Wednesday, August 26, 2009

How Much Can You Really Tell

I don’t envy authors when it comes to making a decision about an agent. Sure, it’s one thing to send the queries out, but it’s an entirely different thing when multiple offers of representation come in and you have to decide which agent you think is right for you because, let’s face it, unlike dating, you don’t have weeks, months or even years to get to know this person and rarely do you have the opportunity to sit down in person. Typically the decision is made after a few phone calls and lots of thought on your part.

I’ve done multiple posts on what questions to ask and how to trust yourself and your gut, so I’m not going to get into that again. Instead I’m going to address comments I see regularly from writers who feel that you should base part of your decision of choosing an agent on how that agent responds to you prior to making an offer of representation. The biggest factor seems to be slow response times. Many writers feel that if an agent is slow to respond to queries or submissions (or responds later than a posted respond-by date) it’s a sign that she’s an agent who will also be slow to respond to clients. I disagree. I’m not sure you can judge an agent by response times at all, except when it comes to response times.

I’ve said this before, but a good agent will always prioritize clients first, and sometimes that means that submissions have to sit longer than intended. For an agent there is no such thing as a typical day. Things can be going along smoothly and neatly with all queries, client emails, and phone calls being returned regularly and in a timely manner when suddenly you’re hit with four clients who have fresh proposals or manuscripts that need to be read and responded to (often with a revision letter) or contracts that need to be negotiated and reviewed. All of this takes a lot more time than even an agent can typically expect. I’m often amazed at how much time contract reviews and revision letters take. Hopefully the agent will always put queries and submissions aside to focus on clients first.

On the other hand, an agent who always responds to submissions in a timely manner (and I stress the word "always" here) might be super organized or she might be avoiding what really needs to be done and letting client contracts, proposals, and even checks pile up while she’s busy looking for the next big thing. You might get a timely response because you submitted at just the right time, when things were quiet and she had time to get to it immediately upon its arrival. It might also be a submission she was able to look at and know instantly it wasn’t for her or it was exactly what she was looking for and she put everything else aside to read it.

What I’m trying to say is that how an agent responds to submissions is an indication of practically nothing. It simply means that you got a response. When choosing an agent I think it’s so much more important to talk to that agent’s clients to really find out how they feel about her and to base your decision on the conversation you have with her and the questions you ask. Trust your gut.

All that being said, I do think there’s one thing you can learn from an agent before “the call” is made, and that’s whether or not she’s respectful of authors in general. An agent who treats you rudely or unprofessionally or who has a reputation for unprofessional behavior will probably treat others unprofessionally, and I’m not sure that’s someone you want on your side.



Rosemary said...

I have a friend who was lucky enough to have multiple offers of representation. In her various phone calls, she could tell immediately who had a good handle on her book and who did not. Ultimately, she went with the person who really knew her work, and whose editing suggestions made the most sense to her.

So sometimes, a long response time simply means that an agent is giving your project the time it deserves.

Anonymous said...

In my case, long response times DID equal poor service from my agent. I chose the agent because I'd met her at a conference, and she seemed to really GET my voice. I'd queried her some months before I had a chance to pitch to her at the conference. At the conference, she LOVED the idea and the writing -- you could literally see light bulbs going off in her eyes. She was apologetic when I told her that she already had a partial from the book I'd pitched to her. "Oh, sometimes I get backed up," she said.

So, shortly after the conference, when I got an offer from a publisher on another book, I sent her an e-mail. She immediately offered representation. I was in heaven.

The honeymoon ended when months had gone by and I still hadn't heard from the option proposal I'd sent in to my editor, nor had I heard anything more about the book the agent had loved.

I couldn't get my agent on the phone (red alert, red alert), but I'd had a fairly chatty relationship with my editor, so I sent her a progress report on the option book. My editor said, "Are you waiting until you finish it to send it to me? You know you can send just the proposal."

My agent, come to find out, had not sent in the option proposal. The book was later turned down -- but not before I had wasted MONTHS of writing time on it.

