Once you’ve created the best query you can (a la my most recent blog post) and have your proposal ready to submit, you’re mind will turn toward finding an agent. Let’s be clear about one thing: You don’t want just any agent; you want the right agent for you.
Agents come in all sizes and shapes. By that I mean, not that they vary in height and breadth, but that they are highly individualized in how they function within the publishing industry.
Some agents are heavyweights in the best sense of the word.
- have worked long within the industry,
- have a strong sense of where the industry is headed,
- represent authors who have created a significant presence in the market,
- and know how to be tough when necessary and nice when necessary.
Other agents are just beginning.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. When starting out, they need to build a client base and make sufficient sales to continue as an agent. These are highly motivated people.
Agents also can be divided into two other categories: good and bad.
A good agent:
- works hard for you,
- is responsive to communications from you,
- has a good sense of what will sell,
- and is an able negotiator and strong in keeping track of details (a very important quality in an agent).
A bad agent:
- fails to submit your projects,
- doesn’t know where to submit them,
- doesn’t have a publishing network,
- isn’t willing to work hard,
- can’t tell what makes a project salable,
- has a soiled reputation in the industry,
- is disliked by others in the industry,
- doesn’t instill trust,
- isn’t trustworthy,
- fails to competently negotiate contracts.
Sounds awful? Sounds unbelievable? Uh, no. Such agents exist.
So decide right now that you will live by this mantra:
It’s better to have no agent than to have a bad agent.
A bad agent is a career killer, not a career starter.
How to find the right agent for you
How do you know if an agent is bad? Ask around. Obviously, if you’re reading a blog, you’re connected in some way to the publishing community and to authors. Ask who their agents are and why they like that person. Become involved in writers loops, where such questions are easy to pose. If you attend writers conferences (even virtually), you’ll meet editors. As part of your communication with them, ask which agents they regard highly.
Never ask about a specific agent unless you put that agent in a grouping.
Think about it. If you’re an editor, you have to work with agents of all stripes. Should a writer ask you about an agent you’d rather take a dive into an alligator-invested swamp than work with, how can you answer honestly? If you diss that agent, word could get back to him or her. Then you’re left with still having to work with that person, only now the waters are even muddier than before.
But you can ask, “I’m interested in the following three agents. I don’t know if they’d represent me, but if you could choose between these people, whom would you rather work with?” Editors generally will respond to such a question, and you’ll soon see a pattern as you ask various editors. (It’s especially helpful to ask editors who work in the genre or category you hope to publish in.)
Another way an agent can be a bad agent is by being a bad agent for you.
If you’re looking for a shark as an agent, then a dolphin won’t do. Or vice versa.
Ask yourself, how do you want an agent to represent you? If you think having a tough, nail-chewing agent will serve your purposes, then ask any agent you’re considering if they fit the bill.
Or if you want an agent who is more of a consensus-builder, mediator, make sure that’s whom you’re signing on with. Maybe you want an agent who has a reputation for having a good eye for your type of writing. Or you want an agent who works regularly with a publishing house that you think would do well with your project.
Get to know agents to decide who is the right agent for you.
When I became an agent in 1996, finding out what distinguished an agent was tough. Few had websites, social media was nonexistent, online research was not commonly done.
Many online resources exist nowadays that enable you to be a savvy agent-shopper. Including, of course, reading agents’ blogs and following and befriending them on social media. You actually have a chance to get acquainted before you even submit your query. And, yes, when someone’s name pops up in our lives regularly, we immediately recognize it when we see it among our queries.
What are some of the questions you’ve asked agents (either on their blogs, in personal conversations, on the phone, or via email) that you found instructive in deciding if that person could be the right agent for you?
No literary agent is better than a bad agent. Click to tweet.
Finding the right literary agent for you. Click to tweet.
This is very informative. I have numerous stories published in compilations. Also, have one book for children published and another on the way. But, I have been praying about seeking an agent. Thank you for this information.
Excellent insights. I find reading agents’ blogs and exploring their websites give a sense of who they are and what they would be like to work with. But meeting—even virtually—is even better. Isn’t it fun to get a glimpse into a person’s environment when chatting by video?
Karen, I love getting to peek into people’s homes. I’ve learned so much about editors (new baby? what’s her name? isn’t she the cutest!), writers (look at that great book shelf!), and publishers (isn’t that an image of the Bodelian Library as your background?). Viewing famous people’s homes on social media/YouTube has been fun too.
After following your blog for so long, you felt like family.
Kristen Joy Wilks
I find agent blogs and writer’s conferences so helpful! I love being able to ask industry questions in the blog comments and to listen to the agent panel that every conference seems to have. Over the years, I have begun to fill in the blanks about several agents in my own head, even as I send out proposals. Including that time, years ago, when I was chatting with writer friends at a conference and received a warning to be cautious around a particular agent. As women, when another woman warns us to be careful of a man, we take that seriously and keep that info in mind during interactions. Years after that, when a scandal arose concerning that very agent, I remembered those words of caution, and truly appreciated them. There are so many wonderful agents out there, and I love hearing about my friends’ agents and why they love them, but I also appreciate the quiet warnings as this world is fraught with peril in many ways.
Kristen, thanks for mentioning the importance of fellow writers warning you to steer clear of certain agents, especially those with predator tendencies. Yup, if you’ve been in the industry long enough, you tend to know who they are.
Hey, better late than never! Well, sort of.
Oh, agony of the selection
of an agent to stand for my words!
Could, you, please, give me direction
of whom I should be headed towards?
An august sage with splendid hist’ry
in best presenting writers’ work,
of, perhaps, the vibrant mystery
of a young and vital Turk?
The choice I face is so important,
for this will my career affect,
and I must fashion my deportment
to the person I select.
But more reason for my hesitation
is that I’ve nowt worth publication.
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