I’ve often heard the relationship between a writer and an agent compared to a marriage. For the relationship to work, you and your agent have to have similar goals, be able to communicate well and ideally, have that little something extra called chemistry.
But if the author/agent relationship is like a marriage, then finding the right agent is like getting a date to the prom back in high school. You may yearn for the hunky star quarterback or the gorgeous head cheerleader, but ultimately have to settle for the nerdy but cute guy in your chemistry class, or the pretty, quiet girl who sits next to you in English. For a beginning author, the top-tier agents are probably out of your league. Although it doesn’t hurt to query them (if they accept queries; a lot of the big names don’t). But realistically, established, well-known agents usually have all the clients they want. Even if they have the time and resources to take on more clients, they’re interested in authors who are already published and moving up in their careers.
For the beginning author, the key to the writer/agent dating game is finding someone who is willing to take a chance on an unknown writer. And that’s probably going to be someone starting out, either a “junior” agent at an established agency, or someone who has recently started their own agency. But going with someone new has risks. They may have been a successful editor or have other publishing experience, but that doesn’t mean they will be a good agent. Or, more importantly, a good agent for you. And one of the other axioms of the agency business is: A bad agent is worse than no agent at all.
How is that possible? I had two agents who were wonderfully supportive and who said everything I wanted to hear. They were willing to talk about my career and my future at length, but they never sent out my manuscripts. I’ve had numerous friends with similar experiences. Why would an agent do that? Well, some people love books and authors and think being an agent is a perfect fit for them, but they don’t like to sell. And ultimately, that’s what being an agent is. It’s selling. And it takes a certain kind of person who is willing to do that. Selling means risking rejection, which is something almost everyone dislikes. I had another agent who was willing to try to sell my books and face rejection up to a point. But when she got rejected too many times, she dumped me.
More common are agents who charge hundreds of dollars for editorial services as a requirement of representation, but who have no expectation of selling your work. They will tell you they need to fix your manuscript before they submit it. In this day of self-publishing, paying for editorial services is perfectly legitimate. But it gets tricky when those services are connected to the agent relationship. You need to investigate whether the so-called agent makes most of their income from editorial fees, or from commissions on selling books. Hiring a “book doctor” is one thing. Finding an agent to represent you in the marketplace is another.
I’ve made finding an agent sound like a veritable minefield of potential problems. But a lot of things in life are like that. Consider it like buying a car. If you can afford to go to a top dealer and buy the latest brand-new model, your risk that you will be dissatisfied goes down substantially. But in the writing world, often the only people who have that option are authors who are already published and successful. The rest of us have to go to the used car dealer and take our chances.
Even then there’s a lot we can do to ensure we will be happy with our purchase. We can do research and find out what other consumers have experienced with that particular dealer, as well as that make and model of car. There are a lot of sites on-line that provide information on agents and give authors’ experiences. On the whole, writers are a very generous bunch and natural communicators. So if we have a bad experience, we eagerly share it.
|Mary Gillgannon, 2015|
For more tips and pointers on finding the perfect agent, join Mary and fellow authors Amanda Cabot and Joanne Kennedy for the second Novel Writing University program on January 30th at the Laramie County Library in Cheyenne.
This day-long session will also cover query letters and contract negotiation. For more information on the program, contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
Mary Gillgannon is the author of sixteen novels, including a Celtic historical fantasy and historical romances set in the dark age, medieval and English Regency time periods. Foreign editions of her books have been published in China, Russia, Germany and the Netherlands. She is married and has two children. Now that they’re grown, she indulges her nurturing tendencies on three very spoiled cats and a moderately spoiled dog. When not writing or working—she’s been employed at Cheyenne's public library for over twenty-five years—she enjoys gardening, reading and travel.
Call Down the Moon, a reincarnation/time travel romance
Wicked Wager, a Regency romance
You can also connect with Mary at: