Tuesday, April 21, 2009

An Agent's Passion

Earlier this month I attended the Northern Colorado Writers Conference in Fort Collins, Colorado (and followed it up with some much-needed vacation). The conference immediately followed my post on Agentfail, so I was feeling a little bruised, battered and unsure if I had done the right thing. Obviously this post sticks with me since I can’t seem to let it go.

One of the things that struck me about this conference was how much agents really, truly love our jobs. The first night there, conference director Kerrie Flanagan took agents Jeffrey McGraw, Jon Sternfeld, and me out to dinner. I felt a little bad for Kerrie because immediately upon getting three agents together all we did was talk shop. We shared stories of how we handle submissions we love, how we handle those we’re on the fence over, and what we do when we think a submission needs too much work to offer representation on, but we love it anyway. We shared client horror stories and experiences on how to deal with difficult clients as well as discussed what makes a great client. We talked about publishing news and gossip, and we offered advice to each other. Good grief, we just talked and talked and talked shop. Dinner lasted an hour, but since we weren’t even close to done, we moved to an amazing chocolate cafĂ© for dessert. Poor Kerrie.

On Friday we had pitch appointments and I have to say, this was one of the best-prepared groups I had ever met with. Every single author I met with came in prepared to give a pitch and talk about themselves. More important, though, every author had a list of questions prepared in case the pitch ended early and there was time to just chat. Kudos to Kerrie, who revealed later that she had offered a three-hour pitch workshop. It really showed, she needs to take that workshop on the road. I heard some great pitches and was, hopefully, able to give some constructive advice. One author, at the suggestion of another agent at the conference, asked my advice on how to handle a difficult situation with her agent, while others wanted to know my thoughts on what genre they should be targeting or looking into (not based on trends, but based on the description of the story). I found that, throughout the conference, the writers were warm, engaging and intelligent. The questions they asked were great and the conversations were always lively.

Friday night after dinner, and I really have to shake my head, Jon Sternfeld and I dragged a group of writers into the bar where, yes, we could just talk and talk and talk some more about publishing. It’s a little embarrassing really and makes me wonder, do we just love to hear ourselves talk? I swear, if I get a captive audience (hello, blog readers) I can really talk forever about publishing. I love sharing my knowledge and experiences and I think most other agents do too. The truth is we want to see publishing success whether we’re part of the journey or not, and the more we can do to help authors along the way the happier we are. I remember sitting there and thinking how much fun Jon and I were having. We had never met before, but our common love of publishing created an instant connection. We were in our element. It was great!

I was asked during the cocktail party why I do conferences; the author wanted to know if it was for the pay. LOL. Newsflash, except in very, very, very rare instances, agents do not get paid to attend writer’s conferences. Typically hotel, conference fees, and airfare are covered, but we still need to somehow get to and from the airport, pay for meals that aren’t included and cover any other incidentals we might need (Internet access at the hotel, for example). I don’t do conferences expecting to sign new clients and I certainly don’t do them for money. I’m not going to pretend I’m a saint and attendance at conferences is completely altruistic. Sure, I never know who I will meet or what that will lead to, but primarily I speak at conferences because I love being surrounded by others who have a passion for books, who love to write and who really, truly want to learn more about publishing.

Jessica

34 comments:

Shawntelle said...

I never knew agents didn't get paid for conferences. Kudos to you for offering your time to others. I can only imagine how you balance things with adding conferences to your schedule.

Great post, thanks!

Karen Amanda Hooper said...

Thanks Jessica! I'm attending the Pikes Peak conference starting this Thurs. It's nice to get a glimpse of how the agents feel about conferences. We appreciate all you Ubers do! :)

Ava Quinn said...

I was feeling a little bruised, battered and unsure if I had done the right thing.

I was afraid of that for you, Jessica. You showed a lot of chutzpah opening up that discussion, and some real grievances were aired which was great. You should definitely be proud of yourself. For the rest of it . . . (ahem) I say, let it roll off your back and hopefully people will move on. The old adage, you can't please everyone completely applies here.

The conference sounded wonderful. It's always such a treat to talk to other professionals about all aspects of writing. Glad you got a recharge from it.

JKB said...

Great post, Jessica!

I have a question - could you share/make a blog post on what, exactly, makes a perfect client?

Yunaleska said...

Your passion for writing and being an agent shines through all your posts. Thank you for the invaluable information you provide us with.

Anita said...

I write a book recommendation column for a Colorado newspaper. I popped in on the conference to meet some CO authors who I could later write about in my column. Every writer I spoke to (published and aspiring) was impressed by what they'd learn from agents at the conference. While the writers all came prepared to pitch their work, the thing which is impressed me was that they also showed up prepared to take EVERYTHING in...so maybe they didn't land an agent at the conference, but they were taking away tools to help them improve their writing and, in some cases, I'm sure, land an agent at a later time.

Side note: I'll be at the PPWC this weekend. We're going to have beautiful weather!

Susan Helene Gottfried said...

Your last sentence resonates with me. It's why I'd have LOVED to have been at that dinner with you three -- to just sit and listen.

