Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Devil's Advocate

I have to admit that I was rather surprised by the number of comments Jessica received in her “Well Played” post from writers who felt she should have offered representation on a proposal she liked but for which she didn’t feel she was the best agent.

A lot was said about the writer’s point of view, but few seemed to consider the agent’s perspective.

Why would an agent ever want to go into a new partnership with an author feeling at a disadvantage? The publishing industry is tough enough as it is. When I take on a new project, I want to feel supremely confident in my ability to sell it. Time spent worrying over a project I’m not sure I was the right advocate for could be used finding another perfect fit. And there’s a ton of perfect fit manuscripts out there for me, just as there are a lot of agents out there that could be your perfect fit — if not with this project, then your next.

Agenting is a business like any other. I’m looking for the best chance of return on the risks that I take. I think that writers often get caught up in thinking that means agents don’t like risks, period. Every book I take on is a risk. There’s no “sure thing.” Even the author that comes to me with a deal in hand isn’t necessarily going to turn into a lucrative partnership over time. There’s a huge difference between taking a risk on a book that’s not an “easy sell” and taking a risk on a book that I don’t think I’m the best agent to represent. I’ve taken on plenty of authors that I loved but knew I had an uphill battle in front of me. Early in my agenting career I read a manuscript that just knocked me off my feet. There was no question I was going to offer on it. The voice just spoke to me in a way that was really special. At the same time, I recognized that it was a quirky book in a lot of ways. It was a really satisfying commercial read, yet dealing with a lot of issues that weren’t popular in the mainstream. I was right. The book was rejected just about everywhere. After many, many disappointments, I got the book into just the right hands (the perfect editorial advocate is just as important as the perfect agent) and Elizabeth Arnold’s PIECES OF MY SISTER’S LIFE went on to be a USA Today bestseller. I believed in the book and my ability to sell it, or I wouldn’t have taken the risk. But when I think my odds of selling something aren’t as good as another agent’s, those aren’t good odds. It’s just bad business sense.



Debra Lynn Shelton said...

Kim, When I find the right agent, I want nothing less than for him or her to be completely blown away by my work and be committed to finding me a great publishing deal. I don't want an agent who is lukewarm about my project, but feels they can sell it anyway. Your example of your gut feeling and determination with Elizabeth Arnold is right on the money. (Pun intended!)

Marsha said...

I agree with Debra Schubert (see above)!

Apart from wanting an agent to be 100 per cent behind your novel, it is easy for writers to forget that agents also need to make money. It is a business and to stay viable, agents need to be certain of their choices. Anything else is bad business!

MAGolla said...

Writers are frustrated. They see you as throwing away the golden egg when they should realize it's A BUSINESS. As much as I want to sell, I also want an agent who believes in me, and who is willing to fight for my story. I don't think this would happen if the agent doesn't believe in the story 100%.

Anonymous said...

Kim (and Jessica and Jackie),

I'm sure you've all taken on clients that you love the writing adn the book, but have a hard time getting editors to feel the same way.

Does this make you lose faith in your client (their work) in any way, or do you just become more determined to see that book (or another of theirs) hit the shelves?

I have a mainstream that could also be categorized as a sci-fi, and I know it will be a hard sell. My hope is that my agent won't regret signing me before we finally get to hatch that golden egg together.

Anonymous said...

I think though, that some of us (and by some of us I mean "me") have had that huge enthusiasm from an agent for a project and then when it didn't sell right away the agent dumped us completely as a client. (this was a A-list agent)

So, I, for one, question an agent having to be "enthusiastic and blown away" by a book of mine in order to sell it. That enthusiasm may be their own misguided lust for a quick sale, which is not at all an honest approach. Or it may come from a purer place, of "Yes, I'll stick by you and we'll get this book sold." The trouble is, as a writer, you don't know your agent's motivations until it's too late.

