases how to incorporate research into a story without overwhelming it.
In addition, I want a hook that differentiates this historical novel from everything else I’ve seen–yes, everything else. For those writers who have wandered off into a corner to swoon, let me assure you that’s not as difficult as it sounds.
One of my clients, Tara Johnson, wrote a Civil War novel in which the heroine had epilepsy. Apparently the belief during that era was that an individual with this medical condition was simply seeking attention. Nothing physical caused a spell; it was a choice. The heroine in this story is viewed as willful because of her epileptic attacks. Unable to make her stop, her parents are mindful of one thing: They must marry her off before anyone in the community discovers their daughter’s negative trait.
How’s that for a delicious conflict to center the novel around? And how’s that for a hook that made this literary agent sit up and take notice? And so did her publisher. As soon as I read the book’s hook, I was fascinated by the idea and wanted to dip into the story to find out more–and to find out what happens to the protagonist.
Is there more where that came from?
While it’s all well and good to come up with an idea that grabs an agent’s attention, the next step is to show that you have more than one book in you. It takes a lot for a literary agent to launch a writer’s career; we don’t want to make that investment only to discover the writer has one good idea, which he has labored over for ten years. But none of the author’s additional ideas have the same level of merit.
Are we simpatico?
Even if the writer has an attention-getting idea and a list of other great potential manuscripts, if the agent’s personality and working style don’t match the writer’s, this relationship is unlikely to work. I once had a writer tell me that she decided to go with a different literary agent because I was too nice; she needed someone who would crack the whip over her head periodically.
At first I was disappointed, but then I realized the writer was right. If niceness didn’t motivate her in a relationship, then we weren’t a match. I hate cracking whips, even though I have been known to do so on occasion.
2. Consider the Agency.
Different agencies have different policies of what happens once an agent decides she has found a potential client. Some simply leave the matter up to each agent. Others have a policy that all agents in the agency must agree this is a good client to acquire. Still others require that the agent clear the decision with the agency’s president.
Books & Such operates using the latter procedure. An agent will discuss with me the writer’s merits, why the agent thinks she can successfully sell the current project, and what about that client suggests he or she would be a good fit within our agency.
As an agency, we are an exception in that we care if a client will be a positive contributor to the community of our authors. That’s because we bring our clients together whenever a group of us attends a writers conference; we create events for our clients to attend; we hold periodic educational webinars that connect our clients with each other; and we have a secret Facebook page where they regularly write about their publishing questions, issues, triumphs, and trials as well as personal happenings.
Many agencies believe their clients should have walls that separate them from each other so no one can compare how much attention they receive from their agent. No publishing experiences can be shared either.
But I’ve always believed that writers, who work in isolation, flourish when they have the chance to develop long-term relationships with other authors. And each of them brings unique experiences and talents to these relationships that add up to everyone benefiting.
3. Formalize the Relationship.
The final step in bringing a new client into an agency is for that person to sign a representation agreement. This agreement delineates how the relationship works, who is responsible for what, and if the relationship disappoints one or both parties, how it will be ended.
While I say this is the final step, it is, of course, just the beginning. For now the real work of finding a publishing house for the new client begins…
What do you wish agencies did differently as they consider potential clients? What part of the process puzzles you?
How does a lit agency acquire new clients? Click to tweet.
What procedure does a lit agent use to acquire new clients? Click to tweet.
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