The Truth About Agents

Before submitting a manuscript, I do a lot of research on an agency in general and an agent in particular.  This method either makes me extremely picky or a master procrastinator.  The end product is that I’m a submission snail.  Slow and plodding.

Along the way, I read articles, interviews and blog posts about my potential victims agents.  Iread information on the industry and try to keep up with publishing news.  I do not submit randomly just because an agent has a pulse.

In the past few weeks, what I’ve uncovered is a truth about agents that reminds me of my days as a childcare provider.  Agents are woefully underappreciated by the majority of writer wanna-bes.  Their careers are not what we picture them to be.  They do  not sit on the couch watching Oprah and eating BonBons while kids run free and beat each other over the head with shovels. 

Oops, I got ahead of myself there.

But the point is the same: agents work hard to find talent they feel passionate about.  As writers, we would do better to understand where they come from.

A Few Truths About Agents

  • They do not get paid to read our slush.  There is no all encompassing salary from the publishing gods that pays them to read through submissions.  None.  Therefore, the precious sentence or two they spend on our writing is done for FREE.  How many of us would punch out and then put in five more hours of work?
  • They do not get paid until we get paid.  An agent’s income is a fraction of our advance and royalties.  When they read our query letter (for free) and request a full (for free) and consider our manuscripts (for free) and pimp us to publishers (for free) and haggle over contracts (uh huh, for free) THEY DO NOT GET PAID.  Again, how many of us would accept a job where the boss says, “Dude, I want you to work for me, but I’m not gonna pay you yet.  If you can keep my kid from getting one bruise in the next six months, I’ll write you a check.”? 
  • “Agents” are not a whole.  Some agents are professional, others are not.  Some like to edit, others do not.  Some rep a career, while others rep a book.  Some like email.  Others dig snail mail.  Some put ketchup on their eggs.  Others are vegan.  My point is, agents are individuals.  They have individual preferences, personalities and business practices.  Respect their individuality.  I hated being lumped in with other daycare providers because I NEVER watch tv and think BonBons are nasty.  Did you know that writers are mentally ill and will likely attempt suicide?  Hurts to be lumped, doesn’t it?
  • There is no law that says agents have to respond to queries with a personal touch.  The agenting gods did not decree this.  It is not our given right as writers to get glowing rejections, a full manuscript critique or a reference list of other agents to query.  This is a matter of personality and time.  If you receive a form rejection, consider yourself lucky to have a response.  If it has any kind of personalization to it, consider yourself blessed. 
  • Agents have feelings.  It’s true.  I have yet to read an agent who doesn’t get hurt by nasty comments thrown their way by writers who don’t have a clue or the manners to go along with their ignorance.  Be respectful.  Listen to Thumper.  “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nuthin at all.”
  • Agents are elephants.  They have long memories.  Do not waste their time submitting the same story with a new title.  They will remember.  Do not slander them when you get your rejection.  They will happily burn the bridge.  One of the biggest reasons childcare providers quit providing care is parent problems.  We do not forget.  In reality, who does?

I guess what I’m saying is this: respect the time an agent took to even consider your manuscript.  Respect that they have limitations and personal preferences.  Know that they work long, hard hours and get paid wee, little chunks. 

In addition, don’t blanket email your manuscript to fifty agents.  Know who each agent is and what they’re like.

I love kids.  Love, love, love them.  As a licensed provider, I did my job well.  Yet even then, I knew that my home was not the place for every child who had working parents.  Some kids have different needs.  Some providers have different skills.  I knew that being passionate about kids wasn’t enough.  I had to be passionate about each kid as an individual. 

As a writer, I would like my agent to be passionate about my story.  Anything less and we both get the short end of the contract. 

What do you look for in an agent?  How have you tracked them down prior to submission?  Do you believe having an agent is more important than having the right agent?  What’s the difference?

20 responses to “The Truth About Agents

  1. This list is so awesome. I especially like the part about agents not being a whole. Great job here, Cat!

  2. Thanks to my friend, Laura Manivong, I have a spreadsheet filled with prospective agents and then sub-pages listed by month I submitted. Each agent listed had material that impressed me in some way as being similar to my own. If I can’t find a book the agent’s done that might bare similarity to my own work, why submit? Alas, I tend to feel obligated to read the complete novel of each author I research in order to research their agent which means my submission rate makes snails everywhere chuckle.

    • Victoria,

      Well, together we will follow the slime trail of chuckling snails. I don’t know if I’m being overly cautious or simply petrified. I like to think the former and that it’s all a part of being a professional.

