Monday, November 24, 2008

Do Contracts Equal Love

Can a book contract help an agent fall in love? At conferences we hear agents repeatedly proclaim that in order to be willing to represent an unpublished author in this highly competitive, very tight fiction market, they need to LOVE the author’s story and voice. The author needs to be congenial, easy to work with, promotable, and being educated in the business is a terrific plus. What if an unpublished author comes to an agent with a valid publishing offer in hand? The agent isn’t that impressed with the story or the author’s voice, but otherwise the author has the complete package. Given this situation, does the agent still need to LOVE the author’s work? I assume that from the agent’s POV, this offer comes with certain drawbacks. The offer’s on the table and the agent doesn’t have time to work with the manuscript to strengthen it and there’s no time to send it out to other houses with hopes of generating other offers and the coveted auction, but it is a guaranteed sale the agent did nothing to generate. Given that the best agents are all about building authors' careers, when approached by an unpublished author with an offer in hand, does the agent still need to LOVE the story and voice to happily and competently represent this author? Does a contract help the author attain her dream agent, or could it even be a bad thing?

My question to you is would you want it to? I’ve probably touched on this before, but let me do it again. There are plenty of agents who, while they’ll never admit it, have fallen in love with a book because of the numbers it came with (aka a book contract). There are just as many, if not more, who will say that you should never marry a man for money. In other words, if I don’t really feel a connection to the author’s work and, more important, her voice, it’s not a good match for either of us.

I have turned down a number of great books, published authors, and potential deals in my career. In fact, I’ve probably turned down more than I’ve offered on. Do I regret it? Not one bit. I wasn’t the right agent for that author and her career. Does it have to be love? No, but I do need to like that book and that voice enough to want to read it for the next 25 years. I don’t think I need to love a book to “happily and competently” represent an author. I can competently represent anyone, whether I like the book or the voice or not, and I can happily do so if I’m making money doing it. I think we can all do a competent job at McDonald’s and even a few of us might find some pleasure in it, but I would also say that a majority of us would be happier doing something different.

If you find yourself in this situation, don’t worry about whether or not the agent loves the work. Worry about whether the agent can do the best job for your work and for you. Whether she’s a good fit and whether you like the plans and strategies she’s proposing. Because there is always time to strengthen a manuscript (even if it’s after the sale) and there is always time to generate other offers and get that coveted auction.



Anonymous said...

The one issue I have with Jessica's post is that until you sign with someone you DON'T know how they are "going to be" as an agent. Never mind the "love." I'd settle for someone honest. Agents that promise to answer their emails within a day take three weeks. Agents that swear to update you when an editor passes, don't. My favorite unkept agent promsie is "career planning." Uh, if you can't even get your agent to email you editor rejections or tell you where they've sent your ms, getting guidance in the form of "career planning" is pretty much going to be a crap shoot. And on, and on, and on...

Jessica seems to shoot straight from the hip. Other agents, even "top" agents, not so much... What is that famous Tina Turner song: "... What's love got to do with it...?"

Anonymous said...

Anon 9:35. Well said. While I have my 'dream' agents, it's still a pig in a poke until you begin working with that agent.

Anonymous said...

First, I do think it's important for an agent to love your work, and most especially your voice, especially if she plans to offer editorial feedback. An agent's enthusiasm should show when she markets an author's work. Secondly, I disagree that an author can't know how the agent will work until after signing. It's an author's responsibility to research that agent. Talk to authors who are represented by the agent and ask for frank feedback. If you don't know anyone represented by the agent, it's perfectly acceptable to ask the agent if one of her clients would be willing to talk to you as a reference. I did this and everything (which was all positive) I learned from the author turned out to be more than true. Past history is a good indicator of what you can expect in the future.

Kate Douglas said...

