Monday, March 23, 2009

Why Agents Rock

I've been having a lively conversation over on Self-Publishing Review about the nature and responsibility of an agent. There are a lot of negative ideas out there about agents, and I can't address them all, so I thought that I'd tell my story. Tell how I got my agent and what our relationship is like.

First off, I think that a lot of the anger that revolves around agents comes simply from rejection. No one likes it. No one likes repeated rejections. But statistics are not in the writer's favor. I follow Jennifer Jackson's blog and she posts her request rates every Friday. Usually she reads about 100 - 200 queries. I don't think I've ever seen her make more than two or three partial requests. Kristen Nelson read something like 30,000 queries last year, and I think she took on about two clients (it's early and I'm not fact checking but I'm pretty sure that's close). The point is: Agents have a lot of rules and quirks and guidelines, all of which are make writers feel like they're jumping through hoops just to be rejected. I think a lot of the anger comes from this place. If writers stopped focusing on the agents and more on their own work, maybe the ratios would rise a little.

On to my story. I finished my book THE DEATHDAY LETTER (it's my job to be shamelessly self-promotional) and had been researching agents. There are a lot of really great sites out there to make sure that you don't get scammed (Predators & Editors, Miss Snark, AgentQuery, just to name a couple). I amassed my dream list, the ten agents I felt were a match for my book, my personality, and my style. Then I worked on my query letter. I used other query letters for inspiration, and read up on some do's and don'ts of the query letter.

I'll find out from my agent if I can put up my query letter here. Until then I'll just tell you about it. Because my book was funny, I used humor to sell my story and myself. Out of ten agents, I got partial and full manuscript requests from nine. I believe my book had a good hook, but it was the query letter that got me in the door.

I hadn't expected to get so many replies so quickly. I sent my query letters, expecting replies to take six weeks or so, and then when on my vacation to Europe. I was happily surprised by all the attention, but since I was on vacation, my ability to reply was very limited. It was Chris at Firebrand Literary that really went above and beyond. Originally I had queried Nadia Cornier. Firebrand Literary, and Nadia in particular, just had the right mix of quirky playfulness and professionalism. Plus, their solid sales record was great. Chris was a new agent, I'd never heard of him, but Nadia passed my query to him and he tracked me down.

I'd sent him my full manuscript before leaving, and he wanted to talk immediately. The time difference made things difficult, but Chris went out of his way to accommodate my schedule. I was only going to be gone for two weeks, so I was surprised when he was so eager to talk to me. I had other offers from the agents I queried, but it was Chris's exuberance that sold me. He was so psyched about THE DEATHDAY LETTER that he tracked me down in Europe and made time to get to know me. That was the kind of guy I wanted representing my book and career.
When I got back, we worked on some editing. He had some good suggestions, some of which I resisted. It wasn't all roses. Both Chris and I have strong personalities, so there were misunderstandings, but one thing never changed: my agent's excitement about my book. Even after we started sending it out and my own excitement was replaced with fear and anxiety, Chris was my cheerleader.

Just recently, we sold THE DEATHDAY LETTER, and Chris was there to guide me through the process, to make sure that we got the best terms, to make sure I understood what was going one. He negotiated me a wonderful deal and I'm now working with a wonderful editor who is as excited about my book as Chris was.

A great agent can make the whole process of getting published, seem less daunting, because it is daunting. There were days where I wanted to give up, where the waiting seemed like too much. Chris isn't there to edit my stories, but he's invested enough in my career to read them and provide me with honest feedback. A good agent is worth his weight in gold. But it's a two way street. If you want to get an agent, you have to be a good writer, you have to follow their guidelines whether you agree with them or not. Once you get an agent, you have to be a good client. You are not your agent's only writer. You may feel like four days is too long a response time if you've asked your agent to read a manuscript, but really, it's not.

This whole thing has been an amazing learning process for me. I'm sure I've screwed up and done things that caused Chris to face palm in exasperation, but as I move forward with my career, I move forward with an agent who cares about my career, and about making me the me I can be.

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