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.

Approaching Agents at Conferences

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

Writers (and fan) conferences provide unpublished writers with a great opportunity to approach and talk about their work with agents. Recently there have been a few email threads on MWA as well as Sisters in Crime about how writers should go about approaching the whole ‘agents at conferences’ thing, and I thought I’d lay down what I think are some of the basic ground rules.

1. You need to do your homework.

Obvious, I know…but all too often this doesn’t get done. I’ve been at conferences where writers have pitched an idea for a western/science fiction cross-over novel to an agent that only moments before announced that they do not represent either of those genres. It is a waste of everyone’s time and energy to pitch your work to an agent who is clearly not interested in representing the kind of work you do. Almost every agent has a website or an entry in publishers’ marketplace so do yourself a favor – check before you pitch. Don’t rock up at a conference and pitch to every agent you meet – target your approach – check the attendance lists, research which agents represent the kind of writing you do (and the writers you admire) and make sure you know who you should pitch to (and by extension who you should not).

2. Your manuscript must be perfect (and finished).

I remember chatting to a writer at a SinC meeting once, and she told me she had met an agent at a conference who had requested to see her work – only problem was, it wasn’t ready to be sent out. The writer asked me whether I thought it would be okay for her to send the manuscript out now (some 12 months later)…My answer – good luck with that! The agent probably has no idea who you are by now. The moral of this story is obvious – you need to be ready to send the complete manuscript before you pitch your work which also leads to ground rule number three…

3. Send exactly what the agent requests (no more, no less).

If an agent at a conference tells you to send a formal query letter abide by that request, if they ask for the first 5o pages send just the first 50 pages (don’t send them your entire manuscript). Do what they ask you to do. I’m sure it frustrates the heck out of agents to have writers send them material they did not ask to see.

4. Be professional at all times.

A professional pitch at a conference is totally acceptable, shoving you manuscript under a bathroom stall is not. Make sure you appear confident (and sane) which means no stalking the agent…They are (remember) just human beings. Most agents I’ve met are approachable and kind. They will tell you if they are interested and will let you down gently if they are not – so just be yourself and act like a professional (you want to be treated like one, after all).

5. Have your pitch ready. Memorize it. Practice it. Perfect it.

You need to be able to tell an agent with confidence exactly what your manuscript is about in under 3 minutes (no agent is going to listen for half an hour as you outline every chapter in the book!). I’m more than happy to listen to someone’s pitch and give feedback and I’m sure lots of other writers are too – the more feedback and practice you get, the more confident you’ll be when you finally get the chance to speak to the agent of your dreams. As I rough guide I think you should have a high level 1-2 minute concept (the elevator pitch) and then have a more detailed synopsis you can tell, should the agent ask you for more details. I also find a one-page written synopsis is handy – because you can hand this to an agent if they express an interest – just be sure to have your name and email address on this just in case the agent wants to contact you about it (hey, you can dream can’t you!).

Many conferences have specific sessions in which writers get to pitch their work to agents and editors. At the first writers’ conference I ever attended I participated in a ‘speed dating for agents’ session and, although horrific and stressful, it gave me experience pitching my manuscript and interacting with agents about my work. Even when there aren’t such sessions available, however, conferences provide a great opportunity for writers looking for an agent. As these ground rules show all you need to be is prepared.

So what about you all – do you have any other ‘ground rules’ or advice on approaching agents at conferences?

10 Things I Think You Need to Know About Agents

by James Scott Bell

1. Before you approach an agent, make sure your concept is killer. That means a) not shopworn (“We’ve seen this before”); or b) not so far off the map that anyone with a profit motive will run screaming from the room. It has to be fresh but not too weird. The characters have to jump off the page. There has to be enough at stake. Your opening pages have too move. Easy, right? Of course not, because if it was your Aunt Sally would be writing New York Times bestsellers. But here’s where you have to dig in if you want to interest an agent.

2. You are better off having no agent than having a bad agent. Anyone can print up business cards and call themselves “agent.” But what do they know about the business? Find out. A reputable agent should have a website with a list of their clients. Start there. What’s their background in the publishing biz? How long have they been agenting? There are some “watchdog” sites that issue warnings about certain names, so use your old pal Google.