Writers do know it's a business. We sometimes wonder, if it's business why "love" has to enter in so much on the agent's part? Because a lot of times, that "love" is really lust -- and the writer gets hurt.

Anonymous said...

I'd much rather have someone completely committed to me and my work with a clear vision of where that person can sell it than someone who likes it, but doesn't know what to do with it -- or me.

It's common sense.

I think there are those who are desperate for an agent, any agent, rather than the right agent.

Again, it goes back to finding the soul mate for your work. It takes time and effort. Agents, publishers, books are not interchangeable.

Anonymous said...

As a picky reader, I surely wouldn't want to read much less represent something I am not passionate about! :-)

I always wonder though what agents think when a client that they turn down makes it big. I was reading Nicholas Sparks' website, and he said that he was offered a million dollars for his first novel, The Notebook. I would have had to cry had I turned down his query, and I probably would have (if I were an agent).

By the way, Nicholas Sparks has excellent advice for writers on his website. I don't read his books...but he sure has made a lot of money from them!

Anonymous said...

Anonymous 9:17 --

I hate to hear stories like that. I think you've actually illustrated Jessica's point pretty well. She loved this book that was submitted to her, but decided she wasn't the best agent for it. If she had decided to take it on, despite her doubts, and the book didn't sell I'd think the chances of her and the author parting ways before the second book would be much greater.

When I take on authors, I do it because I think we're the right fit, I love their writing and I'm dying to read the next story they have brewing. There's certainly a period of disappointment when a project doesn't sell, but I eagerly anticipate what they have up their sleeve next.

If I took on an author just because I thought that first book was sellable and "love" hadn't entered the equation, I'd certainly lose enthusiasm much faster if that book didn't sell.

I have to have passion for that book, as well as confidence that it's the right fit for my agenting skills.

Kelley Nyrae said...

When I write a book, I write it because I believe in it. I believe in my characters and their story. My heart goes into the book, my hard work, my passion, my excitement. When I find an agent I hope to find one who feels the same. Who believes in my book, who loves those characters and needs them to find their happily ever after as much as I do. While rejections hurt, and at the time it is often hard to see that this might be a good thing, in the end we need to remind ourselves of this. Don't we want an agent who believes in our book enough to put the same effort into selling it that we put into writing it?

Great post today, Kim!

Anonymous said...

Don't get me wrong, it sucks to write a book you believe in only to receive rejection after rejection from agents who find the concept interesting, the writing good but aren't quite enthusiastic enough to represent. But it is far worse to have your beloved novel tied up in limbo by an agent who just doesn't quite have the enthusiasm to push and knock (buttons and doors, folks.)
So though it hurts to not have that vital piece of confirmation, it’s a necessary piece of the process and in the end, I'm glad for it.

The Swivet said...

I have also turned down representing authors who have come to me with a deal in hand from a publisher. I don't want to represent anything with less than 100% enthusiasm for the work. Otherwise I'm doing a disservice to my clients.

Great post!


Anonymous said...

A professional etiquette question, if you please.

If an author DOES have an offer from an agent and approaches other agents who already have partials or fulls, and if those agents ask who the offering agent is, should the author share the name? Any advantages or drawbacks to doing so?

Unknown said...

Hearing about entitlement complexes drives me absolutely nuts. No, authors don't deserve an agent to offer a deal just because it's a hard world out there. The world's not any easier for the agent. They're trying to pay their own bills and ensure their own business-related peace of mind. I wouldn't expect them to stick their necks out for a manuscript they're not enthusiastic about, and anyone who does expect that probably has an entitlement complex.

Kaytie said...

Anonymous 11:14 -

Here's what I did in your situation: I gave the name.

1) I didn't want the other agents to think I was lying about the offer just to force a decision.

2) Since no money is exchanged, it's not as if an agent needs to worry about topping the other offer--he or she only needs to get to your book faster and make the decision.

3) Since the possibility remained that one of them could be my agent, I wanted to treat them with the same honesty I'd give them if we'd had a contract.

