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.