Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Sally MacKenzie: Some Thoughts on Choosing an Agent

Sally MacKenzie
The Naked Baron
Publisher: Kensington Zebra
Pub date: April 2009
Agent: Jessica Faust

(Click to Buy)

The recent agentfail discussion got me thinking about agents in general and my relationship with Jessica in particular.

In a perfect world, I suppose I’d have had an agent when I made my first sale, but things didn’t work out that way. When I signed with Jessica, I had my second two-book contract on the table—and in some ways this was a good thing. I wasn’t focused on selling, but on finding a person to help me manage my career, and I’d spent a year working with a New York publisher and observing with keen interest—since I knew I would need an agent soon—how my newly and not so newly published pals interacted with their agents.

I was surprised at how many writers seemed to be afraid of their agents—almost as if they were fifth-graders again and their agent was their English teacher. They didn’t want to bother their agent with “dumb” questions or take up their agent’s time or follow up when they didn’t get a response to something. Many were unhappy, but didn’t discuss their problems with their agent. Some wanted to move on, but couldn’t bring themselves to terminate the relationship. They hoped things would get better. Or they were afraid to be without an agent, even though their agent had become an anchor to their career and their spirit. Those who finally did fire their agent usually wished they’d done so much earlier.

I knew I did not want an agent I’d be afraid of, but what did I want? Did I want an agent who read my work and gave me editorial feedback or one who considered her job only to sell? Was it important to me to be with a Big Name Agency? Would I mind being a small fish in a big pond? Would I care if I didn’t work with my Big Name Agent but with her assistant instead? How did I want to communicate with my agent—snail mail, phone, email—and how quickly did I want to hear back from her? Was she based in New York City—and did I think her location was at all important? Did I care if my agent was male or female?

It was also important to me to meet—or at least observe—the agent in person, to see what “vibe” I got, what my gut told me. I eliminated one agent because I knew her voice would drive me crazy. Another had a limp handshake. Still another didn’t make eye contact. All these agents are well respected, wonderful agents, but I didn’t think they would be wonderful for me.

During this time I didn’t actually query any agents. I didn’t yet know what I wanted, and I was still working on the second book of my first contract, so I didn’t have anything to sell—though I was beginning to realize I could definitely use an agent’s help deciphering the publishing business. And then the day came when my editor called with this offer of a second contract, and the agent issue suddenly moved from the back burner to boiling over on the front of the stove.

I knew there must be many, many good agents out there in publishing-land, but I wasn’t going to be able to meet each of them in the week or two my editor had given me to decide on her offer. And I was getting the glimmer of a clue that there was probably no one perfect agent for me, but a number of agents with whom I could work.

I’d recently had an interview with Jessica. I’d liked her. She had a firm handshake and a pleasant voice and seemed very smart. I checked the writer grapevine and heard good things, so I called her, reminded her who I was, explained my situation, and asked if she’d like to read some of my work to see if she might be interested in representing me. She went out and got my published book, and I sent her my next manuscript so she could see where I was going. It was really important to me that she got my writing—and, happily, it was important to her, too. I asked her for the names of a couple of her clients, and I called or emailed them to see what they had to say about her and the way she worked. It was all good, and Jessica offered to represent me. Now I had to make the decision.

Jumping into an agent relationship blindly or in desperation is not a good idea. Not only it is hard emotionally to break off the agent-writer relationship—or at least it seems to be difficult for many writers I’ve talked to—but you’ll have a legal and financial relationship with this person for as long as the books she represented stay in print. Yet even making a considered decision is nerve-wracking. No matter how carefully you do your homework, when you finally chose an agent it’s still a leap of faith. You can’t know for certain you’ll be a good team until you’ve worked together.

I took that leap when I signed with Jessica in July 2005, and I’m delighted to report I’m even happier with my decision today.

USA Today bestselling author Sally MacKenzie writes funny, hot Regency-set historicals for Kensington’s Zebra line, and her books have been translated into Czech, Japanese, Norwegian, Portuguese, Spanish, and Russian. Her fifth book, The Naked Baron, arrives on bookstore shelves April 28 and is a Romantic Times BOOKreviews Top Pick for May, with the baron himself receiving a K.I.S.S. award. A native of Washington, D. C., she still lives in suburban Maryland with her husband and whichever of her four sons are stopping back in the nest. To find out more about Sally and her books, visit her website at www.sallymackenzie.net.


Kimber Li said...

If only Jessica could be cloned...

