Friday, October 28, 2016

The Great Agent Hunt: Eight Lessons Learned.

     I am fortunate.  In the past fifteen years, I've sold and published a dozen books, more or less. (Let's not talk about the one I sold five years ago and has yet to be published.) When I say I sold them, I mean exactly that. I do not have an agent.

     I would love to have an agent to take over the time consuming details of submission and contracts. A writer without an agent doesn't have a snowball's chance in July of getting any meaningful changes to a contract.

    In my search for the Right Agent, I've submitted and schmoozed and networked for ten years...and I still don't have an agent.

     Why not?

    It's a combination of personal taste (the agent's) and your potential to make the agent buckets of bucks. I've been told I'm too "literary" as opposed to a book that could become a cartoon series, complete with action figures.  I write historical fiction, which is a "hard sell." (At least the agents I queried felt that way.) Many agents do not like representing picture book authors who are not also illustrators. Guess who writes picture books but is not an illustrator?

    Let me tell you about my Quest for the Perfect Agent, and the lessons I learned.

    Lesson One:  It's harder to publish without an agent than it was in 2000.

    When I sold My Best Friend in 2001, there were still a number of major publishers who would read slush pile (unagented) submissions. This number has dwindled considerably over the years. I publish with three different houses; only one of them still takes unsolicited manuscripts.

     My Best Friend won two major picture book text awards. I've lost count of the number of reading lists and college courses that use this book.  Not too shabby for a book published eleven years ago. Today, it might never be read by an editor at all, without an agent pitching it.
At the Zolotow Awards for My Best Friend. I'm standing between Gretchen Will Mayo, and TA JoAnn Early Macken.
       Lesson Two:  Having a publishing track record does not guarantee you an agent.

      I sold my second book, Yankee Girl to another publisher after it was turned down by the company who bought My Best Friend.  Yankee Girl received a lot of attention for a first novel.  Publisher's Weekly made me one of their "Flying Start" authors. There were some starred reviews, as well as some not so stellar ones. In fact several library systems and schools banned the book.  It was long-listed as an ALA Notable Book, was an Outstanding Social Studies book, and nominated for a dozen state book awards.  The first printing sold out in six weeks, which is a rarity.

     With all this attention, I some how thought that an agent would arrive on my doorstep with balloons, roses and one of those giant cardboard checks, and a contract. Obviously I had seen too many Publisher's Clearing House ads.

      Lesson Three:  Literary agents don't recruit. You have to go looking for them.

      Once I stopped imagining hordes of agents clamoring for my attention, I began The Great Agent Hunt.  I queried, I pitched, I struck out.

      Lesson Four:  Agents' slush piles are not the same as an editor's slush pile.

      Sometimes, if you're lucky, an editor might say, "This book isn't right for us, but I like your style. Feel free to send me anything else you write.

      There are no second chances with agents. Send your most polished pitch/manuscript because once an agent has rejected you, you can't pitch to them again. They have already formed their opinion as to whether you are "their kind of author."

      After a solid year of trying, I had a long list of agents who had decided I was not their kind of author.

      Lesson Five: Agents rarely sign clients from the slush pile.

      After re-reading Guide to Literary Agents, I learned the vast majority of agents will only read pitches/queries/manuscripts "recommended by a current client of the agent."  I had lots of friends with agents, who all generously recommended me to their agencies.

     I submitted my next novel to Joe Agent the hip-hop-happening Rock Star of children's agents, recommended by multiple friends who were clients.
He read the first three chapters, then called me.

     "This is great!" he enthused so loudly I had to hold the phone away from my ear.  "Send me the rest, tout suite!"

    I dropped the phone and dashed down to Fed Ex with the remaining 250 pages. Overnighting the manuscript to New York cost me forty dollars. But who cared? I was going to be in Joe Rock Star's world.

   A week later, Joe RS called me back. I trembled as I answered the phone.

  "I gotta tell you, I was really disappointed with the rest of the book," he said.

     I stopped trembling.  At the end of an hour, I learned I'm too literary, nobody likes historical fiction and he didn't care that my first two books were successful. So much for the Rock Star.

     I was afraid to the submit to the next friend-recommended agent. If Joe had been The Rock Star, Josephine Agent was a Multimedia Superstar/Agent. She represented adult best sellers, and Newbery winners.  Her books were optioned for movies. I sent my pitch.

    Another phone call. In a five minute monologue, this woman rattled off her credentials.  Another request for the book "And I mean I want it on my desk tomorrow."

