Sunday, July 29, 2007

The Purgatory from Which There Is No Hope of Release

Is there a hierarchy of agents, per se? Are there some whose submissions rise to the top simply because of who they are? Are there some that are greeted with a frown when the envelope is opened?
Absolutely. McIntosh & Otis, Writer's House, and Curtis Brown are among the heavyweights—agents who have a track record of representing talented people. Their sales often happen quite fast, too, so editors try to look at those submissions quickly lest they miss their chance at something great.

And yes, there are a couple of agents who I have on a personal blacklist (a very, very short list, that I'm not sharing with anyone) and those envelopes go into the trash without being opened. Those are agents who have shown such unprofessional behavior as to make me seriously doubt they're legitimate agents. I'm just waiting for them to show up on Preditors.

Most agents fall in between, and while they may be sending me stuff that doesn't suit my personal taste, that's not cause to think less of them. This is a subjective business, and you never know where the next great idea will come from.

What else might cause some manuscripts to get a quicker read than others when it comes to agented subs? How well the agent pitches it?
I hear all about how hard agents work to pitch well. So I suppose it must be making a dent on some editors.

Not me, though. Just as I don't care how fabulous you think your manuscript is, I don't care how fabulous your agent thinks it is. In fact, I think I care less about what the agent has to say, because reading the agent's letter won't tell me anything about your writing skills, the way your letter would. So whether I'm looking at an agent's letter or listening to a pitch over the phone, I'm tuning most of it out. I'm listening for what the manuscript is about, and if it's something we publish, sure, I'll have a quick look. The point of dealing with agents, after all, is that you trust them to be sifting the slush a bit for you.

Otherwise, I'm afraid how quickly agented submissions get read is a matter of luck. They often pile up on my desk for two or three weeks before I find the time (or the weekend) to go through the stack. And that's really fast, compared to some editors.

Picture this: An editor and her assistant are in the editor's office and are moving piles of paper around as though playing a cramped and dusty game of tetris. One of the piles is too tall to pick up all at once, and when halved, reveals a manuscript.
"Hmm," says the editor, "I should probably have replied to this."
"Didn't that get published last year at [another house]?" asks the assistant.
"Oh, really?" says the editor. "How'd it do?"
"Haven't heard anything about it since."
"Dodged that bullet, then," says the editor, tossing the manuscript at the recycling bin.
(Assistant chants to herself, "This will not be me, this will not be me, this will not be me.")


Adrian said...

So, with all of the additional headaches that come with finding an agent, is it still worth it if you end up with a weak or relatively unknown one? And how easy/ worthwhile is it to get an agent if you are a writer of mainly picture books? Is that different if you are an author/ illustrator (assuming that you can do both adequately)?

I'll run out of questions eventually. ;) Thanks!

Anonymous said...

A weak agent is FAR worse than no agent, especially in the children's market where unagented sales are still not only possible, but common.

A relationship with an agent is for the whole life of a book (once sold) and you're counting on that person not only to sell your work, but also to represent you to the industry and to give you smart, experienced career guidance.

Anonymous said...

Before having an agent, I didn't get a response on manuscripts for several months, and that was with connections and requests for materials.

After signing on with an agent, I was hearing back from multiple houses within a week -- sometimes within less than 24 hours (with picture books only, novels take longer obviously). Having an agent made a huge difference on all fronts. And that was not with Curtis Brown or Writers House. There are many, many reputable agencies out there with sales track records you can check online.

Editors know that if they don't act fast with an agent, they can have something good sold out from under them, sometimes within the same week. Agents work this possibility, making sure they slip any growing interest at one house to other editors who haven't gotten around to reading the manuscript. Interest at several publishers then makes the whole project hotter, and then the advance offers start climbing in turn.

Now if you can do that at home, you should give up writing and start agenting yourself...

Anonymous said...

My agent works at a great agency (though not one of the ones you've named), but I'm beginning to wonder about her as an individual. My ms has been out to six houses for fivemonths, and we've only heard back from two (both rejections).

Obviously she's not a "push this to the top of the pile" name. Now I just hope she's not a "trash it" name!

Of course, the optimist in me wants to believe the other houses are so slow to respond because they're taking my ms to editorial meetings and such.

Anonymous said...

So we rely on agents to get us in the door of the increasing number of houses that don't take unagented mss., to know which editors really want our kind of book on their list now, and to negotiate an advance that will more than pay for their 15%.

But if our agent is on the so-so or trash list, we may never hear back at all, or may hear back no sooner than people in slush do.

Now, if it's the agent's job to connect us with a publisher who wants our stuff, treats its authors well, isn't about to go bankrupt, etc., whom do we go to to connect us with agents whose submissions make editors salivate instead of yawn? We know who the big agencies are, and we know to stay away from the fee-chargers and the P&E "not recommended" people. But there are hundreds of agents and agencies somewhere in the middle, right? Since, to stand a chance, we have to query agents just as widely as we submit to publishers, and there's all this talk about an agent/client relationship being like a marriage (there'd better be a LOT of Mr./Ms. Rights out there), how do we avoid landing with a dud? Rely on the "career quality" of the people on the client list? Any other practical tips for how to select an agent that editors want to work with (as opposed to tips for choosing an agent that pleases yourself), and avoid those who will be more harm than help?

Anonymous said...

I met my agent at a conference. I didn't pitch her there, or attack her with a manuscript, but I listened to her talk about the titles she represented and the way she works.

Another thing you can do is subscribe to Publishers Weekly for awhile and look up titles you like, the genre you write in, and see who's selling. Remember, Publishers Weekly is a self-reported site, so not all agents post.

Also, look at the acknowledgments of titles that you like...most authors will acknowledge their agent.

It may take awhile, but most agents that aren't any good at their job will find something else to do -- after all, they only make money if they sell mss. I don't know how an agent could stay in business if he/she wasn't able to do that.

Anonymous said... (free) and Publishers Marketplace (daily newsletter and weekly partial deal wrap-up are free, complete access is a monthly fee) are both excellent sources for which agents are making what deals (though, again, self-reported so it's not consistent).

Different agents have different strengths, different kinds of connections, different philosophies. It's as important to find someone whose priorities, philosophy, and approach are in line with your own, as someone who's going to make a big or quick sale. Ask a lot of questions. Ask for a client list or recent sales. Ask about how that agent will represent you other than deals (how successful are they at handling various subsidiary rights, for example). An important part of knowing which agent is right for you (and, again, a bad/mediocre/poor fit agent can be worse than no agent) is knowing what you most want that person to do on your behalf . . . is it making (big, quick, etc.) deals? Is it helping to map out your career? Is it editorial guidance, too? How involved do/don't you want that person to be after the sale? Etc.

Adrian said...

Thanks Another Editor, Anonymous and everyone else who shared their insight/ experiences. Very helpful.

Anonymous said...

EA, I wonder if all editors respond that way to all agents from the agencies you mentioned in your post. I once had an offer from a young agent at one of those three agencies, and I turned it down because the clients he referred me to had not yet made sales, and described him as submitting to one or two publishers at a time, then waiting many months for a reply. I chose an agent who is not in NYC and not with one of those agencies, but who had an impressive list of recent sales in Publishers Marketplace. Was that a mistake?

Elizabeth Fama said...

Ha! I love that (clearly biographical) story at the end of your post. It sounds like you're still keeping that silent promise you made as an assistant. Neat.

Elizabeth Fama said...

D'oh. I meant "autobiographical." Sigh. said...

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