June 13th, 2014

How to Find Your Perfect Agent Match

photo credit: Flipsy via photopin cc

photo credit: Flipsy via photopin cc

Susan Spann

For many writers, the author-agent relationship is confusing, and even frightening. Sometimes, authors forget that agents are people (just like us) instead of literary krakens who feed on authors’ hopes and dreams.

The author-agent relationship is a partnership. Like any business arrangement, it can lead to great success or crater into the ground at breakneck speed. However, an author can improve the odds of success by careful planning and proper choices along the way.

This summer, my guest posts here at Writers in the Storm will examine the agency relationship and offer concrete advice for writers seeking representation as well as those already working with agents. We’ll look at when to sign, when to ask questions … and when to release the kraken and seek shelter in calmer waters.

The first, and most important, part of creating a healthy author-agent partnership is finding an agent who matches your business needs and personal style.

The right agent match will complement the author on three important levels:

  • Personality
  • Business and Professional Habits.
  • Expectations for the Agency Relationship

Lack of a match in any area causes frustration and tension on both sides. If the match is bad enough, the “breakup” can be messy and even result in litigation.

The key is trying to find the right match from the very beginning—something a surprising number of authors overlook in the agent search. Today, we’ll examine the first two categories of author-agent matching. (Next month I’ll return for a look at the third.)

PERSONALITY

Successful business partnerships are based on mutual appreciation and respect, as well as complementary personalities. If you don’t like your agent as a person, odds are you won’t work well together. A personality match does not require (or necessarily lead to) friendship outside the partnership. You and your agent don’t need to share hobbies or preferences—aside from a love for the kind of books you write. In fact, complimentary qualities often strengthen a partnership. However, it is vital that you respect one another as people and as professionals.

This is a business partnership, so don’t expect it to become too personal. Some authors form friendships with their agents; others remain on more professional terms throughout the partnership. By observing the way agents interact in public and on social media, you can learn a lot about the manner in which the agent relates to clients. Query the agents with whom you think you have a personality match.

Short form: if you think an agent’s a jerk (s)he’s probably not the one for you. And that’s okay. You get to make that decision. But do your research ahead of time, and don’t waste effort querying agents whose personalities clash with yours.

BUSINESS AND PROFESSIONAL HABITS

This refers to the way the agent—and the author—conduct their respective businesses.

At a minimum, your agent should behave in accordance with industry standards. This means:

  1. Not charging the author for reading fees or anything else except appropriate, percentage-based commissions earned on contracts the agent negotiates. This is non-negotiable. Reputable agents don’t charge fees and don’t require authors to pay directly for services rendered (including editing). Writer beware!
  1. Acting professionally in public and on social media. Investigate the way an agent behaves in public forums. Use the Internet. Go to conferences. Talk to other writers. Look at the agent’s website, social media pages, and interviews. Ask yourself if this is someone you want to represent you.

Remember: agents are people, and no one is perfect, but you want an agent who shows professionalism in business settings.

Note: the agent will expect the same of you—as well (s)he should. Make sure your social media and other public interactions look professional too.

  1. Compliance with the agent’s stated procedures for handling queries (and correspondence). Standards differ. Some agents respond to all queries and state their response times in public. Others don’t. As long as the standards are reasonable, and complied with, the agent has the right to choose the manner in which (s)he does business.

Authors have opinions on each of these topics, and your opinion is relevant to your choices. If you think an agent should answer all queries, you’re not a match for an agent whose policy is “no answer means no.” You may prefer an agent who is (or isn’t) active on social media. That’s okay. It doesn’t make the agent’s policy “wrong” or inappropriate, as long as the agent is behaving professionally – it simply means that you and the agent aren’t a match on those points. Is that enough to pass on querying? Sure, if you feel strongly enough about it.

The key is remembering that the choice is yours to make—but only for your own career. Your dream agent might not suit another author, or vice versa, but there’s an agent match for everyone.

When evaluating agents, consider the following factors also:

Does the agent represent the type of books you write? Too many authors chase a famous agent for his or her name (and fame) alone instead of researching what the agent represents. Don’t be an Ahab, chasing a whale for the sake of fame (or vengeance).

How (and how quickly) does the agent communicate? You may not be able to learn about this before you query, but this should be high on your list of talking points when you get “the call” or an offer of representation. (Next month’s post will focus more on the other talking points for this conversation.)

If you prefer the telephone but your agent works through email (or the opposite), you’ll probably find the relationship unsatisfactory in the long run. You’re not the agent’s only client, and can’t expect the agent to change the way (s)he operates for you. However, it’s important to work with an agent whose methods match your—reasonable—needs.

