Monday, March 17, 2008

If I Were an Author

As many of you know, I do a lot of interviews for blogs, ezines, and print magazines. Often the questions are very, very similar, but recently I received this one and thought it was so great that I wanted to share it with you. I apologize ahead of time: I don’t remember which interview it came from, so if it was yours and you’re reading the blog, could you please comment and pitch yourself?

If you were pitching a novel and looking for an agent, what are some agent qualities that would be absolute "musts" for you?

The answer I gave in the interview can of course be read in my interview, but I thought more about this and am expanding on it in some ways. These are in no particular order.

  • Honesty: I want an agent who is brutally honest about everything we do together, from contracts, to my work, to future ideas, to our relationship. I want to know if the ideas stink, the contract stinks, I’m being too whiny and ridiculous, or our communication needs to improve. I won’t always like hearing it, but if I want to be a better author I will need to hear it. And of course I want to trust that my money isn’t going to her manicurist.

  • Editorial advice: I won’t always need it, but I want an agent who is willing to give it. If my book needs work I want suggestions on how it can be fixed and I want as many opinions as possible on the best way to make my books stronger.

  • Strong negotiation skills: A pit bull isn’t necessary, but someone who isn’t afraid to get in there and go a round or two with editors is. There is no such thing as a perfect contract, but I want an agent who’s willing to try her hardest to find it.

  • Contacts: Obviously these are critical, but I don’t want an agent who is relying on the same contacts this year that she relied on ten years ago. I want someone who is a networker. Who is always out there meeting fresh young editors, and selling to them.

  • Comfort: She doesn’t need to be Grandma Moses, but I need to be comfortable with her. Long talks on the phone might be necessary, and I don’t want to be sweating my way through them.

  • Growth: Almost anyone can sell a book, not everyone can build a career. I want an agent who can sell my first book and build my career from there. Who can sit with me to discuss my hopes, dreams, and goals, and come up with a plan to successfully make them happen.
Your turn. If you were an agent looking to build a client list, what would be the qualities of your dream client?



Aimlesswriter said...

If I were an agent-I'd want a client who is open minded. I don't want someone to shut down and not want to listen to ideas or advice about her career or her book. Communication is the key to any good relationship.
She should be willing to do the publicity work. There's a lot of competition out there. After the book is written everyone needs to sell it. Be proactive here.
Be a grown up. I don't want a whiner. Okay, sometimes I'd hold your hand, but I'm not your mama.
Know that I'm working for you and its a process. Things don't usually happen over night. Selling the book benefits both of us so please believe I do want the book to sell.
Okay, would I make a good agent?

Julie Weathers said...

I think I'll print this out. It's exactly what I'm looking for. Especially the honesty part.

Aimless is pretty much on target for me.

First and foremost, a client who can take instruction and criticism. No one is perfect. They need to want to improve and grow. They must desire a career. They took the time to research their book and get it proofed and critiqued before they sent it to me. Even then, they are willing to listen to advice. Someone who can put the ego and hurt aside and do what it takes to make their book the best it can be.


Communication. If the agent is doing something they are uncomfortable with, they ask. They don't blog about it or whine at conferences about it, they ask. Then we both have a frank discussion about the situation and explain how we feel and why we are both doing what we're doing.

A sense of humor. It's going to be a bumpy ride, so they need to be resilient. Being able to shake things off and laugh is a good thing. Being able to write a humorous story about it is even better.

A client who has unique ideas. There's nothing new under the sun, as they say, but there should be something unique about the voice, the ideas, the writing. Something to set them apart from the crowd.

Someone who isn't a one-trick pony. Instead of obsessing about the book the agent is trying to sell, they are busy working on the next project. They hope they live to be 190 years old so they can finish all the books bottled up inside.

Someone I'm comfortable with. I don't need another friend, but I want to feel at ease talking to them and being around them.

Someone who doesn't take themselves too seriously. Prima donnas are a pain. Life is too short to put up with arrogant, difficult people.

Someone who realizes even agents have bad days and doesn't get upset easily.


Someone who has enough confidence in me to let me do my job. They know I am doing everything in my power to sell their book and build their career. They should also have enough confidence in themself not to be angsting about a gray hair on the same day they got a zit. They did the best they could with the book and they followed whatever criticism or suggestions we made to make it even better, then they set it free.

Someone mature enough to act professional regardless of their age or experience. I don't want to hear about how they went to an editor's room in a cute little french maid's outfit to deliver a bottle of bourbon wrapped in their latest pitch.

Someone kind. A sincere thanks and, even better, my favorite chocolates when something goes right is a good thing.

Someone willing to promote themself and their books. Someone who does whatever it takes to build a successful career, short of the cute french maid outfit routine, of course.


Richard L. Mabry, MD said...

