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May 17, 2012

What Are You Looking for in an Agent?

Picture of unseen person wearing a safari hat and binoculars peeking through grass

*Shh*  Be very, very quiet.  We’re hunting agents.  (Sorry, with that picture, I couldn’t resist the Bugs Bunny reference. *smile*)

Many—if not most—writers want to find an agent at some point in their writing career.  Even in this age of self-publishing, writers still want agents to help them with foreign rights, career advice, access to tricky markets (libraries), etc.

So the question of “what to look for in an agent” hasn’t gone away.  However, what we’re looking for might have shifted a bit from a few years ago.

Because we all have different goals and needs, there’s no single end-all-be-all list of “what to look for” in an agent.  Sure, we all want an agent who’s a good match for us, but what a “good match” looks like will be different for each of us.

Some of us want an editorial agent, who will help us with our manuscript before submitting to publishers.  Some of us want a business-minded agent with strong knowledge of contracts and royalty statements.  Some of us want an agent with oodles of contacts among editors and publishers.

There are no right or wrong answers, but we do need to know what we’re looking for before starting our agent search.  Authors with years of experience tell us that having a bad agent (or the wrong agent for us) can be worse than no agent at all.  So while an agent might be great for our friend and we might be able to get a recommendation (the Holy Grail!), the agent might not be right for us.

The factors we might be looking for in an agent include:

  • We’re comfortable with him/her; we can chat and be friends.
  • He/she is with a big, powerful agency.
  • He/she is with a small, boutique agency (smaller ponds can be nice).
  • He/she is a former editor or has a strong editorial background.
  • He/she handles foreign and subrights and/or has a rights specialist in house.
  • He/she specializes in our genre, with contacts at every publisher.
  • He/she has a wide variety of publisher contacts and handles many genres, including all those we’re writing or considering writing.
  • He/she has a strong knowledge of contracts and/or has a contract specialist in house.
  • He/she has a coach or career mentor attitude.
  • His/her communication policies match our expectations (email vs. phone, frequency, timeliness, etc.)
  • He/she provides the amount of hand-holding we want.
  • He/she has the amount of experience we want (new and enthusiastic vs. experienced and business-minded).
  • He/she has experience analyzing royalty statements for errors.
  • He/she knows (or has in-house specialists for) other industry-related contacts: publicists, cover artists, authors willing to blurb us, etc.
  • He/she is located in New York City.
  • He/she is a member of AAR.
  • His/her agency has (or doesn’t have) an epublishing or assisted publishing option (some people like this, and some think it’s a conflict of interest).
  • His/her plans for our book (editorial changes, which publishers to submit to, etc.) match our goals.
  • He/she has an online presence and helps promote his/her authors through social media.
  • We trust him/her.

We can analyze that list, prioritize it, decide which things are important, which things are nice to have, and which things are deal-breakers.  Knowing what we’re looking for will help us narrow down our choices and will help us recognize when an agent is a bad match.

On the other end, there are things we all should avoid when we choose an agent.  Certain behaviors are signs that an agent is a scammer or a disreputable/dishonest person, such as requiring a reading fee, taking an above average percentage, etc.  In addition, we need to check that the author-agent agreement doesn’t include nasty clauses like interminable agency, in perpetuity, etc.

Our list of which things are important won’t look like anyone else’s list.  Only we can determine the publishing path we want to take and which type of partner will best be able to help us along that path.  Whether we’re planning on traditional publishing, self-publishing, or a combination of the two, the right agent can help us no matter what our goals are.

Other helpful posts about agents:

*** Before we finish this post, don’t forget to pass on a kindness to other writers who have helped you.  Leave a comment about your Random Act Of Kindness to inspire others and be entered into the Win-Win Giveaway. ***

Can you think of other things to look for in an agent?  What are you looking for in an agent?  Why are those aspects important to you?  What aren’t you looking for in an agent?  How do you research which agents would be a good match?

