While authors often obsess about getting any agent to represent them, in reality, writers should be concerned about finding the right agent—the one whose personality, business habits, and expectations are a match to the author’s own.
The author-agent relationship is a partnership. Like any business relationship, its success is heavily dependent on the partners’ ability to work together effectively – and authors can increase their odds of finding an effective partner by researching agents in advance, asking proper questions when an agent shows interest in representation, and being willing to refuse an offer if the agent isn’t a proper match for the author’s needs.
Effective literary agents match the author in three important areas:
— Business and Professional Style
— Nature of the Agency Relationship
A significant mismatch in any of these areas will cause tension on both sides, and reduce the effectiveness of the author-agent partnership.
Authors in search of an agent often point out that the agent, not the author, gets to decide whether or not to offer representation, and that the author can only decide among the agents who do make offers. While that’s true, the author chooses which agents to query or pitch, which means the author has the power to decide—up front—which agents (s)he is interested in working with. Authors should take the time to research agents thoroughly in advance, and query only those the author believes would be a proper match.
What should an author look for in an agent? While your specific list may vary, based on your personal and business needs, here’s a brief overview of the relevant categories:
Successful business partnerships are based on mutual appreciation, respect, and complementary personalities. While a personality “match” does not require (or always lead to) a friendship outside the business, if you don’t respect your agent as a person, you won’t work well together.
Some authors form personal friendships with their agents, while others remain on professional terms. Query agents whose style (as observed in conference settings, in interviews, and on social media) match your preferences, and don’t waste time on querying agents whose personalities clash with yours—no matter how famous they are or how many authors they represent.
BUSINESS AND PROFESSIONAL HABITS
Writing is a business, and successful business partners need to have similar business habits and attitudes.
I prefer email to the telephone, for business correspondence. My agent does, too, which streamlines our communications and makes us a more effective team. When researching agents, look for information about the way they conduct their business, and query the ones whose business habits seem a good match for your own.
At a minimum, your agent should behave in accordance with industry standards:
- Agents should not charge fees for reading manuscripts or considering queries. Professional literary agents receive a percentage-based commission on contracts the agent negotiates with publishers (and others) on the author’s behalf.
- Agents should act professionally in public and on social media. Before you query, watch the way the agent behaves in public (including the Internet). Read the agent’s website, social media feeds, and interviews. Don’t query anyone whose behavior is unprofessional or a poor match for your own. Note: the agent will (and should) expect the same of you. Be professional in public, even before you’re published.
- Agents should have stated procedures for queries and responses. Agency standards differ. For example, some agents respond to all queries. Others don’t. While the agent has the right to choose the manner in which (s)he does business, authors have the right to query the agents whose processes they prefer.
NATURE OF THE AGENCY RELATIONSHIP
Even within the industry standards, literary agents conduct their businesses in different ways. Authors should query (and sign with) agents who structure their agency relationships in a manner that meets the author’s needs (and wishes). Here are some questions to ask when evaluating an agency or agent:
- Does the agent represent all the genres you write? Some authors stick to one genre, while others write (or hope to write) different types of books. When querying agents, think about your entire career . . . not just the manuscript you’ve finished now.
- How many authors does the agent represent? Too many authors chase a “famous” agent or agency instead of seeking an agent with the time and passion to represent the querying author’s works.
- How well (and quickly) does the agent communicate? This can be difficult to learn before you query, but it should be high on your list of questions when you get an offer of representation. If you prefer the telephone but your agent works through email (or the opposite), the relationship will suffer tension. You can’t expect an agent to change the way (s)he operates for you, so find an agent whose methods match your (reasonable) needs.
- Does the agent represent authors on a “book by book” or “whole career” basis? And will (s)he terminate the representation if your manuscript doesn’t sell? Make sure your understanding of the relationship matches the agent’s, and that you understand the type of representation being offered.
Make sure your expectations are reasonable, given industry standards—and then find an agent who matches as many as possible. Remember: the author-agent relationship is a partnership, and functions best when authors and agents have complementary personalities, similar business habits, and compatible goals.
Remember: you can’t control which agents offer representation, but you can and should choose carefully when constructing a query list. The more research and effort you put in up front, the higher the likelihood that you will not only receive an offer of representation, but receive it from your perfect agent match.
What’s most important to you in an agent? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comment section!
Susan Spann is a California transactional attorney whose practice focuses on publishing law and business, and is also the author of the Hiro Hattori (Shinobi) mysteries, featuring ninja detective Hiro Hattori and Portuguese Jesuit Father Mateo. Her fourth novel, THE NINJA’S DAUGHTER, released from Seventh Street Books in August 2016. Susan was the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers’ 2015 Writer of the Year, and when not writing or practicing law, she raises seahorses and rare corals in her marine aquarium. Find her online at http://www.SusanSpann.com, on Twitter (@SusanSpann), and on Facebook (/SusanSpannBooks).