Finding an Agent: the Ugly Truth

Art by Kathleen Jennings

Finding an Agent: the Ugly Truth[1]

by Angela Slatter

Literary agents manage, in theory, all the business of a writer’s work. This includes the submission, sale, contracting, publication, translation, production and reproduction. They act as a conduit between authors and publishers (and sometimes editors). If a writer’s lucky, their agent is a proactive sword and shield, utterly loyal to their client’s interests (no pressure) … wait, that kind of makes them sound like feudal knights with a Lord or a Pope to answer to unquestioningly … so scratch that. Your agent is hopefully an intelligent, independent professional with your career’s best interests at heart. Yeah, let’s go with that.

They use their industry knowledge and contacts sell projects to book publishers, or television and film producers, sometimes bring business to your door, act as a gatekeeper and generally negotiate contracts for you to the best of their ability and professional competence.

They sound fabulous, don’t they? Would you like one? Who wouldn’t?

Well, unfortunately while it is a truth universally acknowledged, that a writer in possession of a good manuscript, must be in want of a literary agent, it is a fact less universally recognised that agents are a very difficult commodity to acquire. In Australia, there is a rather small number of working literary agents and a very large number of wannabe writers. The pool of agents does not seem to be growing, at least not at speed – possibly because, like pandas, they don’t breed in captivity – while the number of writers vying for attention is most certainly on the rise. Or perhaps (more reasonably) it’s because we have a smaller marketplace, smaller print runs, a smaller book-buying public, so the system does not lend itself to a growth in the agent population as the ecosystem can’t provide all  of them with a decent living.

So, how do you get an agent?

I always say that you need to be an informed writer: learn about all aspects of the business (writing, publishing, editing, marketing, sales, etc) because your job doesn’t end when you write “The End”. Be informed because you will sense something is wrong when someone tries to sell you a delightful piece of swampland or the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Join your local writers’ centre and go to their industry evenings; go to the business of writing panels at festivals; listen and learn. Your bullshit detector will be far more highly calibrated if you are an informed writer.

So, having become informed, put your best submission foot forward. Always remember that you are, until you become a mega-super-rich bestseller, the supplicant. You may well have an awesome product – your book – but no one knows that until they actually read it. Therefore, how do you get an agent to do that all important action, the “looking at of the book”? Here are the highlights:

  1. Research your target, but not in a stalking kind of way. I mean establish which agents represent your genre because there’s no point in sending a bodice-ripping romance to someone who only represents espionage thrillers with explosions on every second page. Make sure you check and follow their submission guidelines to the letter; it’s not like the Pirates’ Code, you don’t get to pick and choose which bits you follow and which you don’t. Make sure you peruse their list of clients carefully. Do you recognise any of the names? Do the covers of those clients’ books look professionally produced? Do you know an existing client well enough to ask them about how they find their agent; are they happy together? Also, if you are writing very much like someone already on the existing list, why would they take you on? Can you offer something new? If not, then move on.
  2. Write first, Agent second. By this I mean do not approach an agent before you’ve written anything. You’d be wasting their time and yours. You are meant to be presenting them with a product they can sell in order to (hopefully) make both of you an income for one cannot buy groceries with artistic integrity. Cafés take a very dim view of trying to swap a sonnet for smashed avocado on toast and a chai latte. Agents run a business: you and your book(s) are their stock-in-trade. No book = nothing to talk about[2].
  3. Be polite to everyone. Always. In life and in writing and publishing. Agents talk to each other; they talk to publishers, editors, other writers, booksellers, marketing and sales people. If you get a reputation as someone who is unprofessional and unpleasant to deal with, the whole industry will eventually know. Similarly, if you’re creating an online platform, remember that someone is always watching/reading and search engines will find anything you’ve ever put into e-space, so be wary. If you’re rude and complaining about someone, it can and will come back to haunt you.
  4. Write a cover letter that will get attention; make it succinct and relevant. A five page epistle will not help your cause. Introduce yourself in the first short paragraph, including any writing credits, awards or courses you may have done. If you have a particular area of expertise or experience in the subject you’re writing about, then say so: “As I was the captain of a pirate ship for fifteen years, I am eminently qualified to write a novel about a pirate captain”. The next paragraph should be about your novel: specify genre, length, target audience and a summary of the plot (a ‘blurb’) in one, two or three sentences – any further detail should be left for the synopsis. In the next paragraph, you may like to mention what inspired you to write the book, and note any authors whose work is similar to yours. As a courtesy, if you’re simultaneously submitting to other agents/publishers, mention that as well. Make sure you address your letter to the right person and do not, repeat do not, write “Dear Sir” when the recipient is female – or indeed, vice versa. If someone has a title, like “Dr”, then use it. Do not be over-familiar with someone you do not know; or indeed with someone you do.
  5. Be able to summarise your novel in (a) a grab line, (b) a blurb (25 words or less), AND (c) a one to two page synopsis. If you cannot be succinct about the plot of your novel, you cannot grab someone’s attention. Think of it like this: you have a 60 second elevator ride with an agent and you need to tell them about your novel. A rambling ode will not cut it. Do not, repeat, do not hit the emergency stop button to gain more time.
  6. And remember this: just because one agent says “No” doesn’t mean no agent will ever want to represent you. Another agent may well love your work, so you cannot take rejection personally.[3] Persist.[4] Behave like a professional because you should be dealing with professionals. Listen to the advice you are given, even when (or perhaps especially when) it’s from someone rejecting your manuscript because just maybe they are right and you can learn something new.

