Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The downside of dream agents

It’s been two weeks since my post on query stats, and I’m still stunned by the hits it keeps getting. If I’d known you were so fascinated by my rejections, I would have blogged about the cute guy in seventh grade who laughed and said I looked like a boy.

My favorite thing about the query post is the discussion in the comments. I want to elaborate on something I wrote there, and also to tell you why you should ignore me.

Here’s my original comment:

If I were going to query agents again, I'd divide them into groups: 1) the dream agents, 2) the ones you'd still be delighted to work with, and 3) the ones you're a bit ambivalent about. Then add a fourth group, which would be one or two you really aren't interested in at all. Query that fourth group first just to test the waters. If you get a lot of "send it now!" responses, you might have something hot on your hands and should probably go right ahead and query group 2 and maybe even 1. If responses are lukewarm or negative, start working through your list from 3 to 2 to 1. By the time you hit group 1, you've refined your process and won't risk making an ass of yourself in front of the very agents you adore most. I should also add that you should NEVER query before you're ready. Polish and research and do the very best you can, but understand that you're still going to miss a few things on that first round of querying.

While I stand by what I wrote, I want to add a caveat – you may not know who your dream agent is yet.

Most authors invest a lot of time in deciding which agents to query. You gather names from Agent Query. You pore over discussion forums at Absolute Write. You read blogs. You stalk agents in the grocery store to see if you have the same taste in cereal.

Even then, you’ll only have half the story. Here’s why:

Discussion forums about agents draw a limited range of participants.
The Bewares, Recommendations & Background Check forum at Absolute Write is a great way to learn what people are saying about agents on your query list, but you’re only hearing a few perspectives. Authors who’ve left agents under unhappy circumstances seldom share those details publicly, as they gain nothing from doing so. Likewise, authors in happy marriages with agents don't always report back to those forums to gush.

Hearing from authors in the midst of the querying process can give you a feel for agent response times and rumors circulating in writing communities. But remember you’re not always getting a complete picture of what it’s like to work with that agent.

What gets me hot may not get you hot.
In my opinion, Pythagoras is the dreamiest thing since the ’07 Sunnyside Pinot Noir from Amity Vineyards, but I realize he’s not every woman’s ideal. Good thing, or I’d be in a lot more fistfights.

It’s the same with agents. Agent Rachelle Gardner had a great recent blog post in which she asked authors to share the most important things in agent/author relationships. Though plenty of us swooned over our agents, we didn’t agree on what made them spectacular. Some listed communication as the most crucial thing, while others judged by industry connections or editing abilities. We all have different preferences, and what makes an agent amazing in my eyes may not be the same thing you’re looking for.

Fixating on one agent closes your eyes to other great prospects
There are plenty of terrific agents with high profile blogs, hysterical Twitter feeds, and great word-of-mouth in writing communities. Just remember they’re not the only cats in the sandbox. When I queried agents, I made sure my list included a good mix of those whose every online word I’d devoured, and those whose names I couldn’t have picked off wanted poster at the police station.

I’ll be honest – I didn’t know a ton about Michelle Wolfson when I first queried her. What little I’d read was positive, but it wasn’t until later in the process that I discovered what a great catch she was.

In my opinion, an agent with a great passion for your writing and a shorter sales record is a hotter commodity than the one with a million sales and only a tepid interest in your book. You may be surprised to discover your perfect match is an agent you’ve never heard of before.

What are your thoughts? If you’re currently unagented, do you have a dream agent? Are you open to other possibilities? For those who have agents already, did you end up with the agent you thought you’d have? Please share in the comments.

I’m going to go find that cute seventh grade guy on Facebook to see if he still thinks I look like a boy.

28 comments :

Lindsay (a.k.a Isabella) said...

Fantastic advice, thank you.

I'm about ready to dip my toe in the query pool. I have a list of agents I'd love to work with (Michelle included). But, like you said, my dream agent is the one who loves my MS. I know they are out there somewhere. :)

Erinn said...

This is great advice. Research is so important to a successful query.

Awesome work

Candyland said...

Amen. It's always good to keep your options open. Oh, and with agents too.

Jeannie Moon said...

I had a dream agent. It didn't work out,(no hard feelings)so I'm back in the hunt and it's harder than ever. C'est la vie.

Do I have a dream agent now? Yes, that agent will be someone who loves--completely loves--my work.

I'm not necessarily looking for a big name or a big agency, what I want is a good fit. So while I really want an agent, I don't get too upset about the rejections because I truly believe things work out exactly as they are supposed to.

Shakespeare said...

I don't have a dream agent... but an agent will be a long-term thing... and one's "partner" should fit pretty well...

I totally agree about the lukewarm thing. I'd rather have an agent who adores my stuff than someone with tons of experience who is only so-so about it.