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Brooke Johnson

When I finally do go searching for an agent–probably not for another two years or so–my biggest thing will be making sure that there will be no conflict of interest between my self-published titles and my traditionally published titles. As in, I want those self-published titles to be mine, not tied to my agent in any way. Now, if the agent I choose happens to be an editorial agent and helps a great deal in the development of a self-published book, then we’ll discuss some sort of compensation.

The other thing I would look for is enthusiasm, not just for my book, but for my career, for all future books. I want someone who believes, without a doubt, that they’ll be able to sell my book, someone as passionate as I am about the story, and so on so forth. To me, that matters more than experience, number of contracts, what houses they have relations with, etc.

And of course, they have to communicate via email. I’m still surprised that there are still agents who don’t.

Nancy S. Thompson

I spent about 3 months total querying for an agent. I researched and compiled a list nearly 400 strong. I did make a nice little dent in that list, and I did have the intention of pursuing each and every agent on it, if I had to, over the course of a a year or two. But on a whim, while on a querying break (because querying can be demoralizing and exhausting), I decided to query to one small publisher instead. Whodathunkit? I got an offer and I accepted, but that desire for an agent has not gone away. I’m writing my second book for the same publisher, but come my third book, I think I will probably start querying again. Maybe, with pub creds firmly in place, I will have better luck and not give up so easily. Still, the road to publication is different for everyone, and for now, I’m cruisin’ alone and enjoying the ride.

Amber

I have an agent, but I did prefer to have a small agency. I don’t want to be friends with my agent (I don’t feel I’d be great at this and, if anything, it would interfere), but it was very important that I could ask questions and get honest, thoughtful answers without judgment that I even asked. This one wasn’t too hard to figure out, because I asked a lot of questions beforehand! I think finding a person with the right amount of editorial/handholding is important, but I also think that’s hard to figure out before you sign, or at least it was for me. I think I am a person who doesn’t need much of it, but if I do need it, then I really need it! So I did speak to one of her clients and she gave a glowing recommendation that specifically covered her being very available when she needed her (and I didn’t even request that she address that topic specifically, just asked a general question), so I took a chance. Whenever you sign, though, there’s a moment (or two) of terror. We’ve all heard the horror stories (and if you haven’t, then you don’t know enough authors). So you sign and hope for the best… and then get back to writing 🙂

Amanda

The bio for one agent I’ve queried states that she IS the audience. Since I write books that I would want to read, I think I’d feel more comfortable with an agent who reads, for fun, the genre I write in.

Above all, I want a champion. If he or she doesn’t love my book and think it’s going to be a great entry in the genre, they aren’t the agent for me.

I haven’t gotten a response from her yet…fingers crossed 🙂

Nathan
Nathan

I know a few agents who read for pleasure outside of the genre they represent. Otherwise they don’t really enjoy reading. They tend to be two critical.

Heather Day Gilbert

I’ve had two agents, and one thing is imperative–good communication skills. If your agent doesn’t get back to you in a timely fashion when you’re getting acquainted, don’t doubt that he/she will continue this pattern after you sign the contract. There is nothing more difficult than prolonging YOUR waiting process as an author because of an agent who doesn’t keep in touch.

Also, check your agent’s track record and see if the books the agency is getting published look like something you’d want your book to wind up looking like.

I think to have a champion for your book, Christian authors need to determine if they want an agent in the CBA, working primarily w/CBA publishers, or if they’re looking for someone working w/ABA (general audience) publishers. My book is a crossover book, BUT I wanted a Christian agent who would be on-board w/my worldview and “get” the overall motivations in my writing.

And once you find a good agent, you’ll know it!

Todd Moody

I’m still not sure which way I’m going to start (indie or traditional), but I am leaning toward trying to find an agent. I want someone that is communicative, enthusiastic, is a fan of the genre and has lots of great contacts. I guess editorial skill is not so much a concern, I’m not hiring them for that, just to manage the business side of things and for foreign sales hopefully. I’m not saying I don’t want their advice, of course I do. I think we all hope for a career partner of sorts.