I'd like to comment on Anonymous 9:35's post--granted, until you actually work with an agent, you don't know exactly what you're getting, but DO YOUR RESEARCH! Most agents are more than willing to give out the names of clients for you to contact--ask them what they think of the agent. Is communication good, is feedback the sort that helps, does the agent fulfill the needs for that client. Granted, all of us have different criteria that make an agent a good fit for us, but it's a good idea to get feedback from other clients before signing with someone who will have a major impact on your career, for better or worse. And yes, I have gotten calls from prospective clients regarding my agent, and I am always very honest with my answers.

Angie Fox said...

I was one of those authors who approached Jessica with an offer in hand. Well, actually, she'd requested a partial of The Accidental Demon Slayer and I had to email back and say, "Well, now I have an offer."

From my experience, an offer from a NY publishing house didn't change Jessica's or other agents' views on my work. In fact, one agent turned me down after reading it. He didn't like the way I'd structured my main character ARC and we obviously weren't going into a rewrite with an offer on the table.

So, no added love. But a publisher offer did get my book read quicker. I was able to get my full manuscript in front of my top six choices for agents within 24 hours.

Agents were reading overnight, or reading over a few days and sending email updates on what they thought. But think about this - every one of these agents had an amazing client list and a great career - when it came right down to it, they didn't need to sign me with my debut author book contract. Truly, I'm just one author. If they didn't like my voice or my style, they'd let me know (nicely). But this is a business and we're all just looking for who we'd work with best. So to sum it up, I wasn't really worried about getting an offer that was only about the one book.

And I don't know if authors should really worry about an agent "loving" everything they do. My husband loves me heart and soul, but even he's not in love with everything I do.

Personally, I’m not as interested in love and roses from my agent. I want someone who is going to give me an objective look at the business. Let my readers (hopefully) be the ones who love the books. I want Jessica to tell me how I should structure my career. Publishing can get crazy at times and an agent really is that steady, solid presence – someone who knows the business and is looking out for you.

Angie Fox said...

Kate makes a great point. And I think that's one big reason to get involved in writers' organizations. You can learn these kinds of things about the business.

When I was thinking of signing with Jessica, I already knew two of her clients - one from a mystery organization, and one who is a friend of a friend in RWA. I like both of these authors and felt we had similar working styles. I talked with them both and knowing how they worked with Jessica went a long way toward helping me feel better about going in that direction too.

That's not to say you can't ask for references and contact authors you don't know personally. But it really helps to be involved from the start.

Crimogenic said...

Anon 11:34, Kate, and Angie, all very good advice. Good to see this 'situation' addressed from both the agent and the author side.

Jennifer McKenzie said...

I think I asked a question similar to this. I think, for me, it might take enthusiasm to get behind a romantic suspense about Big Foot. LOL.
Enthusiasm is what I'm hoping for. I don't mean I need a cheerleader. I mean, I want an agent/editor to know I've got the goods...or not.
I agree with Anon 9:35. Honesty is much more valuable than "love".
Research is so important which is why this blog and networking with other authors is imperative. I've learned a lot about who would be right for me.
Some authors don't WANT to know if they get a rejection from an editor. Some do. Some need a little hand holding. Some don't.
One thing I've figured out is one agent can have a different relationship with each author.
I really appreciate your posts.

Anonymous said...

Anon 9:35, I feel your frustration.
When an agent has a blog you get to know how they feel about things, how they approach things...but when you are making the decision of who to sign with, research or not, you just DON'T KNOW. So it always bothers me when blog posts harp (and I'm not saying you are doing this Jessica! I love your blog) about the importance of finding out these matters beforehand as if you really could see into the future of the relationship. Ask questions, check references, meet with the agent...but none of this is a guarantee of a successful and productive relationship. You can do all these things and follow your gut--but really the truth is revealed in the future, when you can see how your agent acts and behaves, after you sign the contract.

green_knight said...

I have to admit that as a currently unpublished writer I am occasionally muttering 'you don't have to love it, you just need to sell it.'