Some agents respond to clients quickly. Others may take weeks to answer non-critical inquiries. You can’t expect your agent to jump whenever you snap your fingers (not even after you reach bestseller status) but you should try to work with an agent whose responsiveness meets your professional expectations.

Make sure your expectations are reasonable, given industry standards—and then find an agent who matches as many as possible.

Your agent should not be neglectful, or rude, or treat you like an inferior—but neither should you expect him (or her) to show up on your doorstep with a unicorn and a check for a million dollars. Look at your expectations (talk to a published author friend, if you can) and make sure you’re being reasonable, by industry standards.

There are plenty of other questions to ask of yourself and your future agent. We’ll look at more of them in next month’s post.

For now, remember: the author-agent relationship is a partnership, not a one-way street. It functions best when authors and agents have similar business habits, complimentary personalities, and compatible professional goals.

What’s most important to you in an agent? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comment section! 

*  *  *  *  *  *

About Susan

SusaSusanSpann_WITSn Spann writes the Shinobi Mysteries, featuring ninja detective Hiro Hattori and his Portuguese Jesuit sidekick, Father Mateo. Her debut novel, CLAWS OF THE CAT (Minotaur Books, 2013), was named a Library Journal Mystery Debut of the Month. The second Shinobi Mystery, BLADE OF THE SAMURAI, releases on July 15, 2014. Susan is also a transactional attorney whose practice focuses on publishing law and business. When not writing or practicing law, she raises seahorses and rare corals in her marine aquarium. You can find her online at her website, http://www.SusanSpann.com, and on Twitter (@SusanSpann).

 

 

22 comments to How to Find Your Perfect Agent Match

  • I agree with every point you’ve made, Susan, but as a veteran of the Agent Wars, I can tell you – you often don’t have a choice.

    A choice in who you query, of course, but no control over who wants to sign you. And that’s frustrating. Your ‘dream agent’ may not love your work. Someone who may not be your ‘style’ may.

    I’d recommend signing with them anyway – it’s MUCH easier to change agents once you have one. I have a friend who changed agents three times at the very beginning of her career.

    I was incredibly lucky. After 15 years and 3 books, the person who wanted to sign me was my perfect match!!!

    • I actually agree with you here, Laura – with one additional thought: If you pick the agents you query carefully enough, the one who wants to sign you should be a match on at least many of these points. That said, it’s true that when an author gets an offer of representation, as long as the agent is respectable and legitimate and loves the author’s work, it’s generally a good idea to sign.

      My primary point was just that a lot of authors don’t even think about whether an agent will really be “right” for them before starting to query – and that can lead to a mismatch, where more careful planning can often weed out a lot of mismatches early on.

      I’m in agreement with you about once the offer comes in though. Presumably, you only query agents you’d want to sign with if they say yes!

  • Helpful post here. Thank you!

  • Orly Konig-Lopez

    Great points, Susan!

    Doing your research, having an idea of what you want, and setting reasonable expectations is a huge step to securing a good partnership.

    People need to listen to their gut feelings sometimes too. We’ve all heard the easy-to-say-when-you-have-an-agent line of “No agent is better than a bad agent.” (Aspiring authors racking up rejections have a tough time swallowing that concept.)

    If you’re talking to an agent who has a good reputation, is delightful in personal interactions, checks off all the boxes on your “want” list, but there’s still a nagging feeling in your gut that something’s off, explore that feeling. Talk to a couple of the agent’s clients (current and, if you can find them, previous clients) if possible. The best decision might indeed be to walk away.

    • Thanks Orly!

      When I say “no agent is better than a bad one” – I should probably be more specific. I actually mean is “having no agent is better than having an unprofessional and/or predatory agent who doesn’t actually help your career.”

      I also think you’re absolutely right, and very wise, to recommend talking with an agent’s other clients (after the offer of rep, before you sign). I’ve acted as a reference for my agent in the past, and would do so again – as would most authors who are happy with their agents. If an agent offers representation, (s)he generally will be glad to provide client references – and beware anyone who doesn’t!

  • Thanks, Susan … at the searching stage, I must say that I am very careful who I approach. However … and that is a big however … there are thousands and thousands of agents out there on hundreds of lists. Find a reputable source that lists reputable agents and you still have hundreds and hundreds of choices.

