Agent or No Agent: My Two Cents

A few weeks ago, Shawna at Just Another Day in the Life gave me the Honest Scrap reward for my blog. I still need to pass this award on to seven other bloggers, which I am going to do soon, with pleasure. But I thought of the reward today, as I was coming up with an idea for a post. I’m still in recovery mode from the plague that has hit my house (which is why I was pretty much absent from here the second half of last week), so I was planning to just point you all to some other blogger’s links.

Then I thought of the reward, and I realized I’d better live up to it. Which is why I’m going to tell you, today, that–yes, I think writers should try to get an agent to represent their work. I know this isn’t always the most popular opinion, and that you can find an unlimited number of horror stories about agents on the blog and just by talking to other writers. My thoughts assume we’re talking about a good agent. And self-publishing is another conversation, with pluses and minuses, but obviously the agent question doesn’t come up there.

Here are the thoughts & ideas that have led me to look for and in one case, find an agent; in another case, not yet find an agent.

  • I want experts to do their work for me. I don’t do my own taxes, because I am lousy at math and legalese. I ask my critique partners to read my manuscripts thoroughly, because they’re better reviewers of my writing than I am. My husband trims our small trees, but we hire a wonderful tree-cutting company to climb around in and take out the really big ones. I now ask my taller-than-me son to get the dishes down from the high shelves.
  • I want to write. I don’t want to negotiate contracts. I want to be able to ask my contract questions to someone who isn’t creating that contract, but who is looking at it to get me (and them) the best deal possible.
  • I want my manuscript submitted to the right editors. I have NO way of knowing who those are. I can read their websites and submission guidelines, sure, but–what does “funny” mean? Humor, like so many qualities, is subjective. An agent will have worked with editors and know their senses of humor–and their senses of tragedy, suspense, edginess. I won’t have a clue.
  • I think that having an agent ask to represent me or my project means that my manuscript has reached a certain point. I know, what about my own self-confidence and my own sense of my strength as a writer? Well, let’s just say I’m open to a little extra reinforcement of that sense–especially from a professional who knows this business.

As I said above, one of my hunts–for a nonfiction agent–has been successful. And the experience of working with Jessica Faust on the contract for The Writing & Critique Group Survival Guide gave me everything I’d hoped for. Jessica is professional and efficient. She answered all my questions clearly (and without making me feel stupid or naive once!). And–for those who worry about that 15%–I’m not going into details, but the negotiating she did .

The other hunt hasn’t had the same success rate, but I’m not ready to give up. My first novel, a middle-grade mystery, went the rounds to agents for about a year. I got lots of compliments, but no takers. I was struggling to decide what to do–whether to go on to submit to editors and hope for the best, whether to find a new revision path, or whether to put it aside and work on the YA historical that had been calling to me. And guess what–I got the best, most clear-sighted advice I’d had yet…from an agent. One of my last queries returned me a wonderful letter from an agent who explained why she thought my book wasn’t being picked up…and it was a market reason. I don’t think I was just grasping at happy straws (because she wasn’tsaying the problem lay in my writing!), but the reason made perfect sense with what I know about the kidlit market. The lightbulb went off brightly, and I was able to pick which direction to take on my writing path.

Agents know what they’re talking about.

I really believe this. Some agents make a lot of money, sure. So do some writers. Overall, though, nobody takes any job in this industry for the high salary; they take it because they love books, they want to work with words, and they want to help add to the pile of reading choices in the bookstores and libraries.

So what do I think this means for writers? I think it means that, along with writing our manuscripts, we need to be doing research about agents. We need to be reading up on who represents our kind of project, on who has a trustworthy record in the industry and with other writers, and on the standard of work we need to be ready to present when we make that initial connection.

Obviously, if I had a direct, clean path to an editor, and I had a project that I thought was ready, I’d be emailing them and asking if I could submit. And if they said yes and if they wanted the book, guess what I’d do? I’d go back to all the research I’ve done, and I’d contact my “top” agent choices and ask them to represent me in negotations. Like I said, I want those experts around who will make my life easier.

What about you? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this conversation.

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14 thoughts on “Agent or No Agent: My Two Cents

  1. Hi Becky,

    I tend to agree with you about the importance of having a good agent. I’m just not sure any more how to do that. I have spend 3 years doing the writing conferences and listening to agents, doing one-on-one critiques, and querying. It is hard to judge why agents are not interested in new writers because they have no time to personalize replies to queries.