      In any case, it’s nice to know I’m not the only one who doesn’t send thousands of queries indiscriminately.


  3. Excellent post! I especially liked the point that agents are individuals. You’re absolutely right about that! It does hurt to be lumped within a stereotype.

    I’m not seeking agent representation yet, but I’ll be sure to keep your points in mind.

    • Laura,

      It is easier to lump than be lumped!

      When the time comes, I don’t doubt that you will handle yourself just fine. From your blog, you seem to have a great handle on what the writing life entails.


  4. I’ve heard that having the “wrong” agent can hurt your career, but as I don’t have one yet, I can’t say for certain. I have found one I’d really like to query as soon as my current project is done. Not only do I feel like my project would be a good fit for her, but her attitudes and opinions (that I’ve seen/read in interviews) seem to reflect mine. I guess that goes to show the importance of research.

    • Barbara,

      That’s exactly right. A good agent is one who believes in your work and cliques with you regarding vision, business practices and personalities.

      Best luck in finishing your MS to ready it for submission. I hope your dream agent loves your work!

  5. Sisters of the chuckling snails. LOL

    I don’t think we’re overly cautious or petrified. More like exhausted. ;D It’s a lot of work, especially when you’re also writing reviews, reading research materials for the next book, running after children/husband/dogs/snails. Okay, maybe not the last, but you get my point!

    I think the folks who get an agent response on their first try make me wonder what I’m doing wrong. Then I remember: I wrote a niche book. *___*

    Escargot, anyone? ;D

  6. Another really, really good post Cat! I’m always amazed by people who paint all agents/people of any kind with one brush. In all my online activities, I’ve never come across agents who were less than gracious, less than kind. They don’t have an easy or high-paying job – but they’re great people!

    • Jemi,

      Me too. The agents, published authors and editors I have met have been gracious and wonderful people. They take their time to help aspiring writers and do so with genuine caring. I can only hope my agent someday is raking in the dough. Because if he/she is on a 15 or 20% commission, that means I am as well!

  7. This is a timely post for me. I ponder and research an agent I think will be a fit to the point that I talk myself back out of it. I have my query letter, but submitting is still a long process because I try to personalize each one and every agent is a little different in what they want. I’ve managed to send out only a measly five (with two prompt rejections I haven’t yet replaced). Thanks for the reminders. We all need to be reminded of these truths.

    • Yvonne,

      I don’t think there is anything wrong with the slow, methodical approach. Except, of course, if it really is a numbers game as some people believe, then it will take us a whole lot longer to get our numbers up there! But then, I think that sending a chapter book to an agent that only reps horror is a bit wasteful, and I know writers do that all the time.

      Like all things in life, I believe everything happens for a reason and during its own time. I’ll bide mine, while honing my craft and widening my circle of writer friends. So far, it’s been a fun ride!

  8. I try, Cat. ;D One of these days, I need to make a T-Shirt with all the groups I belong to:

    Authors of Asian Novels
    Heartland Writers for Teens and Kids
    Sorority of Writers
    Sisterhood of the Chuckling Snails

    (The last two are jokes, in csae you wondered. ;D)

    • LOL! I think we should begin a Sisterhood. I’d wear my shirt. I even know a great illustrator (Christina, where are you?) who could make our little snails look more appetizing than a perfectly prepared plate of escargot!

      And didn’t the tortoise win by being slow?

  9. Very well thought out blog. Lots of wonderful jewels of wisdom in there. I believe in having the right agent, not just any one will do. It’s like you want the relationship with the right guy, not just any ol’ schlub.
    And yes, agents are people and I want to have a great relationship with mine, should I ever find the ‘right’ one. 🙂

    • LOL! No, I don’t want a schlub. Didn’t settle for one in my marriage, won’t in an agent.

      Of course, it makes me wonder: If I go my whole life unagented, does this make me the schlub?!?!?

  10. I read somewhere that you contract with an agent for a year, is this true? Sounds like good amount of time to see if the relationship will be a good one, or if you have to “try out” a few to find the “right” one.

    • Christina,

      A typical contract is a year, though most have a thirty day cancelation clause if either party wishes to terminate. Finding one agent is hard enough, I can’t imagine agent shopping as a rule. I hope that authors who blanket submit are the ones who find themselves in unhappy relationships.

      It is one of the reasons I’m so cautious about submitting. I don’t want to “settle” with the first agent who wants to give me a shot.

      I want to know who I’m soliciting, because when the call comes, I want to be able to say yes. Not, “I better check with the other forty seven agents I blanketed to see if there is a better fit for me.”

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