Wonderful story. From what I've read, the reason why so many authors are paranoid about their agents is because they traveled such a rough road to find one in the first place. An aspiring author's choices are severely limited.

Anonymous said...

I'd be ok with a Jessica clone. Nice, thoughtful post Sally. People should be able to put in a lot of thought and consideration to accepting what is in a lot of ways going into business with someone. To me, the hard part, at least for aspiring writers, and I've heard numerous stories about pubbed authors having difficulty finding another agent, is that it's SO difficult to land an agent, any agent (who knows what they're doing) that it's hard not to say 'yes' without even considering anything. I can imagine it being something like, "Oh, thank god! Where do I sign?"

This isn't wise of course, no matter how respected the agent is, but even knowing this, I for one can say I'd have a hard time saying no to any agent who was interested. Because you know, or at least have to have the thought, that it might be your one and only chance.

Anonymous said...

Good post. Wonder how many writers actually get to shop around for an agent, however; most of us desperately grab the first offer.

Loved the image of agents as "anchors" weighing their writers down. That was exactly my experience. It is a very unequal relationship and few adult human beings like being on the low side of the teeter-totter.

Debra Lynn Shelton said...

Jessica, Please send my thanks to Sally for sharing her story - it sounds like the two of you make a great team!

I have to agree with Jim when he says we writers are so exhausted from the querying process, that we'll usually go with the first agent who says, "Yes!" Sally is lucky in that she was already published, had a deal on the table, and was in a position to call the shots. For most writers, I don't think that's the "usual" scenario.

Sally MacKenzie said...

Writing certainly is a very odd business in many respects. I totally get the feelings of almost desperation that can come in the agent hunt. Frankly, I'm not sure I would have had the courage to submit my book to anyone--I was just so lucky it got picked up out of the first contest I entered. In many ways, you all are way farther along on the learning curve than I was when I sold--but you might also be beaten down a little from all the "common wisdom."

I say I was lucky I got picked up out of that first contest partly because the book didn't do very well in the other contests I entered. I think I could easily have gotten mired in the contest scene, endlessly tweaking the book to please some faceless judges.

I think writers have to strike some odd balance between being confident that our work has merit yet being open to constructive criticism. And for me, and at least some of my friends, it's a constant dance with paranoia that doesn't get better once you're published and have reviews to bring you down several notches (my advice--don't read them) and sales numbers. It certainly isn't a business for the faint of heart.

Sally MacKenzie said...

I should probably say that I queried three agents when I had my offer and one turned me down. She didn't love my writing enough--so she would have been a bad choice for me had I had the choice.

Sarah J. MacManus said...

Bit like getting married, innit?

Sally, you're making me think about the confidence thing - you know, you can feel that what you're writing is "good", you can think that you have something important to say, and still take constructive criticism by realizing that you're not getting it across, that you're not making it accessible to the reader and I think that's how you have to take concrit. It's not personal, but if you're going to tell a story, you owe it to the reader to tell it in a language that they understand. At least that's the way I try to look at it.

Sally MacKenzie said...

Fawn Neun, good point about confidence. That plays into the agent search, too. We need to have confidence that our story is good and we can get a good agent. (Unfortunately, there do seem to be very "not good" agents out there, as well as agents that are just not good for a particular author.)

A funny thing about writing, though. I do feel a certain level of confidence in my craft, but I also feel that some of my best writing is done when I take risks. Another reason I really like having Jessica on my team. I trust her to be my "net" so I can confidently take risks.

Sherrie Petersen said...

I enjoyed reading your post, Sally. Like you, I'm submitting to an editor I met through a contest I was a finalist in and hoping for the best. I liked your point about meeting the agent in person because you really need to like the person you're working with. At this point, I'm continuing to "observe" agents before I do any more querying.

Anonymous said...

Sally, I had been taking my time sending queries out to agents. My manuscript is finished but I have been focused on school. But in the last month things seem to have taken a course of it's own, so now I'm scrambling to send out queries. The advice you've provided has really set my anxiousness at ease. I knew I couldn't deal with an agent that scares me and was able to scratch them from my list. And I was a bit hesitant about querying agents I've never heard of.

Your blogging today is a godsend to me.

Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Great points! But how many of us can claim to have the upper hand (contract in hand) when deciding on an agent? For most of us who don't write romance, we neede an agent to SELL our work, not just negotiate contracts.

Julie Dao said...