    At some of the conferences I’ve attended, the agents, while polite, have pretty much said the same thing: You have to be sensational to convince me to look at your work, but do not give any specific pointers other than write a great query letter and research. Well, I have done both or so I have thought. I just sense a kind of reluctance in agents to deal with a new writer.

    Now, that said. I am definitely going to keep trying with my next middle grade novel.

    Cheryl Carpinello

    http://carpinelloswritingpages.blogspot.com

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    • beckylevine says:

      Cheryl, I agree–it’s incredibly hard to figure out what it will take for an agent to offer representation. And, right now, I’m guessing, agents are perhaps even more hesitant to take new writers. I think the two things we can do are keep researching and keep working on our writing, making it better & better. And hope, obviously! Good luck!

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  2. Shawna says:

    Hi Becky,
    I completely agree. And I loved your analogy about the tree trimming. Sure you could do it if you had to, but it would mean a lot of research (different trees need to be trimmed in different ways) and a lot of time and mistakes. For me having an agent is almost confirmation that my work is where it needs to be, or at least on the right path.
    The road to publication is more like a maze and even after you sign that contract, there is more maze yet to navigate. A good agent makes all the difference in the world. I could tell agent horror stories too—but I won’t—so I’ll amend that to the right agent makes all the difference in the world. And feedback from that agent is worth its weight, and more, in gold.
    Thank you for a wonderful post and never give up!

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    • beckylevine says:

      Hey, Shawna–yes, the RIGHT agent. That’s why I think it’s so important to do as much research as possible. There are no guarantees, but it feels like such a leap to “go there” anyway, that I want as much certainty as I can get. Good luck to you, too!

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  3. I think I agree that most of the time, an agent, a good agent and the right agent for the writer, is the way to go. That being said I do know a few writers who still prefer to be the one in charge. They want to build the connections with the editors. They want to keep track of what is going where. What they don’t want to do is try to negoitate the contract and they usually hire a literary attorney for that.

    I’ve had 5 agents so far in my career (oh please let my current on be my last one) and I have learned something from each of them…mostly that I do not want to try and do that side of the business myself.

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    • beckylevine says:

      Susan, I think you’re right–some people want to (and are capable of) doing this job themselves. And I’d forgotten about literary attorneys–thanks for the reminder! Fingers crossed that your agent path goes smoothly from here on out!

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  4. Another advantage is so many publishers won’t accept queries or manuscripts except from an agent.

    I prefer to start with an agent because they have the contacts, know the industry, and can prevent us from making mistakes.

    Now begins the research . . .

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    • beckylevine says:

      Andra–exactly. In my genre (kids & YA), I understand that it’s still possible to go the unagented route, and I know people who have done that happily & successfully. I’m still trying the agent path, though–for all the reasons we’ve mentioned!

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  5. I have gone back and forth in my opinion on this very subject!

    I agree with all your reasons for finding an agent first, but I honestly feel like it’s harder to get a response from agents than it is from editors. When I first started querying, I only approached agents. Most of the time, I got no response. This past fall I started querying editors and got a request for a full.

    Like you, I’ve talked with published writer friends who got an agent first as well as those who got their breaks from editors. It seems that no matter who you approach, it takes a lot of research, really good writing, and a LOT of luck!

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    • beckylevine says:

      Sherrie, that’s so interesting. I only queried one editor (who I met at a conference), but LOTS (sadly!) of agents. Almost all of them responded. Isn’t it weird how things play out? Yay for the full-request!

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    • beckylevine says:

      Kate, and I think other options are possible and can have good reasons behind them. I’m not sure at what point I would try a different route, though, so I’m still focusing on writing something so good they just CAN’T say “No.” 🙂

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  6. Kristen Anselmo says:

    Reading these comments gives me new hope. I love that other writers are out there trying the same things. Finding an agent seems like such a worthy idea and I fully plan to use one – once I can get one to love my showstopper of a story of course. But the system is so inefficient. Honestly, you would think there would be a place where you could send one query letter and all the agents could sift through them for what they are looking for in a story. As it stands, we tend to send all the agents in our genre a query letter. They are still sifting through the massive pile of queries but we writers are spending a lot of time sending the requests individually. I hate inefficiencies! But, I still love the idea of an agent. So a-querying I will go…

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    • beckylevine says:

      Kristin–it is a lot of work, you’re right. Maybe a “good” way to look at it is we really want a one-on-one relationship with the agent we DO get? So the query is a place to start?

      Glad the comments helped! Good luck. 🙂

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