One of the biggest problems with seeking an agent is that you may actually find one. Not unlike the ever popular quest for a boyfriend or girlfriend, it’s easy to overlook some rather annoying qualities when you just want an agent so badly.
In more than two decades as a writer, I have found myself with several agents who, after the initial attraction wore off, were not exactly my idea of the perfect agent. My first agent, who had left a prestigious publishing house, successfully landed me a timely deal on a humor book about vice presidents, which came out just prior to the 1992 election. The book made it to store windows during election time. However, the advance payments – two checks – did not have such a similar positive fate. The first check, sent to me by the agent, bounced. I assumed it was a simple mistake that anyone could make. However, when the second check bounced, I knew it was time to go agent hunting again. This time I told myself I would check references first.
As it turned out, I was fortunate to draw some interest from a large literary agency. The catch, as I would later realize, was that this particular agency signed writers and than assigned them to agents. Fortunately, this is not a common practice. What happens is that you end up with an agent whose ideas for what you should be doing are far different than your goals. Most often, in a big agency, a specific agent will take an interest in you and bring you into the agency – not the other way around.
One very good agent I worked with was a go-getter, out at every literary function and making a name for herself in the business. The upside was that she was hungry and aggressive. In fact, she helped me get in on a series for which I would go on to write ten books over the next several years. She was a very good “starter” agent, the kind that gets you your first deals and helps you hit the ground running. These are agents that will often take a chance on a new writer, and although the deals are not very big, they help you get your foot in the door. As you move further into your career, you’ll want to find someone who can get bigger book deals and move you to the next level. But if you are starting out, don’t underestimate the power of someone who is a young up and comer with some legitimate credentials (several books sold). Enthusiasm and a game plan are positive features in such an agent.
I would proceed from this agent – whom I still highly regard – through three more before finding my current agent. With each one, I can look back and know what I did wrong. One was a very sweet, very cute young agent whom I had met years before in a class. I went with her because I simply couldn’t say no. I wanted to help her. Wrong, the agent should be helping you. I hooked up with another agent for TV writing opportunities. As it turned out, once she found out that I had written for the Rosie O’Donnell show, she wanted to have a writer with such credit to boost her new agency. Wrong again, your credits shouldn’t be helping your agent. The third was one of a very large group of agents that I call the non-writer literary agents. These agents are fine if you are a lawyer, teacher, realtor or have some other means of income. In other words, if they like a project, they will represent it, but they have no significant interest in your overall writing career. Therefore, if, like me, you are a professional writer, such an agent will typically not help you pursue your future goals. You can, of course, let such an agent represent one book, and then if he or she does not like your next manuscript, move on to someone else.
Finally, I found an agent who is looking out for my career and is with a mid-sized agency. While I’m “with the agency”, I am essentially there through the agent who brought me in to work with her. Mid-sized agencies with several years behind them are very good in that the agents have more resources than individual agents who are on their own. They are also less likely to lose you in the shuffle, as typically happens in some of the very large agencies. Hence the old joke, I don’t have an agent, I’m with William Morris.
Here are five additional tips that I’ve learned from all of this:
1.) Don’t pay reading fees – I’ve never heard of “good” agents that charge them.
2.) Find out which expenses the agent will expect you to pay for. The better agents don’t nickel and dime you over every copy. Some expenses are okay.
3.) Make sure the agent has handled your genre before so he or she will know which editors to approach.
4.) Find out if you’ll be working directly with the agent, or at least a sub agent with experience. A friend of mine was pushed off to her agent’s assistant – she’s not happy about it.
5.) Make sure your agent is upfront about where he or she is submitting your proposal. Most agents will tell you where it is being sent to and give you copies of rejection letters – don’t worry, everyone gets them.
Rich Mintzer is a New York based author of 40 non-fiction books on a wide range of subjects from investing to adoption to how to produce a play. He has worked as a ghostwriter, humor writer and has also written a dozen children’s books (non-fiction).