Things Not to Do

  1. Don’t call an agent and demand that they take you on. Don’t tell them they’d be lucky to have you and they should really get onboard now! And yes, I know I already said this in a footnote, but I really, really mean it.
  2. Should you, for some reason best known to you and the god of your choosing, decide to use a phone for its original and archaic purpose, i.e. phoning someone, then do not, for the love of all that’s holy, be rude to the receptionist. Do not then demand to speak to their boss, the real agent. You know what? Sometimes the person answering the phone is the agent, not a lackey – so, once again, be polite to everyone. Plus sometimes the agent will ask the receptionist what they thought of the person on the other end of the phone; so keep that in mind before you get snippy with the help.
  3. In case of meeting an actual honest-to-goodness agent at a writers festival/cocktail party, etc, don’t thrust a manuscript under their nose or into their handbag or under the toilet door. It may seem like an opportunity, but it’s not. You can mention politely that you’re a writer and if they ask if you’ve got a manuscript and what it’s about, then feel free to give the blurb (elevator pitch). If the agent is interested they might ask to see said manuscript. They might even give you a business card. Also, they might not, and if they don’t then take the hint; do not insist. Please do not spend the entire function monopolising the agent – I know it’s exciting, a real live agent and not a blow-up one, however, they might want to talk to someone else, they might have friends there, or they might just want some quiet time hiding on a balcony drinking the festival’s horrible wine and having a sneaky cigarette before the fire alarm goes off.
  4. Do not send gifts (or put glitter in envelopes as there’s a special Hell reserved for people who do that). They will not work. They count as forms of bribery, graft and corruption. You’re not an international arms dealer trying to make time with a Prime Minister, President or Secretary for Defence. You’re not trying to win favour with a difficult child. Just don’t.
  5. If the agent’s website says you will pay a reading fee to get them to look at your manuscript, then quietly walk away. Better yet, run screaming and telling all the other writers you can find about this. An agent makes their money from the commission they take on the book deal they negotiate for you. Part of your agent research should be to check out sites like Preditors & Editors and Writer Beware (go on, do the Google) – there is a lot of info out there in Internetland that can be useful to an informed writer.
  6. Be aware that there’s a bit of a Catch-22 with the “Do I approach an agent or a publisher first” question. You can approach publishers directly yourself (a lot have open submission periods once a week), but keep in mind that if you’ve already approached and been rejected by most of the publishers in Australia, then an agent cannot do much for you with a book that’s already been rejected (unless it’s had significant reworking and the agent can vouch for its improved condition).
  7. Don’t ring after two weeks demanding to know why the agent hasn’t contacted you. You may have to wait for months – deal with it. They will probably have a note on their website telling you what the average response period is. Put a note in your diary; if you’ve not heard back by then, then send a polite enquiry via email. If you’ve not heard back by the end of a month (like a proper four-week month), then feel free to send another polite email which thanks them for their kind consideration but you are withdrawing the submission and sending it elsewhere. That’s all you need (indeed should) do; no fanfare, no huffing and puffing, no dramatic exiting stage left whilst trailing black veils behind you and shouting “I said Good Day, sir!”[5]. This is not a calculated kick to the ego, it is not personal insult: just move on and do the productive, professional activities that progress your career.