   Another Forty bucks to Fed Ex.  Then I waited.  And waited. I tried to contact her. Email, snail mail.  I even tried calling her. Whoever answered her phone had never heard of me, or my book, and no, Josephine was too busy to talk to this person who said she sent a book.  I never heard word one from Josephine, her agency or any of their minions.

    Lesson Five:  All agents are not created equal.

    Anyone can say they are an agent. I had a friend who found an agent in an LA bar. The "agent" was really an unemployed actor with no publishing experience at all. Fairy tales can come true. My friend's book became a best-seller and was optioned for a movie (that was never made.)  If this guy had not been my husband's life-long friend, I would not have believed any of it.  Until I saw the book on the New York Times bestsellers. I would say the whole thing never happened.

    Another friend mentioned her agent. After so much querying, I knew who was who at the agencies.  Her agent was unfamiliar to me.  My friend couldn't tell me what writers she represented or how many books she had sold.

    I looked up Unfamiliar Agent on the website Predators & Editors which used to call out the fakes, frauds and phonies in the publishing world. (Alas, this site is no longer operational, for lack of some to maintain the site. Please, someone, volunteer!) Sure enough, my friend's "agent" was on the Predator's list.  It gave her address as someplace like Pocatello, Idaho. Anyone with a cell phone can work anywhere, but most successful agents live near a major publishing center--NYC, LA, Boston.

    The coup de grace came when my friend told me she had been with this "agent" for five years, with nary a sale to show for it. Or even rejection letters. Just the "word" of this person that books had been submitted and rejected.

    Um...thanks but no thanks.

     Lesson Six:  Don't "marry" the first agent who asks you.

     You wouldn't marry the first person who asks you on a date. OK, maybe you did, but you didn't do it after the first date, right? And you asked questions, lots of questions before you said yes? You did, didn't you?

     An agent is your literary spouse. You're making a commitment "till death do you part." Or you decide, for whatever reason, this relationship just isn't working out. However, just like marriage, dissolving the partnership does not erase the past. Your ex-agent will continue to collect 15% of the royalties for the books he represented. The thrill is gone, but agent's payments are forever.

     Lesson Seven:  Agents work for you, not the other way around.

     Some of my friends go through agents like Kleenex. These authors didn't ask the right questions beforehand. Your agent should be compatible with your work style and expectations.  Here are some questions to consider.

     Will the agent represent a book he doesn't personally like?  The answer is usually no; it's hard to sell something you aren't totally sold on yourself. At this point, your agent has become another layer of possible rejection before an editor even sees the book.

     Does the agent help with revisions, or do they simply send out the book as received?

     How many clients do they handle and who are they? (There is no such thing as "literary confidentiality.) What books have they sold recently?

    How many times will your book be submitted, before the agent decides it's unsellable?
Some authors are unpleasantly surprised when their agent submits to three "big box publishers" and considers the job done. Why? Because smaller publishers offer smaller advances, which means a smaller 15% for the agent. It's not worth their time.

    Do you like and trust this person?  It's tough being "married" to someone you don't even like. And you would sure want to trust someone who is handling your money.

    Lesson Eight:  Don't give up hope.

    If you really, really want an agent (and I do) don't give up the hunt. I did, temporarily, but I'm ready to get back in the game. My WIP will be finished sometime next year.  There just has to an agent somewhere who loves historical fiction, and wouldn't mind representing picture book texts, no illustrations. As the Michael Buble song goes, "I just haven't met you yet."

And when I do, you will be the first to know.

Don't forget to sign up for our our current book giveaway for a copy of the latest CWIM.

Posted by Mary Ann Rodman


Kathy Halsey said...

Thank you for sharing your story and all the ups and downs of agenting. I had an agent for 1.5 years, and now I don't. I jumped way too soon & have learned on elf your lessons already. My fingers are crossed for you an dour WIP. Congrats on your other books and their sales.

Jennifer Swanson said...

This is a FANTASTIC post, Mary Ann. Well said! I think sometimes people think of agents as the end all and be all of the industry. I've heard many agents say that it's harder to find an agent than an editor. As one who has worked really hard in this business on her own to make it this far, I appreciate your comments. Good luck with your agent search. But remember, even without one you are always a STAR!

Aileen Stewart said...

I'm living a similar version of this story, lol. But I am persistent and won't give up trying.

Esther Hershenhorn said...

