Cindy: Yes! I just typed THE END on my single title, which means I can finally start searching for a new agent. That got me thinking (unusual, I know...) about the ins and outs of agent hunts. What's more important when deciding whom to query? Or when choosing which offer of representation to accept? How author/agent personalities mesh? The agent's reputation? Whether the agent lives in New York City? Paints their toenails pink or puce? Or, gosh, do I need an agent with toenails? My mind is spinning with everything to consider. Help!
Jamie: Congratulations on finishing your book! First off, don't even consider an agent who paints their toenails puce. That's just wrong. Unless, of course, puce has suddenly become the it color of the season for fashion-forward NYC types. But if it's a non-NYC agent, I just don't think they could pull off the puce look (See, there is a bias against non-NYC agents!). And then again, do you really want an NYC agent who would chase a fashion fad as dumb as puce toenails? Oh, but wait… I guess you’re looking for real agent advice, aren’t you?
Cindy: Yes, I am looking for real agent advice, you, you...very nice critique partner. Whether or not the agent has toenails or paints them puce really shouldn't enter the equation, but you know how obsessive I get. Any minute detail about an agent's style and preferences seems like such necessary information! I mean, if she (or he...) loves puce and I hate puce, then maybe we aren't a good match. If she/he sends out submissions before the polish is dry, whereas I like to triple-coat and top off with shellac, then perhaps we aren't meant to scale the bestseller lists together. If she-he...well, you get the point. If, if, if. By the way, from now on, I'll just use "she." Any male agents out there, please don't take offence. Honest, I will annoy you with my query letters, too!
Jamie: Toenails aside, I personally think it's very hard to narrow down that whom-to-query list. This is where it's important to network with other writers. Whether it be through the internet, or a writer's organization like Romance Writers of America, or elsewhere, or all of the above, you have to talk to other writers and find out their experiences when it comes to specific agent names.
Cindy: I agree, and this is what I did before signing with my first agent. I amassed quite a file of handy information, too! Fool that I was, after signing I thought I wouldn't need the info on other agents again, so I tossed it.
Cindy: And now I, um, do need that information again. However, I don't regret tossing the old info. It was out of date, anyway. I've started collecting info anew, using the very techniques you describe (aren't I clever?), printing out every email that refers to an agent's likes and dislikes, personality and work style, toenail color, yadda; visiting agency websites and blogs; talking to other writers about their agenting experiences. All that networking is very helpful...to a point.
Jamie: It's important to keep in mind that you can't always trust people to be frank.
Cindy: Or earnest... Kidding aside, I know what you mean. It's not like people aren't frank out of a perverse desire to do an agent-enquiree wrong, however. Discussing one's agent is a touchy thing. I mean, here you are, trying to help a stranger, and who knows what the stranger will do with the information you relay? It could be misconstrued and somehow get back to your agent...who might not be impressed. I think that's why, particularly in email, unless someone knows you well and trusts you (or me, or any writer), the information relayed is often couched in a weird type of agent code.
Jamie: So is there some way to interpret this code writers use when talking about agents? Like, "Not the hand-holding type of agent" equals "cold, distant bitch,"—sort of like how in real estate, brokers use phrases like "handyman's dream" to describe a house that's so crappy you might as well tear it down and start from scratch?
Cindy: I've never thought of researching agents in real estate terms before! You're very brilliant! So, does, "Very personable, always within easy reach of phone or email" mean the same thing real-estate-wise as "charming and cozy"—ie. her business is so small, no assistants or office workers to back her up, so she has to stay close to phone and email? Or maybe she lives so far out in the boonies that phone and email are her only connections to editors....
Jamie: Or "Always within easy reach of phone or email" could mean she has so few clients she's desperately waiting for your call. But then again, this is where personal judgment and lots of research and talking to other authors comes in handy. I would describe my own agent as very personable and always within easy reach of phone or email, and when I say that, I'm not couching it in real estate terms—I'm being honest. These are qualities a good agent should definitely have, so it’s important not to read too much into other writers' comments as well.
Cindy: Yes. Because, quite frankly, one writer's "dream agent" can turn out to be another writer's freakin' buggy-eyed nightmare!
Jamie: You have to look for warning signals in your research without interpreting every cloud in the sky as a sign of imminent danger. Okay, and I know I've gone from one goofy metaphor to another, so I'll shut up now.
Cindy: Actually, I think you make a very good point. I also don't think "not a hand-holder" necessarily means an agent is cold and distant. But when someone tells you their agent isn't a hand-holder, I do think it's super important to learn how to read between the lines, ask more questions of your writer contact or the agent herself (assuming you get an offer), until you're satisfied. I mean, there are degrees of hand-holding.
Jamie: And heavy petting. Oh, forgot, we're still talking about agents…sorry.