LadyGenette said...

I'm still pretty naive about the whole process. I have agents and agencies that I am a little more interested in than others, but I don't think my first few rounds of queries got them interested in me, haha.

Oh well. It's all a work-in-progress, right? No such thing as perfection.

Jess Tudor said...

I was JUST talking about this. I got a request for a full from an agent who wanted to know if I was holding out for a dream agent, so we didn't all waste our time.

I don't believe in dream agents. Because the people that tend to wind up on those lists are ones with strong internet presence, so we know more about them and presumably like what we see. But that doesn't mean we wouldn't equally like Jane Agent who doesn't twitter. We can't know!

Also, working with someone is a completely different beast from what we see on blogs and twitter. I might get along great with agents on Twitter but if I were in a working relationship with them, be tearing my hair out.

My point is, as you said, you just can't know!

To be fair: I think you can still tier your agent list: ones that have said they're specifically looking for exactly what you write would go higher than an agent who "reps YA" and that's all you know about them! But when I make my tiers I always toss the unknowns randomly among the tiers, as a just in case measure.

But dream agent? Not for me.

Karla Nellenbach said...

I'm big on lists, so when I query I generate of list of prospective agents base first on what they rep, and then who. I will admit to being a cyber stalker so i know which agents I like based solely on personality and snark-factor. My list is a mish-mash of the business side and charm side. I wouldn't say I had a dream agent because for me that title will be given when I find the agent that loves my writing either as much or more than I do, but I will admit to a top five list and recently an agent that was in my top five took the number one spot for a very nice, personalized response to my recent full :)

Joyce said...

Excellent post!

I'm in a the same position as Jeannie Moon (previously agented, but querying again). I just want to find an agent who loves what I write. That's my idea of a dream agent.

Melissa Gill said...

I've done all the research on agents, but haven't come up with one that I think would be my "dream agent" just based on the info from the internet. There are a bunch of agents that I have seen at conferences that I really admire, but none that I've "fallen in love with". I do rank agents based on my best guess about who I would like to work with, but I don't think I'll know until I really talk to someone if they are right for me.

Patrick Alan said...

well, now we know the difference between Pythag and me.

I am every woman's ideal. And let me tell you, it's not as easy as I make it look.

Oh, wait. It is for me.

Kristi Helvig said...

Awesome post! For me, a dream agent is one that loves my work and will fight for it. I have a list of agents that I think could be a great fit based on what they represent, but you never know ahead of time which will turn out to be the best for you. Plus, I like surprises and believe in kismet--I'm fine with it being someone unexpected. :)

Beth Mann said...

Great advice - I have the list of agents, just hasn't been prioritized yet!

kristina said...

As crazy as this will sound, I am actually just a wee bit relieved to still be writing and NOT querying yet. That part of the process gives me the hebbie-jebbies still. Someday tho, I will take this advice to heart. :)

Linda G. said...

Great advice! I came that >< close to not querying Michelle, because I knew she didn't take on many new clients and I didn't think I'd have a chance with her. But I went for it, we clicked, and now I'm really glad I did. :)

Margaret said...

There's another factor about dream agents. The ones you like based on their online presence may not be the best ones for your genre. I haven't really done the reverse list that you suggest, but I do keep a list of agents ordered by how much I think they'd be perfect.

Tawna Fenske said...

Lindsay, love your attitude! It's great to know what you want, but also good to keep an open mind about which agent might be best equipped to offer it.

Erinn, There are tons of places to do agent research, and Lord knows I went crazynuts doing a lot of it. But even then, I only touched the tip of the iceberg as far as learning what it's like to actually work with a particular agent.

Candyland, yup, open is a good way to be for both options and legs. Wait, did I just write that?

Jeannie, terrific attitude! I agree that things work out the way they're supposed to, and we just have to be patient and ready for it to happen. I just typed "tit" instead of "it."

Shakespeare, lukewarm is definitely NOT what you want in the person who's going to bat for your writing over and over and over!

LadyGenette, feel free to ask questions here when you reach the point of querying. That link to Agent Query is a great place to gather information when you're first starting out.

Jess, Amen to everything you just said! It's important to do your homework and know what you want, but equally important to keep an open mind about where you might find it.

Karla, good for you on the positive response! Keep us posted.

Joyce, that really is the best thing you can hope for in an agent -- someone who loves your stories as much as you do.

Melissa, I agree, it's fun to play the guessing game and try to figure out which agent you might be most compatible with. It's also fun to discover you might be wrong :)

Patrick, I just threw up a little in my mouth.

Kristi, it's great to get a feel for different agents' personalities ahead of time, but it's so impossible to know what they'll actually be like when they have YOUR manuscript in front of them and they're tasked with going to bat for you with a huge list of editors.