I didn't end the relationship with the agent at that moment, but I should have. We're not talking about some fly-by-night agent here, either, but a rather bright shining supernova in the agenting world -- it was my absolute DREAM agent. Later, talking with other clients who had left at about the same time I did, I discovered that her treatment of me was not unique.

Oh, and the book that she'd LOVED? She never gave any sort of definitive feedback on it.

Would her current clients have told me that when I queried her? Hmmm ... don't know. Some of her current clients still adore her. The ones that left, well, they feel the same way as I.

Should I have asked her other clients? You bet. I'm currently in the agent hunt again, terrified I won't find another one, but if I do, I'll be looking for Agent Right ... not Agent Right Now.

Debra Lynn Shelton said...

Get out of my head! This is exaclty what I've been thinking lately - that the agents who are "slower" (and I don't mean that as a mental slight!) might not have it together as much as the "quicker" ones. Thanks for shedding light into your daily life, and why response times may vary. Speaking to clients is key. I don't know what I'd do without your blog...

Debra L Martin said...

Thanks Jessica. This is timely information because I'm in the querying process now.

If I'm lucky enough to get multiple offers of representation, at least I'll know what questions to ask.

Anonymous said...

I could go on and on about my former agent, but my waiting time before being signed matched almost exactly my waiting time after I was signed, which was about 4 months for each revision or transaction, which is much too long. So I tend to judge an agent's response times as to what they might be like to work with. One agent read my ms over one weekend and called me into his office right away. Now that was fast! Just the kind of person I want to work with, although my revision didn't work out with him for other reasons.

Marsha Sigman said...

You make a great point here! I would rather work with someone who knows how to prioritize their time and while at the agent searching stage that might be hard, I'll appreciate it once I am represented.

Mira said...

Oh, I should only have this problem! Multiple offers of representation. I'll be daydreaming for days on that one...

But I think your point is a very good one. The bottom line is that you shouldn't judge an agent based on guesses or assumptions. You could assume an agent who was slow to respond wasn't organized, but, as you pointed out, there could be many other reasons.

Anon 9:10, thanks for sharing that story. Sorry you had to deal with that. It's so hard to get an agent, it would be difficult to know when to leave. But the wrong person could hurt more than help.

Robena Grant said...

I agree, respect goes a long way. I'm so loyal to people I work with that I have to know going in that the person is worthy because I stick like glue. Ha ha.

I think it's easy to understand what an agent would be like to work with by visiting their blog. When you see clients names popping up showing support, offering advice from the writer's perspective, allowing samples of their work to used as an example of the topic being discussed, that to me shows a good working relationship, and respect from both sides.

Anna Claire said...

This is such good information to have. As a corollary, I've wondered whether it's better to begin the querying process with the big-name agents (maybe they have extra pull) or less well-known agents (maybe they would have more time to help me). I know it's subjective. I spoke with an author once who had a big-name agent, and I told this author how I thought it must be awesome he/she was represented by Big Agent, but author pointed out that he/she didn't receive much attention from Big Agent and may have been better going with an agent at a smaller agency who spends more one-on-one time with each of her authors. It's so hard to know!

Robena, I love your advice for visiting the agent blogs for clues to their relationships with authors.

Vivi Anna said...

The best way to find out about an agent is to talk to her other authors.

Another thing I suggest is to google the agent's name especially on blogs...unhappy people talk.

Query response time is the last thing you should base a decision on. Although no one should be waiting four months on a query.

Anonymous said...

I've actually just had an experience like this, that is, having to decide among more than one offer of representation. It's truly nerve-wracking. This situation came about in sort of a backdoor way, where I received an offer on my book and I was put in the position of trying to find an agent.

I made my list (about a dozen), most of which had seen a query or partial on this story and already turned it down. I gave them a very short turn around time (in hindsight it was too short) because I told the editor when I would contact them, and waited anxiously to hear back.

Some asked for partial right away, some a full, while others started with a partial and then requested the full. Nearly all were very quick in getting back to me. On the day before I was to contact the editor, I'd had five rejections and three phone conversations. I would have had a couple more at least if the time hadn't been so brief. One agent I'd contacted on recommendation, one was a referral from another agent who had passed my story along because my story fit better with a co-worker, and one was an agent who I'd had contact with before but had also rejected my query.

