Are You Ready For Your Mystery Agent Date?

By P.J. Parrish

I was at SleuthFest last week and after my panel was over, a woman came up to talk. We had met the previous year, and she wanted to thank me because evidently I had said something that inspired her to quit her soul-killing job and finish her book.

Now, I remembered her but I didn’t remember what I had said to her. If you read this blog regularly you know I am a realist about this business so I’m pretty sure I didn’t pull a Pollyanna with her. I’ll do what I can to encourage other writers just starting out, but I won’t give false hope because that is just cruel.

So last week, I didn’t really know what to say to this woman. I mean, just because I might like skydiving and have managed to get seven or eight jumps under my belt, I’m not going to push someone else out of the plane. Only they know if they have the guts and can afford the parachute. But she was very excited, and said she was very happy with her decision, so we talked some more.

It went something like this:

“So, are you submitting it yet?” I asked.

“Oh yeah,” she said, “And I got a letter from Big-Name Agent at the Gigantoid Talent Management. He asked to see some sample chapters.”

“Great! That’s farther than most folks get,” I said. “What about the others?”


“Other agents. What did they have to say about your query?”

“Well, I only sent out two. And Big-Name said he had to have an exclusive. So I’m not doing anything until I hear back from him.”

“Oh,” I said. “How long has Mr. Big had your chapters now?”

“About four months.”

Okay…can you figure out where I’m going with this?

This woman had worked hard for three years to write her book. She had gone to writing conferences and workshops. She had done her homework. She had quit her job so she had enough time to follow her dream. (Don’t worry; she had other means of support, so that’s not the issue here).

But then she fell for the first guy who said “maybe.” As in, “Yeah, maybe we’ll hook up. Maybe I’ll give you a call someday, baby. I don’t know when exactly — maybe even never. But in the meantime, I don’t want you to talk to any other guys.”

Now I realize Mr. Big was her Dream Date. And it’s easy to get blinded by good biceps and blue eyes. Or in this case, a 212 area code and a client list heavy with bestselling authors. But would you wait around for this guy?

Of course not. If your book is finished and you’re ready to send it out into the cold, cruel world, why would you do anything that lessens your chances of success? Finding a good agent — no, let’s correct that; not just a good agent but the right agent — is maybe the single most important business decision you make as a writer. This person will be your advocate, your guide, your champion, your career-coach. And the best agent for you might not be Mr. Big at Gigantoid Talent Management. The best agent for you might be Miss Sincere at Small But Personal Inc. Maybe even Mr. Cassius at Lean And Hungry House. But most definitely, the best agent for you is the one who sees something so special in your work that he or she plucked you out of the 200 to 300 queries they get every week. The best agent for you is someone who will believe in you even in those dark moment when you don’t even believe in yourself anymore.

Exclusives are bad things — for writers. Why? Because you are giving that one agent the power to tie up your manuscript for months. Odds are, the sample chapters you sent will be rejected. (Maybe for reasons that have nothing to do with its quality remember). But by agreeing to an exclusive, you have lost six to eight precious months in what is a long and tortuous process even in the best of circumstances. Until an agent agrees to take you on as a client, they just don’t have the right to control your work like that.

If you won’t take my word on this, I bow to a higher source. Here is Miss Snark Literary Agent on the subject.:

“Exclusives stink…To ask an author to tie up his/her work on open ended terms is disrespectful and counter productive. It’s also a lazy ass way to do business. You can’t provide her an exclusive read and you shouldn’t. If she doesn’t see the merit of that, why would you want to work with her?”

But, you say, Mr. Big said he liked her stuff. What if she turns around now and sends out a hundred queries and he finds out?

Worse case scenario: No other agent is interested. She is back sitting by the phone waiting for Mr. Big to call.

Best case scenario: She gets responses from forty agents who want to see her sample chapters. Then ten want to sign her up. She now has the luxury of choice. She can talk to them all, make a measured thoughtful decision and find the agent who is the best fit — for her.

I wouldn’t sit home waiting for Mr. Big to call. Don’t know about you, but I had enough of that crap in high school.

So don’t give away your power to the first pretty face that says “maybe.” Beneath that pretty face there could be a true Poindexter.

21 thoughts on “Are You Ready For Your Mystery Agent Date?

  1. Hang on, I saw Revenge of the Nerds. By the end, Poindexter was pretty cool (and went on to have a nice career in film and TV).

    On a serious note, could she have tried to compromise and told Mr. Big he got a “2 week exclusive”? I thought I remembered Miss Snark saying that was her limit on them, but I could be wrong.

    PS – and when did we lose the ability to just use name and email address to post?

    • Jnantz, we’ve been dealing with a significant increase in spam here at TKZ and had to tighten up the requirements for posting comments. Sorry for the inconvenience.

