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:
- 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.)
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:
- 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!
- 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.
- 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!
* * * * * *
Susan 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).