All three of these conversations were what I'd consider very good discussions with an agent, even with my utter lack of nerves and brainfreeze. They were all enthusiastic about my story (all had slightly different takes on it which is an interesting blog post on its own)and I got a good 'vibe' from all three. I could have seen any of them being a good agent for me.

I was fortunate that one of the three was the top name on my initial list, the one that if the phone call went well, the answer was almost a no-brainer for me. If this hadn't been the case, it would have been a very hard decision. Then you begin to weigh other things like experience in the genre, the agency they work with, experience with the editor, and so on.

So, I had to turn down two, and email others that I was no longer interested. Not pleasant. I felt bad. I really don't envy agent's jobs when it comes to the rejection process. Here were great, enthusiastic people who loved the story, wanted to work with me, and I had to say "no." They understand, and it's how this business goes. Win some and lose some. With more time available, I would have contacted clients and got a little more information, but I was lucky in the end and the decision was made easy for me.

Some time soon, when I can, I will blog in more depth about this whole process I went through. It's been fascinating, overwhelming, and exciting. But mostly exciting. I am so utterly jazzed.

Rebecca Knight said...

Great post, and interesting discussion :).

I've always felt the same way--if the agent is prioritizing their clients before queriers, that's great!

The next thing I look for is if they treat everyone professionally, because that's who I want to work with.

Lastly, how often do they sell books in my genre? I think you can avoid a lot of agents who are going to sit on your project by looking at their track record before The Call.

Great point about speaking w/ their clients! Thanks for the insight & advice!

Anonymous said...

Ah, multiple offers of representation -- I get goose bumps just thinking about it...

Sara J. Henry said...

It is rotten having to turn down agents - and then it's just even tougher to have to turn down publishers. I know, a good problem to have. But still hard - and on a first novel, likely nothing in your previous life has prepared you for it. You're prepared for rejection - not for having to dish it out.

In the end, yes, I had to go with my gut.

BTW, incredibly fast response time to queries does not always equal stellar agent. Oddly enough, some agents seem to collect authors like marbles, but then do nothing with them.

Joshua McCune said...

I'm w/ Mira -- what a nice position to be in. And congrats Jim on being in that position, despite the reverse rejection guilt.

Mira said...

I'm with Bane - Jim, I'm really happy for you! That's wonderful. You must have a great book there to be so in demand! Kudos.

It's really fun to be around the blogs enough that you start to hear about people's success! :)

Anonymous said...

Do I hear a defensive tone in this post? As someone who's waited months for a response on a short partial, I admit I was turned off by agents with very slow response times. Everyone is busy. We can't help but judge agents on how they treat us at first. e.g. If a guy invites you on a date, but never returns the call, I sure wouldn't sit by the phone!

Perhaps agents should stop accepting submissions until they can get caught up with their current clients and take a needed break. We all need to play catch up and inviting more submissions and work may not be the best policy. So what if you miss one or two great queries? That leaves agents time to concentrate on their clients, which as you said, is an agent's top priority.

loveskidlit said...

Jim, Congrats on your acceptances, all round! I am intrigued by something in your post, though. You mentioned that the agents on your dozen had mostly all seen a query or partial and had turned it down. First, is this common, to return to those agents when you have a book deal in play? Did you feel that they would work well for you after having rejected the query or partial? And -- I'm just curious now -- was the one you signed with in that category? I wonder what the best course of action would be in that situation (if it were me). Start with a fresh list, or revisit the other? Appreciate any feedback.

Travener said...

I'm with you, Anon. I can see a backlog of 2-3 weeks, even a month. Things intervene -- conferences, vacations, auctions, weddings, bar mitzvahs, etc. But a backlog of more than a month signals disorganization to me or -- and I sort of hate to discourage this -- not being selective enough about what partials, fulls one requests.

Anonymous said...

I'm going to disagree. I'd gone thru the guery mill long enough to firmly believe that there actually is a correlation between responsiveness and professionalism. So when I rec'd multiple offers of rep, it was definitely something on my priority list.

