The importance of a good agent-author relationship is constantly touted to writers, and seeing as most of us would like to find the perfect match on our first signing, it's only natural that we stress. With so little information available and no good way to know how we'll fit with an agent before we query, it's no wonder we start grappling for any kind of telling hint we can. But what are we really doing? Being fools, in some cases.
Whatever are you talking about, Casey?
Looking too far into details. Details. You know, judging an agent by their response times, their web site (or lack thereof), their submission requirements, the voice of their web site, the font they use, and so on and so forth. It's like taking a walk through the Internet and deciding what we think about an agent by what's there. No matter that we've never interacted with them personally. Kinda silly. So today, I'd like to offer a different perspective on some of the common hang-ups writers have with agents (including one or two I've been guilty of myself).
Slow Response Times:
You see it everywhere. Writers speculating on an agent's response times and how that reflects on the agent. Many think that slow response times directly reflect how well an agent will correspond with their clients, and/or the quality of agent's business ethic. The same often goes for agents that have a no-response policy.
Hold on there. You've got it backwards. Believe it or not, finding new clients is generally a small facet in an agent's overall job. They're busy dealing with the clients they already have, negotiating contracts, following up on due royalties, and making sales. This is good. This is what you'd want them to be doing if you were one of their clients. You wouldn't want them to neglect selling your book to catch up on slush, would you? When waiting out the weeks or months on a pending submission, try to remember what an agent is dealing with beyond you, and what good things it will mean if you become their client.
Only Accepts Snail-mail:
It's easy to make assumptions about an agent that only accepts snail mail, and many such assumptions are made: they aren't keeping up with the times, they aren't "green," they'll only correspond over phone and mail, e-mail savvy editors won't want to deal with such an agent, etc.
Just because an agent likes to read their slush on paper doesn't mean they don't use e-mail. Sometimes it's just easier on the eyes. Some agents just have a better year-proven system with paper slush. Whatever the case, don't skip over an agent with years of experience and fabulous clients because you're worried about how they handle slush. Again, it's what they are doing with their clients that matters. Are they legit? Are they making sales? Chances are, if you can get passed the paper slush pile, there is a great agent there who uses e-mail as well as the next no-paper agent.
No web site:
This is another area where we can lose perspective. We hear about an agent, type their name in Google, and what do we find? No web site. Sure, it's disappointing, we wanted to learn more about them, but it doesn't mean they aren't a good agent. Just because they aren't extremely accessible doesn't mean they don't want to hear from you either.
The reality is, the agent probably has a bulging clientele list, and if that's the case, getting a web site up for potential clients isn't going to be high on their priority list. Stop for a moment and consider yourself a client of an agent with no web site. Are you going to care whether or not they have a web site when you're in frequent contact with them and they are focusing on your book? Probably not. You'll probably never look at it. Agents mostly have web sites for potential clients, so if an agent isn't necessarily looking to expand their list (but still looking), it's not going to be necessary. They get plenty of other slush and referrals without one. There are some great agents out there like this, and you'd be extremely lucky to have them if they took you on.
Not a Member of AAR:
For the writers who will only query members of the AAR.
The AAR used to be one of the best ways to find a legit agent, and it's still great, but these days, a lot of legit agents are choosing not to apply. I don't pretend to know all the reasons, but I think it has a lot to do with Publisher's Marketplace and word of mouth. A lot of established agents simply don't need to be part of the association to find new clients, and a lot of newer agents haven't been in the business long enough to apply. These days, I don't think the AAR holds much sway. If an agent is a member, all the better, but don't limit yourself to AAR agents. Look for legitimacy in sales and clients.
Not in NY:
I've seen writers limiting themselves to agents in NY. I think the thought process is that agents in NY are bound to be chummier with editors and publishers.
Not necessarily true. This digital age we live in is quite amazing. Near or far, agents are in constant contact with editors and publishing professionals, and many of them make several trips to NY a year. What matters is that the agent is making sales. If they are making sales, they obviously have perfectly good contacts with NY acquisitions editors. Again, there are AMAZING agents outside of NY. Don't shoot yourself in the foot by trying to "suss out" which agents are second tier. Location is not the way to determine this.
Now, if location matters because you want to live near your agent, that's a different matter, and that's perfectly reasonable.
Never Heard of Em':
Some writers seem entirely too focused on the agents with a lot of years in the business and/or big word of mouth.
Again (again, again, again), what matters the most is that they are legit and making sales. So what if they don't have a big name around the Interwebs? Maybe they've been in the publishing business for a long time, and you don't hear much about them because they aren't putting themselves out there. If that's the case, they probably have some amazing clients and contacts in the industry. Another lost chance, if you don't query.
Maybe it's a newer agent that hasn't made a name yet. If that's the case, they are going to be looking for new clients. There are a couple bonuses to this, 1) you have a better chance with them, and 2) they might very well be a "big name" in just a few years. As long as they are working for a respectable agency, they should be perfectly legit. Someone has deemed them worthy, why not give them a chance?
Or maybe, maybe you're just out of the loop. Just because you haven't heard of them, doesn't necessarily mean they aren't "somebody."
Okay, so I'm not saying to throw your research and sharpened assessment tools to the wind, I'm just reminding you to keep things in perspective. During the submissions process we're kind of in a corner, staring at a large wall. It's easy to get caught up studying all the cracks and crevices in that wall, and to forget what really matters. But the thing is, there's a whole lot more on the other side (what we're striving for, after all), and those cracks and crevices will be pretty darn inconsequential once you're actually there.
Focus on legitimacy. Focus on sales and clients. Take all the time you might spend assessing details and create a really rockin' list of questions to ask an agent if they offer. Because that's where it's at. THAT is where you can get the low-down, from the source, and make a truly informed decision. You're not bound to accept an offer when you query an agent. Use that to your advantage. Query all the agents that MIGHT be a good match and then slow down, interview them, and find out for sure.