Choosing an Agent

by Janet Kobobel Grant

Writers write books. Publishers publish them. But publishers have a big sea of writers to draw from, and someone needs to serve as your swim instructor, telling you who are the sharks and who are the dolphins, and helping you to determine which you want to swim with. That someone is your agent.

So what’s the deal with agents? How do you know if (and when) you need an agent? What does an agent do? What do you want to avoid in an agent? Click the hyperlinks below to find answers to these and other frequently asked questions.

What does an agent do?
Is there such a thing as a bad agent?
How do I find a good agent?
How do I know if an agent is a good match for me?
How do I gain an agent’s interest?

What does an agent do?

A good agent’s job description looks something like this:

  • Submit your work to the editors and publishers who are most likely to be interested in what you have to offer
  • Weed out editors and publishers who are difficult to work with, have little ability to get your book into the marketplace and are experiencing financial problems.
  • Check with editors after a reasonable time to find out their response to your work.
  • Negotiate the terms of your contract.
  • Keep you informed of important developments in the publishing industry.
  • Look over your royalty statements and make sure payments are being made on time. (Some publishers’ royalty statements are as complex as a riddle.)
  • Oversee your book for its entire life, from initial idea to being placed out of print in a way that’s most beneficial to you. By the way, how a book goes out of print has become an increasingly important point as print-on-demand has risen in popularity.
  • Promote you and your work to editors and publishers. This can result in unexpected opportunities such as a publisher approaching you with a book idea.
  • Offer professional advice on building a career rather than writing one book at a time.

An agent is a generalist; a writer is a specialist. And that’s why a writer seldom makes a good agent for him or herself. It’s like trying to be an oboe player and being a conductor at the same time. When considering if this is the time for you to try to find an agent, ask yourself, “Do I have time to be a good agent? Do I have the skills?”

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Is there such a thing as a bad agent?

You might have noticed that I’ve described what a “good” agent will do for you. That implies bad agents exist.

Some agents are overworked; others are under qualified. In either case, they can hurt your career. They might not know whom to approach with your project and simply send it to everyone—or to all the wrong places. They might not understand how to negotiate your contract, yet you still will have to live by the obligations in that contract. They might not submit your work at all because they don’t have time or because they are concentrating their efforts on more established clients. And they might deal with editors and publishers in ways that would embarrass or abhor you.

Niles on the TV show “Fraser” described Frasier’s agent, Bee Bee Blazer, as “Lady Macbeth without the sincerity.” That is not the type of agent most of us would want to be associated with. When all is said and done, having a bad agent is worse than having no agent. After all, who needs to hire someone to create animosity with editors and publishers? Or someone who never gets around to sending out your work? Or someone who can’t figure out whom to send it to? Or someone who simply has a very different style of operating from what you’re comfortable with? These types of agents don’t help your career but hinder it.

How do I find a good agent?

I’d suggest as you choose an agent, that you follow the same routine you would use to find a good plumber or a good doctor. You would be loathe just to open the telephone directory, close your eyes, and call the person whose name your finger landed on. You’d ask your friends for a referral.

Who could you ask about agents? Other writers are a good place to start. Most writers know others who write or belong to a critique group, or to an email writers’ loop. What’s the scuttlebutt? Who would the authors you know recommend?

If you have a good relationship with a book editor, ask that editor. Editors work with agents all the time and know which ones are good, which are bad, and which specialize in the type of writing you want to do.

But remember that editors have to work with lots of agents, even the agents they don’t care for. So never ask, “Is so-and-so a good agent?” What if he isn’t, but word gets back to him that a certain editor gave a bad recommendation? The editor is unlikely to take that chance. So you might do what one author I know did: She emailed every editor she had ever worked with a list of three agents and asked, “Of this group, which one do you think is the best agent for me?” Each editor responded with the same name.

Of course, it seldom works out that neatly; so you’ll probably end up compiling a list of potential agents but not be sure which one is best for you. Interviewing potential agents is probably your next step once the agents have expressed an interest in you. I find it pretty frustrating to be working my way through my day only to find myself on the phone with someone I don’t know who wants to ask me why I should represent him or her. Because there are more writers who want representation than there are agents to represent them, you need to sell yourself to the agent before you ask the agent to convince you he or she is the right person for you.