3. You need to be businesslike about the relationship. Don’t jump at the first bite. Talk to the agent by phone. Ask some questions, see how you click personally. Be objective about this. From the agent’s side it’s business; it should be from your side, too.

4. You are probably unrealistic about what an agent can do for you. Having an agent doesn’t guarantee a contract. And just because an agent doesn’t get you a sale doesn’t mean he or she is the problem. It might be your writing, or your timing. A good agent will suggest ways to overcome market weaknesses, but ultimately you have to take charge of improving as a writer. And you’d better do it, because there are a bunch of other writers out there who are.

5. Your agent has many clients; you have only one agent. Don’t expect all the attention. Don’t expect immediate return of phone calls, unless it’s a publishing emergency. Don’t expect immediate return of emails unless it is an issue affecting your professional life, like, right now.

6. But agents aren’t mind readers, either. If you have a question or issue, contact them. Don’t let your frustrations build to the point where it affects your writing.

7. Agents are human beings. “Thank You” notes (real ones, made out of paper, sent with a stamp) do mean something. So do Starbucks cards and chocolate.

8. Agent Rachelle Gardner has a great post with her take on some “bad advice” she’s read regarding agents. Read it.

9. Read blogs by agents, but don’t let the plethora of information freak you out. Ultimately the most important thing is your writing, the thing you have most control over. Keep coming up with ideas and keep growing as a writer.

10. Fred Allen, the famous radio comedian, once said, “You can take all the sincerity in Hollywood and put it into a gnat’s navel, and still have room for two caraway seeds and an agent’s heart.” I get to tell that joke because I’m a former lawyer and had to put up with lawyer jokes all the time. But now the truth. The overwhelming majority of agents I’ve met at conferences love books and authors and want the best for both. So approach agents professionally. They want to like you. Show them what you’ve got. Don’t be dull and don’t be desperate. It’s a tough business out there right now and it’s not just writers feeling it, it’s agents, too. Everybody in this profession has to keep slugging.

When is it time to get a new agent?

By Clare Langley-Hawthorne

In recent weeks I’ve had a few friends of mine mention that they were seriously considering changing agents and this got me thinking – not about changing agents (if you’re reading this Brian, don’t worry!) but about how authors should approach this issue. How do you know when it’s time for a change and how, once you’ve made the decision, do you act on it?

First things first, how do you know when the agent you have isn’t really working out? This posed a quandary for me, for there could be many reasons:

  1. Your agent ceases to return calls or emails (the most egregious “my agent seems to have fallen off the planet” reason) – this one is a no-brainer, but I’m amazed at how many horror stories there are from authors who agents literally disappeared for months or who retired without even informing them!
  2. Your agent doesn’t like your latest manuscript or project – This is a tricky one…because a good agent may have legitimate concerns…or their lack of enthusiasm may be indicative of a poor fit and a justification for a parting of the ways.
  3. Your agent has failed to sell your work/get what you consider to be the best deal with a publisher – I’m sure if an agent fails to sell your work one option is to find another agent who thinks they can (a strategy that may or may not lead to an actual publishing deal) but I think it’s a trickier proposition when an author feels that their agent isn’t landing them the big deals with major publishers (because that just may be the way things are going to turn out regardless of the agent you have)…but I’m wondering how long should you wait to see if a deal emerges? How much time should you give an agent before you decide on a change?
  4. Your agent doesn’t appear to care about your career – I’ve heard this quite often: where an agent doesn’t seem that interested in discussing career strategies or discussing an author’s interest in branching out beyond their genre. I’ve heard from cozy mystery writers whose agents have no interest in their ideas for non-mystery books, and from authors who complain that their agents simply don’t seem interested enough in their work to care about the next career step.
  5. Your agent represents many, many authors and you’re at the bottom of the totem pole. This is a frequent lament, especially from authors with high profile agents who represent many more successful authors. I think there are pros and cons to having a high profile agent but if you aint feeling the love then…

It’s time for a change…

But how do you go about changing agents?

