Blogger: Wendy Lawton
Location: Meetings in the beautiful Pacific Northwest
Disclaimer: These observations are based largely on my own practices and those I’ve observed from the many agents I know and admire. But each agent is different (just like each writer) and has different strengths and weaknesses. When it comes to your experience with agents YMMV. (Your mileage may vary.)
Scenario–Writer’s POV: You met an agent at your recent writer’s conference and she requested a full proposal and three chapters. Over the moon! So you emailed or mailed in the requested material. You’re trying not to get your hopes up. You’re not allowing yourself to go to the mailbox more than once a day, nor are you going to jump each time the phone rings. You get out your calendar and cross off the days. Day after day goes by. Soon whole weeks are passing. You try not to get discouraged. How hard is it to read a proposal for goodness’ sake? All it takes is a simple yea or nay, right? Months are passing. You talk with other writers. Is this normal? You are shocked by what they tell you. That can’t be right. When you hit a year, you give up. Maybe you were never meant to be a writer anyway.
Let me tell the story from the agent’s point of view.
Scenario– Agent’s POV: I meet a promising writer, Jane Q, at the dinner table at a writer’s conference. She’s fun, interesting, a great conversationalist but also a great listener. I like how she makes sure everyone at the table is heard. I like her book concept but even more I like this writer as a person. I’m impressed with how she moves through the conference. I see her interacting with editors and like what I see. I’m delighted when she sits down to have a one-on-one appointment with me. When she tells me more about her book I can see that she’s well-organized and understands the commercial aspect of books as well as the art of writing. I know I’m very near my self-imposed client limit but I can’t help myself, I ask to see the full proposal and three chapters. I continue to observe this writer throughout the conference. I’m intrigued.
When I arrive home I have 300+ emails and all the work I had to leave in order to attend the conference. Plus while I was there I pitched some projects to my editor friends and need to get those out STAT. Will I ever catch up? In the midst of the email deluge and thank you notes that begin to pour in from those who attended the conference, Jane Q sends the requested material. Oh good. I liked her a lot. I hope the book is as interesting as she is. I don’t have time to deal with it so I pull the file out of the download folder and put it in the To-Be-Read-Potential-Clients file. And now to deal with that cover disaster. . .
Time passes and I wake up in the middle of the night and think about Jane Q. Is she praying and I’ve just gotten a heavenly nudge? Eek! How long is it since I’ve been able to read non-client work. Aaaarrrgggh! The guilt floods in but I finally tell myself to put it aside. If I don’t find my way back to sleep I’ll never get anything accomplished tomorrow. And tomorrow is a day that brings problem after problem as well as some exciting opportunities. I can’t believe the number of clients coming out of contract—I need to put them at the top of the list. Plus all the editors who’ve requested projects– top of the list. Plus those three contracts sitting on my desk. Top of the list. This is one top heavy list and the time just keeps on ticking. . .
I could go on and on and it would take up as much time as Jane Q has actually been waiting, but hopefully you see the problem from both points of view.
I hate the reality that we are so slow to respond but wishing doesn’t change things. And it’s not that I wasn’t interested. I am. I think about Jane Q and feel awful about the inability to evaluate the manuscript. From my initial perusal, I know she’s a good writer and I know I’m running the risk of losing her but there’s no help for it. I have three client manuscripts that have come in and I need to read and evaluate them first.
The sad truth is, it’s a buyer’s market. There are more writers out there than agents and more importantly far more writers than publishing slots. I’ve heard people suggest that the answer is more agents. Unfortunately that would just move the logjam onto the desks of editors since there’s been no appreciable growth in the numbers of books being published. More agents, representing more clients, would just lower the chance of eventually selling the book to a publisher.
So what’s a writer to do? What’s an agent to do for that matter?
Writer: Don’t think that because you haven’t heard it’s an automatic no. It’s probably not. It’s just a sign that the agent is pretty close to full. And that’s a good thing. It indicates the agent is a well-respected, active agent– busy moving and shaking. When a couple of months have passed send a personable email, touching base and asking if the agent needs anything further. The agent may not reply, flagging the email to go back to, but believe me, the agent will take note. <guilt begins to grow> In another couple of months nudge again. Humor is always appropriate. Hopefully the agent will pull the material out and put it at the top of the pile. <even more guilt> When you finally reach your breaking point let the agent know. What do you have to lose? Of course, all this time you are continuing to query other agents and attend writer’s conferences so you have lots of other possibilities in the works. And just think how depressed the errant agent is going to be when you hit the bestseller lists and the agent knows he could have had you. (I could so name names of the ones I’ve missed. . . )
Agent: As the errant agent all I can do is to work as hard as I can, keeping my priorities straight. Clients always come first. Potential clients have to respect that and understand that when they become a client an agent will not be setting them aside to “play the field.” I keep saying it’s a broken system but in the midst of it writers find wonderful agents and we agents sign exciting clients and great books are being published. All because ultimately, we are not in control. The truth is, it’s all in God’s hands.
Comment: Is there a solution we’re not seeing? Are you amazed that writers keep finding agents and agents keep selling books. If you’re not yet published how do you keep from getting discouraged? Got any good advice for an errant agent to lessen guilt?