Friday, September 19, 2008

Working with New Agents

I signed with an agent that doesn't have a lot of sales but has been with one of the best agencies in New York for a couple years. Everyone she works with says she's great but I'm worried that she won't be able to make the sale come time, simply because she hasn't had any so far. I think she has a lot of books waiting to close but I don't know what that means. Do these new agents work with their more experienced agents at their agency to help them break in? Should I have gone with another agent with more sales under her belt even though this agent really seems to get my work?

It can be tricky signing with a new agency, and certainly I think even more so than when you’re signing with a more experienced agent—you are certainly putting your trust in someone. I know that I am eternally grateful to all of those clients who signed with me when I was still new and had few to no sales.

In some cases I think these are questions you should have talked over with the agent before signing. Working for “one of the best agencies in New York” doesn’t mean anything if she was a receptionist. If she doesn’t have any sales under her belt as a new agent, what was her experience at the other agency? Did she represent clients there? Make sales? Negotiate contracts? What did she learn that can help give you confidence that she can do the job for you now? Knowing the answers to at least some of these questions can help calm you and help you feel more confident about this agent.

What the answers to these questions are though aren’t what worries me. What worries me most about this question is that it seems to me that you signed with an agent that you don’t have confidence in, and I would ask why you signed with her. It’s always, always stressful signing with an agent, but it's important that when you do you feel that you’ve signed with someone you can work with and who can work for you. Granted, she might not be able to sell that book immediately (as is so often the case), but will she be able to build a career for you? These are the questions you need to be asking yourself.

I can’t tell you whether or not you’re with the right agent or should have signed with someone else. There’s no way to tell anyone that no matter how big the agent’s track record or how many sales they’ve had. What I can tell you is that you should probably have a heart-to-heart with your agent about your concerns and find out more about her and, more important, find out about her plan for your book. If you’re still not feeling confident that you’ve made the right decision with this agent, maybe it’s time to cut and run now. You aren’t doing anyone any favors if you can’t trust the one person who is supposed to be on your side in this crazy business.



Susan at Stony River said...

Great question and answer; I've read everywhere that we need to choose agents very carefully, but many agents are nothing more to us than a two-line paragraph in the directory.

I *love* agents' blogs for this: it's wonderful to read the agents who get really excited for their authors, and celebrate every success. I only wish more agents had such presence--it would help in the choosing.

Anonymous said...

Hey Jessica....I took the question, as she's working with a new agent, who works for an esablished agency but has no sales under her belt yet. I think the writer is wondering how much help these new agents get from the other agents at the agency, ones that have a lot more experience....

BookEnds, A Literary Agency said...


Good point. Obviously I read it differently, but will address that issue in another post.

Thanks for the heads up.


Anonymous said...

Signing with an agent you have confidence in - oh what a treat that would be. After we send all these emails and letters and finally find someone who says yes -they could have three heads and walk backwards - do you think anyone could say no!!!! It's a bit like signing a contract - is a newbie going to fight the clauses?? Or disliking your cover? Is there any point complaining? Probably not. I'm just grateful for what I can get. The idea of being able to CHOOSE an agent just mind boggling.

Anonymous said...

In a perfect world hiring an agent would be like any other hiring process: you accumulate resumes, interview, weight each candidate and then decide. In a pefect world. The world writers live in is far from pefect.

After 50, 75, maybe a hundred rejections someone says, "Yeah, I'll represent you." You do enough checking to know they're legit and that they've sold some books in your genre. More than that...nope.

So many blogs and websites talk about agents not wanting to deal with the "difficult author". Speaking for myself, I didn't want to kill the one chance I had to get my book on an editor's desk by making waves.

A good practice? Probably not, but what are you going to do? The deck's stacked against you everywhere you turn.

Robena Grant said...

A writer friend of mine had this same problem recently. She did ask if the senior agents in that house would be advising and assisting the young agent during her learning stage. The answer was yes, and that the senior agents would be available should the author have questions.
My friend decided to sign with her and shared the list of questions with me that she asked in advance of signing. They were excellent and I printed them up for future use. Some of us are shy (well most of us) and we consider ourselves lucky when someone wants to read our stuff let alone take us on as a client. We're so grateful we don't ask the right questions.
I think the key is communication. If you set it up initially that you want to be able to talk honestly with your agent and you as the author interview him/her you're showing that you are looking out for your best interests.

Anonymous said...

I have to agree with the other anonymous comments. You get beaten down by the agents you feel you know and want telling you: "love your story, BUT too busy for you; liked your premise, BUT have a similar one already; well written, BUT not enthusiastic enough about it." So, when an unproven newbie says "I love it and want to represent you," you can't help yourself. JMHO

Jake Nantz said...

Wow, the answer is even better than the question (which I could also see coming up a lot)! That's why I love this blog, it's such a virtual how-to in some ways. Need to know what questions you should be asking before signing with an inexperienced or new agent/agency? Here ya go!

Ken Armstrong said...

Working for “one of the best agencies in New York” doesn’t mean anything if she was a receptionist.