4) I also ran it by the agent who gave me the first offer to make sure he'd be okay with it, and he was.

I hope that helps! Maybe someone else will have a good reason for not divulging that information. I can't think of one, though...

Anonymous said...

(I'm anon 9:17)

Kim, I suppose my point was, any agent that takes you on is going to TELL you they "love" your novel, it isn't until after the fact, when they dump you, that you discover "love" to them meant "I'll try to sell this and dump you if it doesn't work." No agent is going to say that to a potential client, even if they know, in their heart, that that is exactly what is going to happen.

There's no way for a writer to distinguish what "love" means from one agent to the next. So for me, because of my own experience, "love" is a moot point.

For my next agent I plan on asking them to list off the top of their head the editors that might buy it and what's going to happen to our client/agent relationship if it doesn't sell. Are they going to be interested in reading my next book? Are they going to return my emails when they've had that book for 5 months without getting back to me?

Anonymous said...

I guess my question is: If an agent has to absolutely adore and feel 100% confident in a MSS before they should take it on, then what happens to the book that falls in the "No Freakin Clue" (as seen on NB's blog) category? Do those books not get a reputable agent or even published because they have never been done before? they aren't the norm so therefore they don't deserve to be published? Who is going to take a chance on them? If no genre represents them and no good agent will take a chance, do the get trashed? Great art presses the boundaries and often falls outside them. I guess the unusual just doesn't get published because no one is 100% confident in them. To me the best agent is open to all possibilities, and does take a few risks. No offense intended.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous 9:17 --

Good point. And you should absolutely ask those questions upfront. But you might just get the answers you want to hear to some of those as well. You may be better off contacting one of the agent's current clients. If you don't have a connection, you could e-mail through the author's website. In that case, ask very specific questions about the agent's methods of communication, etc. to determine if they're the right fit for you.

Anonymous said...

I agree with anon 12:51. It's so hard when you're different to get an agent to even consider you. They're always saying they want something fresh and unique.

But what happens to the books with unique voices? That have a deep emotional intensity but less action, or a meek unfolding of layers as oposed to slapping the reader across the head with the plot? They are harder to market so it's automatically a rejection from the agents.

At least that's my experience so far.

Ha! My word veri: amensent

Okay. Maybe more prayers would help.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous 12:51 --

I honestly just don't buy the argument that great books gets passed over because the industry isn't willing to take risks on them.

First and foremost, your book has to have an audience. If this book is so unusual that nobody cares to read it, it's not "art", it's unpublishable. But if your book has real appeal and engages readers, an agent is going to recognize that. There's a TON of agents out there. We're a good cross-section of the reading public. If your book is worthy of a mass audience, there's no doubt in my mind there's an agent that will recognize that.

BookEnds, A Literary Agency said...

Anon 12:51:

Offense has been taken. I think the point Kim and I have been trying to make and to make heard, is that every single day agents are taking chances. We take risks outside of the genres we represent and within them as well. To use one of my own clients as an example, when I first took a look at Kate Douglas's Wolf Tales, a highly erotic romance, I knew there were only two publishers who would even bother looking but I loved it and had no doubt I wanted to take the risk and so did the publisher, launching an entire imprint to support Kate and other similar authors.

But risks for all of us in our careers and our lives have to have some boundaries. I have told numerous authors through the years that I am offering representation on a book I love, but I can't guarantee will sell. In fact, I went out just today with a proposal that I said that about. It's a risk, but one I'm making with passion and some knowledge of the market.

We all take risks, but we need to make sure our risks make sense. Taking on a children's book for example, would just be plain stupid. I don't have a passion for them, I don't have the desire to represent them and I would be risking my own business , but also the author's career. Why would I want to take that risk?

I think it's really easy for authors to blame the messenger when it comes to explanation as to why the book they've written hasn't found a home. The truth is that if the book is publishable you'll find an agent willing to take that risk. There are a lot of us out there.

