New Agents: “I’m Hungry” vs. “I’m With Waldo”

The topic of signing with a new agent comes up a lot at writer’s conferences. There are plenty times when new is just as good as experienced, but it depends on the circumstances. In my years of meeting and dealing with agents, I’ve come to realize there exists two kinds of new agents – the “I’m Hungry” agent, and the “I’m With Waldo.”

“I’m With Waldo”

This is the new agent who got her start with a literary agency as an intern or assistant. She spent time learning the ropes until deciding to step up to the plate and swing away as an agent. During her formative years with the agency, she’s had conversations with editors (they are usually the go-between when a manuscript is out on query), she’s learned what a quality query letter looks like, and she understands how to query editors. Most important, she has begun to establish herself with editors and knows who they are and what they are looking for.

In a word, she has soaked up the entire agenting-ju-ju by osmosis and hard work.

When she decides to become an agent, she retains all the lovely resources of the agency, including the ability to pick her fellow agents’ brains. Now, does this guarantee success? Nope. HOWEVER, she is wrapped up in the agency’s cocoon, and that means a lot when it comes to querying her own clients because she can introduce herself and happily state that she’s “With Waldo.” Agency name recognition is a lovely thing.

I may not know her, but I am familiar with her agency, and that gets my attention. I’m far more likely to shove stuff aside to read the query of an agency who has a good reputation.

“I’m Hungry”

The flip side is the agent who has never interned or trained with a literary agency. They might be former editors, bookstore owners, lawyers, authors, marketing folks, and publicists. For whatever reason, they decide to become agents. These are people whose path to agenting has a circuitous route. The thing to consider is whether that experience translates over to agenting. And since they may not have formal training, do they know enough about the business to offer an author solid representation?

I see lots of queries from the “I’m Hungry” agent. Of course I read their queries, but I have no frame of reference as to what kind of agent they are, how well they edit, or how well they’ve prepared their author.

Research the Publisher

I’ve seen more misfires with the “I’m Hungry” agent when it comes to doing proper research. They haven’t bothered to read our submission guidelines, nor have they even researched who we are. I find that alarming. Why would anyone do business with a publisher without knowing exactly what that they can provide for their author?

It shows me that they aren’t prepared, so my respect for them dwindles a bit. If they don’t even know who I am, then why are they querying me? And most importantly, how is this putting their authors’ interests first? This is something I haven’t seen with the “I’m With Waldo” agents. They do their homework first. I’ve had times when they simply emailed me to introduce themselves, which I think is very cool.

Negotiation

Negotiating contracts is a fine art, and shouldn’t be placed in the hands of novices. An agent’s job is to protect their author and get the best deal for them, and it doesn’t always translate to money – but to other concessions like royalty rates, territory rights, the list goes on and on. Depending on the “I’m Hungry” agent’s prior job – say they were a bookseller – they could be less likely to know a good contract from a crummy one. They may lack the experience to know what elements to pound on during negotiations, and how hard to push.

This is where I see the advantage goes to the “I’m With Waldo” agent. She can discuss points with colleagues in order to negotiate smartly and effectively.

Contacts 

Again, depending on the “I’m Hungry” agent’s previous experience, they have a harder time opening doors with editors. I’ve seen “I’m Hungry” agents who knew some editors, but they were the wrong editors. I know that sounds silly, but not all editors are created equally when you’re talking about the large publishers. For example, some editors only consider the blockbuster books. The “I”m Hungry” agent may not realize this and send them a query that meets none of the editor’s criteria. The result is never making a sale.

“I’m With Waldo” has already learned this and knows exactly what editor is right for a particular book.

Query Letter

We all know there is no magic bullet to writing an effective query letter. It comes down to smarts and preparation, and agents – be they “I’m With Waldo” or “I’m Hungry. Query letters are the great equalizer. Kristin Nelson wrote a blog post on how she goes about writing her query letter. As you can see, her method is quite involved. She also makes great sales, so I’d wager her method works just great.

I see a lot of really great query letters from agents, and a lot that leave me scratching my head. And they come from “I’m Hungry” and “I’m With Waldo” agents. If they stick to the classic WHO, WHAT, WHEN, WHY, WHERE, then I’m at least halfway home.

I appreciate it when an agent pays attention to a publisher’s particular focus and tailors her query letter to those needs. To that end, I feel it’s advantageous to authors to see the query letter their agent sends out…just to feel confident about how they’re showcasing your book.

Editing

Editing is also the great equalizer because there is no litmus for excellence. What I find amazing may strike another editor as bantha fodder. However, there is no excuse for poorly executed narratives that lack good transitions, crummy character development, a lack of knowledge in comma usage, misspelling, pacing problems, or a fondness for exclamation points.

If I read a manuscript that’s a mess, then my respect for the agent pales because they should never send anything but the author’s finest. And that takes the talent of the agent to know how to refine a manuscript.

Yes, I’ve heard the complaints about agents’ lack of time, but I would counter that by asking if they’re looking to make a sale or not. If I’m reading slop, then I wonder why the agent allowed me to read it. I also worry whether the author has the chops to turn this into wine. If she doesn’t, that means I’ll have to have to work extra hard to get it into publishable shape. So I have to consider how much I love the story – knowing it’s going to take up a huge chunk of time.

An agent sending me slop also puts out two subliminal messages:  lack of respect, or she doesn’t know any better. Either one is distasteful, and damaging an author’s literary future.

What Looked Good Then May Not Look Good Now

This is my own version of the Hunger Games. More than anything, all new agents are starving and looking to build their clientele. The more experience an agent gains and the more sales she makes (hopefully), the choosier she’ll be about whom to represent. It’s a guarantee. You’re hungry when you gots nothin’. But when you begin to build a reputation and gather more author queries, you can afford to be more selective.

The difference I’ve noticed with the “I’m With Waldo” agents is that they seem to have a more discerning palate when choosing authors to represent by the merits of being surrounded by an experienced bunch.This means that the authors they may have chosen early in their agenting career are authors they would still choose after becoming more experienced.

The “I’m Hungry” agent has less to rely on when making client decisions. I’ve seen quite a few of these agents drastically refine their lineup, oftentimes releasing their initial authors in favor of better manuscripts. They may decide to stop repping a genre due to lack of sales, thereby orphaning those authors. They are still feeling the lay of the publishing land, and only you can decide whether you want to be part of an agent’s learning curve.

Advice

There are no guarantees in this business. There are many “I’m Hungry” agents who really kick it, and plenty “I’m With Waldo” who should consider a different line of work. The best advice I can offer is this:

Clients:  See how many authors a new agent has signed. If she’s signing 25 new clients in a month, then I would wager she’s looking to stack her client list. OTOH, if she’s signing one or two every few months, then she might have a good eye for talent and isn’t looking to stack her deck, but to sell books.

Sales:  Check to see how many sales she has made, and to whom she’s sold. If she’s made no sales, then ask yourself what they’ve done to  deserve your  confidence she can do a good job for you…and it’s not because she’s nice and is enthused about your book. There should be verifiable proof she have the chops to get the job done.

Know who you’re dealing with:  If you’re going with a brand new agent, then it’s a good idea research what kind of agent they are: “I’m With Waldo” or “I’m Hungry.”

In short, carefully weigh the evidence you’ve gathered, and let that be your guide. It’s better to be un-agented than poorly agented.

I have a three-part discussion about agents and whether they have the spit to sell you.  Part 1, Part 2, Part 3

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