Beth, keep good notes as you work through the query process. Trust me, it'll be fun to look back on someday.

Kristina, you're smart to sit back and watch and learn so you'll be ready to go when the time comes for you to query.

Linda G, awww...and they all lived happily ever after! :)

Margaret, great point! There are a lot of amazing agents out there who just don't rep all genres. Doesn't make them any less amazing, but it does make them the wrong agent for you if you happen to write something they don't rep.

Thanks for reading, guys!
Tawna

Elizabeth Ryann said...

My dream agent is the one who will call me while I'm on the phone with my best friend (who's an actress) and allow me to tell her, "Sorry! I have to take this. It's my agent." BECAUSE SHE'S SO OVERDUE TO HEAR THAT. Yes, dream agents, I hang onto mildly rude fantasies for a very long time and choose to use those as a solid foundation for a business relationship. On the plus side, I am often on the phone with her, so, you know, feel free to call at any time. Oh! And I will also judge you based on what you thought about Mockingjay. Fair warning.

You guys, I am such a catch! Dream client=me.

Ricky Bush said...

Yep, it's gonna have the be the agent that I never heard of, because I've queried all the rest. And, no I don't think you still look like a boy.

lora96 said...

Thanks for the info.

Must remember to categorize list of agents so I query thoughtfully instead of shrieking I JUST WANT AN AGENT ANY AGENT WHO DOESN'T THINK I SUCK IRRETRIEVABLY AS A WRITER ANYONE PLEEEEEASE.

Dr. Goose said...

Maybe you can become an agent someday and talk people into publishing all of our books?

Deborah Blake said...

It took me 2 years and over 60 rejections to get my dream agent.

She wasn't one of the three I had on my "top choices" list, although she was in the top 10. And she WAS the one who said, "I love this book so much--now let me tell you why you should sign with me!" [Who doesn't want THAT phone conversation?]

Is she perfect? No. Are we still working out the bugs in our communication? Yes. Do I feel lucky to have her as my agent? You better believe I do!

So she's not my dream agent; she's my reality agent. And that's even better.

Trisha Leigh said...

Great post. I recently went through the query process before I signed with my agent and I did have the ONE I wanted.

She form rejected my query. And you know what? I took it better than I thought. Other people were interested so I knew it wasn't me.

It must not have been meant to be. I'm very happy with my choice, an agent I might not have queried if I didn't Twitter-know several of her clients.

Good post.

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Claire Dawn said...
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Claire Dawn said...

My dream agent is Michelle Wolfson. I discovered her because she was repping 2 of my fave pre-pubbed authors: you and Kiersten. Then, she seems to be an editorial agent, and I feel like I might be more comfy with that.

Plus, who wouldn't want to join a Wolf Pack? I mean, how cool does that sound.

I'm open, but I'd like an editorial agent, who keeps me in the loop.

Tawna Fenske said...

Elizabeth Ryann, I've been agented for quite awhile now, and I can assure you it never stops being exciting to say, "I'm talking to my agent."

Ricky, my husband gets annoyed with me when I walk out of the closet in a blue T-shirt and say, "does this make me look like a boy?" Old hang-ups die hard, I suppose.

lora96, you're right, the "any agent will do" mentality has bitten more than one writer in the butt!

Dr. Goose, I'm disturbed to even consider what your book might be. Then again, if I could get rich selling it...

Deborah, that's the thing I love so much about Michelle. Even in our darkest times when rejections were pouring in, she could always go on and on about how much and why she loved my writing. Now THAT is a dream agent!

Trisha, congrats again on your agent! It's fabulous you were able to keep an open mind and find "the one" even if she wasn't the one you set out thinking she'd be.

Claire Dawn, the Wolf Pack is cool, you're very right!

Thanks for reading, guys!
Tawna

B. A. Binns said...

Be careful on your dream agent lists. Sometimes it's like the dream house or the dream job, you don't really know until you're in it.

In writing this I am sort of cheating, because I didn't find my agent via a query, but a contest win in which she was the final judge. Still, I have to agree that the dream agent is the one who LOVES your manuscript. And mine really did. She was eager to get the full after she designated me the winner, read it over a weekend (I sent it on Friday and she offered me representation the following Wednsday). Since I had never even expected to final I hadn't paid a lot of attention to who the final judge was, so I had to do a rush investigation after the offer. Fortunatly I found that she has a ton of good qualities, including a good track record of sales and extensive industry connections. But what made her #1 for me was the enthusiasm I heard in her voice when we talked. I knew she would push hard for my book, and she found my editor only three months later.

So make your lists, just the way we do about future spouses. But be prepared to discover that someone you thought was all wrong for you ended up being just about perfect.