Monday, October 20, 2008

Agents: It's not about being nice

I had intended to blog today about agents, and what to look for, but Victoria Strauss beat me to it, for the most part. So go read her post, and come on back. I'll wait.

The thing is, several times of late around the wide internets I've seen this subject come up, and I see comments about making sure you "click" with the agent, and making sure they're enthusiastic, and talking perhaps about where they see your career going. All of which is good advice, yes--for when you've got offers on the table.

But when deciding whom to query, you have no idea if you click with the agent or not. You may read their blog, if they have one, and decide you like them from that, which is fine.

The fact is, when sending queries there is only one matter of any importance. It's not their personality; it's not their blog; it's not that you met them at a conference and they were really fun and nice.

It's their sales, and only their sales*. What have they sold? Have those sales been to any of the big houses? An agent whose sales are only to small houses which don't require an agent suggests the agent in question doesn't have the necessary contacts at the major houses. An agent with no sales at all, also likely does not have the contacts*. An agent who's been in business for over a year without any sales likely does not have the contacts. These agents will not help your career; they will hinder it. An agent without any sales* doesn't know what's selling; they haven't yet picked a salesable manuscript (which is an agent's chief job; it's how they earn a living). Their submissions could very well be ignored by editors. If an editor does happen to take a look, and does happen to make an offer, this agent is very unlikely to be able to negotiate the best possible contract for you.

It doesn't matter if the agent is enthusiastic. It doesn't matter if they're nice. It doesn't matter if, in offering to represent you, they buy you a pony and some chocolates too. Because unless a pony and some chocolate is all you desire out of your career, chances are you'll never get further.

It doesn't matter if the agent is listed on Publisher's Marketplace; it doesn't matter if they attend conferences; it doesn't matter if they represent a friend of yours and that friend says the agent is just the nicest, happiest agent in the whole wide world. All that matters at the query stage is what they've sold.

If they don't have any sales*, they don't get your query. It's just that simple. Yes, publishing is a slow business, but that doesn't mean you can afford to waste a couple of years while your submissions go nowhere thanks to your ineffective agent.

If they don't have a website (and not all agents do; my own excellent agent doesn't have a site and isn't listed on PM; he rarely reports his sales [mine was reported because I asked him to; gotta love a man who tries to keep the ladies happy]; his internet presence, in short, in practically nonexistent) then Google is your friend. The sites Victoria listed are pretty good; I used both and, and followed up every agent who interested me with searches in the Bewares & Background Check forum on Absolute Write and extensive Googling before I decided whether or not to query them.

Meeting an agent at a conference is no guarantee. It depends on the conference; an agent taking pitch meetings at RWA Nationals, for example, has been vetted (I believe, anyway, that they have to be RWA-recognized in order to take appts. there); an agent who just shows up at RWA as a guest has NOT been vetted.

Seeing an agent keep a blog is no guarantee; I can think offhand of two agencies with blogs, whose sales records are either unimpressive or nonexistent (no, I don't recall their names, I just picture the sites in my head.)

A website is no guarantee; again, I can think of a few I've seen where they list "sales", but when I looked the titles up on Amazon (which is also your friend when it comes to agent-hunting) the books were either PA books or other vanity press books.

Quite frankly, just as there is little excuse in this day and age to give your book to a vanity-press scam like PublishAmerica, there is little excuse to query an agent you know nothing about, and no excuse in the world to sign with an agent with no sales*. This is pretty common-sense stuff here, really.

Just like an agent wouldn't sign YOU based on your pretty smile or charming personality if you'd never written a book, you shouldn't query an agent who's never sold one. Period. Remember when we talked about publishers and guinea pigs? It's the same thing.

You are not in this business to be somebody's practice round*. You are not in this business to help out new agents or give them a chance. You are not in this business to be a learning experience. You are in it to write books and make money from them.

Should you like your agent? Of course! Should you be comfortable with your agent? Of course. But all of that is to be determined later. When you start querying, the first and only thing that matters is what books they've sold. They represent your favorite writer, who's got four books on the shelves? Go for it. They represent your favorite writers who is a NYT Bestseller with dozens of books on the shelves? Go for it.

They represent some authors you know online, who are really great people and talented and say how much they love their agent, but none of them has a deal, and when you check the agent's website there are no sales listed? Nope, sorry. Throw back the little fish.

Mercenary? Perhaps. But trust me. You might feel bad deciding not to query that agent, but you'll feel a lot worse two years down the road, when five manuscripts have made the rounds and been rejected (and are therefore "dead" for all intents and purposes) and neither you nor any of your friends have actually sold any books.

And that's what I have to say on that subject.

I am forming a rather troubling addiction to a particular candy. They're called "Drumsticks"; they're a sort of raspberry-and-milk flavored taffy on a stick. I'm not sure why I like them so much, but I do, and I'm getting to a point where the day isn't complete without one. And it's not like an adult dessert (I baked a honey-and-chocolate cake on Saturday; not bad). This is taffy on a stick we're talking about. There is nothing more childlike than candy on a stick, seriously. Or any food on a stick, really, with the exception of kebabs which I dislike (the meat is always tough, and they always use red peppers which regular readers know I am violently allergic to). But even with kebabs you take the stick out.

So I'm doubly looking forward to Halloween, because the candy assortment we buy comes with many, many Drumsticks. Ahhh.

Also tried on my Halloween costume yesterday and put up our Halloween decorations, which was fun. Unfortunately the waist of the costume is a little high, which makes me look a bit stumpy, but so what. It's a sort of zombie dress with sheer sleeves and sheer panels on the stomach, on which bones are printed. I guess it's supposed to give them impression that my flesh is rotting away?

I will of course post pictures when I have some.

*NOTE: A new agent with an established agency is the exception to this. If Agent X is suddenly taking queries at Writer's House, or Fine Print, or Trident, or Dystel, or whatever established agency, chances are they not only used to be an assistant and thus have some contacts and experience, but one of the pros will be helping them. New agents at established agencies are an EXCELLENT bet for queries.


Evanne said...

Lots of good advice here, if I get back to writing perhaps someday I'll be able to put it to good use. :D

Seeley deBorn said...

Ooo. I remember getting Drumsticks as a kid! There was an orange flavour too!

As for agents, yeah, there are times when I'm glad I'm a bit of a cynic and kinda anti-social.

No, really, I am. ;)

Charles Gramlich said...

You definitely have to approach agents and publishing like it's a business. That's difficult for me but I work at it.

kirsten saell said...

You cynical and anti-social, Seeley? I'm shocked to hear you say that!

You always have good advice, D. You should know I pimp your blog out to anyone who wants to know how to find a publisher or how to construct a sex scene or how to write a convincing hero--as well as any poor deluded fool who thinks Madonna is cool.

BernardL said...

For the unpublished(that would include me), it's less about picking or choosing, and more about any port in the storm. :) Good post.

laughingwolf said...

great advice, from both...

in canada, a treat 'drumstick' is a frozen icecream cone, individually wrapped, sprinkled with peanuts

Robyn said...

Great post, D.

Anonymous said...

The question is, are agents blog-lurkers? LOL -V95

writtenwyrdd said...

I read VS's article before I found your post this morning. I agree that it must be a business relationship and business issues must be addressed first and foremost; however because it's mostly a one-on-one between author and agent, it's difficult to separate the people issues. Like how you like them and want to have a relationship and to trust based on liking that agent or author. Makes it tough for a lot of us who are more geared toward that aspect rather than business details.