BookEnds, A Literary Agency said...

Well apparently a sore spot was hit since Kim and I both jumped on it at the same time. LOL. I hope that helps clarify your comment.


Anonymous said...

I had two hard rejections from agents.

With both I had a sense of "You, you are the right agent for ME!"

Unfortunately, they didn't agree.

The agent that finally tried to convince me "I am the right agent for YOU," wasn't even on my agent radar during the query process.

She is fantastic and she's done amazing things for me. Before everything happened, I had no clue she'd be the "one." I had convinced myself other agents had to be it.

So while that "You're the right agent for me," feeling is very powerful, it is a good thing to wait for the "I'm the right agent for you."


Anonymous said...

Anons 12:51 and 1:11~

I can really sympathize with how you both feel. It's so easy to get discouraged when your stuff isn't like anything out there. But don't let it make you bitter or give up hope.

I can attest that some agents WILL take a chance on a quieter, mood driven book with a different voice. And Kim happens to be one of those agents, because she's taken me on. So there is hope, I promise!

I think what it all boils down to is that the book has to connect to the agent, so you just haven't found the right agent yet. As long as you are writing the stories of your heart, then DON'T give up and don't stop trying. Your agent is out there.

The most important thing is to keep writing other books while you're trying to query this one; you never know which book will be the one to speak. :-)

Good luck, and hang in!

Anonymous said...

Kim & Jess,

I would say that you have both taken risks. You both just gave examples. There are some books out there that are so different authors just don't know where to go with them. What do you suggest they do? Is there a respectable agent that reps the "No Freakin Clue" category? I think that was the point trying to be made, and there really was no offense intended.

Anonymous said...

No freaking clue can be great. As a reader, I have deeply loved some very strange books. But the writing has to connect with readers, or it is only great in one's own mind. The first reader it has to connect with is an editor or an agent, and that is really hard.

But they are readers, and they will connect. My story is odd in that it is Science Fiction and Romance, leaning on the dark romance side. I kept hearing SF is a hard sell in the romance market, and my book is too romance focused for the SF market. I was seriously ready to start something else, but then I got some recognition out of a contest, which led to interest from the right people, and eventually my book landing in the hands of my agent who reacted to it the way I was hoping my audience would react to it. She "got it," and she sold it, because she already had someone on the radar who she thought would "get it."

So if you know a book is out there, but not sure how people will react to it, my advice is to get it in front of a couple of other writers you trust to be honest, or contest judges and see if it resonates with anyone.

On the contest circuit people either loved my entry or hated it. (My scores for one contest were 100, 99, 63) That's okay, but more than one person out there has to love it, or who are you going to sell it to?


BookEnds, A Literary Agency said...

Anon 1:40:

I think you take risks yourself. The book you're writing must fit somewhere. So it's not a genre? Is it general fiction? Who do you like to read that you would compare your book to? Find agents who rep or have repped something similar or just send out queries to agents you like. There's no easy way to find an agent. You just have to put yourself out there and query widely. Every good agent is willing to take risks.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous 1:40 --

Identify your audience. Even if your book is different, you have to be able to point out that your book "will appeal to Charlaine Harris fans", "has an otherworldy quality that Fantasy buffs would like", "has a spunky Janet-Evanovich-like voice." Then do your research and see who's representing those types of books.

If you -- as the book's creator -- can't figure out who will want to read it, then you need to go back to the drawing board.

Anonymous said...

there we go again...

Anonymous said...

Aww, thanks Kim! I actually chose Kim as my agent because of her enthusiasm for my novel, which came across in our first conversation. I felt comfortable she'd show that enthusiasm when she talked with potential editors, and I knew just how important that was in actually making a sale.