Don't lose that passion, Jessica. Writers need advocates like you.

PurpleClover said...

It's always awesome to hear someone else's perspective on something they are passionate about.

Psst. Your personality is showing.

;)

Anonymous said...

Glad to know not all conferences are work, work, work. But I've heard agents say that the pitches and faces become a blur during the weekend, so it doesn't really help writers much.

Now we know why agents already overloaded w/ submissions and clients, who contstantly complain or brag about how "busy" they are, keep attending conferences...it's to talk shop!

Lisa Katzenberger said...

Jessica, I love that you and other agents who blog and attend conferences love to talk and talk and talk some more about publishing. It does not get old. I dipped my toe into the querying party a year ago, and was awfully intimidated by the process. But once I found the wealth of information agents share online, it took away a lot of the fear of the unknown – and also lots of anxiety. Thanks for providing a spot for open dialogue and for sharing your passion. We need it.

The Writers Canvas said...

The agentfail post was a good vent outlet for many, Jessica. That you welcomed it and people were able to say what was on their minds was invaluable.

Anyone posting on agentfail who complained about not getting personal rejections--I challenge them to go to Nathan Bransford's blog and read through (and do a late participate themselves) in his 'agent for a day' post. After participating in this, I now know why agents can't make personal notes or comments for every rejection.

You do a great job sharing info on the blog, and attending conferences where you're approachable. Keep up the great work!!!

Elaine

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the positive post.

Your description reminds me of my exhilarating days as an English grad student, how we talked for hours and never ran out of things to hash over, from literature to theory to our unintentionally funny first-year composition students.

If only you represented YA novels...

DebraLSchubert said...

Jessica, I'm amazed agents don't get paid to attend conferences. I (and I imagine many others) assumed they do. That sheds a different light on agents who do find time to attend.

And, thank you for your passion for all things publishing, and for your desire to share it with us. I'm excited for Backspace in NYC next month. Wish you were attending!

jimnduncan said...

I realize I likely come across as agent fanboy with my posts on agenting (and I've made a lot of them on various blogs in the past few weeks with the current agent whinefest that has been going on, but that's not the reason I post them.

It's more to offer a counter to the incessant bitching that has been occurring thanks to writers who aren't very informed about publishing. While I certainly don't claim to be an expert or even highly knowledgeable about the industry, it's not that hard to follow industry blogs and do a little research. If one wants a decent understanding of how things work (even if there are understandably, some flaws in the system) the information is out there to glean. It's a difficult industry to work in, and when people have difficulty succeeding, they have a tendency to want to blame and point fingers at why they aren't having the success they believe they should have or deserve.

It's comments like Anon posted above about agents being 'busy.' Snark like this is counter-productive. I'm not sure if the comment was meant as tongue-in-cheek or seriously, but there has been plenty of it on the serious side of late. Honestly, bitching doesn't accomplish much. It won't change anything. People who inform themselves about publishing are fully aware of how hard things are and the fact that things aren't always very efficient. The demonizing of agents/editors as being self-interested hacks who wouldn't know a good book if it grew a mouth and bit them, only proves the point that a lot of writers out there are pretty clueless.

The point is, and Jessica made this pretty clear (as have many agents and editors via their blogs and interviews), is that people get into this industry for one primary reason. They love books. LOVE them. Most of them are pretty damn educated about them too. The majority of agents and editors have related degrees and/or have years of experience in the industry. They know how things work and how best to achieve results, which is to publish books people will want to read.

They don't get into this industry for the perks. Most don't make big money. The hours are harsh. They do it for a love of books. So, obviously it's not in their best interests to work against writers. The majority of agents do their best to balance the interests of writers and their goal of seeing books they love put into print. Of course there are a few who should not be agents. This goes without saying for any industry. Just like there are many writers out there who would be better off not writing. It's misplaced frustration to point fingers at agents and editors. They know what they're doing. They're knowledgeable, and they do a very difficult job because they LOVE books.

Writers need to get it out of their f'ing heads that agents and editors aren't doing their damnedest to find success for writers. They want to. They got into the business because they want to make writers successful. Not their fault that there are thousands upon thousands of wannabe authors out there. The whiners need to cut them a little slack. They're tryint to make the best of a difficult job and industry. So buck up, shut up, and keep improving your writing.

Ok, rant off.

Kimber An said...

It's nice to read a positive report on a conference. I've read and heard so many negative ones I was beginning to wonder why on earth anyone would ever want to go.

Dara said...

A three hour pitching workshop would be fantastic! I would definitely sign up for that.

And it's nice to see an agent who is passionate about their job--that's the kind of person I want to work with. I just attended a small conference this past weekend, and the agents there also conveyed their love of their careers and working with writers.

An aside here: I found that I knew most of the answers that some of my fellow writers asked the agents at the conference panel session, mainly through being an avid reader of your blog as well as the other agent blogs out there. It really made me appreciate what you and the other agent bloggers are doing for us :)

Ok, my gushing session is over :P

Robena Grant said...

