Friday, August 08, 2008

You Have an Agent . . . Now What

A reader recently expressed frustration that there is so much information on the Internet about querying and how to do so properly, but so little about what to do next. What happens once the author-agent relationship is established and what can you do if problems arise?

Now, I’ve written a number of posts on how to handle the situation when the agent stops responding and you’re hearing nothing, but what if it hasn’t gotten quite that bad yet. I’m sure a number of you will have specific questions, but I’ve tried to come up with some information here on my own.

When getting that first offer of representation, you have already established a relationship with an agent. It might not be the person you ultimately agree to hire as your agent (because presumably you’re using this fabulous opportunity to shop around for just the right person), but it is the time to begin your relationship. To find out how the agent works and to get a sense for whether or not the two of you will be compatible.

I’ve said it over and over, but I’m not sure I’ve ever said it quite so simply: The key to a successful author-agent relationship is communication. Now, I realize that communication only works if it’s coming from both sides, but someone needs to start somewhere. It’s the rare agent who will make all the initial contact with an author. We have many authors, you have one agent. Because of that I advise all of my clients to contact me as often as they want about whatever they are wondering about. I get emails and phone calls all the time from clients about the status of their submissions, concerns about the direction of their publishing careers, advice on what to write about on the blog, confirmation of gossip and rumors, just to touch base, to tell a funny story, or to make sure I still think they are great. And of course any time I have information or news to share with my clients I pass it along.

Part of what I try to remember to do when signing a client is to get a feel for career goals. Unfortunately, in the excitement of signing a new client and enthusiasm for the project we’re currently working on, sometimes that information gets pushed aside momentarily. Eventually, though, the conversation happens and needs to happen and I think it’s wonderful when it comes from the client. I have a number of clients who actually write up business plans and goal lists for themselves and their careers. If you do that, don’t hesitate to share it with your agent. An agent can work best for you if she knows exactly what you want and what you need. So don’t be afraid to let her know that.

If you have specific ideas of what an agent should be you need to talk to your agent about that before you sign on the dotted line. Do you think an agent should be available 24/7 no matter what? Ask your potential agent how she handles communication. Better yet, get in touch with some of her clients and ask them. Ask the tough questions, not only how the agent handles such things, but also what some of her negatives might be. I know a number of my more recent clients talked with more long-standing clients before signing. They weren’t hard to find, just search our Web site or Publishers Lunch.

But what if you did all of that and still there are problems: suddenly the agent is not following through on what you felt she had promised, or you just don’t feel you’re connecting. What next?

Not Keeping Promises Agent: You’ve been told repeatedly that she’ll get back to you in a week and that was four months ago. You know that your submission is on hold, because she has promised revisions, and it’s beyond frustrating. What do you do? You have a very frank talk. Assuming she is returning phone calls and emails, you get in touch and tell her that you have some concerns with the length of time it’s taking to get your book out on submission. And then you need to judge whether her reaction was the right one or not. A good agent will explain what happened, apologize, and follow through finally on getting back to you in that week, or at least in a realistic time. If she’s not receptive, maybe it’s time to consider getting out before you’ve wasted more time.

Not Following-Up Agent: Your work has been on submission, you’ve heard from three of the five publishers, but for some reason your agent refuses to follow up with the other two publishers. What is going on? Following up is an uncomfortable business. No one wants to be a nag. Unfortunately, that’s part of an agent’s job. Again, you need to pick up the phone and possibly get very firm with your agent. You need to explain that one of the reasons you need an agent is to do those things you don’t like to do, including nag editors.

Making Decisions Agent: You have an offer from a publisher! Yippeee! What next? Well, it seems that your agent is going along without talking to you and making all of the decisions without you. Some authors are fine with this, others aren’t. When your agent calls to tell you an offer is on the table, your job is to find out what’s next. What is her plan and what do you need to do? Ask pointed questions: How is she going to negotiate this? What are her thoughts on the other publishers who still have the material? And you need to share: What are your thoughts?

Not Following-Through Agent: All of those promises that were made before signing on the dotted line seem to have been nothing but words. None of those things are now happening. Again, it’s time for a conversation. If the answers aren’t satisfactory, you need to determine what’s next for you and your career.

These examples are obviously extreme. In the grand scheme of things most of you should have wonderful experiences. You hopefully found an agent you really connect and feel comfortable with. The two of you have devised a plan for what’s next—maybe revisions on your manuscript, a discussion of where and who to submit to, and a submission plan—and you are either in the middle of revisions or happily writing your next book, one you’ve discussed with your agent.

I hope that helps answer some questions and concerns.