How to Make an Agent Squirm

Wendy Lawton

Blogger: Wendy Lawton


Want to know how to make a CBA literary agent squirm? Wait until he or she is on a panel at a popular writing conference and ask, “What’s the best book you’ve read recently?” Surely that can’t be cringeworthy, can it?

You have no idea!  Let me tell you why. . .

If the fabulous book that comes to mind is one of your clients’ books and you are brave enough to cop to it:

  • Your other clients in the audience will wish you loved them best.
  • You’ll look like you are shamelessly promoting your own client and by connection, your agency.
  • Few will believe you anyway. “You really like CBA historical fiction over all other ‘fine’ books?”
  • There’s no winning with this one, even if it’s true. Watch the agent squirm.

If you happen to be reading another CBA author’s work, agented by one of your colleagues:

  • Your colleagues on the panel will think you are willing to poach their clients by flattery.
  • Your clients in the audience will wish you loved them best. After all, they are with you and your agency. Where is your loyalty?
  • Few will believe you anyway, wondering why your tastes are so “common.”
  • There’s no winning with this one, even if it’s true. Watch the agent squirm.

If you try to stay out of the fray by saying something like, “I’ve mostly been reading manuscripts by potential clients and I’ve been amazed at how good some of them are.”

  • Your clients in the audience will wonder why you are trolling for new clients when they’ve been waiting more than a month for feedback on their newest proposal.
  • The other agents on the panel will snicker, thinking, “Yeah, right.”
  • There’s no winning with this one, even if it’s true. Watch the agent squirm.

You do what most CBA agents do and name a well-lauded ABA literary read that everyone on PBS loves. You’d figure that would be safe, right? Nope. You’d be figuring wrong.

  • We agents have all gotten the odd concern from our clients at one time or another, “I feel betrayed that when you are asked for your favorite book it’s always an ABA book. Don’t you even read in the CBA?”
  • Bestselling core CBA writers will conclude you are too highbrow for them.
  • Your colleagues will know exactly what you are up to. *smirk*
  • Trust me, there’s no winning with this one either. And once again you can watch the agent squirm.

How about you? When you are surrounded by writing friends and someone asks you your favorite recent read, do you ever squirm? Are you brave enough to tell us what book you’ve loved recently?

20 Responses

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  1. Mary Kay Moody says:

    Wow. You paint a very cringe-worthy picture, Wendy. “Best” or “favorite” questions are a challenge. Even my list of favorite authors is a tad long. Recently I’ve loved Laura Frantz’s The Lacemaker and Miramar Bay by Davis Bunn. Both authors provide a story as vivid as watching a movie.

    If I’m ever at a conference with you, I’ll remember not to ask your favorite read in public!

  2. “You love me most–right, Mom?”
    “The child I love most is the one who most needs me at the moment.”
    In your case, Wendy, that could be the worst book from your client list. So you’re right: there’s no good answer. But in honesty, my favorite book of all time depends on my mood (when we were in the midst of hard times with our adopted children, I had a clear love/hate relationship with Anne of Green Gables).

    • My youngest asks the “favourite” question all the time. I usually answer “none of you, you’re all horrible children who can barely function as humans”. This annoys him, so he asks why I gave him such an awful answer. “Because it’s an awful question.”
      Also, he’s 15 and knows I’m kidding.

  3. Lara Hosselton says:

    Wendy, I enjoy reading YA, which most adults don’t understand. So in a pinch I’ll answer, “To Kill A Mocking Bird. It’s my all time favorite.”
    I’ve actually lost count how many times I’ve read this classic.

  4. Just say your favourite’s the Bible. Job jobbed, and you’ll give its Author the warm fuzzies.

  5. Carol Ashby says:

    Wendy, should I be concerned that no one ever asks me what my favorite recent read is?
    *Here’s a safe answer for you. “Why, it’s Fabrication of GaAs Devices by Baca and Ashby. It shares so much of the fundamental and practical knowledge of those two experts that it’s like an apprenticeship in a book for exploratory device engineering. Best of all, it’s cut my expenditures on sleep-inducing medications done to nothing.” Of course, the UK publisher did insist on changing all the -ors to -ours and -ize to -ise, but I don’t think that affects the readability for a Yank like you.
    *Maybe your recommendation of my first book will increase sales of my Roman historical fiction. Or would it be the other way around? It’s not too late for me to include the sales link in the back of the ebook versions of my latest that’s releasing next Monday.
    *You might get a few odd looks at the conference, but at least none of your clients would be wondering why you didn’t mention them instead.

  6. I hate “best” and “favorite ” questions. Lol. And I can now see why you do too. Don’t you wish it was as simple as being honest and not worrying about what everyone else will think?

  7. H L (Harry) Wegley says:

    As authors, I think most of us would really like your honest opinion. We would value it, regardless.

  8. I might be known to name something that’s completely terrible,and fake, like “The Pig Latin Translation of Twilight” just to deflect the question. Or, I answer with a research book that very few will ever have heard of.
    My current favourite…
    …(fixes hair and smiles for the camera)…
    …book that I’m reading…
    …(checks for lettuce in teeth) …
    …is mine.
    (Tilts head and smiles).
    How’s that for avoiding the land mines? 😉

  9. I was thinking the same thing as Shirlee–it’s like a child asking his mother which kid is her favorite. Yikes! I answer with, “You’re all my favorites. I love you all the same.” I’ll have to keep this in mind as we get closer to the WriteAngles Conference in November–don’t put an agent on the spot.