Although it’s not the done thing to actively seek representation when you already have an agent, obviously you should scope out other options before you take the plunge and call it quits with your current agent. I’m not sure what the etiquette is regarding this – perhaps my other bloggers can help me here – but I think first and foremost you should be professional and straight up with both parties. I don’t think any kind of underhand games should be played and, like in any business relationship, appropriate courtesies should be maintained. If there are any manuscripts currently out on submission then you should discuss how these will be handled – typically if these lead to publication then it is your former agent (who sent the manuscript out) who gets his or her commission. No doubt there are always grey areas but the lawyer in me tells me to steer clear of those!

I would be interested in hearing from my fellow bloggers and other agented (or agentless) authors on their views. When do you think it’s time to consider getting a new agent? How should you (or have you) gone about getting new representation? Do you have any stories from the trenches that could help others facing this (often) thorny issue?

Playing Fair is Overrated

By John Gilstrap

No, I know it’s not my usual day, but Michelle and I are switching blog dates this week . . .

At the Midwest Writers Workshop last week, I taught a session called, “Quit Whining and Send Another Query,” in which I shared what I know about the mechanics and emotions of finding an agent and dealing with rejection along the way.

Students expressed huge frustration with the snail’s pace at which the process unfolds. You submit a query and you wait weeks for a response. Sometimes the response never comes, so the wait stretches out interminably. I suggested that they just forget about that one and send another query. Oh, no! they cried. At a previous conference a visiting agent said that when agents request sample chapters or an entire manuscript, they expect exclusivity; they expect that no other submissions will be made to other agents until the requestor makes up his or her mind. If you send out other queries during the exclusive period, you’d be breaking the rules.

Huh? When did business become such a genteel sport? When did it become one party’s responsiblilty to make the other party comfortable during a negotiation? “It’s only polite,” a student told me. Okay, I can buy that. It’s certainly more polite than waiting five or six weeks to finally send a form rejection letter that might or might not have a hand-written signature. If the manuscript is rejected, how has the writer benefitted from losing momentum on his submissions? It it’s accepted, how has he benefitted from not knowing if there’s another agent out there who’s even more passionate about his work?

Sorry, folks, but this is business; an “implied exclusive” means as little as an “implied million-dollar advance.” Implications, like assumptions, have no place in a competitive marketplace.

Please understand that, as I told the class, my word is my bond. I unfailingly deliver what I promise. I never lie. I’m a terrible liar anyway, and I jealously guard my integrity. That said, where there’s silence in a business negotiation, there’s also a poker game in progress. Agents know that, and publishers know that, and they play the game accordingly in every negotiation.
So where is it written that the writer is supposed to sit politely and observe implied exclusivity? Did I miss a meeting? A memo?

Maybe—maybe—if the implied arrangement included a 5-day turn-around, I could buy into it; but I’ve heard too many horror stories of eight-week responses and year-long silences to see anything but a woefully stacked deck.

“But publishing is a small community,” someone said. “If you break the implied rule and submit partials to more than one agent, won’t they get angry?” In a perfect world, hell yes someone will get angry. Well, maybe not angry, but at least disappointed. That’s what happens when you’re rejected. Welcome to our world, Mr. Agent.

Let’s say for the sake of argument that three prospective agents have requested manuscripts from you. There are only three ways for the scenario to play out, and all of them are either neutral or they play to your benefit:
1. All three reject you. No one’s the wiser, so no harm, no foul.
2. One accepts you, the others reject you. No one’s the wiser, so no harm, no foul.
3. More than one accepts you. Woo-hoo! Now you get to go shopping. You get to decide which agent is your preferred choice. You accept one, reject the others. You don’t have to tell the losers why they lost, but even if you do, and the rejected agents get pissed, what do you care? You got the agent you wanted.

Let me emphasize that I am not talking about deception. If an agent asks for an exclusive and you agree, then you honor your word, pure and simple. Short of that, I think you’re free to submit at will. Want to really play hard ball? Consider this: if the prospective agent tells you outright that he expects an exclusive and you say nothing, he might assume that the deal is closed, but there’s still no contract. There has to be an offer and an acceptance. One does not guarantee the other.

I would love to hear from people who think my position is unreasonable. What am I missing? Are we writers truly honor-bound to play politely in an industry that fights dirty?