Wednesday, October 22, 2008

An Agent's Track Record

This question is actually part of yesterday’s question, but I thought I would break them up for space reasons and because it gives me two days of posts instead of one.

It seems like, at the end of the day, the book has to sell itself, but if that's the case why do some agents have strong sales track records while others do not? Are agents with few sales just picking the wrong books to rep?

I agree that a book should, in many ways, sell itself. Let’s look at it this way: Do you want an agent who can “convince” editors to buy your book or an editor who feels passionate enough about your book to fight for it every step of the way? Because editors, unlike agents, don’t work on commission and don’t get paid based on the success of the books they buy. Therefore passion is what you want from an editor.

Does that mean that agents with strong sales records get that way because they have the remarkable ability to strong-arm editors into buying a book? No, not at all, and hopefully no one is strong-arming anyone into buying books. There are a number of reasons agents can have strong sales records. The first is history. If I’ve been in the business for 25 years and have developed the reputation for having solid, well-written submissions, then editors are going to look at me with a different eye than they would someone with two years in the business and submissions that so far have only been okay. Because let’s face it, when buying anything, who the salesman is can make a difference. An editor looking at my submissions will hopefully go into them with enthusiasm knowing she usually likes the books I send.

Another reason why an agent might have a stronger sales record is because of that agent’s eye. I don’t think you can easily teach someone how to be an agent. Sure, you can explain a contract and negotiation techniques, but you can’t explain what makes a good book or a successful book easily. I truly think that some agents, like some editors, have an eye for books that become successful. I guess you could compare it to an author’s voice. Some have it and some don’t. So an agent’s eye and an agent’s ability to work with an author to make a book ready for publication can also help build an agent’s track record. So yes, in this case it could be true that there are agents out there who are just not picking the right projects. Of course it could also be true that they aren’t necessarily getting the right submissions to pick from.

And my last thought on track record is perception. Publishers Marketplace is a fascinating tool, but can sometimes give authors a warped perception on sales records and an agent’s success primarily because not all agents report on Pub Marketplace and not all agents report all deals.

In the end a really great, salable, marketable book is going to find a home. No matter who the agent is.



Anita said...

I am a freelance writer in the real estate world. It's amazing to me how many similarities there are between real estate agents and literary agents. Even in today's real estate market, there is an experienced group of real estate agents who are still selling well. These agents have a "good eye" about which homes to represent/sell. And they give their sellers good, solid advice about what needs to be fixed in the homes in order to make them sell.

Just as I'd thoroughly examine a real estate agent's track record on sales before signing on the dotted line, so am I doing with literary agents. I'm especially asking the question, "Have they sold anything lately in my neighborhood/genre?"

Anonymous said...

I think you have to be wary. Certain agents may have a "good track record" on paper -- those agents always seem to be in the middle of a big deal of some sort.

But those agents can also ascribe to the agent method of signing up tons and tons of clients, tossing their books out there, just to see if they'll stick. So maybe 5% of their clients are selling, but the other 95% haven't sold even one book.

Anonymous said...

Re: this quote from Jessica:

"...In the end a really great, salable, marketable book is going to find a home. No matter who the agent is..."

I actually don't believe this is true. There are many, many writers that have been toiling away for years -- agented writers -- who can't sell a book. If it's not shopped to the proper editor at a pub house, that chance is lost to sell to that house. This can happen multiple times. An agent sends to an editor -- that editor "just" left to another pub house -- "someone" else looks at it-- at a ms that wasn't really meant for, or targeted to that editor, and it gets rejected.

You can have a really great book, that does not find its way to the correct editor, and then your opportunities are lost.

Anonymous said...

Anita...interesting post!
Books sell for many reasons, but obviously if you didn't have a great agent advocating and fighting for you, well that is half the battle. I just want to add, that sometimes pure luck and timing are thrown in to the mix...your book hitting the right editor yes, that's very important...but your book being the "story" she's looking for is key...and let's hope the editor in question didn't offer for a similar story the day before she/he gets yours!

Jessica Nelson said...

I just posted about agents and you answered a question in one of my future posts.
Great insight here! Thanks.

Anonymous said...

I always wonder how much of a part luck plays when it comes to being an agent.