  2. Kris, I think one factor here is fear that there will never be another agent who requests the sample chapters. The writer spends years writing that first book and dreaming of getting an agent. Fear keeps her sitting by the phone. If the book is good enough to attract one agent, it’s good enough to attract others.

    • Good point, Joe. But there are quite a few stories out there about books that were rejected by 20, 40, 60 agents, only to eventually become bestsellers. Those stories are inspiring, but they can play to the fear factor, as well.

      P.S. I used to play Mystery Date with my sisters. Of course, I always wanted the “Dud.”

    • Joe–you’ve made a useful observation. I’ve been down that road twice, and I’ve come to a conclusion: if an agent is interested in your work, but fails to find an editor quickly (say, within 3 months or less), this tells you one of three things: the agent has no clout with editors, or the agent doesn’t know editors well enough to send your work to the right ones–or, the agent has no eye for choosing saleable stuff. On the outside looking in, it’s impossible to know which or which ones apply, but I think this is how it works. Or, rather, how it doesn’t work.

  3. Could not agree more, Joe, about the fear factor. Sending the book out is terrifying on many levels. And as many have said before, having the wrong agent is worse than having no agent.

    I am traveling today, guys…off to Sanibel for R&R. So if I don’t answer for a couple hours, it is because I am traversing Alligator Alley.

  4. A side issue is how long should you wait to hear from an agent before following up or moving on? My rule of thumb is three months.An agent who has requested pages ought to respond within that time frame.

  5. Agents typically don’t expect an exclusive. If an author feels the need to be generous & grant one, it should be limited, like 2 weeks or so, before the author can send out more queries.

    I’m a fan of sending out limited proposals in batches to see how it does & test the waters. If an author doesn’t get a nibble, time to tweak the proposal.

    Nice post, Kris.

    • Jordan – I’m with you. Small batches of queries are manageable and I’m also surprised re: exclusive request. That sounds a bit fishy to me given how long he’s had the sample chapters…

  6. Dear Lady,
    To heck with agents. Get yourself book cover designer, a good editor (note: there’s one who writes on this blog), and compile it. You’ll have to learn a little marketing but you will anyway. You can have your book on the market in a few hours. Many rejected authors are making money in ebooks.

    • Been there done that, Brian. I got my backlist back and pubbed the books myself. But I still think an agent is useful, even if you self-pub. And the really good agents today understand that traveling BOTH roads — traditional and self-pubbing — is a legitimate career route.

  7. My personal stats as of today are:

    33 queries

    6 form rejects

    1 full request (with a personal note asking for a non-exclusive 90 day reading period)

    5 partial requests (one of which has funny story, I’ll blog about it when things are resolved one way or the other)

    2 of the partials resulted from meetings with agents at conferences.

    At least 10 of which are coming up on their expiration date.

    Also entry into a pitch contest that has a good track record.

    I will be sending another query round next week. I don’t know how far I’ll go before I go to querying legit editors/pubs who take unsolicited inquiries. I will not go down to the level of unknown e-presses, at that point I would self-pub.

    Meanwhile, a metric crap ton of freelance just fell in my lap and onward to Book 2 in the series.


  8. Maybe I’m too old for agents. I’ve been to the Big Dance. I’ve seen the rabbits. I’m going down the eHighway.

    However, I did respond to one of those ads that you see out there. They were going to send me some kind of helpful writing materials. Never saw ’em. Right off I get a phone call and in under three minutes the Big Question: Did you ever imagine your book being made into a … a … MOVIE. Oh, joy of joys! A movie! Swallow the hook and reel me in. Eh? Now way. Not this Michigan boy. It seems to me that nearly everyone out there wants a free option on your dream, just in case. Meanwhile, you’re sunk.

  9. During the years (and there were many of them) when I was fruitlessly trying to get an agent, I can tell you I would’ve grabbed the first one who came along, without thinking if he/she was the “right” agent.

    I wish more authors would understand that most people do not have any choice when it comes to getting an agent. So telling her to wait for the “right” agent is, IMHO, unproductive. Waiting and sifting through a pile of agents who are clamoring for your book is something VERY FEW authors can even remotely relate to.

    Now, I totally agree she should not tie up her novel with one agent’s irresponsible and disrespectful “exclusivity” demands, but I fully understand her willingness to jump at the first lifeline that lands anywhere near her,.

    • Agreed, I am purposely passing on subbing to a legit small press because they ask for the equivalent of a 4+ month exclusive (they don’t accept simultaneous subs and reserve 4 months to respond to your query, much less your full.) Um, no.

  10. Great info here, Kris, both in the post and in the comments! That’s one of the things I love best about TKZ – the savvy, articulate writers who comment regularly and add value and other viewpoints to every post! Yay TKZers, bloggers and commenters alike! πŸ™‚

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