Thursday, June 30, 2005

On Choosing an Agent

Jessica Brilliant Keener is a novelist and journalist whose work frequently appears in the Boston Globe and elsewhere. Her thoughtful reply to Lauren Baratz-Logsted’s Misadventures in (Mis)Representation hits on what we here at BookAngst 101 feel is the singlemost important criterion for deciding whether an agent is right for you.
Dear Lauren,

Thank you so much for your instructive, forthright post. I think it’s egregious what you’ve experienced, Lauren, but thankfully you have the gift of self-possession and knew enough to get out of those unhappy marriages—or maybe you should think of them as “engagements” because engagements are designed to be broken, if necessary. Obviously, in your case, Lauren, you’ve been right to move on.

I, too, have gone through a few agents but when I think about it, many, many of my writer friends have “gone” through a few as well. It’s not unusual.

Of course, you’ll find many who don’t undergo this shedding process, but if you do, my cheap advice to anyone suffering through it is not to do the typical, writerly thing. Don’t take it all on yourself or decide it must be your fault entirely. It ain’t a crime to find a new agent if the one you have isn’t working.

Before he died, the co-author of my first book gave me some simple advice about agents. It was so simple I didn’t quite get it at first. But I listened to him because he knew about business. He founded Dunkin’ Donuts, and started several other multi-million dollar ventures. (He was appalled by the publishing industry but that’s getting off track--)


What does that mean? I think it means several things. It means finding someone who not only loves your work but cares about your work because a caring agent will try harder.

Selling books to publishers is insanely competitive. Agents are competing against how many other agents? (Maybe we should all do some math on how many agents are out there in the marketplace, selling how many books every month? to give us some perspective.)

If your agent cares, she’ll return your calls or respond to your emails within a couple of days. She’ll apologize if she doesn’t get back to you soon enough and will make up for it by being more diligent as you move forward—that’s caring. She’ll let you know, in detail, where she is submitting your work and she’ll follow up with the people she has submitted it to.

An agent who cares will work out problems when they come up, because life is gonna throw you some issues just to mess with your day.

Can you talk comfortably with your agent? Do your personalities click? Do you feel good after you’ve hung up the phone with your agent?

I think these things can’t be overstated. It’s much easier to care when there’s chemistry between you.

If you find yourself second guessing yourself or feeling weird or guilty about things your agent has said, and these feelings begin to overtake what you should be feeling, which is: good, supported, confident, then start looking for someone who cares.

But here’s the funny rub. Much of what I just wrote and what my dear co-author advised me to look for can’t be known or borne out until you enter the new relationship and see how it unfolds. All you can really know at the outset is whether your agent gets your work, in other words, loves it, appreciates it, etc. The caring part, you can only hope, will follow.


TLG said...

LOL other than "doesn't feel right in my gut" is there a better way to tell if it's me or them? I don't want to be "that guy" that's too arrogent to see my own failings, at the same time, i don't want to be walked all over.

Justine Larbalestier said...

What a wonderful post, Jessica. That's exactly it and yet, as you point out, you can't know whether it's going to work out until you've already signed on the dotted line. Much like an actual marriage.

I recently broke up with an agent who was very caring, responding to my emails and calls almost instantly. She was generous with her time and her efforts on my behalf were stellar. I will always be grateful.

The trouble? We didn't always see eye-to-eye on my work and how to make it ready to be sent out. Sounds small, but it wasn't. Like tlj I worried if I was the problem, too arrogant to see the problems with my own work. But it turned out that we just have different taste.

Sometimes it's that simple. Breaking up was a good thing for both of us.

Miss Snark said...

There's a piece in the Sunday New York Times this week written by a woman who was part of an arranged marriage. I think the marriage metaphor here is quite like an arranged marriage, rather than a marriage of love. There's just no way to know it will work, as you point out, until you're actually in it.
There are the obvious things to watch for but as Justine points out above, "different taste" doesn't become clear till you've had at least a mouthful of experience.

A VOCATION OF UNHAPPINESS [Courtesy Georges Simenon (1903-1985)]

"Writing is considered a profession, and I don't think it is a profession. I think that everyone who does not need to be a writer, who thinks he can do something else, ought to do something else. Writing is not a profession but a vocation of unhappiness. I don't think an artist can ever be happy."

PRACTICAL MARKETING [Courtesy Zornhau, 2005]

"They should put the 1st couple of pages up in subway adverts. Having read them several times, you'd feel compelled to try the book - if it was any good."

PLATE OF SHRIMP [Courtesy Alex Cox’s REPO MAN, circa 1984]

"A lot of people don't realize what's really going on. They view life as a bunch of unconnected incidences and things. They don't realize that there's this like lattice of coincidence that lays on top of everything. I'll give you an example, show you what I mean. Suppose you're thinking about a plate of shrimp. Suddenly somebody will say like "plate" or "shrimp" or "plate of shrimp" out of the blue, no explanation. No point in looking for one either. It's all part of a cosmic unconsciousness."