And to address some of the other posters, there are countless numbers of "unique" books out there that have been picked up by agents and editors. For example, look at Joshua Ferris's "Then We Came to the End," "Dear American Airlines," "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao" (and the highly touted, soon to be released, "The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet.") All are completely unique, and all of them hit it big. There's a home for virtually every novel that will attract readers, no matter how "different" it may be, and in most cases there will be agents who will connect with that kookiness and be willing to take the risk of representing it. It just may take significantly longer to actually find them.

Thanks again, Kim, for your kind words about PIECES! (And, of course, for taking a chance on me...)

Anonymous said...

The ratio of audience to agents doesn't equal. The target audience is easy to figure out. Targeting an agent is hard and exhausting. That's why a lot of people send in stuff that an agent doesn't actually list, just hoping for the one that will strech beyond their normal scope.

Susan Helene Gottfried said...

That attitude confounds me, too, Kim. One thing I learned from my years doing volunteer stuff for Metallica was that the only thing worth it is your best. That means I want the best people on my team and in my corner. And that means that you, as an agent, should only take on what you'll do your best by. To do anything less is unfair to everyone involved -- the writer, yourself, the editors you'll be contacting, and anyone else down the pipeline.

Anonymous said...

Targeting an agent is hard. I thought I had the perfect people for me figured out.


It is frustrating and exhausting, and the closer you get to breaking through the more frustrating and exhausting it gets.

All you can really do is write a book that can attract an audience, have faith in your work, and get it out there to people who could make things happen.


Anonymous said...

I guess that's why you just keep going and enjoy the process. I am already clearing a space on my wall for rejection letters. Very exciting! :-)

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Kaytie M. Lee!

From Anon 11:14

Anonymous said...

Here is a question that seems to be relevant to what you have written. There seem to be a lot of people looking for an agent, based on the comments. Some of them are not going to find one. So how does the author determine that he or she has a piece of garbage and/or lacks talent? It is not well in business to give up too soon, and yet there comes a time when everyone has to cut losses and move on. If an author suspects things are not going anywhere, what would you suggest as a way to get an objective opinion?

Christie Craig said...

Great post, Kim. And so true. Finding an agent is tough. Finding the right agent is even tougher. When art (meaning something is subjective to opinions involving its worth) and business mingle, it always becomes tricky.

While this will aways remain a business, it can in ways compare to a marriage. You don't have to love someone to marry them, but isn't it always better when you do?


Anonymous said...

It seems odd to me that so many people would think an agent should take on a project she wasn't in love with. I never read the comments of that post, so I had no idea until now that some people felt this way. For one, it just seems odd for someone else to tell another person how to run their business. As a writer, how would I feel if someone told me to write an idea which I wasn't totally in love with? Just because it was something I was almost certain I could sell? I wouldn't like it very much, and neither would anyone else who reads this blog, I'm fairly certain. So why should agents be any different?

Anonymous said...

If an author suspects things are not going anywhere, what would you suggest as a way to get an objective opinion?

You could join a critique group. (Mine has been wonderful in helping me improve my writing.) You could enter contests. (Kind of a crapshoot, depending on the judges, but you could also get some great feedback.) You could hire a freelance editor. There are some wonderful ones in the business, such as Chris Riordan and Elizabeth Lyon. (This isn't cheap but could prove invaluable.) You could also take classes. One thing I found very helpful was to "deconstruct" some recently published books to see how the author handled everything from storyline to character development. Something else I've discovered is that my writing continues to get better, simply by writing. The first novel I wrote, which I thought was pretty good, is actually pretty bad. But the second novel was better and managed to snag an agent. And I hope my WIP will be that much better and able to snag a publisher.

Taymalin said...


What's talent? I'd argue that almost anyone can learn to write, and write well enough to sell books. But it takes a long time and a heck of a lot of work.

It seems to me that "talent" is a label we give to people who enjoy doing something. If you enjoy doing something, you'll practice, and with practice comes skill.

I think perseverance is more important to any writer than something as intangible as talent. If you shop a story around and it doesn't sell eventually, write the next one. Rinse, repeat.