Sunday, April 17, 2011

3 myths about agents

I’ve had the divine pleasure of being represented by the amazing Michelle Wolfson for over three years now.

I spent a year before that represented by another agent, plus a stretch of time managing my own writing career without an agent (go here if you want the whole sordid story).

While that history doesn’t necessarily make me an expert on agents, a lack of expertise seldom deters me from getting on my soapbox. I’ve heard a few assertions about agent/client relationships lately that don’t match my experience, so I’m in the mood to argue. Feel free to disagree or feel free to squeal “ohmygod you’re so right!” (something I routinely pay strangers to do).

Here are my top three agent myths.

Agent myth #1: Bigger is better
Agencies can range from small one-person operations to groups with enough agents to round out a complete (and mildly terrifying) hockey team. There are advantages to each, and it’s important to remember that a high number of clients or major deals on an agent’s tally sheet isn’t a mark of quality any more than the number of notches on a guy’s bedpost is a reliable indicator of his ability to make your toes curl.

In December 2006, I was lucky to have four excellent agents offer to represent me. I mulled my decision long and hard (pausing only a few times to snicker over “long and hard”) and ultimately went with the one with the largest agency and the longest track record of sales in my genre. Seemed like a reasonably wise decision at the time, but I soon realized it wasn’t the right decision for me. While there are surely oodles of happy clients on that agent’s roster, there’s a disadvantage to being an oodle. At times, I felt like a number (and as a new author, not a very high one). Communication was infrequent and not particularly personal. While this might suit other authors’ preferences, it didn’t suit mine.

When I signed with Michelle Wolfson, things were much different. It was unusual to have a week pass without some form of communication. I was in the loop on everything, from where my projects were being sent to how editors were responding. When editors didn’t instantly throw open the doors, she looked for windows to smash. While plenty of agents might consider dropping an author who didn’t quickly earn her keep, Michelle never lost her passion for my writing or for finding me the right home.

Is that all because she’s a smaller, one-woman boutique agency? Not entirely – a lot of it is just Michelle’s general fabulousness. But I have come to believe that a single agent with an overwhelming enthusiasm for your work is the most powerful force on the planet. Size doesn’t matter.

Well, in this context, anyway.

Agent myth #2: The agent works for me
I’ve heard this philosophy tossed about most frequently by unagented authors. In their minds, the agent is there to serve as an author’s private doorman to publishing houses. Sure, the agent has the connections, but the author should decide where the work should be sent and how it should be edited. This is so laughably inaccurate that I had to stop twice to choke on my Chianti while typing that line.

The agent client relationship is a partnership – period. Each person brings an integral set of skills, connections, and knowledge to the table. The author isn’t the agent’s boss any more than the agent is the author’s boss (though I’ll admit it – I kinda like it when Michelle tells me what to do).

Agent myth #3: You should fall at the feet of any agent who offers to rep you
I recently spoke as part of a panel of authors addressing an RWA group about what we learned in our first year after the sale. Of those of us with agents, every single one of us had been through more than one relationship. Finding the right fit is crucial both for the client and the agent. If an agent is considering offering representation, you can be damn sure he/she is checking you out and weighing whether you’d be a pleasure to work with or the equivalent of a wolverine on LSD.

Do your homework, too. Ask questions of existing and former clients and check out what’s being said around the Absolute Write Water Cooler. I’ve heard it said over and over, and it bears repeating – having an agent who isn’t the right fit is worse than having no agent at all. You owe it to yourself to be choosy.

Those are my top three agent myths. Do you have any to add? Care to disagree on any of those points? I won’t even insist we take it out back to the bicycle racks. Discuss freely!


Unknown said...

I must admit that I'm likely to throw myself at the feet of the first offer I get! But then, without any experience, it's hard to judge if we'd match or not. The best thing must be to be aware of that it's natural if the first one who comes by don't make your toes curl.

Of course, this is true with agents as well.

Neurotic Workaholic said...

This is all great advice, especially for me because I haven't submitted work to agents yet (I'm still at the stage where I'm just submitting stuff to lit magazines and short story contests). But it's good to know what kinds of things to expect and what to look for. I always did think that going for the A-list agents was what you were supposed to do, but your description of why you went with Michelle instead definitely makes sense.

Danielle Spears said...

Is Michelle Wolfson prepared to get a boat load of submissions now? LOL. She sounds great!

kah said...

Thanks for debunking some of the BS. ;)
Your agent is obviously fab is she was smart enough to partner with you. xo

lora96 said...

good advice.

i'd still fall at the feet of anyone who offered to rep me but i'm shameless like that

Catherine Stine said...

I've experienced both the good and bad in agents. Be careful in who you pick! Do some research into who their authors are and what their reputation is. Also, talk to them about their submission style. Do not jump in blind! Make an informed pick, so you can totally trust that person with your gems.

Patrick Alan said...

Is Myth #1 a short joke?

The Writing Goddess said...

I have a small, boutique agent. Has she sold my work? Not yet, BUT she is getting it read (and I have the rejection letters from all the major houses to prove it, alas.)

I'm taking those to mean *I* have to take my work to the next level, not that SHE isn't doing her job.

She's been very supportive and sent me books my her other clients who write in my genre, who HAVE been officially published. So... considering I have yet to make her dime one, I'm not disappointed.

