Thursday, February 07, 2008

Choosing the Best Agent

I recently did a post on Agent Research Sites, and I thought the related question below was a great one. I’ve done a couple of posts on how to identify a bad agent and the scam agents everyone should avoid, but I’m not sure there’s been a lot on how to find a list of good agents. Probably because there is only sort of a list.

How do you determine which are the better/best agents out there? I've done research on Publishers Marketplace, read countless webpages - both agencies own and places like Absolute Write - but still, at best, it seems agents are listing maybe 2-3 deals so far this year, with maybe 1 in a specific genre. I know not all agents list every deal, but how do you know who will give you the best chance to sell your book? Is there somewhere else I should look? My book is upper YA - is there a list somewhere (other than Agent Query) of the most successful agents by genre? What is the typical number of deals an agent does annually? What percentage of books are likely to find a legit agent, but still not sell? I know there are a lot of questions in this, but any/all advice would be appreciated!

It sounds like you are doing the right things. I would always recommend Publishers Marketplace and of course Preditors and Editors, but beyond that things can get a little sketchy. You can check out AAR, too, although to be a member you have to have been agenting for 18 months, which means that if you are only reviewing AAR, you might be missing out on some very talented, experienced fresh blood. Eighteen months is a long time, and I know that by the time we became AAR members we were already well established and looking for authors with less of a need to fill spots.

However, despite all of that advice, I don’t think that’s what you are looking for. It seems you’ve already done your research and know who is reputable. Now you just want to know who is actually good and who will be good for you. Well, unfortunately that’s going to require conversations with other writers, visits to discussion boards, writers' loops and chats at writers' group meetings. And of course it’s going to take some gut instincts. If an agent is reputable, selling books in your genre (and Publishers Marketplace, of course, only has those deals that people are reporting; most agents have, or should have, a great number of deals outside of just those on Pub Marketplace), and experienced in contract negotiation and career building, you’re probably in good shape.

Unfortunately there’s no place that I know of, other than maybe an agent’s web site, that will list all of the deals an agent does annually, or who is the most successful. Especially since that would be somewhat subjective. Is an agent who has 300 clients and some bestsellers but no time to really give to any of them more successful than the agent who has only one client who just happens to be Dan Brown? Or is the agent more successful who has 25 published clients but has never really moved any of them forward in their careers, versus the agent who has three published clients but has gradually and successfully built all of their careers over time? I think what makes an agent successful is one who is able to give each of her clients what they want and need and help each of them attain their individual goals.

It sounds like you’ve done all the research you can. Now it’s up to you to send the work out there and make the final decision when the call comes. Is the agent who offers the right agent for you? And, of course, maybe my readers can share their own experiences and advice on how they went about choosing which agents to query.

Jessica

26 comments:

Gregory Ludwig said...

Here's one anecdote that may be edifying. I will identify the agency involved at the end.

I was rigorously lining up agents to send materials to rather undiscriminatingly; I chose them based on, among other factors, the types of books they were listed in various resources (sometimes their websites) as handling--such as self-help, narrative nonfiction, psychology, etc. I figured since my book, especially as seen in a proposal package, could tell an agent right away whether it and the agent were good for one another--it would be a hard sell, but its virtues would be clear enough from general themes articulated and some chapter samples--then trying out a large number of agents who handled the above categories was a way to at least test who among agents was reading the proposals.

So I found one agency listed in LMP and, as I would find later could be an erroneous type of info in LMP, the listing said the agency would take a proposal package. This I prepared last July (as I have prepared many to other agencies in the months since). The 10-12 weeks that the agency said it took to respond came and went. I did some more research. I found in Writer's Market that the agency, there listed as a new listing, said to check its website for submissions requirements. This I did. The agency website said just to send a query. So, deviating from this somewhat, I sent one query by snail mail and one by e-mail concerning the previously submitted package. There was no answer to either.