First, thanks for a great post. If I were an agent, I'd look for a client willing to do the work: to study the craft and hone their skills, to keep their rear in the chair day after day doing the thing that helps writers get better--writing.
I'd want a client willing to take...and apply...instruction, yet confident enough to keep their own individual "voice."
I'd look for someone with the emotional strength to stay the course despite rejection after rejection, because just as baseball managers are hired to be fired, writers write to be rejected.
I'd probably have a laundry list of other attributes I'd like, but these come immediately to mind.
By asking us to list these qualities, you've made me engage in self-assessment to see if I'm being fair to my own agent. I hope I am. Thanks.

Chris Redding said...

Someone who had a realistic view of the publishing industry or at least was willing to learn about it.

Julie Weathers said...

"I'd want a client willing to take...and apply...instruction, yet confident enough to keep their own individual "voice."

I agree.

Beth Shope mentioned a Donald Maass workshop at the Surrey conference. He said you have to think of every possible objection a reader would have to a scene and remove them or explain them. By the same token, you need to do it in a way the voice and story aren't destroyed. It's a difficult balancing act.

The firsts workshops at Books and Writers has had some interesting comments about writing. At the end of the day, a writer has sift through the comments and apply those that make the work stronger and still retain their voice.

I listened to some songwriters in Nashville, discussing how they write songs. One went through a hilarious story about how he came up with Blue Clear Sky. Everyone he pitched it to objected to the line, "blue, clear sky," but he stuck with it. George Strait told him, "Son, that's not the way we talk in Texas. You're going to have to change it." He stuck by his guns and Strait recorded it anyway.

Sometimes you have to know what is important and what you can afford to lose.


Jennifer Macaire said...

I like the brutally honest part. That would be the number one quality I'd search for.
I'd also look for someone dynamic, someone with a small list, and someone who is a fast reader and able to give advice on the business side of writing. Someone who is in for the long haul, who wants to help me develop my career, and most importantly - who isn't afraid of several different genres and pen names.

Anonymous said...

I liked Jessica's post, and was very quick to notice it involved all the things needed to sell a novel froma business standpoint.

*Honesty about the market.
*Editorial advice if needed.
*Contacts within the market.
*Being able to Communicate.

I couldn't agree more. What a great business model and mission statement because the emphasis is on BUSINESS.

At one point I had an agent that was TOO personal. It seemed for this person there were no business boundaries. She's spend an hour phone call bragging about her latest vacation and then twenty-four hours later strike like a cobra because she didn't like a line of dialouge or chapter title I'd written. The implication was that I should have been able to read her mind. It was never about what the BOOK needed, but what she wanted. It was just so icky, and unheatlhy.

So from my experience, If I were an agent looking to build a client list, I'd want someone who understands that while being friendly is important, this is a business and it shouldn't be treated as a place to act out on the whims of your own mood swings and emotionalism.

Anonymous said...

If I were an agent,

Good question. I'd want to work with someone who was flexible, willing to learn, willing to listen, fun and friendly when appropriate, businesslike when appropriate, and someone who knows when each is appropriate.

I'd want a client that wasn't a luddite, who was excited about her own career and determined to do what it takes to build it.

And someone that can write a story that I'd want to read.

Rachel Glass said...

This has got to be the best agent blog, hands down, out of the ones I read. A LOT of insightful, good comments!

If I were an agent, I would want a client who is mature and professional, someone with a good attitude who is willing to go the extra mile and work hard. Business should always be a two-way street, and along the road to developing a great comraderie, it's extremely important to make sure your working relationship is just that.

As an author, I know that after investing a great deal of time into something, it's easy to get frustrated if you're having trouble editing, because you've put so much into it and just want to be done. If I were an agent, I would want someone with a really great attitude, who has a sturdy disposition in the face of setbacks nad roadblocks.

Attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference.

Great blog!!!

Anonymous said...

Great blog.

Quick comment off the top of my head -- I can't work with anybody who doesn't have a sense of humor.

Unknown said...

An open mind to change. Patience.

Anonymous said...

I'm about to start the submission process myself, and besides what you note, I'm looking for a couple of things:

Enthusiasm- first. Goes along with belief/confidence. Love my book, and love me. Sense great things in my future.

Experience- I'd like to see they've done well for the clients already on their lists.

Knowledge- the publishing industry is changing by leaps and bounds. I need someone who knows a lot about the industry as it is and also as it could be.

Spy Scribbler said...

Your question asked about a "dream" client, so, to me, that speaks of the icing on the cake.

I have a student who, no matter what, I can always count on to have a good lesson. No matter if he's prepared or not, in a bad mood or not. A lot of that is his talent, but there's something else I can't quite put my finger on.

No matter how horrible the day is, no matter if I'm so tired by my business that I feel only a foot away from quitting, no matter if I'm practically in tears, when this boy comes to his lesson, I feel great.

Unlike any other student I've ever had, he somehow brings out the best in me. He reminds me what I love about piano and teaching. Even when I'm so tired I could just die, by the time he leaves, I'm energetic and enthusiastic again.