Do You Need an Agent?

Opinions on the importance of agents vary, even (or especially) amongst established authors (possibly because if you’ve already got one, you can afford to feel a bit jaded/take things for granted). If you’ve been around long enough, published enough books, gone to enough conventions, been mostly polite and professional, you will probably find you know a lot of editors and publishers well enough to not only drink whiskey with them in convention hotel bars, but also to go to their homes and not be escorted out by the constabulary while someone shouts “The terms of the restraining order were very clear!”  You can send them emails and Christmas cards, or even *gasp* call them on the phone.

If you get to this point in your career, you might also be in a position where you don’t need an agent to pitch your next book to a publisher … you can do that yourself over a beverage. Having gained a publisher’s attention in a fashion that won’t lead to incarceration, some writers will then either negotiate contracts for themselves or hand the next stage of the process over to their agent.

So, some agents do everything for you; some agents only do the bits you don’t want to/are not sufficiently expert at doing. Some agents don’t do even the minimal things they should or have agreed to do in their agreement with you (more on that below). My point is this: what you think an agent is going to do for you and what they think they are going to do for you might well be two different things. Some literary agencies call themselves “full service agencies” – which makes me giggle because I am basically a teenage boy – but it actually means they manage all aspects of your career. But just make sure (a) you’re both clear on what those aspects are and (b) they do what they say they’re going to do. You will, as an informed writer, have a written and signed agreement with your agent (no handshakes, no gentlefolks’ agreements only WRITTEN, SIGNED, HARD COPIES KEPT IN YOUR FILING CABINET), which you will have read, understanding the print whether it be fine, gross or pleasingly plump. If you have not understood any part of your agreement, ask until you have an answer you understand and with which you concur. The agreement should set out things like the commission your agent earns, the services they will undertake for you, and a termination clause in case you part ways.

Some agents will look over your contract and advise on it for a fee without actually being your agent. If you don’t need an agent to agent for you, but you do need someone with specialised publishing contract knowledge, then this is the person for you. Like a Tinder date: some benefits, no real commitment.

Breaking Up Is Hard to Do

So, what if you’ve got an agent but you’re not happy with them? Now, this bit is hard, especially when you’ve taken so long to actually find an agent. You thought they would be your forever agent, but for one reason or another, things are not working out. Whether someone is failing to put the cap back on the literary toothpaste, refusing to put the toilet seat down in the dark of night whilst also failing to change the toilet roll, things are going south. Deals are not being made, contracts are falling through, terms are not what they promised, emails are not being answered, no one has time to discuss a strategy for moving forward.       This is a relationship like any other. For a while, you hang on. You tell yourself, “It’s still good! We can work through it. I can compromise!”

Until one day, you just can’t. Your nerves frayed, you’re grumpy all the time, you’re not getting answers and your needs are not getting met. You really don’t want to say “We need to talk” because you know that is the end of all relationships. Also, OMG you will then be AGENTLESS. *cue horrified screams* But here’s the thing: if the required work is not getting done, if you are stressed by the situation and nothing is being done to remedy the problem, if you and your agent are at odds and your differences are irreconcilable, then there is no point having this particular agent. You are wasting each other’s time and moving closer to a frustration-induced axe-murder scenario.

Having no agent is better than having a bad agent. Having no relationship is better than having a bad relationship.