The agent I signed with blew the others out of the water, he was so responsive. And I explained that when I accepted-after going thru agents who take months and months and sometimes can't be bothered-responsiveness was HUGE on my list of expectations. He's kept his promise to remain so.

What shocked me was when I did rec my offers and I alerted other agents who had my full, several never had the courtesy to even get back to me. Another startling large handful got back to me weeks later. ("Let's set up a time to call." "Sorry, no. I SIGNED WITH SOMEONE ELSE WEEKS AGO.") So, no. If my agent can do it, and he does-wonderfully-and other agents are notorious for doing it *cough*JanetReid*-I don't get the excuses. Sorry. Not buying it.

Anonymous said...

Writers need to stand up for themselves and say "We won't take it anymore!" Until then, agents, editors and publishers alike will continue to take advantage of us.

As a magazine writer/editor I always negotiated my contracts for a better deal and because I was one of the few who did, I almost always got what I wanted, resulting in better terms and better pay. It's even more important to get the best deal possible for a book. After all, it represents your vision and often years of your time and energy.

Anonymous said...

OMG, Anon at 9:10, that sounds like an experience I had, though, admittedly, yours was worse.

Saw an agent at a conference. She was amazing. Polished. Professional. Had many clients, books out. I queried her. She GOT my work. LOVED it. Said to me, when I signed with her that she would "sell this ms if it was the last thing she ever did."

Take a guess where that went.

She sent it to nine editors. Never followed up on submissions. Didn't want to send it out anymore, and then ignored all my emails until we parted ways.

Ask all the questions you want. It won't do any good. Do people honestly think an agent, when asked, is going to say, "Yes. I am a complete moron. I will send your book out willy nilly. Never follow up on subs. Never email you back. Never tell you what is going on. And instead of giving it my best effort, I will dump your ass the minute you complain or try to get me to do my job."

No, they aren't going to say that. They are going to present themselves as someone you can trust, because they feel they can make money off of you. it's only after you sign, that you find out the truth. Then it's too late, because your book has been shopped.

That sounds hostile, and it certainly does not apply to every agent. There are good agents out there. But there are those of us that understand how much damage a less than straight up agent can do. Asking them questions isn't going to help.

Kristin Laughtin said...

A new perspective I hadn't considered, and I agree with you in part. However, I do agree with some of the comments that if the agent keeps blowing you off--not just being slow to respond, but ignoring you when you ask for a status report (say, if they've had your full for months or something similar)--that *should* be a red flag. It's all about asking the right questions and judging the agent's responses (or lack thereof) without presumptions.

Harris Channing said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Harris Channing said...

Thank you Jessica. I am on the verge of sending out queries. It means a lot to hear it said that if you don't hear from someone right away, it doesn't mean they hate your stuff!

Anonymous said...

Agents...are they really even necessary anymore?! I guess you've got a back catalog of 10 books and you want them all sold into various languages, an agent would be good to keep trackof that, but if you're an unknown writer with 1 unsold book...what the heck do you need an agent for?!

Anonymous said...

If YOU can't sell your book, what makes you think anyone else will be able to?!

Anonymous said...

I recontacted agents I had on my list because a good chunk of them had rejected off of the query. I've come to the conclusion that my query was not very good. However, an offer on the table will at least get folks to look at some pages. So, I knew it couldn't hurt at all to see if they would reconsider. Fortunately, it resolved in my favor.

Anonymous said...

I've created a new puncuation mark--a cross between the ? and !...I call it the questimation mark ?!

Kimber Li said...

I'm going to take response times into consideration along with everything else. If an agent, or editor, is slow to respond, but all her clients are happy she's still going to score.

I never query an agent, or editor, who's been rude to me or any other sincere aspiring author. Life's too short and I'm already happy.

Wendy Qualls said...

Anonymous 6:25, it already exists - it's called the interrobang.

Jessica (and Kim, if you're reading the comments too), what do you think your biggest "selling points" are to authors, when compared to other agents? I'd also be interested in hearing comments about this from any of your current authors.

It seems like there are so many questions to ask, but then you get to a point of "what do I do now?"

Anonymous said...