Thank you for this post. I'm a young writer (but definitely not new) and although I haven't gotten to the stage where my confidence level is high enough to seek an agent, I still like to hear more about the business. It seems like a game of risk and strategy more than anything, but I guess that's why they say writers need a tough skin to succeed.

Debra Lynn Shelton said...

Sally, Thanks for letting us know one of the agents you approached turned you down. I've heard agents say that very thing - that they've turned down writers with a contract in hand because they didn't feel they were a good fit. It's interesting to hear it from a writer's perspective.

Also, I love what you said about Jessica being your "net." Again, you two are clearly a great team. I wish you both continued success!

Sally MacKenzie said...

Congrats and good luck, Solvang Sherrie! And Anonymous 2:38 #1, I'm glad if anything I said helped.

Anonymous 2:38 #2, yes, it really helped me and my attitude toward the process to have already sold. But lots of romance writers haven't sold when they find an agent. I think--as Fawn Neun mentioned--we all need to try to hold on to our confidence in what we write while looking for an agent or trying to get published. But it's not easy, of course. Romance writers are fortunate that they have conferences where they can meet agents--or at least observe them--assuming the writer can afford the time and money to go to the conferences! I can't imagine how writers in other genres go about it.

Julie, the writing is the most important thing. As long as you're writing, you're making progress.

Sally MacKenzie said...

Debra, yes, you actually wouldn't want an agent who only took you on because you had a contract in hand. I've had friends who have done that and been somewhat bitter when things ultimately didn't work out and they parted company with the agent down the line. Yes, the agent "negotiated" the contract, but often there is little an agent can do at that point, when you've pretty much accepted the deal. And first contracts are often not very lucrative or able to be negotiated much. Some not-very-good agents won't even try to get you better terms, yet they still get 15 percent of the sale you made yourself.

Jessica more than earned her 15 percent on my contract, by the way, by getting me the best terms she could and by helping me navigate the business and managing those books as well as my two unagented books. But if she hadn't loved my writing, our relationship would not be what it is. She read my published book as well as my next manuscript before we decided to work together, partly because I wanted to be sure she did love my writing.

Unknown said...

Thanks for this post!
I knew the dear Baron was coming out, but had forgotten his exact release date. Thankfully I read your post this morning, and knew I would find your book waiting for me at the Borders. You gave me something delightful to read while my daughter spent two hours in line to get a book signed by the author of the Warriors cats.
PS--love the dedication.

Sally MacKenzie said...

Thanks, Karen. I'm so glad the Baron helped you pass the time!

I'm turning off the laptop now and packing up--I'm off to Denver in the morning. If any of you are coming to the Romancing the Rockies conference, please say hi!

Good luck to everyone on the crazy agent hunt--and thanks to Jessica for lending me a spot in her blog today.

Venus Vaughn said...

I met an agent at my local RWA who was fantastically brilliant. She knew her business and was someone I would be lucky to have in my corner during contract negotiation. Incredible businesswoman, really.

After her talk I asked her for a card. She looked me up and down and said she doesn't do that. I could find her on the web.

*blink* "What's your address?"
Another look. "Just look up my name."

Okay then. Won't be working with her. Smarts are important, but so is courtesy.

Lynne Simpson said...

This is one of the sanest, most level-headed posts I've read on seeking an agent. Like other posters have said, all too often writers get burned out by the process and are ready for it to be over with, so they may settle for an agent who isn't quite right for them.

Thank you, Sally and Jessica. :-)

Kate Douglas said...

Sally, you did this in such an adult fashion! After years of submissions without any takers, I knew I'd never sell anything without an agent, and when I heard of a new agent who was looking at submissions, I sent in a manuscript I'd just completed that, for the time, was totally "unsellable." (writing a hero with sexual identity issues wasn't working in NY in 2001) I knew absolutely nothing about Jessica, her agency was still too new to show up on the radar, and it was blind luck on my part to find her. Luckily, Jessica liked my voice well enough to take a chance, though it was quite awhile before I actually sent her a marketable manuscript. I've never regretted signing with BookEnds, though in my case it was luck, not smarts, that found me the right agent.

Kathryn Magendie said...

This is something I needed to read (a Backspacer provided this link after my question of "Do I really need an agent?)...

I'm in a similar situation: Book published with a small press, working on second manuscript for which the publisher is interested in....and, being told obtaining an agent would be a really good idea for me.

Like you, I do not want to just go about things willy nilly. I'm not unhappy with my publishers, but I do know that I'll have to make some kind of decision about my career/future.

I'm glad I read this to help me gather my thoughts.

Thank you; wonderful post.