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.


Somebody Else Says: Just Another Day in the Life…

Quick link to Shawna’s post, to which may I just say, “Yeah!!” Everybody should read this.