Monday, January 19, 2009

All Agents Are Not Created Equal

Sorry for posting late. I just arrived home after three days and nights in Florida visiting my mom.

The bound proofs for Bad Boy arrived Thursday night before I had to catch my flight so I was able to take a copy to review along on the plane to Florida. My seatmate on the flight and I struck up a conversation. It turned out that--like many other people--he is also a writer, one who has been looking for an agent. We talked for probably thirty minutes about agents, which prompts this post.

In 2005, when I began my agent search, my initial goal was to find an agent...any agent. While I was searching, I continued taking online writing classes and entering contests. Toward the fall of that year, I started getting offers of representation. THAT's when I realized for the first time that all agents were not created equal.

When I got the first offer, I called my attorney (and friend) to review the proposed contract. As we were discussing the clauses, she asked a lot of questions about the agent. I found myself answering a lot of her questions with, "Well, no, but I need an agent."

By about the third question, she said, "Sweetie, I know you need an agent, but do you need THIS agent? If one agent wants to sign you, I'm betting others will, too. Don't sell yourself short."

Among the really hard things I have done in my life, I rank telling that first agent, "Thank you for the compliment, but I think I'm going to keep looking," pretty high on the list. To my surprise, the agent took it very well. She was courteous and said, "You really need to feel good about this decision."

I made a list of the things I was looking for:

1) I needed an agent I could feel comfortable talking with
2) I needed an agent who would listen to me and take the time to understand my concerns (and fears)
3) I needed an agent who was interested not only in selling books, but in the direction of my career and who could address questions I asked about my career
4) I needed an agent who could identify problems in my manuscript and help me to work through them
5) I needed an agent who was knowledgeable about the industry and who stayed on top of trends
Just before Christmas in 2005, Jacky Sach of BookEnds Literary Agency offered me representation. She and her co-founder--Jessica Faust--had both been editors at Berkley before they decided to open a book packaging operation and a literary agency back in 1999.

From the get-go, Jacky and I hit it off. She was funny and blunt, a combination that never fails to attract me. When I told her my plans for my writing career, she told me the pluses and minuses of what I was suggesting. She had already told me changes she thought I needed to make in the manuscript she'd read, and I had agreed with all of them.

I've learned since that agents generally fall somewhere along a continuum of being editors or not being interested in editing at all. While Jacky is way to one end of that continuum, other agents are far to the other end. Give some thought to which you need before signing.

In the three years since I signed with Jacky, I have never regretted the decision. Jacky and Jessica work as a team. It was Jessica who came up with the name Bad Girl for my first novel.

Jacky has alternately been a cheerleader and a cattle prod. It took six months to sell Bad Girl. I was a nervous wreck. She just said, "Keep doing your job. You write. Let me worry about sales." When I was having difficulties with the start of Bad Boy, she made a bunch of suggestions. When I started another manuscript and expressed concern that my editor might not like the dark tone, she said, "So, if she doesn't, I'll sell it somewhere else. Just write the thing and let me worry about selling it."

I say all this because the conversation with the guy on the plane reminded me of the angst and terror of an agent search. If one agent makes you an offer, another one will surely do the same. Don't sign with someone unless you are really, really comfortable with him/her. It's like a marriage of sorts. And divorce can be very, very painful.

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