Carradee

I’m not looking for an agent right now. I’m self-publishing, and I have a few small presses that have expressed interest in any stand-alones I come up with. Still, if I ever do seek an agent, one of my questions will be: Do you have an IP lawyer for checking contracts? I could potentially see an agent convincing me to hire him or her for other reasons, even if the answer’s “No,” but I’ll be a tough sell. As I warn anybody I hire, I’m very nitpicky. (That lets them back out up front. So far, nobody’s taken me up on the offer.) Also, if I hire an agent, it will be as my agent. In other words, I do the hiring, not the agent. The agent can accept or refuse. That’s fine. The agent can give me advice. That’s fine. But I will never be the agent’s employee, and anybody who tries patting me on the head and saying “No, dear, you don’t understand” will get the boot. If I don’t understand something, you tear my logic open and show me the results. You don’t patronize me. I don’t even let my doctors do that. I nag them until they give me specific reasons for their recommendations. I’ve also walked from more than one writing contract (for short stories and magazine articles alike) where the editor treated me like that. Since I’ve read that novel publishers tend to be as bad or worse, I’m a bit leery of seeking…  — Read More »

E.B.Pike

Awesome post, Jami! As always. *grins*

When I saw your first line, all I could think of was “hunting wabbits.” 🙂

Nathan
Nathan

I like to win but it almost feels wrong to try and win a prize by unselfishly performing a random act of kindness. But I’ll give it a go. We writers are tryers. We work hard to move ahead or advance a career. We take risks and often shoot in the dark. It can get frustrating but don’t forget why you write. What is the real reason?

Here is a quote I just read in a great book called Imagine by Lehrer. He quoted Yo-Yo Ma as saying, “When people ask me how they should approach performance, I always tell them that the professional musician should aspire to the state of the beginner.” The idea is to play with the abandon of a child.

Writer friends, write with the abandon of a child. There is a time to listen to the critiques and to learn from them but there is also a time for forget about what teachers and critiques say and to enjoy the craft. Enjoying your craft will make your product that much more enjoyable to read.

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Vanessa

Hi Jami, Wonderful post. I agree in what your post says about what are you looking for in an agent. I am researching so many agents right now. One agent I wanted to submit to, Meyer’s agent, I submitted to her because she’s a lawyer, and a lawyer would make sure the authors rights are not violated. ONLY until I did more research on said agent and it turns out she’s not passionate about the writers she represents, she only cares about sales because if you look at how much Meyer got for Twilight alone, it gave her a big fat paycheck. If you look at the projects she represented, they are ALL franchises. Then there are some agents who are highly respected in this industry have about 20-30 clients they are already busy with and won’t take on more. Then there are newly turned agents who are actively looking to build their client list. Then there are some agents who keep their client list small because they want their clients to get as much attention as the other authors do. It varies on the author, do they want an agent who is strictly business who only takes on projects that are completely sellable, or an agent who likes to work closely with their clients? Thanks for letting me comment! The others I look for in agents is if they represent things I want to write for; I want to write for kids picture books, middle grade, young adult, then…  — Read More »

Taurean Watkins

While I’m stoked about my debut novel (release date unknown at this time) I don’t have an agent yet, and went with a respectable small press for my first book, but I know I need and want an agent for my long-term career. I do feel unless you’re a highly versatile writer, and can write on spec for WFH or educational markets (Especially if you’re a children’s author like me) having an agent is becoming more necessary in the U.S. as few quality publishers are open to the unagented, no matter if we’re talking query letter only, let alone unsolicited manuscripts, partial or full. Agents are starting to matter more just to get READ, never mind published. My top requirements for an agent are- 1. You GET my genre and respect it’s variety The longer I write, the more I realize that after picture books, animal stories become a licorice taste, you either love it or not, and while it’s important to get feedback on our work from various channels, it’s key your potential agents loves and respects the primiary genres you write in, while still of course challenging you in the ways that matter for your work. That said, I don’t want a “Drill Sargent” agent who’s SO business-minded I feel patronized like some ignorant brat (I had teachers like that in school, don’t need to hear from one on a regular basis) 2. An ally in navigating the business part of publishing Sure, it’s important I know a…  — Read More »

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