Tag Archives: writers agent

A Hand to Hold


Credit: Carlson | morguefile.com

Credit: Carlson | morguefile.com

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 youWhen 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.

To Agent or Not to Agent, That is the Question

Credit: RobbinsSky | morguefile.com

Credit: RobbinsSky | morguefile.com

After writing my first novel for young people, I sought out a literary agent.  I knew nothing about the field, and although in those days I could have submitted on my own, I would have been flying blind.  So I found an agent and signed up with her.

She was well known, personable, responsive, someone who had been in the agenting business a long time.  In fact, everyone I talked to who knew New York publishing said that they thought she had been there forever.  After only one or two tries, she placed my first novel and before the contract had come through, my second with a publisher I remained with happily for many years.  Nonetheless, eventually I decided to go on my own.

I decided to leave the agent behind for two reasons.  First, my editor said to me one day, “Marion, your agent has never done anything for you.”  Armed with that information, I checked with another author on the same list and discovered that she, without an agent, had an escalation clause that my agent had never asked for.

Second, and even more important to me, after a few novels for young people, I decided to write an adult novel.  When I’d finished a solid draft, my agent sent it out.  An editor at a major house declared interest and suggested revisions.  I embarked upon the work with enthusiasm.  But when I showed the editor the opening third of my new manuscript, she said several things, none of them positive.  Her culminating statement was, “Frankly I liked the first version better.”

I was young and still very unsure of the value of my work.  Besides, this was new territory.  Who said I could write an adult novel anyway?  I gave up.  I told my agent I was setting the manuscript aside, and she accepted my decision without comment.  Much later, though, she made a comment to a friend of mine that trickled back to me: “It’s a shame Marion abandoned that novel.  It would have been an important book.”

I felt betrayed!  Furious!  If she had said that to me, I would have stayed with the novel.  No question.  But by the time her words reached me, I felt too removed from the work to resurrect it.  That’s when I decided I didn’t need an agent.

Flash forward about twenty-five years.  I was doing fine on my own.  I’d published a whole lot of books with an array of publishers.  I wasn’t getting big advances, but I’m not a fan of big advances.  If you get a big advance and the book doesn’t earn out, you’re a loser.  You have difficulty placing your next book.  If your book does well, you’ll get the money anyway, nicely spread out which serves both living and tax purposes.

My first clue that I might not always be making the best choices for myself came after I wrote a novella I especially loved and gave it to the wrong publisher.  I placed The Very Little Princess with the publisher I did for reasons that seemed reasonable at the time.  I had a contract to fill there.  I liked working with the editor.  And it was the most convenient door for me to walk through.  This story, however, while aimed at young readers wasn’t like my other novellas.  It wasn’t like any other of the “chapter books” on the publisher’s list.  It was a serious literary effort, its topic, mortality.  And while this particular imprint does fine novels for early readers, it isn’t known for serious, literary work.

Maybe I wouldn’t have recognized the misfit on my own, but once the book was published people let me know.  I got angry letters from librarians and teachers who were trying to fit The Very Little Princess into a group reading experience of fun princess stories.  My story was anything but fun.  The title, however, and the very pink cover promised otherwise.  And all I could do was empathize with what must have seemed to my readers a bait and switch.

It was the first time I realized that the fact that a door is open to me doesn’t mean that’s the door I should walk through.  I realized, too, that were other doors out there completely unknown to me.  I needed someone who knew the range of publishing houses, someone who knew the tastes of different editors, someone who could find exactly the right home for each of my manuscripts.

And so I took a deep breath and, late in my career, returned to working with an agent.

How did I choose that agent?  I’ll have more to say about that in my next blog.