So what happened a few days ago, approximately six months after I had sent my package to that agency? I got a form response with my package returned. The form response, over one of the agents' inked signature, said the story didn't draw her in. Interesting, because I thought that would apply to a novel, and my book was nonfiction, and it included an essay-type component as well as a narrative-nonfiction component.

What was this agency, you ask? BookEnds, LLC.

Aimless Writer said...

Between writing projects I research agents through agentquery.com, P&E, agent websites and author websites. When authors gush about how much they love their agent thats a plus. I think reading the agent's blog helps too. It helps show me how well they know the biz and how they treat people in general. Agents who send that half piece of paper with a brief no thanks are crossed off my list. (Am I not even worth a full sheet of paper?)Agents who make personal comments move up on the list. Some rejections are nicer then others. Arron Priest writes the nicest rejections letter.
I'm finding that agents usually give more constructive comments in email queries.
One snail query answer I recieved over a year later! I crossed this agency off the list because I thought them disorganized. But this taught me not to sit around and wait.
I've queried Bookends in the past and always recieved a timely and polite response.

Anonymous said...

There's a "story" involved in Nonfiction as well, Gregory Ludwig. What's your point? That you submitted a proposal and got rejected after failing to follow guidelines? Wow. You sure showed them!

Southern Writer said...

I love Query Tracker. It helps make the research easier. I read Publisher's Lunch, and Media Bistro, and pay attention when someone is breaking away from their publishing job to start their own agency, or when someone established has just sold a manuscript a) similar to mine, or b) for a king's ransom. I keep a record of it, and when I query, I Google their names and find everything I can about them. I ask other writers if they know of the agent, or have any experience with them. When I interview other writers, I always give them a chance to talk about their agent. I always mention it if I queried someone and never got the courtesy of a reply, even if it would have only been a rejection. When I send an SASE, I think the least an agent can do is scribble "no, thanks" on it, and drop it back in the mail. Agents who personalize rejections get bonus points (Elizabeth Sheinkman writes a very kind rejection, and I'll bet she's a lovely person).

I read almost all the agent blogs (and have learned that a good blog doesn't necessarily mean my novel is right for a particular agent, or that the agent is right for me). I take into consideration the agent's personality and personal likes / dislikes as much as what they've sold, or for how much. Sometimes I like the agent but think the work they represent is ... how can I say this nicely? Crap. Other times I think the agent has great taste in what they choose to take on, but I don't think I'd care to work with them. Sometimes they score in both areas, but I, or my writing, doesn't impress them. What goes around ... right? Eventually, when I choose a couple agents to query, I double check with Anne and Victoria, and P & E to make sure they're legit. And finally, I check them against my own list of "difficult personalities." If they judge me on the occasional PMS day, I think it's only fair that I may do the same.

There is one very good agency that I will never, ever query again because I did that before I knew anything about the publishing business, and I'll bet they still have that query letter tacked up on a board somewhere like a Joke of the Day, still doubling over and holding their sides when they see it. I have nightmares that they faxed a copy to every agent in New York to share the laughter. It would just be too humiliating.

I think when you're part of the online writing community for a long time, you just know.

Angie Fox said...

Beyond the basic research, I think the most important thing for me was to talk with people already in the business. Other writers know who is selling what, how their agent works with them, how he/she has worked with others.

Join writers’ organizations, be friendly, get to know people – it’s fun because these people love books and writing as much as you do. I don’t know about the rest of you, but sometimes when I’ve read a great book by a new author, the only people who “get” the excitement are other writers. Most likely, my girlfriends or husband haven’t read that author. They don’t understand why I’m so happy to find a series that keeps me up at night, turning pages when I should be sleeping. Other writers are wonderful that way.

And when it comes time to figure out who will love your work, your writing friends are a great source. I knew two of Jessica’s clients before I ever queried her. I learned far more about deals and the potential personality fit from these folks than I ever would have from an agency website or a posting in Publishers Marketplace. And I also found other agents who would have worked well. I knew of a hot, young agent who had just broken off from a major agency and was actively looking for clients. Basically, what I’m trying to say is that there’s no substitute for personal experience. And if you love books and want to learn about the business side of writing, it behooves you to get involved, meet people, read the latest books that are selling, actively work to understand the business.

