The Business Side of Writing: When Looking for the Right Agent, Be Rational

This month I said I’d talk about vetting agents, but you know? I’d like to approach this from a slightly different perspective. There are a gazillion guides out there about where to find agents looking for new authors, how to write a query letter, and so on. Let’s step back from that a moment and talk about where you, as a writer, should be before you start searching for an agent. Let me relate a story that got me thinking about this. On a bulletin board that I peruse sometimes, I read a post by someone who wanted to submit to an agent, and had met said agent at a conference. The agent had requested a 30 page writing sample, but then this writer had looked at the agent’s website and seen that they usually want a 25 page sample. He asked the community what he should do, and the responses were frankly surprising. People got all in a tizzy saying that maybe he should call to confirm the sample size and maybe he should go by the website guidelines if he were to submit at all.

None of these people were ready to get an agent, which isn’t to say they can’t get agents. I’m saying they aren’t ready for a healthy agent/client relationship. If an agent asks you for one thing, and then dings you for not giving him/her something different “because that’s what’s on the website,” then they are not someone you want to work with. Period. You need to be at a stage of your career that, emotionally, you understand that before you enter into a contract that allows another person to enter major business negotiations on your behalf. Fred Saberhagan once told me, “An agency relationship is like a marriage. You need to find the right person.” As any of us who’ve ever dated know, finding the right person requires looking inward and becoming the kind of person who can bring something to a partnership and enter into a productive relationship.

I think too many aspiring authors lack confidence and a feeling of empowerment, and that a small minority have too much of one or both. So let me break that down into the two personality types and lay out the happy medium I think any author ready to make it in the business needs to achieve.

“I’m just little old me, and I am sooooo grateful you even looked my way at the party.” Not to beat the dating analogy to death, but I’m sure you immediately see the problem with this mindset. Desperation is not healthy, and yet I find it rampant among aspiring authors. I went through a phase like this myself, way back in the beginning. It’s common and within certain writing communities, encouraged. This is what everyone on that bulletin board suffered from.

Now, you might expect me to launch into my indie self and talk about how writers these days have more power than ever before and all that jazz, but I won’t. Indie publishing hasn’t changed my opinion about this at all. It was never healthy to think about agents and publishers as the gatekeepers to the dream who act as fickle gods, picking people at random to achieve their dreams. In no other industry is this even considered a viable attitude. When my husband applied for PhD programs, he didn’t grovel and beg and pander and thank people ever so much for reading his application – though these people were, in a sense, gatekeepers to his dream of having a doctorate from a reputable university. No, he researched who did what in his field of engineering, picked some likely prospects, and told them his skillset. He was polite, of course, and thanked them for taking the time to interview him and such, but he didn’t go on bulletin boards posting his panic about the professor’s wishes versus the university’s policies on applications. In fact, I think most people can navigate a situation like that, though many of the same people will fall apart if it’s an agent or editor. Don’t. This is an interview process like any other.

“I’m a genius and if people don’t get that, they’re idiots.” You find these in every field, or more often on the fringes of a field, lamenting how they could never break in. When I was an undergraduate at Oxford, there was a guy who’d show up to our Space and Astronomical Society meetings who wasn’t a student. He was in his 40′s and had never been a student there. This guy honestly felt he was a scientific genius that the world just wasn’t ready for, and some of the students seemed to believe this. More than one said, “He’s chasing his dream. You can’t blame a guy for that.” They called me judgmental. The truth was, they just didn’t know any professional scientists.

My father at the time worked for Los Alamos National Laboratory, which is where he spent the bulk of his career. My issue with this guy showing up to club meetings wasn’t that I looked down on anyone chasing a dream of being a professional scientist. My issue was that he was running in the wrong direction for said chase and I couldn’t understand why not everyone else saw this too. My father came to talk to our club, on the tenuous connection that he’d had an experiment go up on the Space Shuttle (not putting my dad down at all. He’s a materials scientist who just didn’t do much with the space program.) This non-student guy tagged around after my father like a puppy, pitching random ideas, and then the next week came up to me and said, and I quote, “I’m just waiting for a letter from Los Alamos with a plane ticket.” Dude, seriously? I hope you all reading this are laughing and/or shaking your heads, and yet people do this all the time in the publishing context and don’t see the parallel.

To work at Los Alamos, get the requisite degree in the field you want to work in, at the level you need, and apply. Nobody gets hired there by being “discovered” for being a genius. They don’t have a “genius we just found” intake program. The same is true for publishing. Don’t shoot yourself in the foot by thinking agents or publishers are out trawling for “genius.” They aren’t. They’re trawling for writers. Write a book. Cultivate an intelligent analysis of said book and your writing. Is it good enough to sell? Is it in a marketable category? If so, what category? Is it national press or regional? Does it have huge commercial potential (and who cares if it doesn’t? You just sell it to different people and move on to the next project.)

To find the balance, just be rational. Recognize that writing is a business like any other. If you want to sell your house, for example, you’re more likely to find a good realtor if you already have some idea of what your house is worth and to whom it would be likely to sell. Armed with these facts you can tell which realtors are trying to buy your listing with silly promises that your house is worth millions and you can sell it in two hours, and you can tell which realtors really don’t know much about the real estate market if they don’t even know what the house next door sold for two weeks prior.

