A reader wrote to me with a series of questions on the writing life, the publishing universe, and everything. Here are some of the things I told her:
Q: How did you find your agent? What are the lessons learned from getting the right agent? Does the agent represent solely your interests or that of the publisher and you?
Flip to the Acknowledgments page of books that interest you. You will find, many times, that the author will thank their agent in those acknowledgments.
I did this, exactly this, oh, SO many years ago. I was a wannabe writer who had no real publishing credits who was traveling in London with a printout of my 250,000-word manuscript of high fantasy. I marched into the London offices of one of the most traditional, most hidebound, most by-the-book agencies in literary agent-dom, and I asked to see the agent whose name I had found in an Acknowledgments page of my favorite author. The well-trained receptionist informed me sharply that the agent in question was “In a meeting.”
“Fine,” I said. “I’ll wait.”
And I parked myself on a couch in the front office, and did just that. The receptionist glared at me a couple of times, each time more thunderously than the last, and finally lost it – and went back into the warren of offices someplace… to return with a slightly shellshocked agent who must have come out to see who had the unmitigated gall to just waltz in off the street without an appointment and demand to speak to her.
Whereupon I did Cardinal Sin #2 – I held out the ream of paper and I said brightly, “Here. I have a book.”
She was so astonished that she took it. And read it. And called me the next day at my London hotel to talk about it.
She did try to sell it. Nothing came of it at the time, and I moved to New Zealand, and eventually I did sell that book – as two books, which became, in the USA, “The Hidden Queen” and “Changer of Days”.
More than 10 years later I was living in the USA and had started on something else – something that was shaping to be huge, and wonderful, and potentially significant, the book that would become “The Secrets of Jin Shei.” About 25,000 words into the book, I emailed that London agent and said, “You probably don’t remember me, but I’ve got a whole other book on the drawing board. You want to try again…?”
She replied, by return of mail. “I DO remember you. I remember that book you gave me. It was a good book, I’m just sorry I couldn’t sell it for you. But here’s the thing. I’m getting ready to retire. I’m in the process of whittling down my list, not adding to it. But let me see what I can find out about who’s looking.”
She came back with a name, the name of an agent – in New York – who WAS in the market for new clients. In mid-June of 2002, I sent that agent the partial for the new book, with a proposal.
On July 2, less than two weeks later, this agent phoned me: She loved the book. She wanted to represent it.
Less than six months later Jin-shei had been sold in America and several other countries and is now on sale in 14 languages.
I am still with the same agent, getting on for eight years later. In that time she has sold or re-sold seven novels – and that’s just the properties, themselves, and I’m not counting all the foreign editions which she was instrumental in procuring.
I would guess that a good lesson to take from this is that yes, a good agent is immensely valuable. But the getting of one is harder and harder. Every so often a risky move like the one I made actually pays off rather than backfires badly – and really, sometimes there is no substitute in actually researching which agents are looking for what and doing it the slow and plodding way, by writing those killer queries and then writing the best damn novel you know how to write.
A literary agent is the writer’s partner and the writer’s voice and face to the publishing industry. The agent works in the writer’s interests – and the better the deal that the agent strikes for the writer, the better the agent’s own cut becomes, so they are motivated to get the best possible deal that they can for their people. And they are the only way that a deal CAN be made, what with the larger publishers (where the money is) largely closing their doors to unsolicited manuscripts completely and relying on agents to be the gatekeepers of the industry. An agent is your friend who guides you through the intricacies of the contracts, who will guard and keep your rights, who will take on the fights with the publisher when such arise so that your own author-to-editor relationship doesn’t get damaged by them.
Finding a real partner is a tricky job – you have to find an agent who is genuinely enthusiastic about you and your work, and whose enthusiasm for both is communicable to the people who are buying the things you have to sell, i.e. your books. Having an agent in your corner gets you a huge advantage – but having the wrong agent, one that isn’t sympatico to what you are doing or writing and doesn’t have that enthusiasm and fire for the things you are producing, can be just as violently counterproductive as having the right one can be amazing. You are better off with no agent at all rather than one who doesn’t care about your career in the way your career should be cared about.