Nearly every writer I talk to knows that they need an agent, but I’m not sure that they know all the reasons as to why it’s so important. I’ve heard a number of writers say that they don’t need an agent ripping them off of their 15% royalties, and I always shake my head. There’s so much more that goes on.
Nearly everyone understands that an agent is instrumental in securing the best possible deal, and, too often, I see writers who secured an agent and have instant visions of Random House dancing in their heads. This is often where reality and fantasy collide.
Not every writer is Random House material, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t publishable. There’s a difference. Literary agents walk on Reality Lane every day and are in the best position to advise their clients as to where they fit in the publishing game and whether they have big time possibilities or perhaps a home with a smaller boutique publisher. The agent is going to submit where they feel their client’s work has the best shot. There’s a great deal that goes on in the background of manuscript submission, and I thought it could be educational to show an editor’s perspective regarding agents’ importance.
· Form relationships with all kinds of editors with big and smaller houses. They do this by being organized and knowing what each house publishes before they ever query. The agent who wastes my time is someone I’ll remember the next time they query me, and I’ll be more likely to let their submission rot on my desk for a while. A good rule of thumb to always remember when looking for an agent is that writers are agents’ clients, but editors are their customers. The smart and successful ones cultivate relationships with many editors. We send dirty jokes back and forth to each other, and we get together when we’re in each other’s cities. Funny how we’re always the ones to pick up the bar and dinner tab, though. Go figure.
· Know how to sell their client’s work. They accomplish this by writing mouthwatering cover letters that make me want to shove everything off my desk and dive right into it. They don’t rely on the synopsis that the author provided, but rather, they write their own. Why? Because they know what we short-attention-spanned editors want to see.
· Are organized. They have professional proposals. Face it; this is a game of selling, so it makes sense to have the best sales pitch possible. The savvy agent includes the synopsis, reasons why the manuscript is marketable, defines the readership, and includes a marketing and promo plan by laying out their client’s marketable assets. If an author claims to have blurbs from big names, the agent makes sure the author comes through. An agent should never promise anything to an editor unless it’s in the bag. To come back to the editor with egg on the face gives the impression of pulling a bait and switch in order get the work reviewed. Whether it’s accidental or not, it smacks of pulling a cheap ploy, and our elephant-like memories will store this for a long time. Redemption is unlikely.
· Protect their image. In order for an agent to remain on top of their game, they have to make legit and solid sales on a regular basis. This is good for their clients and also enhances their reputation. They’re an open book and list their clients and sales on their website. They advertise their sales on Publisher’s Marketplace and other venues. They don’t sell their clients off to POD companies, nor do they advertise that they’ve done so. This would damage their credibility and reputation.
· Protect their client. There are times when a manuscript has made the rounds with no bites, and, sometimes, an agreement is struck that will allow the author to attempt to find a smaller publisher on their own. In these cases, the good agent outlines the potential dangers – no POD companies and definitely no vanity presses – and, in turn, agrees to serve as their consultant. This is an unenviable position for the agent, because, by this time, the author is very motivated to be published and is vulnerable to making some tragic decisions. It’s vital that they listen to their agent’s advice. If an author is determined to be swallowed by a POD company that will take their book to Nowheresville, the agent has little choice but to drop them because there’s no longer a meeting of the minds.
I have seen instances where an agent listed the “sale” on their agency website, and it created a backlash with their reputation among editors. It was too bad, because her reputation was taking an upward swing due to some solid sales. In order for an agent to be taken seriously by editors, their reputation should be unimpeachable. Authors may not see this as being a bad thing. But editors do, and that’s who they’re selling to.
· Aim high. This is in keeping with establishing a good rapport with editors on all levels. Manuscripts normally travel through several layers of publishers. You have your A Team – these are the mega houses. The B Team are the mid level houses and imprints. C Teams are the smaller boutique publishers who have solid distribution but smaller budgets, smaller print runs (4,000 – 10,000), and produce fewer books per year. Good agents go through all these levels. They never start at the bottom and stay there.
I love working with good agents. They’ve already culled through the slush pile, send me manuscripts they feel I’ll be interested in, and they know my tastes. They bend over backwards to make my job as easy as possible because I’m their customer. Because of this symbiotic relationship, they have the ability to get things read that I’d more than likely reject had the author submitted them. Even though I still accept unagented work, I can see why a lot of my editor friends have an agent-only policy.
Those who are looking for an agent must do their homework.
· Check their client list. If an agent hides their client list, be suspicious, because this is a bad sign. What are they hiding and why? I’ve heard from many scammers that they’re protecting their client’s privacy. From what? Publishing is a showy business, and the idea is to get one’s name out there, not hide it.
· Check their sales. If they hide their sales, turn tail and run. Agents are, in a sense, a public relations machine, and they grow in stature by publicizing their clients and sales. Check those sales. Are they to POD companies or are they to solid publishers? How many solid sales are they making per year?
· Check the proposal they’re sending out. Are they relying on your synopsis (which may be good, but theirs should rock), or have they rewritten it into a mouthwatering slice ‘o love? Have they discussed your promo plan with you? Have you both discussed and defined your readership? If they haven’t, then you have to consider how well they can sell you to an editor. We editors are in a buyers’ market and have our choice of a plethora of great works. It’s your agent’s job to insure you’re sitting on the top of the heap so that we’ll pay attention to it.
· Are they charging you? If they are; run. Normal agent fees such as mailing and Xeroxing comes out of royalties after the sale is made.
Lastly; yes, it’s hard to find an agent. Finding an agent that’s right for you isn’t unlike shopping for a car. Both take research and knowledge of the industry. You’ve labored over your manuscript, tweaking it within an inch of its life. Doesn’t it make good sense to take equal care in finding a legitimate agent? Consider incorporating some of these pointers into your own sales pitch to agents. And good luck!
**For more information about agents, please read Anthony Policastro’s post where he interviews agents.