Agents are the same way. Be educated about what sells and know what it is you want to achieve in your career and then conduct yourself as you would for any other job interview or business meeting. Do you want to try to sell books with in a very small market? Then you know you’re going to need to find an agent willing to be creative and stay on board for the long haul, who has some personal interest in what you do and isn’t just looking at the bottom line. Do you have something extremely marketable that can be the next Twilight? Then be careful. There are bad agents in the world who can tank any franchise. Don’t let yourself be taken in by the “publishing is all mystical” world view, which is far too prominent. And don’t waste time with, “I just may not be chosen” or “I’m an unappreciated genius” mindsets. If you have the next Twilight, then yes you can ask Madame Huge Name Agent to call you herself to discuss whom she’d pitch the book to and how. If you don’t, then you’re being an egomaniac. If you have a less marketable piece, agents will still be attracted to a person with a good work ethic and realistic expectations. “I expect I’ll have to keep my day job, but here’s who I’d try to sell this to and here’s what I plan long term. I’ve written two other novels, but I think I’d only try to sell one of them,” will catch the ear of many an agent who might have passed you over otherwise. They won’t see huge dollar signs, but they will see a potential steady income stream with someone easy to work with.

One last story. Many of you know I’m in the New Mexico science fiction writing community, and that among my friends is Ty Franck, who came to the state to visit us and ended up staying. He worked for George RR Martin and now co-writes with Daniel Abraham. Once, after Ty had achieved his bestselling author career and all that jazz, he suggested I submit a query to someone at his agency, which is a very good agency. He found an agent who seemed like a good match and I subbed. When he found out the agent never replied, he was initially a little upset about that.

I wasn’t. I get it. This agent receives hundreds of submissions a week (they all do) and she’s just looking to see what will sell. She deals with “I’m not worthy” and “I’m a genius” crazies all the time, so when she saw my submission, she couldn’t think of anyone to sell it to and moved on. She may not even have remembered that I was referred by a New York Times bestselling client of the agency, because she’s a normal person and who could easily lose that fact in her huge inbox. And it doesn’t matter, because bestsellerdom is not contagious. It doesn’t matter whom I know and spend my time with. Given the way I’ve seen other people behave towards agents, I completely understand why she didn’t bother to contact me with a rejection. She no doubt feared I’d say, “Oh, but can I write something else? What about this? Or this? Don’t hang up the phone!!!” or, “What do you mean it won’t sell? Don’t you know anything? What do I have to do to find an intelligent person in publishing?”

My friend, Ty, is often seen as someone who got hit by lightening, a guy with no writing aspirations who was offered a co-writing deal by another professional author that magically turned him into the uber-famous author he is now. The truth is, no small part of his success is due to his down-to-earth, rational approach to it all. His lack of emotional over-investment, and his ability to maintain an intelligent conversation with anyone, be they famous and powerful or not. If we could all, as a writing community, emulate this sort of mindset, we’d have a much healthier relationship with the agent community. This is the essential first step to vetting agents: being in an emotional place where you can do this rationally.

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5 Responses to The Business Side of Writing: When Looking for the Right Agent, Be Rational

  1. Wm says:

    Before he started writing novel-length fiction regularly, Ty Franck also put in the work to understand the field and has developed points of view in relation to science fiction, storytelling, how the worlds works, how people work, etc.

    A big part of how to not have an over or under inflated view of yourself and your work is putting in the time to develop that understanding of yourself and what you want to accomplish with your work. That, I think, helps an author reach the emotional state where they can approach things rationally.

    • Emily Tippetts says:

      Yes, and Ty wrote every day in some capacity or other. Leviathan Wakes is based on an RPG he ran. The whole “it just happened” story is a popular one, but it’s nearly always false. He paid his dues without realizing that’s what he was doing.

      And yes, I completely agree. The more time people put into their craft, the more balanced their view of it will be.

  2. Rosalyn says:

    Thanks for a frank, thoughtful post. I’m polishing a novel, getting ready to query (I hope) this summer after Storymakers (this will be my second time in the query trenches). But having had several friends go through the query process (and a few land agents), I’m a lot more realistic this time! Also, it’s funny how we perceive successful authors. Ally Condie’s sister is in my writer’s group, and Ally has come talk to us a couple of times. When her Matched series first came out, there was a lot of talk about her “Cinderella” story–when in reality, she’d been working hard at writing for nearly ten years, and she’d published 5-6 novels with Deseret Book . . . Though luck might have played a small part in her story, a lot of it was just regular hard work.

    • Emily Tippetts says:

      Most of the successful authors I know call themselves 20 year overnight successes. People love a Cinderella story, but I’ve yet to actually find one!

  3. Emily, excellent post! Dropping from The Scribblers Cove! Just church, people tend to get hung up on the letter of the law and totally blow off the spirit of the law and you did just that: how can anyone approach anything if they are not ready emotionally? I mean, really? Great article and thinking out of the box!



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