Two weeks ago I talked about why I decided so late in my career to begin working with a literary agent. I went to an agent seeking someone who had knowledge about and access to a wider range of editors than I had yet been exposed to. And once we were underway I discovered, too, how beneficial it was to have the oversight of someone who cared, not just about this individual book, but about my career. Someone insightful enough to be a sounding board for decisions about where to direct my energy for my next project. Honest enough to say, “Let’s not show this one around.” Knowledgeable enough to be able to sort the occasional blips that come up with contracts, old and new.
I resisted working with an agent for most of my career, but the world of publishing has changed in forty years. “To agent or not to agent” isn’t much of a point of discussion any longer, because today’s publishers rarely read unagented manuscripts.
So the question becomes more one of figuring out which agent is right for you.
Here are my, admittedly idiosyncratic, criteria:
Above all else, will this agent communicate with you? When you ask a reasonable question will you get an answer in a reasonable time? I can’t count the number of friends I’ve encouraged to separate from their agents because those agents went silent for long periods, even when important matters were at stake. How do you know about responsiveness before you commit yourself? Simple. Ask someone who works with the agent you are considering. If possible, ask someone who isn’t a big cheese, someone on a level similar to yours.
Is this agent functioning more as an early editor than as a purveyor of your work? I don’t mean she should be without judgment. Judgment is part of what you pay for. But if she is climbing in with all four feet and really editing, then either you are sending work too early or she is in the wrong vocation. A deep rewrite to please your agent may not please your editor.
Do editors know and respect this agent? Does he know—truly know—the editors? Is he courteous and respectful in all his negotiations? Does he ask for more than is reasonable? (Don’t fall into the trap of assuming more is always better. I have seen promising authors’ careers sidetracked by starting off with a too-big advance that didn’t earn out.)
Does she belong to the Association of Authors’ Representatives, Inc.? To belong to the AAR an agent must meet certain criteria, proof of a minimal level of experience in the industry, for instance. Members of the AAR also cannot charge reading fees, which is crucial. A literary agent charging reading fees is earning a living from reading fees, not from selling your books.
Remember, anyone, anywhere can decide to call himself a literary agent. Before going with any agent, check credentials and find out who his clients are and talk to some of them. Ask those clients what their agent really does for them. Then listen carefully. Writers’ conferences are excellent places to find out about other writers’ agents. When I was ready to begin my search, that’s where I went to gather information.
All these standards are important, but there is something I haven’t mentioned that is equally important to a career that thrives on self-confidence or falters on the lack of it.
When I was researching the question of an agent for myself, I spoke to another established writer about his agent of many years. “What does she do for you?” I asked. He gave me an enthusiastic list of what I considered to be hand-holding activities. And I was not convinced. I went away saying to myself, “I have friends who will do all that for me. And I don’t have to share my royalties with them.”
In my relatively short years of working with my agent, however, I have learned to value the status he has among editors and publishers, his responsiveness, his business acumen, his literary sensibility. All things I knew I was looking for when I sought him out.
But what I didn’t know I was looking for and what I have also found is someone who accompanies me on this sometimes tangled journey through publishing. When my confidence falters, and it does from time to time despite forty years, despite one hundred books, my friends might want to help, but the truth is they don’t know how.
Having my agent’s very special hand to hold keeps me moving forward.