How to Find the Perfect Mate
…I mean, Agent
by Janet Lane
Over the years I’ve met over a hundred agents in person at conferences. These person-to-person exchanges have a lot in common with speed dating (or at least what I’ve gleaned about it from first-hand accounts from friends).
Picture me in a sea with hundreds of other writers, seated in chairs mysteriously too narrow for our hips, where we all project our authorly best in dress, demeanor and posture. Above us, seated in a formation reminiscent of the medieval High Table, the agents chat and laugh among themselves, preparing to answer our industry questions.
ASSESSING OUTWARD APPEARANCES
From my narrow chair I balance my coffee and conference program and consider external clues. Hmm, agent number one looks as young as my daughter. Cashmere sweater, Steve Madden heels–from Bryn Mawr, or one of the other Seven Sisters colleges? MFA? Would that give her more literary than commercial contacts? The second agent is dressed in a sleek suit and wears her hair severely swept back – is she as clever and sophisticated with her client list and editor contacts as she is with her appearance? Agent three’s shoulders are stooped and she wears thick glasses, poking at her Blackberry non-stop. Could she be one of those dedicated, over-worked agents who relishes months and months of editing before she subs a manuscript to an editor? And, OMG, agent four looks as old as I am. Will she fall in love with my stories, or is she so jaded from having considered thousands of manuscripts over the years that she’s seen everything, and the stories all run together in her mind? A question and answer session follows, and we hear the quality of their voices, listening for confidence, arrogance, indifference, enthusiasm, optimism and reassurance that he or she really wants to consider new stories.
As in our search for a mate, we want to avoid wasting time pursuing someone who may be unavailable. What does their website say about “currently seeking?” What is not mentioned that might be significant? Do they even have a website? Are they really in Denver looking for new clients, or did they just want to visit with the attending editors? Have they been in business long enough to sell books and do a good job of representing authors? If they pass my test and I deem them desirable, is my work good enough for them?
It’s finally time for the agent appointment. Ten minutes in a busy room with hopeful writers buzzing the tables like bees in a botanical garden. All those other writers look good–smartly dressed, tall, composed, their faces filled with self-confident smiles, their hands with note cards and their voices animated with enthusiasm about their stories. I settle in the chair, trying to plant my feet on the floor, and fumble with my conference bag, purse, and bookmarks (realizing suddenly that it would be tacky to share bookmarks right now). The old high school feelings return with a vengeance, and I’m not talking about the pretty ones. Sweating pits, hands that can’t seem to find a comfortable place to rest, eyelashess that flutter against my will, lungs that lock and a heavy tongue twisted into three of the most reliable Girl Scout knots. Yeah, this is fun.
Time’s up, and I forgot to mention what makes my story unique. Heck, I would have forgotten the title had she not asked. And OMG, I gave her the bookmark, after all. She returns it with an indulgent smile and hands me her card. But what does it all mean? I get up to leave, manage to shake her hand, and leave with a major case of ping-pong brain.
THE CHANGING FACE OF DATING
Don’t like speed-dating? Just as the old-fashioned ways of dating – double-dates, blind-dates, group-dates – have given way to such practices as Internet dating and speed-dating, there are also new ways to find the perfect agent. Ed Hickok wrote about Query Tracker in last month’s issue of the Rocky Mountain Writer in his excellent article, Netting an Agent. I agree with his assessment that it’s a great tool. Other on-line resources include publishersmarketplace.com where current sales are recorded, along with the editor and agent involved in each transaction.
NETWORK, NETWORK, NETWORK
Another resource is networking within our own organization. One powerhouse networker I know is RMFW’s own Karen Duvall, who frequently lists interesting marketing articles on our RMFW yahoogroup loop. One such tip she listed recently was an article from the Poets and Writers website, an interview with Julie Barer (Barer Lit), Jeff Kleinman (Folio Lit), Renee Zuckerbrot , and Daniel Lazar (Writer’s House). The link, which has proven to be about 50% reliable, is http://www.pw.org/content/agents_and_editors_qampa_four_young_literary_agents
The article is long, but fascinating. I’ve condensed some of the more interesting points for you below, but a verbatim read is worth your time. With thanks to Karen, here are some pertinent gems gleaned from that interview that may help when launching your own “dating rituals.”