I'm friends with an agent who is a great when it comes to sales and negotiation of contracts...and all the legal things. But I also know he got very lucky with some really big books that fell into his lap. Books brought to him by associates that eventually became blockbuster movies with stars like Merele Streep. And one book that became a very popular series in the 90's and sold millions of copies. Of course his agency took the chance and eventually sold these books to publishers, but no one would have been able to guess any of them would have taken off like they did. And you have to wonder, what sort of role does luck play?

Anonymous said...

I'm anon above...guess while I was commenting someone got there first.

Anonymous said...

LOL Anon 11:02!
I know that luck does indeed play a part for real! I just sold and my agent told me that the editor who bought my book was in a meeting the day before she read my ms, and one of the comments was that this house was looking for a certain type of story.....and whala...mine was that type. Now what if someone else's ms was read just before mine? and it was as good? I might have had a nice rejection instead of an offer....but I guess I'll never know and I'm just grateful that I sold!

Anonymous said...

So if Publisher's Marketplace is not a reliable source of information--warped information is not reliable, in my opinion--then what other tools do writers seeking an agent have? How can I know if an agent is reliable and has a solid track record? And what about Junior Agents? Are they to be trusted? I guess writing an smart, polished MS is only half, if not only one third, the battle.

moonrat said...

Seriously, there are SO many agents who just never follow up--that's the hot question around my blog recently, too. I have no idea WHY some agents never follow up. But I never respond with yes or no at all until someone's lit a fire under my butt.

Anonymous said...

Now that is frightening..what Moonrat says. But as others have implied, how do you know, how CAN you know what kind of agent you are getting? If you go with a newbie you are taking even more of a leap of faith--how do you know if they are good at sales or negotiation? This is not something you can ask them because they have no record--but they have to start somewhere. Such a leap of faith--so much is not in our control--and yes, it seems that luck is a huge part of it.

Anonymous said...

I guess we just can never know. I was a little shocked at Moonrats post as well, but I guess there must be a lot of agents out there that pitch the book and then do nothing. That's sad, because after a certain amount of time there should always be follow up. I know with my agent, she pitched in early July and was going to give the editors a couple of months to have the book before contacting them again...this is something I discussed with her prior to her pitch.
The only other thing that I can suggest and this was suggested to me by my agent, was to contact her other to them and find out how well served they are...if an agent has a roster of happy clients and seems to be making a lot of sales then it's a good bet that she rocks! And mine rocks!

Anonymous said...

Moonrat is 100% correct, in my experience, about the editors-not-following-up thing.

My ms sat on one editor's desk for 9 months and my agent would not follow up. I asked agent to pull it when we parted ways. I assume he/she followed up with the editor and said "Read it now or forever hold your peace."

What do you know, it sold.

Anonymous said...

The reality is that not many of us have a chance to choose an agent...

I posed the question Jessica tackled in these two posts. I'd queried 50-60 agents (10 or so at a time, working my way down a dream list), revising on feedback as I went, before finally being offered representation.

I had some reservations about the agent who had worked in the biz for a bunch of years, reputable firms, and had sales tho' not a ton and none in my genre. I signed with him/her anyway. Long story short...we never got to submission, parted ways amicably and I managed to get another offer with an agent that I feel much more comfortable with. Novel is on submission now so I don't know if it'll sell and will never know whether the eventual outcome will be any different with agent #2 than it would have been with #1, but there is definitely a different "feel" to this relationship...more solid, professional, better submission list, stronger game-plan.

All that said, would I do anything differently? Probably not. When it comes down to it, I'd rather give my novel some shot than none at all and you need an agent to do that (sure, you can submit on your own, but to a severely limited list). It's so hard to find representation and likely to get even harder in coming months.

Do I think who your agent is makes a difference? Yes, probably. Is it worth it to turn down the only offer you have and take your chances that something better will come along? No.

Anonymous said...

JUNIOR AGENTS are NOT reliable. I don't care who they work for, they're just wannabes waiting, hoping, and wondering if they'll be made Senior agents, at which point they'll start working for a decent list of reputable clients. Huh.

Anonymous said...

In this market, I cannot understand why any agent would not submit their sales to Publisher's Marketplace.

Now I know that they do get behind in reporting. And I can understand an agent who has never bothered to submit.

But I have nothing else to go on when an agent who has reported to PM in the past now shows no sales in the last year. Or when all they are reporting is non-fiction. And I take them off my list.