Good point! :)

Anonymous said...

Such a great post, Jessica. And I can empathize with writers feeling so desperate that they’re willing to take anyone that offers representation.

In my case, Agent X had just left an agency and ventured out on her own. I sent her my first MS, and she rejected me, though gave lots of positive feedback on my writing.

A year went by and I wrote then began querying two other books. One day I came home to find a message from Agent X on my answering machine. Odd, since I hadn't even sent her a query on the new ones. I called her back and she said she still hadn’t shredded that first MS I sent her—that each time she took it out to discard it, she started making editing notes instead. Something about it kept her hanging on. She asked what I’d been working on and I told her about the newest one—a vampire MS.

At conversation’s end, she asked me to send her the newest MS and said she would read it immediately—that if the writing was anywhere close to that of my first one, she’d be offering representation within the next few days.

It was weird. A part of me was ecstatic. After trying for over two years and getting rejection after rejection (some of them personalized with encouraging comments—but still no-goes just the same) such unprecedented faith really stroked the old wounded ego.

I’d done my homework on Agent X. She was legit—she just didn’t have many clients. And of the ones she did have, they were published by very small presses, some of which didn’t even require agents to submit to them. Not to mention that the more I thought on it, the more I didn’t like the idea that she’d kept my first MS so long after turning it down.

I decided to email a couple of her clients—one current, and one ex. They had nothing but glowing praise as to her caliber as a person, but neither said anything about her connections or her ability to go after the deals. I ended up sending Agent X an email asking that she discard the first MS, pointing out that since my voice was so different, it would take an agent with a wider net of connections to know the right houses to submit me to.

I must admit, it was hard to do. And afterwards, there were a few dry months when I wondered if I’d made a HUGE mistake. But I went ahead and wrote my fourth book while sending out queries on my other MSS.

It was that fourth book which won me my dream agent; she has lots of connections, several authors she’s published through big houses, not to mention eight years experience of editing under her belt. And she’s in a most excellent agency shared by two other awesome agents.

By holding out and not biting at the first baited hook, I’ve managed to get just the agent I would have hand-picked for my career.

Julie Weathers said...

"The idea of being able to CHOOSE an agent just mind boggling."

I disagree. I think it's imperative a writer do exactly that.

I went with a new agency that was nearby in my previous life as a writer. They loved the book. They especially loved the historical we discussed when they asked me if I had any other projects.

When my computer crashed, I found out my backup disks were corrupted. No problem, the agency has the final revision of the manuscript.

"What do you mean you can't find it? How have you been sending it out if you can't find it?"

Sometime later. "Hmmm, here's a book about all the women I planned on doing individual historicals on. Guess I did have a good idea. Oh, look. The author is thanking his agency for the great idea. Well, at least they could find his manuscript to send out."

I had interest from other agencies, but I thought it would be great to have a new agency that would really get out there and fight for me.

I'm not saying a young agent or agency is bad. I'm just saying a person really should be very judicious about making this commitment. In the case of the original question I'm going to sound a bit harsh.

The agent obviously didn't go backwards in experience and sales. The author knew this when he/she signed with the agent. Now is the wrong time to be asking these questions. They should have been voiced up front.

Since the author didn't ask the questions before he/she signed, now is the time to lay the cards on the table and speak frankly with the agent. This agent really might be your dream agent, but you need to allay your fears and either grow some confidence in them or start looking again.

Robena and Tina had great comments.

Anonymous said...

Ask all the questions you want, but how can you actually KNOW whether this agent is right for you or not? Some agents might pour it on better than others, shmooze you enough to make you feel more confident in their abilities. They could suck anyway. Others might be more business-like and low-key, but be killer salespeople.

In a perfect world, you will have several to choose from, a battle, but there are plenty of scenarios when there is only one. It is a leap of faith either way. No matter how many questions you ask, you can't know until you know--that is, when you are in the thick of it.

That said, talk to the agent, meet him/her if possible. Get a feel for their enthusiasm and personality. Ask questions. Talk to clients, get references. Have faith. Believe.

I appreciate posts like this, where agents try to caution writers about these things--but it is another case of something that really is not fully in our control.

Do the best you can. Make the most informed decision. But in the case of this poster, I don't believe she had a choice. I get the impression there were no other offers pounding at the door.

Keep the faith!

Julie Weathers said...

"I think she has a lot of books waiting to close but I don't know what that means. Do these new agents work with their more experienced agents at their agency to help them break in? Should I have gone with another agent with more sales under her belt even though this agent really seems to get my work?"

Anon, the author is asking questions now she could have easily asked before.

What does waiting to close mean? Does she have any sales?
Are the more experienced agents going to help her?

She could have asked herself if a proven track record is important to her. If it is this sales record was available before she signed with the new agent.

The time to ask these questions is not after you sign.

If in doubt, wait.

Anonymous said...

I duplicate what Juliana said. And I'd like to know the answer to this question, too, Jessica.

Do these new agents work with their more experienced agents at their agency to help them break in?

I would think that a newer agent under the umbrella of a successful agent/agency would have access to their contacts?