What agents are looking for
Barer: The book that makes me miss my subway stop.
Zuckerbrot: It’s their voice … how they use words … how they slow things down … build up to a scene.
Lazar: show me new worlds or re-create the ones I already know.
Kleinman: Oh my God. … So-and-so would love this. (A specific editor comes to mind.)
Agents also shop for clients in literary magazines, conference publications, Friendster, asking for recommendations from professors of MFA programs, from reading short stories and–yes, the slush pile.
Queries shouldn’t be on pink paper, shouldn’t mention all the characters in the book, shouldn’t begin with “Dear Agent” and shouldn’t mention who the writer would cast in the movie version. Query letters shouldn’t promise millions of copies in sales or be laced with desperation.
Problems with beginning writers
* wandering, unfocused story, or one that doesn’t start until page 5 (or 20 or 40).
* submitting a story before it’s ready (polish, polish, polish).
* they write a generic-sounding query and don’t list their credentials.
* don’t understand that the first 20 pages count more than anything.
Their ideal client
* In addition to being gifted, participates in the marketing process
* Writes about a subject matter that appeals to a specific audience (makes marketing easier).
Adjust your expectations (fantasies)
In-house support means an editor who’s passionate about the book, and a publicist who’s willing to put his or her reputation on the line for the book. A book needs entire team support to succeed, and that’s very hard to get. A publishing house gives substantial support to just a few books every season. In reality, it’s a lottery. That said, agents can help with suggestions, and some agencies even have marketing support teams in-house to help a book along. (A good question to ask during the courtship period.)
The editor’s role
The agents talked at length about the degree to which editors edit these days. In the past, a book might have been a “three” and the editor would buy it and bring it up to a “ten” for publication. These days, the book needs to be at least a six or seven before they’ll make an offer.
What beginning writers should avoid
* speaking or writing negatively about an editor or agent.
* telephoning excessively. Make it one organized, thoughtful communication.
* inadequately communicating about your future projects.
* blogging indiscriminately before you’re published – stuff floats around interminably on the Internet.
Don’t be desperate
You may have heard the saying, “There’s nothing worse than a desperate woman.” Pretty embarrassing to see this in action, a woman so insecure and needy that she becomes a doormat for men who have no intention of wedding her. There is something worse: a writer, so desperate to find an agent that they don’t care who represents them, as long as they have a pulse and it says, “Literary Agent” on their business card.
There is something worse than not being represented, too, and that’s being represented by the wrong agent. As writers serious about our careers and committed to our success, we need a good match. To get that, we need to be active, not passive little puppies who roll over and say, “Help me, help me.” Be an active consumer with this important decision in your writing life. What happens if you’re passive? Ask C. J. Box, whose agent was dead for several months before he finally called him and found out why he wasn’t contact him with a deal. Ask any of the multi-published founding members of RMFW – Kay Bergstrom, Sharon Mignerey, Jasmine Cresswell, Chris Jorgensen – what can happen if you get the wrong agent. Be a smart consumer.
And how to find the perfect agent for you? The Internet’s wealth of information has been demonstrated, but the old courtship methods have their strengths, as well. Information, more easily obtained than in the past, gives us a chance to build an expansive file about an agent’s preferences, track record, and even a candid glimpse of their responses in such casual interviews as this one. But the human connection – voice inflections, eye contact, that gut-feeling derived only from in-person communication – helps us determine if we like the person, and if we can trust sharing the future of our stories with them. Use every tool available to you, and good luck in your search for that special agent or editor!