    A recent book that had an impact on me is the women’s devotional Becoming Unconsumed by Lynne Britton. Our children go to school together. I loved everything about it from the book design to its content and how it touched me personally. Definitely a book I recommend.

  10. Wanda Rosseland says:

    By all means tell them your favorite book, Wendy, no matter who wrote it or if it is an author from your client list or not. You do not have to cringe. Or worry about what someone is going to think. As you pointed out, people will come up with a myriad of reasons to toss arrows at you but the important thing is being honest with yourself. You don’t have to make up excuses or reasons for choosing the book you liked, or explain to others why you did. You simply liked it a lot and that is that.
    I personally read mostly non fiction and old books at that, but one that set me to thinking and being amazed at how God–and people–work is God’s Generals, by Roberts Liardon. Personal lives of famous evangelists/healers. I actually just gave it to my granddaughter to read this summer. Very interesting.

  11. This question terrifies me too! It especially terrifies me in Christian circles where someone might decide to question my theological stance or even my salvation based on my reading habit. But, since I am trying to stop worrying so much about what others think, I will share a title.

    I just finished Brene Brown’s Braving the Wilderness and absolutely loved it. It spoke to me in ways that I needed, and I underlined so much that I could never loan my copy to anyone.

    This is a great post, Wendy! I so appreciated reading your perspective on such a common question.

  12. It’s difficult to choose a favorite even among recent reads unless I’m given a very small window that qualifies as “recent.” Anything longer than a few weeks or so, and I’m probably going to list a favorite from each of my most-read genres 😉 For the first definition, I’d probably have to go with Brandilyn Collins’ Eyes of Elisha. Going by the second definition, my favorite reads this year have been Lynette Eason’s Oath of Honor (deeply satisfying to this suspense-lover!) and Sarah Sundin’s The Sea Before Us (WWII historical 💖).

  13. So awesome and creative, Wendy. And I feel your can’t win for losing. I would have never thought such a question could be that complicated. It’s hard to please everyone. *I squirm when I’m in crit group and someone asks the group, “Have y’all read the writing craft book ____?” Everyone nods. All eyes find me. “No, I’m reading Head in the Clouds by Karen Witemeyer.” 🙂 Which was an adorable novel. *Unashamedly, I will say that more recently I’ve loved Falling for You by Becky Wade.

  14. Your timing is quite curious! I actually prayed a brief prayer last night as I was enjoying an hour of leisurely reading: “Lord, thank you for authors of quality biblical fiction!” Because I love the Bible and spend most of my time studying the Bible (I write in-depth Bible studies), taking a break from studying to enjoy some leisurely reading is a wonderful treat. But I’m picky. Until a few years ago, I mostly enjoyed reading non-fiction (even before I became a Christian). However, as my study time began to grow more and more, the desire to simply take a break and escape into a good story has grown with it (not that the Bible isn’t packed with great stories; they’re exactly what I love studying! 🙂 But when I stumbled upon Lynn Austin’s powerful series “The Restoration Chronicles,” I fell in love with well-researched, we’ll-written biblical fiction. Since then, I’ve enjoyed a book by Mesu Andrews and am current reading a series by Connilyn Cossette. When friends ask what I enjoy reading besides the Bible, I now tell them how I am becoming a big fan of biblical fiction. On that note, I’ll say it again: thank God for wonderful authors of biblical fiction! 🙂

  15. I would answer that question the same way I answered my son years ago when he commented on my friends and how different some were from the others, and who would I pick as my favorite. I said, “Gabe, you know I like donuts, all kinds of donuts, glazed, twisted, filled, small donut holes, and large apple fritters. Well, I could never pick my favorite because there is some things about each that I love and really enjoy. My friends are like that, each is unique and fits for different reasons: some will go on risk taking adventures with me, others love to dig into scripture and discuss it, a few are awesome cooks that we share recipes for food and life together, others have been in my indispensable moms’ prayer group. If I pick one, I would miss all the special qualities and personalities of my other friends. So honey, my answer is I have no one favorite, but many. In fact, if a person is my close friend, there is a reason for that, and my loyalty is with each one that is close.

    That is like books to me. I would say the Bible is, but that goes beyond being a mere earthly inspired work, it is the spoken Word in print from heaven itself.

    I would never ask an agent or publisher that question for the reasons you shared. I would ask what book have you read lately that had and interesting twist, or provided you with a new perspective of something or someone?

  16. As a librarian, I’m asked this question often. I usually give readers a list of my favorite authors. I’ve never thought about it bothering my author friends if I recommend another writer’s work on social media. It’s something to think about.

  17. Olivia Smit says:

    This is a great point! I had never thought of this before … but it certainly makes a lot of sense! Often, when I am asked what my favourite book is, I draw an immediate blank! Panic hits and I’m left scrambling to rank all the books that I love in order to figure out which one I love MOST. I can’t imagine doing it in front of a group of people when the stakes are so much higher!

  18. Sometimes I say, “Did you want to know what I’m reading in Christian fiction, secular fiction, YA, kids, or non-fiction. Then they pick what we talk about and I’ve usually read at least something in their preferred genre that we can discuss.