Monday, April 22, 2013

Gate Keepers...or Something More?

I've been following the publishing industry for a few years. I've seen some really popular agents fall off the radar, and other ones pop on. I've also watched as a couple have risen to near God-status (in the eyes of writers - not necessarily other agents!).

There are some truly approachable agents out there; really nice folks who are kind, funny, and entertaining. They offer intelligent conversation, a drink at the bar, tips on making a piece of writing better. They're up on the latest trend, can discuss the digital publishing copyright laws without sounding pretentious and have a handle on the lingo.

But when you ask some about their current clients or most-recent sales, they stop talking. The subject is changed - usually brought back to the writer. Tell me more about your story! Or, I'm really glad I bumped into you. You seem like a normal person, one I could really work with.

Many writers would fall all over themselves at this point, beyond excited that an agent - a real live gatekeeper-to-the-hallowed-publishing-house-halls - is interested in their work.

Newsflash: People aren't always what they seem. 

An agent is, first and foremost, a business partner. He must believe in your message (that's the book) and be willing to work with you to smooth that message out until it's crystal clear. She must be willing to mentor you, the new writer, in a rapidly-changing publishing world. He must be able to show a track record. She must be willing to tell you when something isn't going to sell, and to move on to the next book.

When an agent offers representation, I really believe that the only way it'll work out is if you have done your due diligence. Check out the sales - specifically, check out the book's acknowledgements. (If there is a gushing tribute to the agent, that's a pretty good sign the agent worked hard for the author, although no mention at all doesn't mean the opposite.) Talk with the agent - if possible, meet in person. See if you click, if he gets you, if she understands you. 

For some, agents are the gate-keepers to the publishing world. But for others, agents are the people who can handle the business side of writing while you concentrate on the creative side of it. 

Recently, I met an agent who was fantastic. I was so excited; I thought she would be a great person to represent me. I was pretty shocked to find out that even though she's been a full-time literary agent (according to her) for almost 10 years, she's only sold 4 books. Four in her entire career. And none of those four were to big-name publishers - small presses only (that's a red flag - small presses are great, but shouldn't be everything an agent submits to).

How does she make a living on one book every 2.5 years? And if she can't sell more than four books in a decade, how in the world is she going to sell my book in a tough market? When I asked her these questions, she - you guessed it - started to wax lyrical about my writing.

I should mention that 10 pages of my writing is not enough for anyone to wax lyrical.

Anyway, my point is this: Please don't get so caught up in a person's title that you risk your career. You've spent weeks, months, sometimes even years with your manuscript...why would you want to hand that over to someone without being 100% confident that person is the one who will rep your book as if it is his own?

You don't. I believe that when you query an agent, you're essentially asking for an opportunity to interview him. Once the agent is interested in your work and thinks you might be someone he can represent, then it's your turn. Ask a million questions. Follow @RubenAgency and @mushenska on Twitter to see the #askagent sessions they run (there's an #askagent session tonight, where you can ask questions and a literary agent will answer as best he can - this is a great way to get some great information about submissions, the author/agent relationship, and much more). 

So be careful, and if you get rejections from lit agents, keep querying. And keep interviewing. Good luck!


  1. I "stalk" agents before querying. Sales, authors, how they interact with others, how many times they have moved name it :) Probably why my query numbers are so low lol But it is a tricky industry, and it is best to find someone who is willing to help you navigate, not completely take the wheel and then park it.

    1. Absolutely agree, T.J.! It's not the number of queries that matters; a write could send out one and that agent could love her writing, like her personality and she'd be off and running. :)