    It may sound foolish … but I take a great deal of time selecting who to submit my work. One reason is that since there are so many, I can still search for years and never run out of choices. And the second reason … I fall into a the category of cross-genre and need to be sure that if I query someone for a mystery … that they will also represent a WF book as well.

    As always, your posts are helpful and for me this year … very timely 🙂

    • It’s great to hear that you’re taking that time and care to make sure you’re choosing wisely. Even though it’s a long haul for many of us (it was for me) to find an agent, you’ll be glad you took the time to do it correctly and carefully.

  • Great advice Susan. The more knowledge we have on a topic like this, the more control we have our careers.

    • Thanks Sharla, I think information is so important – it’s the only way we can figure out whether we’re making the best possible decisions for our careers.

  • My status as a novel writer is semi-experienced/unpublished. That is, I’ve written a few manuscripts, done a lot of querying, and had some interactions/requests for partials from legitimate agents but nothing came of it. The few agents who have requested to see my work were all highly courteous. I realize I have no standing except as a potential supplier of material at this point, so I don’t expect an agent to think I’m special or important. I’ll even take a blunt, personalized rejection (which I’ve gotten) over a polite canned one (which, of course, I’ve gotten). The only thing I ask for is professional courtesy. I don’t think I could work with an agent who is condescending or treats me as if I’m a burden.

    Like you and the some of the commenters said, research! The information is out there, so there’s no reason to fly blind.

    • Great point about professionalism and respect, Eric. No one can tell the career arc of a yet-to-be-published author, so I believe that even though you may not have the publishing clout of a NYT bestseller yet, everyone should be courteous and respectful to everyone else in this industry regardless of clout or career arc.

      I’m with you on the rejections, too. I appreciated honesty, especially when it came with comments, because it helped me learn where I needed to change things to succeed.

  • Very helpful points to remember, thanks! Some days I feel as if I’m diving into the deep end of the querying pool without knowing how to swim. I must remind myself that although I’m far from a pro, I have had lessons. After much research, I’m trying to query agents with solid reps who seem like they’d be a match, but if I go through that list. . . Like Laura wrote, sometimes it feels like writers don’t have a choice. Meanwhile, I’ll keep swimming laps, hoping I grow stronger.

    Great post!

    • Keep on swimming!!

      Even where the choices are limited, you’ll find that some agents will stand out to you – some will seem more like the kind of people you’ll want to work with. Start with those, and keep querying. When you find someone who falls in love with your work, they’re likely to match you in other areas too.

  • barbarabettis1

    Excellent points. We do forget sometimes that agents are people too. We have to do our homework before we query, though, and be aware of the fact that not everyone will be a ‘fit. Thanks!

    • Thank you Barbara. It’s funny how easy it is to forget that agents are people when you’re in the querying process. Most of the agents I’ve met are delightful people once you get to know them – with personalities as varied as the authors they represent. It’s something I wish more authors remembered during the querying process, because it helps a little when someone doesn’t connect with your work if you can remember that agents have differing tastes in books, but it’s really not personal.

  • Thank you so much for addressing this subject. Searching for an agent can be daunting. One who is respected by publishers and authors is at the top of my list. But if I can’t find one like that who really believes in my work, I’ll gladly keep looking.

    • Thank you Elaine! You’re smart to hold out and keep looking for the right match, and for an agent who truly loves and believes in your work. Even if it takes a long time to get there, it’s definitely worth the wait (and I spent ten years and five manuscripts in the process, so I know what it’s like to wait!).

  • Susan, one of the great advantages of being critique partners with Laura is that she was a “Submission Ho.” If there’s a trick to a query letter or how to organize the process, our gal knows it. And she shares the info, behind the scenes and here at WITS!

    How could we go wrong with people like you two, and Chuck Sambuchino in our corner? 🙂

    • I love the advice you (and all of the other regulars and guest bloggers) post here at WITS. This is such an amazing resource for authors, and I’m both humbled and honored to get to be part of it.

  • Holly Robinson

    Just to add to this fascinating discussion: a really great agent (like mine, who I’ve been with for over twenty years) won’t want to represent you for just one book. That agent will be interested in a working relationship with you that lasts through rejections, shifts in editors and publishing houses, and crises in confidence. It should be a working friendship of the best sort, with someone you know you can trust to be honest and have your best interests at heart.

    • This is absolutely true, Holly. My agent is also a “career agent” and she’s been amazing when it comes to helping sift through ideas and talk about all kinds of possibilities for my books and my publishing career. That kind of partnership is one of the most valuable parts of working with an agent (and also a huge part of the reason why it’s so important to find a good match from the start).