Cindy: Ew, gross! Let's not get into heavy-petting analogies, I beg you! That just gives me the creeps...although, you do make another point (at least I'm interpreting it that way). Example: I don't want an agent so "personable" that she turns up on my doorstep on Halloween asking for candy (unless I invite her), but neither do I want someone who's anti-hold-holding to the degree that I feel uncomfortable calling or emailing her on tricky issues. I want an agent I can imagine sitting down and having coffee with, bringing up any publishing concerns I might have and discussing them openly, but...pleasantly. If there's a problem, I want to be...coaxed into seeing her point of view. I don't want to be hit over the head with a sledgehammer and then wake up from my coma to find a sticky note reading, "Next time duck." I get enough bruises from editors and contest judges, thank you.
Jamie: I agree. We writers engage in enough self-flagellation, and we take criticism from every direction. I don't want an agent who's going to leave me emotionally bruised. Of course, some writers are much tougher than I am.
Cindy: Not me! I'm way wimpier. So I want someone professional but also personable. If I have to choose, though, this time I'll err on the side of personable. It's mega-important to me that I feel completely at ease with my agent. I've decided that with my new agent, the mesh-of-personalities issue is more important to me than location. I'd prefer an NYC agent, but it's not a deal-breaker (she says with complete and utterly fake confidence that she'll get an offer). Some excellent agents score their clients fantastic deals from waaaay outside New York.
Jamie: So aside from the obvious, like, don't submit to agents who charge reading fees, and don't submit to agents who have known criminal records, there are a really wide variety of agents out there—from the maternal, nicey-nice agent who probably couldn't negotiate her grandmother into handing over some chocolate chip cookies, to agents so shark-like editors break out in a cold sweat when they hear their voices on the phone. But early in our careers, we often don't get much of a choice, because we're lucky to find one agent who'll represent us. How do you decide which issues are deal breakers and which are not, when it's so hard to find one good agent who's really enthusiastic about our work?
Cindy: Well...I think in the end we need to go with our guts. Like I said about the dream agent versus buggy-eyed nightmare agent, a deal-breaker issue for one writer might not be a deal-breaker issue for another (aside from the obvious boners you've already mentioned). So it's great to research agents—however, there comes a point where we need to step back from all the advice and reading between the lines of others' agent experiences and trust our instincts. Don't sign with an agent just to have an agent. That's a little like closing your eyes while playing darts and praying you hit a bull's eye. Having had one agent myself, I can honestly say that it is preferable not to have an agent than to have a bad or the wrong agent (note: "wrong" in itself does not necessarily equal "bad"—my former agent is very respected in the industry and by myself; her agency and style just weren't the right personal fit for me).
Jamie: I had a similar experience with my first agent. She was friendly and well-respected, but when it came down to it, I always felt like she was the alpha dog in our relationship, and I never had the balls to really step up and be the person (or canine?) in charge of my career. This is one of the inherent problems with being a spineless weenie like me.
Cindy: So then it makes sense that one writer's horrible experience might not be another writer's horrible experience.
Jamie: Absolutely! So much of it is dependent on personalities. It's hard to emphasize the importance of this factor. It's truly like a marriage. One person's dream spouse (or agent) is another person’s future rival in a bitter divorce.
Cindy: Yes, that's it exactly. The mesh-of-personalities issue is something a writer quite frankly needs to experience for herself. Now, far be it for me to advise other writers to sign with an agent after doing all that research and just see how it goes, because, if it doesn't work out, you can always leave.... (No, she's not really advising this—no, honestly, she's not—well, maybe a little). But, the more you talk with other writers, the more you realize it often can and does take two or three agent relationships before the writer finds the perfect agent for herself. Agents don't remain enthusiastic about writers who aren't working out for them. They're more likely to nudge the writer gently...or not so gently...out the door. So why should we as writers worry about sticking with an agent who isn't the right fit for us? Experimentation isn't necessarily a bad thing.
Jamie: So true. Scary as it sounds, sometimes you just have to dive in and see if you sink or swim. (Gawd, I'm the metaphor whore today!) Especially when we’re starting out, trying to find a first agent, we sometimes have to sign with whichever reputable agent shows enthusiasm for our work.
Cindy: And then dog-paddle like mad! And, who knows, that one reputable agent who believes in you when it feels like no other publishing professional does might very well turn out to be your dream agent for life. Wouldn't that be blissful? As for me, I'll fall back on my old agent-hunting M.O. and research the agents I'm querying up the whazoo. However, if I'm lucky enough to get an offer of representation (or two!), this time I'm trusting my instincts over the research when deciding with whom I'll sign. I'm going with my gut, following my heart. After all, I'm a romance writer. What else would I do?
Jamie: Grab your feather boa and your tub of bonbons and give Fabio a call to ask who his agent is? Oh, wait, that’s from my top ten list of ways not to search for an agent…
©2005 Cindy Procter-King & Jamie Sobrato