Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Finding an Agent

As you know if you’ve been reading this blog, I’m using it to do a sort of soup to nuts description of bringing my novel Candy from Strangers to market, from concept to release and further, including promotion and touring.

With the post that included the last set of slides from my class, “Writing the Private Eye Novel,” I’m officially done with the writing part of the narrative and ready to move on to a discussion of the process of getting the book published, which begins, as you might expect, with a description of the process of finding an agent.

I’ve worked with three different agents over the course of my career. The first, whom I engaged to sell my first novel, The Immortal Game, I found by doing blind queries. I bought myself a book that listed agents, started with the A’s and stayed there, hooking up with a well-respected “A agent” who happened to like Immortal. As I related in my earlier post on the difficulties of selling private eye novels, we eventually had a amicable parting of the ways after she was unable to place the book with any New York publishers.

As with every profession, different agents have different strengths and approaches. Some agents are categorized as “developmental” because they are good editorially, helping authors to improve their work before submission. Some have a particularly good eye for spotting new trends or books that will be salable. You could call them “market visionaries.” Some are simply good at selling books to publishers: i.e., they are good sales people.

I would say that my first agent fit into the good sales person category, and her approach to sales was what’s referred to in the enterprise software business as “relationship selling.” She had good relationships with a set of editors and she shopped the books she represented to them without a lot of hype or pressure. Editors would read the books she submitted because they trusted and respected her as a fellow professional in the business. However, she would rarely pitch a book to a house or an editor she wasn’t familiar with and she probably wouldn’t be the person to spot the next big voice in the fiction world. Nor did she make any suggestions for improvement to Immortal; I suspect if she thought it needed a significant amount of work, she simply wouldn’t have taken it on, or would perhaps have referred me to a full time “book doctor” to do the heavy lifting.

The second agent I worked with, and the one who sold Candy from Strangers, actually approached me. This wasn’t because I’m some leading light of mystery fiction; it was because she was just starting out as an agent and she knew me and my work from previous exposure and felt that I would make a good early client. I did, too. Although she was a neophyte, she was working for a well-established and respected agency, so I felt I was getting the benefit of working with someone whom I liked and respected, as well as the clout of a more established agency that had good connections to the publishing world.

Not that my second agent was without experience in the publishing world—because she wasn’t. She was a successful author herself, and had a lot of experience teaching creative writing. Thus, she definitely fit into the “developmental” category and, in fact, she made a number of suggestions for improvement to Candy from Strangers and I followed nearly all of them in a penultimate round of rewriting I did before we started shopping the book. (The final round took place after the book was sold.)

Alas, even though she did a stellar job for me, my second agent decided that writing, and not agenting, was really the career for her, so she got out of the business to devote more time to her own work.

Which takes me to my third agent, whom I met because my second agent had subcontracted sales of overseas rights to her. She is still representing me for those overseas sales and has also taken me on for future US sales. I’m very pleased with the arrangement: she’s very enthusiastic and knowledgeable about my work, is an excellent, energetic sales person without being overly aggressive and has a large network overseas and in the US.

Do What I Say, Not What I Do

In the end, I don’t think my experiences in agent recruitment are typical, nor should they necessarily be emulated by a first time author. I think the best way to find a good agent is to get a referral from an established author whom you trust and who is familiar with your work. This means, of course, that you must somehow meet an established author and develop a rapport with him or her. And the best way to do that is probably to take a class from such an author, join a writers group or an organization that promotes networking such as Sisters in Crime or Mystery Writers of America.

Failing that, you should certainly be more targeted in your approach for blind queries than I was. Do your research up front and select agents to query who represent the sort of work you’ve done, have a good track record of sales and are open to representing first time authors.

And read Miss Snark. Her blog is an excellent source of information on agents and the querying process.

A Horror Story

Here, as a cautionary tale to close with, is a horror story that was told to my second agent in a writing class she taught. One of her students sent queries to a large list of agents without doing much research up front to qualify them. An agent wrote back immediately and requested to see a full manuscript. The author mailed it posthaste, and within a few weeks’ time, received an enthusiastic letter back from the agent offering to represent him.

The author readily agreed, and over the course of the year, received correspondence from the agent chronicling all the places that the book was being presented, along with feedback on the reasons for why the manuscript had been rejected by the publishers involved. All the rejections were characterized as “near misses” so the author continued to be optimistic until the number of rejections and the amount of time that had past since the agent took him on made him suspicious. He rightly figured that no agent would continue to flog a manuscript for so long if no sale was forthcoming.

The punch line to the story is that the author somehow determined (I forget the exact mechanics) that his “agent” was actually … wait for it … a patient in a mental institute. All the representations of the book to publishers had been fictitious as had all of their feedback!

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