I don't know why. I don't know how. And I don't know what it is about him.

But for my dream client, that's the icing I'd want on my cake.

Anonymous said...

In addition to your great list, I'd add Contracts.

I'd want an agent that could ferret out any new line in a publishers contract that would be a major negative to the writer's career or book.

Kate Douglas said...

I'd want a client who understands that writing is a career, not a hobby, that deadlines are exactly that, not merely something to "shoot for." Someone who takes criticism in the spirit in which it's meant, not as a personal attack, and who has the patience to let me do my job as agent. I'd want a client who communicates well and lets me know if things are not working, but who also says what does work. I'd also want a client with a sense of humor when things DON'T go as planned or when life gets in the way. A professional attitude, confidence in their work and the willingness to change with the market would also be important. However, as a client I don't necessarily HAVE these qualities...

Paty Jager said...

I think the agent qualties you stated are upper most on all author's list of what they are looking for in an agent.

The honesty would have to go both ways to make it a mutually working relationship.

And most writers have a pretty tough skin from receiving rejections. I know I do, and I would be interested in hearing how an agent can help me build my career and make my writing stronger.

Contacts,Comfort, and Growth are the things I would say would make or break my signing with an agent. Because those three are what ulimately will get both the author and the agent where they want to see that client.

Intersting Blog!

Anonymous said...

This is all fine and dandy, but I have a question. As a writer looking for an agent, how do you know if an agent has the qualities listed? For some of them, only time will tell and only if you are working with that agent. For example, I am not going to be able to tell if an agent is going to tell me that a contract stinks when I am doing my agent searching. So some of these things are frustratingly difficult to discover until you are already working together.

If I were an agent, I would seek a client who is as willing to put the time and energy into making us both as successful as possible. I would be looking for someone to join my team and be an upstanding teammate who tries to move us both forward in our careers.

--Jean Oram

Vikki said...

As an agent, I would want a client who treated their writing as a profession, not just a hobby or simply a passion. I would want someone that had several books in them, not just a one hit wonder. I would want someone down to earth and open-minded. I could never deal with a self-absorbed crybaby "artist" who refused to edit anything because it would damage their inner-child. And obviously, I would want someone who wrote exactly the kinds of books I love to read.

Julie Weathers said...

Jean, when I signed on with my agents I simply asked questions. Some things you can tell by visiting. Some things only time will tell, but it's like any relationship, it takes time and work.

The lady who handled my children's book was an absolute gem. If I could find another one like her I would be in heaven. She didn't sell the book, but it wasn't for lack of trying.

I loved that she was completely honest with me and didn't give me false hopes or dodge questions. She respected me as a professional and just laid it on the line.

I guess another thing that's important to me is that an agent enjoy the genre I work in.


Anonymous said...

“Talent cannot be silenced in the heart.”

Talent is eternal. It hears the muse with one ear, wisdom with the other.

It takes talent to recognize talent. The agent reads fragments of “us” and when her senses tingle, she reads more. When the dinger goes ding and nothing happened inside her gut, she picks up the next potential on the stack with no regret. Aside from the obvious business structure, the agent must possess the ability to read between the lines. What is she looking for? How does she know?

Talent. When an idea she never knew she had is suddenly staring back at her from the pages, that is talent recognizing talent. Agent and writer united. The agent sought an echo of herself and found it.

Comparatively, it’s like having a craving that you can’t quite put your finger on. Until the taste hits your lips and the universe melts.

Like glass, if shattered of its original form, talent can be melted to recreate itself—over and over again. Imagination born of true talent is the most resilient substance of human nature. In the agent. In the writer. Talent cries, suffers, falls—then gets back up to fight.

Talent is humble, honest. It is restless and diligent. It will ride the tide or die trying; therefore, it is courage.

Agent or writer, I would seek talent.

I found Bookends through my Writers Market Guide. Read every agent entry—twice—and went right back to this agency. Opened the website on instinct, not by convenience, and not because B is earlier in the listing. I read the lines then between the lines, and I knew: Even if Bookends rejected me, I had found a place to be myself, to be with others who shared the same hopes and fears, and to learn from the best.

I like it here. It is the comfy slippers and deep ponderings at the end of my day.

Talent. Breathe it in; it’s bliss.

Oh, and Spyscribbler: You are truly wonderful. Hope you stay for the journey :)

Sarah J. MacManus said...

Dream client? Someone creative and productive, that believes in their work but is willing to take editorial advice. Someone who's willing to do the publicity scene, put themselves out there - after all, they've already opened a vein over the keyboard. I'd want someone willing to interact with their readers and think outside the box for marketing opportunities. Someone who believes in being themselves, as hard as they can, and who believes in their stories and in the craft. I would want a client who sees writing as a calling, and doesn't just want to sell a book, but build a literary career.