How do I know if an agent is a good match for me?

When you do talk with an agent, remember the questions you ask don’t necessarily have a right or wrong answer. You’re goal is to find a good match for you.

What should you ask?

Why did you become an agent? As you listen to the answer, you’ll hear what motivates this person, why he or she feels qualified for the role, and how that person relates to writers, editors, and publishers.

What did you do before becoming an agent? Try to get a sense of whether the person was successful at past roles, does his or her past connect with being an agent, and why did that person leave the previous position?

I met a writer at a conference who wanted to ask my advice about his agent and if she was doing what she was supposed to. I asked him why he felt uncertain that she was being a good agent. He told me that she would ask him where to send his manuscripts, and she seemed befuddled by how publishing worked. I informed him that she didn’t sound qualified for the role of agent.

“What did she do before she became an agent?” I asked.

“She was a nurse.”

“A nurse? Does she have any connection with publishing? Like maybe wrote some books of her own?”

“No, she doesn’t.”

“Get thee away from that agent.”

How involved are you in working with your clients in developing ideas? Some agents will shop anything you give them; some will work hard to help you formulate your ideas; others like to help you put together your proposals; and some will read your finished manuscript before you send it to your publisher. The level of involvement varies considerably. Of course, you need to decide how involved you want your agent to be in the creative process before you know how to respond to the answer to this question. Most agents will turn this question back to you by asking, “How involved do you want your agent to be?”

Some agents don’t want to hear from you—they’ll call you, if they have news. While others want to function with more teamwork and interaction.

Some have editorial backgrounds, some marketing. Each type of expertise will mean a certain type of relationship with clients. An agent who has a marketing background might be happy to talk about the best title for your project but wouldn’t want to dip into how the plotline for your novel is developing. But an agent with an editorial background will have a much better sense of whether your synopsis for your mystery has some serious holes.

What houses that publish my type of manuscript have you placed projects with? If you’re a children’s author, and the agent you’re talking to has limited connections in your field, regardless how much you like the person, it’s probably not a good match.

Could I contact a couple of your clients who write the same sort of work I do? Most agents will be glad to give you an opportunity to interact with one or two of the authors they represent. You can find out what those clients like about that particular agent and in what ways the agent has helped them with their career.

How do I gain an agent’s interest?

How do you get an agent to represent you? You might want to avoid the technique one wannabe author tried. The Writer’s House, a literary agency in New York, was robbed of, among other things, an Oriental rug and an antique mirror. Even though the man was convicted of the crime and imprisoned, the items were never recovered. Then the president of Writer’s House received a phone call—collect—from the convicted robber offering to return the stolen goods if the company would consider representing his manuscript. While I doubt he received a form letter rejection, I also doubt the agency took him on as a client.

Here’s what I weigh when I make that decision, but I have to say the criteria will vary from agent to agent, but this will give you an idea of how to present yourself.

I ask:

Has the person published before? How many books? With which publishers? What were the sales figures?

Did the person come to me through a recommendation? Who made the recommendation?

What kind of publishing future might this person have? Is his or her writing strong? Does it stand out from the crowd? Are the ideas creative and marketable? Would the writing have broad appeal or would it have strong appeal to a select but significant audience?

Would a number of publishers be interested in the proposal I’m reading or just one publisher?

Is this someone I’d like to work with?

Do I feel excitement when I read this proposal? In publishing, you’ll find that editors, agents, and yes, even publishers listen to what their instincts tell them about a project. Those who have good instincts are described as having “The Golden Gut”—their “stomach” tells them this is something new, exciting, and very sales-worthy.

For me, I don’t have to answer thumbs up to all the above questions to decide to represent someone. Sometimes yes to just two of those questions can cause me to decide to represent someone. I listen to my intuition.

Your goal, as a writer, is to give an agent every reason to say yes to you and no reason to say no.