Suppose that you’ve written an interesting, original book draft, revised that draft many times, had friends read it, revised that book again, and now it’s finally ready for submission. Then suppose that you research agents, find fifteen that represent exactly what you write, send a specific query letter to those fifteen agents, and receive “full manuscript” requests from four. Those four agents read your draft and three are interested in representing you. Those three agents make an offer.
When these agents call or e-mail (or both), they all sound great. They’re intelligent men or women, well spoken and well read. They have connections, and they make promises. When you talk to them, you feel a little like a kid on Sesame Street, and Big Bird is talking and you just keep nodding your head.
So what do you do? In the canon of “How to Be a Writer” articles, this is an often-neglected topic. If you have choices, how should you choose an agent? What should you look for in an agent? What makes an agent the right agent for you?
For a little direction, consider these five questions:
1. Who loves your work the most?
The first thing you need to do is to listen for the word “LOVE.” You need to hear that word. Not “like” or “interest,” but “love.” And if everyone’s saying the L-word, think back to high school and decide who really means it.
But more likely, one of the agents isn’t in love with your work. Instead, you might hear something like “I really think this book has a place in today’s market.” That might be true, and it may be exciting or even fiscally promising, but that’s not the most important thing for the agent/writer relationship, because you, the author, will write other books. And if you write other books, your agent has to love your work. She has to love your style, your structure, your art, and your development. She has to be excited to read the next book. If she’s not in love now, when your newly born writing is in her hands, then your relationship is already in trouble.
2. Does this person need you?
The second thing you need to think about is Will this be a mutually beneficial relationship? Obviously, you need an agent. Without this agent, you will sell zero books to reputable publishers. But does this prospective agent need you? That’s an important question.
With my first book, a literary memoir, I had three agents interested in representing me. Two seemed more interested than the third, so I thanked that third agent for her initial interest and focused on the other two agents. This is where it got interesting. I did further research. I found out exactly what the agents had sold, who they represented, and what their strengths were. Unfortunately, weaknesses are hard to deduce from online research. After gathering information, I chose an agent. But I chose poorly.
My first agent didn’t need me. She was much older and more established than me, and she was in the latter stages of her career. I was a tiny, unknown writer with no book titles to my name. Linking with her was a bad idea, but for almost two years I stuck with it. Then I took a risk and let her go.
Later that year I signed with a young, hungry agent who was a lot more like me. Although she had valuable editing experience, intelligence, and drive, she needed to add writers to her author list. She wanted to sell books right now and build a career in the publishing industry. This was the agent I needed, an agent as excited about me as I was about her.
3. Who do you want to talk to?
The next thing to think about is communication. If you make a serious career of writing, your agent is someone that you’re going to talk to a lot. By “a lot,” I mean hundreds and hundreds of times. The two of you will e-mail, call, conference call, Tweet, talk at readings, and meet for breakfasts, lunches, and dinners. You’ll discuss revisions, edits, queries, submissions, rejections, strategies, blogging, publicity, blurbs, reviews, advances, reprints, and royalty statements. So, do you enjoy talking to this person? Is this prospective agent someone that you might want to talk to 457 times in the next five years? And when you talk, does she seem like a reasonable match for you?
In your first contacts, your agent should be professional. As you get to know each other a little more, the conversations will get more casual and comfortable. Your agent will probably never be your best friend, but communications don’t have to be awkward and forced for your entire working lives. It’s simple: Pick an agent that’s easy to talk to.
But remember that agents are busy, busy people. They work long hours at the office, work more hours at home, and care a great deal about their clients. So it’s understandable that they might not be able to chat at three in the morning when you can’t sleep because your cat is scratching her scabies or your ex-boyfriend just un-friended you on Facebook. But if there’s something important to communicate, will your agent be readily available and quick to get back to you? That’s another important thing to think about.
4. Will this agent be honest with you?
In all types of communication—whether it’s “Are you allergic to any foods?” or “Is it okay if I touch you here?”—honesty is paramount. This is also true of agent/author communications.
Not all of your ideas are good ideas. And some of your stories aren’t ready for publication. A good agent will tell you if the book needs a better ending, if one of the characters is underdeveloped, if the proposal needs another draft. A good agent will say “This is excellent” or “This is honestly not your best work.” A good agent will also send rejections to you immediately and help interpret those rejections. She’ll give you good and bad news, and plans for the future. A good agent will challenge you to be the best writer possible.
5. Does your agent have the right kind of experience?
Agents are invaluable. If you think agents simply sell books, then you’ve never had a good agent. Yes, agents sell books. But their jobs are so much more involved than that. Agents vet ideas, consider proposals, revise and edit drafts, network, publicize, place articles, write queries, brainstorm markets, find blogging opportunities, set up interviews, submit drafts, lunch with editors, talk to publishers, and track down payments like good old-fashioned repo men. There really is no limit to an agent’s job.
So, can your prospective agent do all of those things? If your prospective agent can’t, find someone else. If you’re unsure, ask the agent for an author reference contact. A good agent will readily give out one of her author’s phone numbers or e-mails as a reference (with permission from that author, of course). A good agent knows exactly how good she is, and knows that she’ll pass the reference test.
You’ve heard it before but it’s worth saying again: There are no guarantees in the publishing industry. You might be a wonderfully talented writer, having written one of the greatest book drafts of your generation, and that book might never be acquired by a publisher. Or you might publish one book but never make a subsequent sale. I have a friend who’s published eight books with reputable publishers but has never sold more than 10,000 copies of any of those books. Her releases are always a big deal, but she still has a modest sales record. Publishing is a weird industry. So it’s all about maximizing potential. If you have a good book, if the work has potential, then put it in the best hands. Pick the right agent.
Peter Brown Hoffmeister is a writer, teacher, rock climber, and gear tester (for Nike). He lives in Eugene, Oregon, with his wife, Jennie, and two daughters, and he teaches at South Eugene High School. He is the author of The End of Boys (Soft Skull, 2011), Let Them Be Eaten by Bears (Perigee, 2013), and Graphic the Valley (Tyrus Books, 2013).