Also realize that rejection is part of the game, even for published writers who have a lot of books under their belts. Writer friends help you deal with that too. An agent once used an old rubber stamp to mark a big, red “Not For Me” on the query I’d sent. I felt awful when I saw it. And I’m pretty sure she used my query for a napkin. But you know what? That’s where your writing friends come in handy too. They helped me smile about the stamp, insisted things weren’t all that bleak. We still joke about it.

Authors are some of the most friendly, generous people around. And author contacts are invaluable even after your agent sells your book. As a newbie author, who do you think I turned to for cover blurbs? People I knew, who knew me, who’d be willing to take the time to read my manuscript. And I’ll be ready and willing to help the next person who is actively interested in books/writing, sincerely eager to learn about the business and ready to break through. We'll end up sitting next to each other at a writers' conference/Sisters in Crime meeting/RWA event, start talking books and go from there.

beckylevine said...

Jessica,

For any kids' writers out there, verlakay.com has discussion forums with tons of info about specific agents.

Becky

Anonymous said...

I followed BookEnds' query process to the letter and was thrilled when Kim immediately emailed me the same day (back in July) requesting a partial. I sent it right off.

I also didn't receive my rejection until a few days ago, about seven months after I'd sent the partial. After I'd waited over four months, I assumed she wasn't interested and just hadn't gotten around to sending the rejection letter. I won't lie and say I wasn't disappointed by the amount of time it took to receive the letter but I hadn't been holding out any hopes, either, that she'd suddenly email me saying she wanted to see a full. OTOH, I've had many an agent NEVER respond, so at least she did, albeit after quite a long time.

In the meantime, I've written a new novel that's going through editing right now, and I will submit it to BookEnds because of their excellent reputation and hope it doesn't take as long to get a response back. ;)

Kim Lionetti said...

I'm sorry my response time has gotten somewhat prolonged of late. I go through periods where I'm feeling amazingly caught up and then others when I'm so busy with client work that I'm just not able to get to submissions as quickly as I'd like. But I always respond to submissions, even if an embarrassing amount of time has passed.

Anyway, I understand that it's frustrating on your end and I really do apologize for that. Fortunately, BookEnds has a wonderfully efficient assistant now as well as a smart, energetic intern, so I know my own productivity will really improve with their help. They'll whip me into shape!

Hopeful Writer said...

Hm--tried to post this question, and it didn't take. Let me try again--

Let's say you are in the enviable position of having two (or more!) agents offering representation, and you also are able to meet with them in person (let's just say you live near NYC, for instance). As one of those agents offering representation, would you agree to a half hour of coffee with perspective client, or would that be a no-no?

I'm not in this position, by the way. But it could happen, right?

Vivi Anna said...

When I was researching agents, what I did was look at their website and what genres they worked in, then I wrote down all the clients they had in my genre, then went to their websites to see how their careers have evolved, or not evolved. If I knew the author, I emailed them and asked if I could ask questions about their agent and how they liked working with them.

I also checked Publishers Marketplace for deals listed, and then I also went to blogger search, plugged in their name and read blog posts by various people, clients, and those who had been rejected by them, to see what was being said.

For me, I was looking for an agent that was well respected in the industry, worked in my genre, had some good clients, authors that I read, and was doing good things for those clients.

I did a lot of homework because I'm looking for an agent for my career, not to just sell my book.

Jessica V. said...

Query Tracker was an amazing find for me! (www.querytracker.net) The site owner Patrick really did an outstanding job of putting all the information right there at your fingertips. You can search for agents by genre, and then an individualized page comes up for each agent listing their links to Publisher's Marketplace, P&E, Agent Query, a list of their clients etc. You can also view information put in by other users regarding query response times, query statistics, even query letter examples. And the best part of all? It's free.

Anonymous said...