No, Wendy, it's called the questimation mark!


terri said...

I'm a public defense attorney and this post hit home to me. I have clients that equate my not wanting to talk to them 24/7 and get an update on every time they see their probation officer or reassure them about every little doubt and worry they have with my ability to represent them at trial.

The two things are not connected. I go out and cut the best deal I can with the prosecutor and then, you, the client, can accept or reject it. I'll advise you, but it is your decision. If you say yes, then I smooth the way for you and make it as painless as possible. If you say no, then I do my work for trial.

Jessica, if it is any consolation to you and the other agents, the number one complaint against lawyers is that you can't get us on the phone and then when you do, that we don't listen to you.

Anonymous said...

So, behind with your queries, Jessica?

Anonymous said...

My experience certainly aligns with your post, Jessica. I first queried my agent 2 years ago, and got a couple of follow-up e-mails over the next months from her assistant saying she was way behind. When she finally did reply, it was a personalised rejection (she said some really lovely things about my work, but that she currently had too many authors writing for that age group). One year on, I'd written several more books and had the opportunity to submit to her again through a competition. She chose my work and I got to meet her and she signed me a month later.

I've now been working with her for several months, and I get a reply within a day every time I e-mail her. She's got something on submission for me as we speak, and every time she hears from an editor, I get a phone call. She's brilliant. Very responsive and open and encourages me to ask questions.

I'm luckily in that I got to meet her before we signed, and she also represents several friends of mine who spoke very highly of her.

I hope other people have had as positive experiences as I have on this whole agent search. I hate reading all these horror stories, and really feel for the people they happened to. Anyone else got some positive ones?! (there we go Anon - another questimation mark :)


Anonymous said...

My experience also goes with your post, Jessica.

To the posters who said to check the agent's blog, realize that a very small percentage of agents blog.

Anonymous said...

I had three offers in one week. Then one of the agents quit agenting, one offered me a 'let's do an edit and see where this goes.' I went with door number three.

I thought everything would be better when I found my agent.

What I didn't know was that the agony was just starting.

I've been with him for almost a year. Still no sell on MS 1. Over 30 publishers have the thing. 3 have rejected it. The rest? Well, he says it's slow now. How'm I supposed to know if that's true or not?

I've given him a totally different MS. Been waitin' three months for him to read the thing.

I've asked him more than once if he's read it. I always get a 'within the week' response. Then I wait another month.

The problem is, I don't know what is normal and what isn't. Sometimes I want to divorce him. Other times I think I should fell lucky I have an agent. After all, I wanted one for three years before I found this one.

Maybe I should just be grateful, I don't know.

Anonymous said...

My heart goes out to all writers who've thought, like me, "Got agent, now I can relax," only to find out, "Not quite."

I understand that agents have a tough job. Heck, I worked for an office that did casework, and I had 200 cases assigned to me -- tough cases, cases where it often was life-or-death, or at least fix-this-or-client-will-lose-house.

Everytime I'd close one of those cases, two more would pop up. We had a database that told us if our cases were inactive for more than 30 days, and my bosses checked that database to see who was behind. The rule was, you sent a letter or made a phone call or sent up smoke signals of SOME kind to let that person hear from you EVERY 30 days.

So I know the stress agents face. They have far more than 200 folks coming in over the transom, and these are dreams they are dealing with. Plus, let's face it, they're in commission sales.

Still, the balance of power is not the traditional client relationship. Now that publishers use agents as first readers and don't take unagented work, writers depend on those agents to figure out some sort of system to get organized, wade through all those queries (I don't mind form Rs, if they come fast), and then, once we sign, are responsive to clients.

I am not, and I know most of my writing friends are not, in need of substantial hand-holding, at least not from agents. We get that from our critique partners, from our families.

But good gracious, I've had critique partners worry for days (just like I did) about how to contact the agents who represented them. They rehearsed telephone scripts so they wouldn't appear needy, only to call and leave a message with an absent agent, never to get a call back. They'd craft agent e-mails with the care they first crafted their query letters. They took polls from their critique partners about whether it was "too soon" to bug.