"while others wanted to know my thoughts on what genre they should be targeting or looking into (not based on trends, but based on the description of the story)."

Wow! Now that's a workshop I'd like to see happen. My stories aren't high concept enough to grab anyone's attention and with all of the melding of genres these days (at least in romance) it's hard to categorize what I write: is it a single title contemporary, suspense, intrigue, mystery? I call them nice stories that go nowhere. Ha ha.

You could present a panel of three or four agents: You're Targeting Which Genre?

Authors would anonymously present a blurb and first page to be read aloud. Kind of an Idol for Writers (without the snark)and deal specifically with genre. Perhaps give hints on how to embellish to fall squarely into a specific genre.

Do it at RWA National, I'll sign up.

Heidi said...

I feel the same way about being a writer. It can be a lonely business at times, but put me in a room with someone who knows the ins and outs of publishing or books, or who makes the mistake of asking me what it's like, and I could talk for hours.

You need that kind of interaction to keep going sometimes.

Diana said...

Nathan Bransford's "Agent for a Day" contest really drove home the fact that an agent really has to love what he or she does for a living.

Thanks for today's post!

Anonymous said...

How about sharing some of the stories? How do you handle something that you love but needs too much work? How do you handle when you are on the fence? How did they? That would be another interesting read!!!!

M. Dunham said...

Your post cracks me up. I, for one, love hearing your stories because it gives me insight to the publishing industry. So thank you for blathering on - we love to read it!

Anton said...

Jessica, I love this post because your love for what you do shines through...just another reminder why I feel very privileged to have you as my agent.

Anonymous said...

Thing about giving advice is that you never know where it will land. A major publishing house just agreed to buy my book (through my agent, of course), and I just copied your "What Can Authors Do to Sell Books" post for later study.

Please keep giving advice. There are always new people coming in who need to learn these things, and some people who may finally realize they need help.

(In fact, I wonder now if there's not too much information. After copying your post, I went back and deleted nine of yours from Bloglines, dealing with queries and synopses. Not that I won't need a refresher, but there's so much out there now.

Heather B. Moore said...

Awesome, Jessica. I'm teaching a few workshops this weekend at a writers conference. I can't wait. I'm putting together the presentations, but I know that I'll just get up there and free-talk about what I love--writing!

Megan said...

I stopped reading the agentfail comments fairly early (and haven't quite figured out how one is supposed to read long twitter feeds so didn't read queryfail either), but I will say that the posts on various blogs reacting to both events have been really useful. So for all the drama, there's been good to have come of it at least, and I thank you for it!

David said...

I wholly concur with what Jim Duncan says above, and he says it well. I've had the pleasure of getting to know a few agents in the years I've been pitching my book, and they have done a lot to convince me that a good agent is not only a necessary asset for a writer who wants to be published commercially but a valuable guide whether or not the agent takes a project on.

A majority of the complaints I saw in agentfail came from writers whose queries had not yet hooked an agent--and that can be indeed frustrating. But once a writer has a query that works at least part of the time, a new world opens up in his or her relationship with an agent, tentative at first but capable of deepening, as in any relationship.

In a sense, the agents I've known, though eventually none took my project, taught me a good deal, and I still keep improving and refining the book and book proposal. When it's eventually published, its acknowledgments page will bear thanks to only one agent, but I'll appreciate the others nevertheless.

Anonymous said...

Topic for a future post:

What makes a great client?

Litgirl01 said...

So important to be passionate about what we do! I can tell from all of your posts that you love being an agent, and that you genuinely care about writers. Thank you for all of your helpful advice!

morphine-moniza said...

Agents who love their jobs are really lucky. You guys get to be part of the process of creating literature. That's pretty amazing. If I were less of a dingbat when it comes to paperwork I'd want to be an agent too...

morphine-moniza said...

And I hope you don't still feel sad about agentfail. It was really brave of you to host it. I don't think the bitchfest that ensued is really representative of how writers feel about agents. People just needed to vent a little.

I'm very grateful to agents because I would not know anything about the industry without you guys blogging so regularly. There's a lot of really misleading info out their in the internet, and findng agents who blog actually made things much clearer for me.

spyscribbler said...

Wow, that's awesome, Jessica! I write in Borders Cafe 6 days a week, and even after seven or eight years of it, there is no church, no meditation, no prayer that soothes my soul like walking through the aisles. God, just... all those books.

I think it was awesome that you opened up the #agentfail discussion. Not that the discussion was productive or encouraging or even useful, but I'm sure I'm not the only writer who respected the gesture, the willingness to listen.

Susanne said...

It may take some time, but I'm going to get to a conference that you attend. What a great experience!

Tara Maya said...

That sounds like so much fun. :)

Kerrie said...

"I felt a little bad for Kerrie because immediately upon getting three agents together all we did was talk shop."

Jessica, there is not need to feel bad for me. How often does a writer get to be a "fly on the wall" while three agents talk shop. I loved every minute of it. Thanks for all your hard work at the conference and for your nice comments about the event.

~Kerrie