I've always heard you should research agents before querying them with a project. But the information about them, at least on their web sites, is so broad that it's hard to pinpoint what their interests are in most cases. Here's an example: I queried one fine agent about a commercial novel that revolves around a TV show, and then a week or so later I read on her blog that she doesn't even own a TV. Well. If I'd known that I wouldn't have bothered in the first place. It said she represented commercial, women's and literary fiction. That is a broad statement.

Let's get a few more in-depth bios on agent web sites that show, not tell, what agents subjective tastes are. Because I for one don't want to query anyone, about a commercial project, who doesn't own a TV.

Karen Duvall said...

I concur with all that's been said so far. But I'd also like to add something about the power of networking.

I've been writing for a long time, and the agent research thing is ongoing. Not just when you have a book done, but long before that. Because it's education on the marketing end that's so beneficial to a writer's career whether they have a publishable book completed, or just outlined.

I've also been a member of a very professional writers organization for a number of years (RMFW), so I know a lot of published authors personally. I've witnessed first hand their first sale and watched the growth of their careers, which is very exciting. And I know who their agents are. When I query an agent, it's usually because I know about them through one of their authors. So they know I'm not just randomly picking them from a list I found at agent query, or querytracker.net (both of which I absolutely love as a resource). I don't know if that matters to them, but it sure matters to me.

I also attend writers conferences whenever I can. Even if I don't pitch to the attending agents directly, I attend their workshops and panels, so I know something about them. When I query them, I can say I heard them speak and what they'd said resonated for me, and that's why I think we could work together.

Through networking, I've also discovered agents I wouldn't want to work with. It's saved me the time of contacting them. There are even a couple of agent blogs out there that I've read and think to myself, wow, now I can scratch that agent off my list just based on what they say or on their attitudes. Dodged a bullet. Whew!

Bookends, of course, is fabulous and I feel like I've known them for years! 8^) I had my first experience with Bookends agent Jacky in 2001 and it was fabulous. I knew then that she and Jessica would forever be on my A list. 8^)

ORION said...

About querying: yes gregory i know it doesn't make sense to you but non-fic has to draw you in too...I think it's admirable that you got any kind of a response. There were many times I had no answer on my queries...although a rejection for LOTTERY AFTER I sold the book was kind of fun LOL...
When my agent is queried I hope the writers understand that as a client my affairs come before a partial or a full...no ego involved...that's where my 15% comes in. There are times I go for weeks without emailing Dorian --and other times we talk three or four times plus 20 emails -- I think it IS difficult to figure out who you would get along with and more importantly who will guide your career...Great post!

booklady said...

One thing I've done (and this is just a small part of the agent search I'm gearing up to begin) is to read the acknowledgments section of books in my genre. If the author acknowledges an agent, I read what they have to say, and usually add them to a list of agents to check out.

BookEnds Intern said...

"Fortunately, BookEnds has a wonderfully efficient assistant now as well as a smart, energetic intern, so I know my own productivity will really improve with their help. They'll whip me into shape!"

I'm working on it Kim! Thank you so much for the compliment! :)

Anonymous said...

What's the point of all this "agent tracking" you guys are so into? Who cares what they're up to or what they sold last week? Query every agent who hadles your genre. Start with the big ones you KNOW are awesome, and then after that just keep querying all of them until one of them says YES. Why waste all that time you coould use to be writing "researching" agents, when chances are you'll need to query them all anyway?

Anonymous said...

"I think when you're part of the online writing community for a long time, you just know."

You just know?! LOL I can't tell you how much I disagree with this. Most of the "online writing community" are just other as-yet-unpublished writers trying to learn something. So, by reading opinions of other unpublished writers, how do you "just know?"

The only way to know, is when you get that response back from the agent or publisher. Then, you know something, positive or negative, but you definitely know that that person either likes or doesn't like what you offered them. Until then, you know zilch.

Southern Writer said...

You just know?! LOL I can't tell you how much I disagree with this. Most of the "online writing community" are just other as-yet-unpublished writers trying to learn something.

