Friday, July 22, 2011

In Defense of the Elusive Agent

Like many aspiring writers, I stalk and with regularity. I need to know things like who’s accepting (or not accepting) queries and the exact hour they will open up again, should I use Mr. or Ms. when addressing the query letter, and reconfirm the submission guidelines.

What? You don’t believe me? Ok, I’ll tell the truth. I really log on to see who’s saying what about which agent. This is important stuff! Has the agent signed anyone new? (Oh yeah, I good naturedly hate that person.) Are they on vacation? What’s the response time for rejections? Partials? Fulls? What’s their form rejection sound like? Are they the no answer=no interest type of agent? This is breaking news stuff.  Some of the information is really helpful and those brave enough to post their rejections (and ultimately their success stories) remind us that while writing can be very lonely, there are people out there who get it. Still, there are the few who feel slighted by the response (or lack of response) they receive and they let everyone else know about it.

As artists, we aren’t always the best at accepting rejection. It’s not too hard to convince us that we were unfairly and personally judged by the high and mighty agent who’s making so much money on his/her other clients that he/she doesn’t want to take on a talent such as ours.

But I’ve had the chance to interact with some great agents in the business at conferences. I follow their blogs more religiously than I follow the Indianapolis Colts (*gasp*) and I get tweets from even more. (Thank goodness for social media!) I’ve learned a lot from them. More importantly, I’ve learned a lot about them and the jobs they are so passionate about.  Which is why I feel I am qualified (*chokes back laughter*) to give you my take on the life and times of an agent. (And since I’m in query mode, I will add I am in no way sucking up to any agents who might find this post.)

Here are some comments I have seen or heard regarding the role of agents and my take on them.

1.       “The agent never responded to my query. I bet she/he isn’t even looking for new clients.” Okay, and this may or may not apply to the top unnamed agents at the top unnamed agencies (You know who they are… the ones that roll of the tongue when you start listing your dream team), but writers are an agents bread and butter. You know that word “commission”? (Don’t worry… we’ll get to that soon.) Well, in case you forgot, commission normally indicates that, if you don’t sell something, in this case, someone’s manuscripts/foreign rights/film options/etc, you don’t get paid. Sure, they may be able to pick up side jobs and take on other responsibilities in the office to make ends meet, but ultimately, they want the commission. The more contracts they get for their clients, the better quality of meat they can eat for dinner.

2.       “I sent in a steamy erotica that would make Heff blush, but all I got was an email that said it wasn’t for them.” Just out of curiosity, did you send it to an agent who reps children/YA books? Are you sure they were looking for your style of writing? Uh, no, I just sent it to every agent on the list. Okay. Now we’re getting somewhere. Some agents are listed on QT and AT as taking everything under the sun, which is why it’s always a good idea to double check on their websites before you send off your query. If you don’t, you’re wasting their time and adding unnecessary hash marks to your rejection tally.  

3.       “The agent only asked for 3-5 pages. How could they possibly know my story isn’t for them?” (This is perhaps my favorite one, quite possibly because I am guilty of allowing this indignant thought to pass through my mind.)  Let’s try that honesty thing again: it only takes a couple of pages to figure out if your editing process consists of fixing the mistakes caught by spell check. Second, there’s this thing called a hook. You know… the thing that hooks a reader in? You don’t know what that is? That could be your next problem.  When you’re searching for that hidden treasure in a stack of books, how long does it usually take to know if it’s the right one for you? What’s that? 3-5 pages? Same here. (Though my book club has taught me there are rare exceptions to that rule, ie. Story of Beautiful Girl)

4.       “Why does it take an agent so long to get back to me? Aren’t they waiting by their computer for my jaw dropping letter?” Perhaps a better question is, “Would you want to be represented by someone who just sat at their desk and answered the queries of others?” I would guess that, when we reach the illusive promised land of representation, we would actually prefer our agent spend time trying to sell our latest work. You know, so everyone can get paid.  Now there are those agents who can reject (or request) quickly. In fact, my fastest rejection is nine minutes. (That one did leave me using #3 as I pouted my way to sleep.) We live in a society of instantaneous gratification. But rising to the top of the slush pile takes time. Suck it up and get to work on your next masterpiece.

5.       “15% Commission? 20% for foreign rights? WTF?” Remember when you first started writing and you had that doe-eyed, romantic impression that, as a published writer you could spend your days at the keyboard spewing forth all the passionate prose you could think of? How’s that working out for you? In this day and age, it’s more important than ever to promote our work (like this blog or twitter {you can follow me @writinghoosier}). Now, maybe you want to keep as much cash as possible and have opted to take the self-publishing route. Very cool. Nothing wrong with that. But I, personally, will gladly hand over 15% to someone who’s going to be looking out for my best interest! Heck, I tip my servers 20%. Shouldn’t someone who’s helping me plan and achieve my dreams get a decent cut?

I was going to stop at five, but since I’m preparing for the Midwest Writer’s Workshop (, I thought I would throw out one more. (PS. It’s not really agent related. Sorry for the false advertising!)

6.       “Why should I go to a writer’s conference? I’m a great writer already.” I can only laugh at this because I said the same thing one year ago. I attended my first conference convinced I was going to walk away with an agent and well on my way to a six-figure advance, 3 book publishing contract. (Okay, maybe I wasn’t that naive, but it was close.) The writer I was then and the writer I am now aren’t even in the same league. I’m not saying that my books will ever be described as epic, but in three days I not only learned that I had a lot to learn, but I left with the tools I needed to overhaul my novel. I took advantage of a manuscript review by NYT Bestseller Marcus Sakey who showed me how I could up my game and really add suspense to my YA fantasy. I pitched an agent and got a partial request. (For the record, I’m still waiting for a reply, one year later… just a friendly reminder not to put your eggs in one basket.) And those two things were great. But what was really helpful is that I recharged my creative battery by being around people who love books and words as much as I do. And, even better: I found three very honest critique partners who have helped me craft my novel over the last year. Now I’m honored to call them friends. Friends who can empathize with the sting of rejection and celebrate finally figuring out how to make your character do what you want them to do. As I mentioned, I’m heading back to MWW next week and I have another pitch scheduled, which I plan to knock out of the park (as long as I don’t knock the table over with my nerves). But the energy that comes from being around other writers: you can’t beat that!

That’s it. There is no more. I’ve espoused all I can muster on this topic. Agree with it, disagree with it, whatever. Just remember to Be Bold in whatever flames your fires of passion!


  1. Love this post. I will agree that the best thing a writer can do is find good critique partners and that attending conferences is the best professional development I have ever experienced. See you at MWW :)

  2. Great post! I will be there as well. I have attended many conference but this is my first year at #MWW11. I heard about it back in mumble-mumble when I was in college. It's sad that it has taken me this long to attend. See you there!

  3. I hope you had a great time at MWW! I wanted to go this year, but intervenes.

    Agreed on all your points--sometimes I think we take the frustrations of the process out on the wrong things :)

    And hi from another Hoosier :)