Also keep in mind that maybe you were not the easiest client. Maybe you weren’t what they thought they were getting either. Maybe they lost faith in your writing just like you lost faith in their agenting. Also, you are not going to be their only client so you need to be patient and remember that you are not the centre of the universe – sometimes this is difficult because as writers we spend a lot of time alone and it makes us selfish and inward-looking with a tendency towards talking more to imaginary friends that actual ones. But still, learn to know when it’s time to move on (from all relationships, quite frankly).

Cut your losses and leave, then start again. Be polite. Write a polite break-up letter. Be professional. Don’t sledge the old agent in public. Remember: private fainting couch tantrum, public professional behaviour.

But do break up.

Habit is easy even when it’s injurious to us in some way, shape or form. Change is hard and it’s difficult to remember to do the different new thing instead of the habitual old thing. But only for a while. And a bad agent who’s not doing what they’ve agreed to do? They are not helping your cause or career. If they’re not actively hindering then the very least they are doing is keeping you in stasis, and there’s no progress in stasis. Quite frankly, the only good time to be in stasis is when you’re on a generation ship going to a new world many light years away, or being kept alive until they can find a cure for your terrible disease and/or upload your consciousness into a sexy robot body.

Remember this also: your agency agreement might specify a period during which you cannot sign with another agent – you need to observe this. Also be aware that an agent will continue to receive commission on future royalties on books for which they negotiated the deals.

In conclusion:

Ultimately, chances are that no one will manage your career in precisely the way you want them to, but if you make a point of setting expectations from the outset then you have a baseline to point to later on if things go off the rails. Key performance indicators can help in all aspects of life (or make it miserable, too).  You need to have that conversation about expectations and perceptions: if you don’t tell someone what you want, then they won’t know, and they probably don’t read minds. The corollary is this: if you do tell someone what you want and they are not willing to do it, and they repeatedly fail to deliver (especially when they say they will deliver), then it is time to consider your options. Otherwise, as with all relationships, the choice is remaining in a situation that just makes you unhappy and unsatisfied. And nobody wants that. Always have an escape plan; it’s what an informed writer would do.

So, that problem with a lack of Australian agents? How about an overseas agent? Follow the same steps as listed in this mind-numbingly long article, but be aware of the ‘portability’ of your work. By that I mean will your writing appeal to an overseas market? Will it be relevant and saleable in another locale? If not, then chances are an overseas agent won’t look at your work. Don’t self-reject, but do be aware of the possibility that the writing might not appeal elsewhere – but there are a lot of other markets, so persist.

An agent should have good contacts in the writing and publishing industry and a thorough knowledge of current industry trends and developments. They should know about copyright, contracts, overseas rights, subsidiary rights and other legal issues related to the sale of intellectual properties inside out. They should have contacts with agents in other countries just in case you’re lucky enough to sell foreign rights. They should be the sort of person you want to conduct your business for you. They don’t need to be your friend, but you do need to feel you can trust them.

You don’t need an agent, but they can be an invaluable part of your business team (and writing is a business). The agent is like the Kelly Bag of the literary world – nice to have but sometimes you have to do without. But you can increase your chances of getting one (and hopefully good one) if you follow the advice above.

Notes of the Foot

[1] This article originally appeared in The Australian Writer’s Marketplace 2011/12 (August 2010), and has been updated based on a further eight-ish years of experiences, good and bad. Many thanks to Dennan Chew and Ron Serdiuk for their wise comments.

[2] Just because you’ve finished the first draft does not mean it’s time to query: make sure you’ve revised and edited, had outside eyes on the manuscript, and polished the thing until it shines BEFORE you query. Do not, repeat, do not send your first draft.

[3] Caveat the First: unless the rejection includes the words “This is the worst spelled, most grammatically incorrect manuscript I’ve ever seen, with unspeakable subject matter, and it was written in crayon” … then you need to reconsider your life choices.

[4] Caveat the Second: Although do remember that if an agent rejects you, don’t argue and try to convince them you’d be great together. If you hear the words “Baby, I can change!” issue forth from your lips, just stop. Very bad tactic in all facets of life.

[5] Don’t get me wrong: I love a good fit of histrionics. I can and will throw myself onto the fainting couch and wail BUT I do this in the privacy of my own home with only the dogs and housemates as witnesses.

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