While I tend to agree with you when it comes to opinions and critiques on writing samples, in this case, yours is not a true statement. There are plenty of published writers in the online writing community. You can't swing a dead cat around here without running into at least a dozen who are hawking their latest book.

So, by reading opinions of other unpublished writers, how do you "just know?"

You obviously did not read my entire reply. I research agents. Listening to the opinions of friends and acquaintances who are represented helps. One thing I've learned is that NO agent is better than a BAD one. I've learned who the scam agents are, and they're plentiful. I've also learned that some agents thought to have egos bigger than the Smithsonian are, in reality, the kindest, most charming, thoughtful, and considerate people you could ever hope to meet. I have a list of about a dozen people in the publishing business who have left their jobs within the last three months to form their own agencies, and will be trying to build their lists. These are things you learn in time, when you participate in this community.



The only way to know, is when you get that response back from the agent or publisher. Then, you know something, positive or negative, but you definitely know that that person either likes or doesn't like what you offered them. Until then, you know zilch.

I disagree, and I'm not going to waste time and postage querying an agent with whom I wouldn't want to work. Agents who want an exclusive and won't be bothered to read my partial if someone else is considering it? Not for me. Agents who left my friend in the middle of her publishing process to pursue her own writing? Not for me. Agents who represent what I consider to be pure crap? Not for me. Agents who can't be bothered to respond to a query letter that I busted my ass to compose? Not for me. Agents who haven't actually sold anything? Not for me. Agents who readily admit they don't like Southerners / first person narrative / novels where a main character dies / endings that aren't HEA / etc.? Fine. No problem, but they're not for me. Agents who don't own a TV? Now that's an agent for me. I can't tell you the last time I turned mine on because I'm too busy writing. Go ahead and waste all the time and postage you want. That's your privilege.

Frankly, I can't help but wonder if you're the same spreader of sour grapes who's been bitching over on Nathan's blog because your first page didn't make the cut. You sound bitter and frustrated about the publishing process, and admittedly, I have those days, too. I think we all do at one time or another. I can empathize. But the attitude isn't going to get you there. Lots of people want to be writers, but they don't want to write, or take the time to learn how to write. Read some books on craft, attend some workshops, or take a class at your local community college. Try to find a mentor. Do something to improve your prose and work hard, writing over and over and over, if necessary. Whomever told you writing is easy wasn't telling you the truth.

Anonymous said...

OMG you are so over-thinking it! Just send out the queries and then make a decision out of the "yes" pile,,,,with all the e-mail, postage isn't even a factor anymore. Why waste time that could be spent writing on reading about agents who haven't even agreed to represent you yet? Silliness! Time spenting looking into them before you know they want your stuff is time wasted. Query 'em all, then sort out the Yeses.

Anonymous said...

Miss Snark, is that you?

Anonymous said...

I should add on this topic that once an agent requests your full ms. for an exclusive look--that is the time to do your "heavy" research on the agent and agency, since you'll have 4-6 weeks where you shouldn't submit anymore. Then you might want to look into what they have sold recently, how many clients they currently have, who those clients are, contact other writers who have had dealings with that agent, that kind of thing...but to do all that before they show the serious interest is, in my opinion, not productive, since chances are that from any 1 agent you will have a reject. So beyond the basic info necessary for a good query (I'm queying you because I admire the work of your client xyz,") for example, the rest of it is probably superfluous until they offer to rep you.

Anonymous said...

"OMG you are so over-thinking it! Just send out the queries and then make a decision out of the "yes" pile,,,,with all the e-mail, postage isn't even a factor anymore. Why waste time that could be spent writing on reading about agents who haven't even agreed to represent you yet? Silliness! Time spenting looking into them before you know they want your stuff is time wasted. Query 'em all, then sort out the Yeses."

This kind of attitude is what makes slush piles so huge and makes response times longer. It could force publishers close their doors to unsolicited submissions and agents go to referrals only.

a YA writer said...

Do your research first. If you have the right project, you shouldn't need to query more than a dozen or 2 dozen agents. If you really know what you are doing, then you won't be querying more than a dozen or two who you know are established agents with a great track record of sales to multiple publishers on multiple levels of books in the very specific genre in which you write.