All because we are terrified that once we get an agent to sign us, said agent will decide we are needy and have too high an expectation and just too much trouble.

We just want you to a) sell the book if you can; b) tell us what the editors who turned you down said about it; and c) give us some direction about what editors are buying.

We don't even ask you to explain the vagaries of the publishing world -- say, how agents and editors are blogging, "Send me no more vamps!" and then, bam, someone pays high six figures for a vampire paranormal from a debut author.

It'd be nice if you COULD explain that, but we understand that agents are only human. Sometimes we wish that agents would show (not tell) us they understand that those queries and partials and fulls -- and lo, those many clients on their rosters -- are human, too.

Anna said...

Thanks for posting this! It's just what I needed to hear!

I've been chatting with an agent most of the summer about a children's book and she requested that I send in a revised copy (she requested it be ordered into an alphabet book which I was more than happy to do). Now I'm waiting for a response of some type and it's been just about a month and am not sure where to go from here. I trust her as she has a great reputation and seemed to be genuinely enthused about my work.

This post (and the other comments) helped me calm down about the slow response. Thanks!

Janet said...

I got mixed messages from my gut and mixed messages from clients and former clients. So I said yes, based on the track record and the charming personality on the phone.

Big mistake. Terminating the relationship was one of the hardest things I ever did. I'm looking for an agent again, but I must confess, I'm finding it rather depressing.

dolorah said...

Excellent post Jessica. I also work in a time sensitive job, where everyone wants their answers NOW. I put a lot of effort into running things smoothly, and some days that takes forever, and some days it just flows.

Thanks for your explanations regarding an agents time. Very informative.

Anonymous said...

I got mixed messages from my gut and mixed messages from clients and former clients. So I said yes, based on the track record and the charming personality on the phone.

Big mistake. Terminating the relationship was one of the hardest things I ever did. I'm looking for an agent again, but I must confess, I'm finding it rather depressing.

My sympathies. Sounds like we had the same agent.

My former agent requested my full within a couple of weeks, and less than two months later, offered representation. She sold plenty in my genre, and worked for one of the tippy top agencies. One of her clients had left because of the agent's lack of communication. But another client I talked to had been with her for nearly a decade and loved her. Sure, the agent didn't seem interested in where I saw my career going or what else I was working on--she was enthusiastic about the novel at hand. How could I say no?

She got my ms out right away. She forwarded editor rejections within 10 days. But she also took nearly two weeks to respond to my very infrequent emails. It took her nearly four months to review 50 pages of my next novel. Then she disappeared altogether.

I was forced to terminate the relationship. It was incredibly disappointing but I did learn a lot. Such as the importance of listening to my instincts.

Anonymous said...

You see, it's info like this that we as the unagented need: some sort of clearing house from former clients (and current happy clients, too, to be fair) where we can get a report card on good agents and bad agents.

(Yeah, I know, we have P&E and Absolute Write, but that just shows the scam artists, not the legit-but-sorryass agents.)

Querytracker shows response times BEFORE you land an agent. What about an anonymous blog where the previously agented could share horror stories AFTER they were signed? Think how this could really impact agenting -- it would, GASP, put some accountability onto the agents who were not so effective in terms of responsiveness.

I know from personal experience with a critique partner that at least one agent (not with Bookends, btw) spoke bupkus when she recently blogged about how important responsiveness was and author communication was in a client relationship.

The book was a good one, my friend had several agents vying for her, and she went with the well-known quantity based on sales and "plans" for the book.

Powerhouse Agent sent out the book to a few editors, didn't get an offer. My friend begged and pleaded for her to read and assess different ideas she had for another project or at the very least, just tell her what editors were looking for so she could try her hand at that.

No reply. No responsiveness. No nothin'.

Finally, my friend terminated the agreement, and she was lucky enough to sign with one of the agents who had wanted her to begin with.

Oh, happy day -- much better agent, much more responsive, much more aggressive at getting the book out there, and much better at communicating what editors wanted.

Anonymous said...

I am new to writing but I have two stories I would love to publish. I do not know what to do to get this done and it would mean a lot if I could publish them. I am also younger so I do not understand agents. What can I do to get them out?