Judy,Judy,Judy. said...

Tawna on a Sunday - how delightful.
Good advice. I'm currently so wigged out by the whole publishing 'earthquake' (which will eventually come down to much ado about nothing, I'm sure) that I've decided to sit out even trying to be published for a while.
I've decided it will be fun to write a novel in a serial fashion, giving away an installment a week on my blog. I'm still in the planning phase but I have to say, so far, it is fun.
(Last day to post a comment here
and be eligible to win a free copy of Shelly Fredman's awesome novel, No Such Thing As A Secret.)

Jen J. Danna said...

Really good advice here, Tawna. I'm only a few months into signing with my first agent, but we had a false started months before with an agent that offered, but wasn't exactly as advertised, and we turned down representation. So I'm especially on board with myth #3. I'd hate to think where we'd be now if we'd signed on without doing the additional research that set off the alarm bells. It's much better to have no agent at all than one that isn't going to work for/with you and is simply looking for an easy sell. Fit is essential too. When my agent corrected some of the science in my manuscript, I knew I'd hit pay dirt because she could see eye-to-eye with me. Knowing you've made your match is such a great feeling, and it's definitely one worth waiting for!

Elise said...

So, so with you, Tawna! I love my book agent, but my first TV agent experience was a disaster. I was on a prime time sitcom, which meant I was making money and I really could have taken my time and been choosy.

I didn't. I jumped at the first big-name agency who asked me. Turned out the agent and I had VERY different ideas about where my career should go... but I didn't know that until I was looking to take things in a new direction, and she wouldn't help at all. By then it was much harder to find someone new, and I actually went agentless for about five years.

I'm with someone fabulous now, but I've learned: BE CHOOSY! It makes a huge difference.

Linda G. said...

I can second everything you say about Michelle's fabulosity (not a word? well, for Michelle, it should be). I WAS choosy, and it sure paid off. :)

Danica Avet said...

I agree with you, Tawna. My agent and I are still in the early phase of our relationship, but I appreciate her like nothing else. We're on the same wavelength, which I think is the most important thing for an agent/writer relationship. You both have to want the same goals and it can't just be NYT Bestsellers list (although that is nice to think about). You have to have realistic goals and your agent should be right there with you. And just remember that while you're stressing over your writing career and where it's going, your agent is doing the same with you and however many other clients they have. They aren't superheroes, even if we think they might look great with a cape!

Anonymous said...

Great points! I think you're spot on. I signed with a relatively new agent and I'm happy. We talk a lot and both have the same goal--a longtime partnership!

It's so important to click with your agent and to be able to communicate with him/her!

Allie Sanders said...

My favorite myth is "No News is Good News." Personally, no news means they have a busy schedule and haven't gotten to it (being unrepresented from the slush pile I am about as important as a flea in the grand scheme), the e-mail was lost in the internet, or they simply aren't interested. Yes, sometimes they take a while if they're on the fence but for the most part I play to the odds.

I also like when people assume once you have an agent your part of the work is done. I haven't gotten one yet but I'm smart enough to know that it's more than shipping off a "finished" manuscript and whiping your hands of it.

And Michelle Wolfson is awesome. I've been stalk--in mean following her on Twitter for almost two years and she has given great information and helped me find two awesome authors.

Kimberly Sabatini said...

You said it perfectly and I wouldn't trade Michelle in for anything!!!!!! I love that she's only a tweet away and that she eats candy and hides it from her kids...although it does irk me a little that she stays so tiny while she does it. Grrrr But aside from the candy thing...pure unadulterated LOVE!!!!! And might I add...the company she keeps aka The Wolf Pack! Couldn't, wouldn't shouldn't do without them!!!!!

Mark Simpson said...

My experience with agents is in the music biz, but one thing I would add is that just because you now have professional representation doesn't mean you shouldn't continue to push your work yourself as well.

No matter how diligent an agency might be, they still have other clients while you are your only one. I'm careful to keep them in the loop when appropriate, but am not shy about offering suggestions and executing ideas on my own either. Taking initiative will also demonstrate to your agent that you are willing to do the extra work necessary to succeed, and that in turn will make them more willing to stick their neck out for you when the time comes.

Unknown said...

I'm on agent #2 and for me the big issue is communication. I shot off an e-mail to my agent yesterday afternoon (Sunday) because something crossed my mind that I should ask him about and a response came back to me that night. That's responsiveness. I know if I e-mail or call, I will get an answer.

If I ask and get answers and he does the same, we stay on the same page and the relationship works. :)

Kasie West said...

So. True. :) (And Michelle rocks)

Anonymous said...

Only in Oregon would you use a saying like, "take it out back by the bicycle racks." I mean, sure, it's got rhyme going for it, but down east, we keep our bicycle racks out front, and the dumpsters in the back.

Come to think of it, I like your way better. Huh. I guess you win that one.


J.R. Johansson said...

Great post and so true! You're dead on with this one. Pour yourself another chianti. ;-)

Lynn, the letterwriter said...

I must work the phrase "wolverine on LSD" into dinner conversation tonight.

As Jenn said, this is dead on (and one hopes you've already had that extra chianti). Having dipped my non-wolverine toe into the waters, I can see how these myths come about, how they persist and how, ultimately, they're bunk.