I disagree heartily with the anonymous poster who said that agents aren't specific enough about what they like on their website. I can't think of many REPUTABLE agents who have a website who don't also include a list of titles they've sold on said website. how much more specific can it get than seeing what they've actually SOLD?

I also disagree with anyone who says query first, research later. I see too many posts on lists and website where the writer goes, "Hey, does anyone know anything about Scam Agency #12? They've requested my full/offered me a contract." What a waste of time, for everyone involved. A simple google search would have saved them the postage, and the disappointment when someone else is forced to burst their bubble.

I get the impression from the original poster that they don't really want to find "the best agent for their work." They want to find the #1 top selling agent blah blah blah, as if there's a "top salesman" blackboard up somewhere. They're angry because the research they've gotten so far doesn't differentiate #2 from #3 from #9.

They know what they write: Upper YA, and I'm sure they know who is selling well in the YA field. It's no rocket science. The agent of every YA writer on the NYT bestseller list in Children's fiction is public knowledge -- either on the agent's website, the client's, or PM. Sales are listed in PM every day for that genre, and I'm sure they can see who is selling regularly for big bucks and to a lot of publishers. They don't care. They want to know who is #1, of all the agents, of all the clients, of all the publishers...and they are angry someone hasn't done this work for them.

::rolls eyes::

Signed,

An "upper YA" writer with a six-figure deal whose agent probably would be no where near this person's list...

Cher Gorman said...

A little over a year ago, I queried several agents that I had carefully researched by visiting their web site, looking at their list of clients, talking to some of their clients, checking out some of their client's web sites, then meticulously querying them according to their guidelines.

One of these agencies was BookEnds, LLC who was gracious enough to at least send me a polite rejection.

One or two sent a personal rejection letter, the majority sent a form rejection letter, one sent a copy of a copy of a copy of a rejection letter that was incredibly patronizing and so grainy it was nearly impossible to read. I must admit this one got under my skin a little and that's hard to do now because I've had Teflon skin for a long time.

The rest I never heard from period. Their loss.

However, one agent who sat beside me at the EPICon awards ceremony in 2006 in which I was a nominee handed me her card and invited me to query her. Which I did. Her rejection was written in the margins of a green flyer advertising the San Francisco writers conference. Her response was this--"Slow and talky and does not inspire page turning."

I burst out laughing. Now its a kind of running joke especially when my husband and I are in a restaurant trying to decide what to order. I look at him and say, "This menu is slow and talky and does not inspire page turning."

I've put my agent search on indefinite hold. In the meantime, I continue to write and check the Sunday paper each week to see if my name is on the NYT list. It isn't there yet, but hey, I can dream can't I?

Cher Gorman

Anonymous said...

Dear Hopeful Writer (and others):

I am, in fact, in this unique position RIGHT NOW and, having just come from the SCBWI Winter Conference, it was a great way to arrange meetings with agents while I was in town. People were happy to meet with me and were very generous with their time and expertise. Really.

Now, this wasn't something done out of the blue. I had been researching agents for the past year, starting with AgentQuery, QueryTracker, Lit Match, Absolute Write and the AAR. I read some of their interviews and many of their clients' books to get a feeling for their particular tastes in writing. Then I looked at places I belonged -- SCBWI and Verla Kay's Blueboards, for example -- and then read the agents' blogs and the blogs of some of their authors. I then contacted some of the authors and asked them their thoughts on these agents; many were only too happy to answer my question of what made them say "Yes" to their agent of choice!

I research, I learn & I am patient because I think my work will ultimately be worth it.

In the end, what really mattered was the one-on-one time I got with each agent because they are all great, legitimate, savvy choices and I can't possibly make a "bad" choice out of my Top Picks, I just want to make the "best" choice for myself, my communication style, and my work. In essence, it comes down to personal chemistry and an alignment of vision.

Shortly, I will have my agent. And I hope that you will, too!