Okay, I’ve got a lot of great clients who seem to be hitting what I like to call “the agent wall”. The agent wall means that you, as an author, have done your homework, queried a host of likely author’s representatives with a thoroughly professional query letter, proposal, pitch and sample, only to hit the wall. Polite, form rejections that tell you nothing, nondescript feedback, or no response at all. The situation for authors is SO bad it even has its own internet joke.
Q:“How many literary agents does it take to change a light bulb?”
A: “We apologize, but we are not changing any new bulbs at the moment. Have you considered the benefits of living in darkness?”
Most untried authors hold the dream of the right agent, making the right six figure deal with a prestigious publishing concern and going on to a host of film options, translation rights, software licenses and action figures. While there’s nothing at all wrong with the dream, it’s about as close to publishing reality as the 99 percent is to the one percent controlling Wall Street.
To make matters worse, there are a whole lot of literary agents out there with the same dream, trying to score the big deal, which makes them even more reluctant to take on any untried material.
If you see the world from the agent’s point of view, the formula is pretty simple:
“I will have to put in X amount of hours, trying to sell property Y. Assuming I get an offer, I will take the typical commission of 15 percent over the life of the book. If I can reasonably expect a book to garner an advance of Z plus any royalties that may or may not accrue, is that a reasonable return for my time and energy?”
Ninety-nine percent of the time, the answer is no.
Naturally agents have various ways of coping with that reality, just to give them reasons to get out of bed in the morning. The first type works in volume. They will acquire lots and lots of projects in order to come up with an extensive client list that will make them look important. But a closer look at their sales usually reveals a fairly lackluster record. They’re working the odds. The more projects they have, the greater their chances of a sale—any sale. Like a gambler working the slots, those small payouts aka your advance, aren’t a jackpot, but they give them enough hope to feel like a player.
The second type of agent is more idealistic. They want to believe. Their dream is to get the books they really believe in, into the needy and grateful hands of the book buying public. There’s just one catch—they usually want you to rewrite it to their specifications. Idealistic types are almost always frustrated writers, or worse, editors who have grown disenchanted with corporate life. They inevitably want to get all up in your creative process, because you, the lowly author, are just another writer, but they are the “professional.” When a writer objects to this sort of behavior, they are inevitably accused of being “difficult”, “egotistical,” or just plain “trouble.”
As it’s really easy for an amateur author to be intimidated by this sort of grandstanding, you can spend a lot of time languishing in rewrites that is time better spent with the agent making actual submissions. And any time you suspect that an agent is re-manufacturing your book to meet their idea of the market, it’s best to move on.
The third type of agent spends the majority of their time selling the importance of having an agent. Rather than selling their clients’ books, they are busily promoting their own. This type usually has loads of well-meaning advice about being a writer, finding a literary representative and what’s trending in the industry (much of it for sale). They present themselves as an authority, and will not hesitate to assure you that your future as an author is doomed without proper representation. They will urge you to read their tweets and Like them on Facebook and buy their latest revised and updated guides. What they don’t tell you is that it’s just as hard to find an agent with those guides than without them.
Now, it’s not my intention to tar all literary representatives with the same brush; a good agent, like a good spouse, is indeed more precious than rubies. But just as in a marriage, the agent/ author partnership means you’re looking for Mr. or Ms. Right, not the first somebody who actually answered your email. After all, good partners work together to attain mutually beneficial goals.
So what are you really looking for when you’re looking for an agent?
Make your wish list. I’ve included a few qualities that I consider essential, add your own.
Good agents are people who can go the distance. How long have your candidates been in the business?
The agent is your salesperson. How well do they sell themselves and their services?
A good agent is a true facilitator. Is this someone with whom you can communicate, compromise and who respects you? Or do they ignore you, evade your questions, argue when issues arise, or dish attitude?
How about that prenuptial agreement? If they require a contract, what exactly are the terms? Remember, the agent is supposed to be working for you, the author. If they’re not and your relationship ends, read the fine print before you sign anything.
Finding a good agent can be a lot like falling in love. The rush of enthusiasm, the dreams for the future—all those promises. But even the best honeymoons come to an end and reality kicks in. So finally, ask yourself. Do I actually like this person? Or do I just like having an agent?
Finding the right agent can seem like an impossible task and it’s true that there are a lot of agents out there who can seem like downright impossible people. But at the same time, though good, honest and reputable agents abound in this industry, even the best of them can’t accomplish the impossible. So just as when you’re looking for a marriage partner, it’s important to adjust your expectations accordingly.