I've had 'good writing, but I can't sell this' rejections, and I suppose that is one situation where having a good offer on the table might change an agent's opinion.

But to answer your question: do I want an agent, any agent? No. I want someone who likes my writing, likes my book, and who shares my vision of my career, who cares for my writing and the kinds of books i want to write. Someone who isn't interested in getting me the deal that is most advantageous for me career (as opposed to the most money for the current book - hey, money is great, but unless you're famous already or your poor tanks, your first book is hardly likely to bring in the most money overall).

Anonymous said...

(I'm the first Anon)

While it's great that the other commentors have chimed in with exaltations of RESEARCH YOUR AGENT! The implication is that no research was done before signing with an agent. Not true.

I asked extensive questions about how the agent sold, where her editor contacts where, how many times she'd send out a submission before giving up, etc... I was given enthusiastic "perfect" answers. Is an agent really going to tell you up front they'll dump you if your book doesn't sell in the first round of submissions? Are they going to admit they'll let your emails sit around for three weeks at a time without answering? That they'll only nudge an editor if you repeatedly ask them to?

Get real.

For the record, I did email one of this agents clients to get the scoop. But it didn't apply -- that client sold right out of the gate and was therefore nestled in with her agent, and under the wing of her editor.

It wasn't until I'd been tossed aside (a year later) that I found several other former clients of this agent had the exact complaints I did. I didn't know these clients existed because the agent, from lack of submitting, and grossly neglected emailing, failed to sell a book of theirs, and they had to leave to sell with other agents.

In always cringe when unagented writers or writers that have gotten the "perfect" agent right out of the gate make blanket statements of "research!" As much as you don't want to admit it, a lot of getting a good agent is luck.

Angie Fox said...

Very true, Anon 3:31. That's one of the reasons why it's wise to join writers' organizations and get to know others. I've heard a few of those stories as well and (unfair or not) didn't query those agents.

I also talked to a friend of a friend at a conference who loved her agent because that agent had stuck by her for seven years when she didn't sell. This person is now a very successful paranormal romance author. Her agent believed in her and that was huge. You bet I queried her agent. And when I talked with the agent's clients after she made an offer, I heard that "she stuck with me" story a few more times. So, that's the research that helps you decide.

And, no, you can't see into the future and know how you're going to work with that person. Some of it is a leap of faith - on both sides. But you can try to stack the odds in your favor.

Anonymous said...

1st Anon, this is 11:34 Anon. I am sorry for your experiences with the agent, but your post did make me think about what might have been different in our cases. I belong to a large chapter of RWA and have made a lot of pubbed contacts that allowed me to learn a great deal about different agents. So this was a huge advantage. Also, I only did multiple submissions and was fortunate to get more than one offer of representation. So I did have opportunities that might not be available to all. However, luck played only a minimal part in my landing my great agent. I took advantage of opportunities (contests/conferences) as you might well have done. This got my work noticed and requested. And this part is important. I didn't send it to everyone who requested it. There were agents I never sent the requested material to for different reasons, but in all of these cases, I felt these agents were not the right fit for me after speaking to them at conferences. While your experience was negative and you certainly deserved more professional treatment, I still believe you can avoid a similar experience in the future. A smart agent isn't going to do anything that will potentially damage his/her reputation. In my investigation, everything I heard about my agent was uber positive - and some of what I learned really differentiated the agent. I not only talked to authors, but I paid for full access to publisher marketplace so I could investigate the deals. Granted, not everyone reports deals, but it did give me a feel for what the agents were doing. I also took into account the agency itself (e.g., do they promote their clients?). In addition, I considered how long the agents took to get to my initial submission as it was probably an indication of how organized they were. Perhaps you did all these things and still ended up with a lemon. But, I believe due diligence will root out the bad apples in most cases. If I'd had your bad experience, I'd probably try to talk to multiple authors with any agent under consideration. And if I didn't feel absolutely comfortable, I'd keep looking. Good luck to you!