Thanks for so HONESTLY sharing the Agent Lessons you've learned, Mary Ann.
This post should be Mandatory Reading for all who seek agents.
As for Lesson #8 and Never Giving Up Hope, here's the sign that hangs in the Chicago Cubs Press office: "Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall!"
Go, MaryAnn! Go, Cubbies! :)

Jarm Del Boccio said...

I see your experience is mirroring mine. Thanks, Mary Ann for your wise counsel. Hopefully, we will have good news soon!

Mary Ann Rodman said...

Wow, you guys! I thought I was truly alone out there...or pretty my lack of an agent. And thank you all for taking the time to comment. I'm guessing that "losing" the original post was my Muse's way of saying "Nope. Not good enough. Do it again." I'm so glad I did. This was an incredibly long blog post and I thank you for taking the time to read it. Looking back, I could've summed up however many words this was, by this:

There are agents and there are "agents." Ask questions; agents work for you. Getting an agent is harder than finding an editor. Newbies should focus on getting their stories out to editors, rather than on agent hunting.

May we all forge on together, with or without an agent, sending our stories out into the world, again and again and again.

Enter that CWIM drawing. I just remembered that I am one of the authors JoAnn interviewed for her article (the first in the book!) on being your own agent.

Hannah Holt said...

You cover a lot of ground in this post! So much good information here, especially for starry-eyed beginners that might think having any agent is the same as having a Golden Ticket. I would like to add that just because an agent rejects you once, doesn't mean they would never consider you. It's true you can't submit the same project twice; however, you could submit later with a different manuscript. One rejection doesn't mean you aren't "their kind of author." Even if they say something form letter-y like, "I'm not the right representative for your project" in their rejection. I know many authors (particularly picture book authors) who sign with their agent on the third or more submission. Some have even gone on to sell previously rejected work. Keep hope and keep persevering.

Mary Ann Rodman said...

Hannah Holt--you must be submitting more caring and sensitive agents than I was. It's good to know that some don't write you off immediately. That was just my experience and the experience of my friends (but now I have an exception to the rule.) My agents made it real clear they didn't need to see anything more! Thank you for a little revision in my own information.

Nancy Kelly Allen said...

Wonderful post. Thanks for sharing!

Carla Killough McClafferty said...

Excellent post. Carla

Ingrid Boydston said...

What an eye opener! Thank you for sharing your experience!

Angelica R. Jackson said...

I'm back in the query trenches again after an absence, too, but I had to chime in on this part:

There are no second chances with agents. Send your most polished pitch/manuscript because once an agent has rejected you, you can't pitch to them again. They have already formed their opinion as to whether you are "their kind of author."

This has not been my experience, and I'd hate to have a less-experienced writer take that "you can't pitch to them again" as gospel.

When I submitted my first book (YA historical ghost story), I had no fewer than sixteen agents say, "We love the writing, but this project isn't right for us--please do send us your next project."

I'd also like to say that I communicate with agents for the auction I run, and I know that they are not so black-and-white as you've presented here. I count some of these agents as friends now, and I can't think of any one of them who has mentioned blackballing an author because a project wasn't to their taste. (They have mentioned blocking an author who does not understand guidelines [like querying the same project to them over and over] or is outright abusive, but I'm sure those don't apply to you.)

It may be a case of you reading too much into a form letter, which are often written to discourage followup questions such as "what didn't you like about it? Please respond in detail", when they wouldn't be able to do their jobs if they took the time to respond to every such request.

Of course I haven't seen the responses you've received, so your situation may be different. In any case, all the best in your agent search!

Leah Schanke said...

Great post! I also write historical fiction PB and personally related to your experience. Thanks for your frankness and encouragement. Good luck!

Leah Schanke said...

Great post! I also write historical fiction PB and personally related to your experience. Thanks for your frankness and encouragement. Good luck!

Anonymous said...

Mary Ann, I, too, submit to agents in spurts. It all gets so old---and yes, expensive. But also, I haven't given up.

One thing I wanted to add was that not all agents are "one strike and you're out" types. Some don't mind if you wait maybe 6 months and submit something else. It might only be a few, but they're out there :)

And have you researched historical fiction authors, looking on their websites and in their acknowledgements to see who their agents are? I have no idea what your work is like, but I know Liza Royce has repped historical fiction and picture book authors that aren't illustrators.

Good luck to you! :)

Anonymous said...

Speaking of someone who reps historical fiction: This doesn't mention, though, if she does anything with PBs, but perhaps it's worth checking out :)