Friday, May 14, 2010

Someone To Watch Over You

Somewhere on the web this week, someone said, "An agent works for you. You're THEIR boss."

I can see, in this environment, where good agents have hundreds of queries coming in every week from wanna-be-best-selling authors, how such a statement could be liberating. Writers worry incessantly about landing their dream agents. They slave over query letters, and they polish their partials to as high a brilliance as they can muster. They practically stalk agents on blogs and Twitter and Facebook -- and then in person at conferences. They send out their queries with high hopes and and when they get nothing but rejections, some of that worry and hope blends into acid frustration.

And that's where statements like, "The agent works for YOU" come in.

Sure, technically, you make more money than the agent per deal, and technically, you could tell them where to put that high six-figure deal since lunch with Oprah wasn't included in the fine print. And technically, an agent can't sell anything you don't first produce.

Still, I'm reminded of that brokerage commercial, where the surgeon is giving instructions over the phone to the poor, hapless guy armed with a kitchen knife and a bottle of alcohol. Publishing is like that. You need expert advice. Unless you have a terrific working relationship with your editor (and sometimes EVEN if), D-I-Y representation is not the best option.

Saying that you're the boss of this operation might feel good, but it's like saying you're the boss of the criminal defense lawyer you've paid to get you off of a murder rap. You can bet if I'm ever unlucky enough to find myself in such a position (and I'll be completely innocent, I assure you), I'll not be telling my lawyer what I think he should be doing.

I can understand the frustration. Not only are there scam agents out there, ready to fleece you, but there are ineffectual, down-right sorry agents who aren't your best advocate. There are also agents who are great for some other author, but not you.

And then there are agents that are your match made in heaven. I know they exist, because my CP Tawna Fenske has a great one in Michelle Wolfson. And that's just one of the many happy agent-client relationships I've heard of over the years.

In such a dream match, they are your guides in this strange publishing world. They explain things to you, manage your expectations, submit when they're supposed to and to the editors they're supposed to, editors you may never have heard of, because they know the market and they know who's looking to buy what you might be offering.

They are your fierce protector. They'll go to bat for you when it comes to a crappy clause in a contract, a really gruesome cover on your book, or possibly an are-you-insane deadline.

Sometimes they become your friend. Not always. But sometimes.

But the good ones? Even if they're not your friends, they're your guardian angel.

And I wouldn't even attempt to boss a guardian angel. Here's hoping that all of you meet your very own guardian angel if you haven't yet, so you'll have someone to look over you.


Piedmont Writer said...

First off, I LOVE that picture of the dog and kitten.

I would be so grateful to get an agent, to hear those words "Oh I would love to represent you," I would treat her like the guardian angel she is, because negotiating a contract is something I never ever want to do in my life.

I'm so envious of those writers with fantastic agent relationships. I want one so bad!!!

Harley May said...

The agent/client relationship does seem like a special one. I had a friend find query and had several offers of representation (we should all be so lucky). The agent she went with wasn't the biggest name, but they CLICKED. She knew that agent would work her butt of for her. Great post, Cynthia.

Patrick said...

*Puts on serious hat. Transforms into Serious Pat with Serious Hat*

I think there are merits to both sides of the equation. I've heard horror stories from agents of clients who tried to go it alone and really screwed their career. I've heard horror stories from bad agents.

It makes sense to listen to both stories so you can avoid the mistakes.

There are great agents out there that can give great feedback on manuscripts. There are agents that will never read more than your proposal before they sell it.

There are some who will work with you to plan your career. There are some that will be surprised when a new manuscript shows up.

There are some writers who are better off without an agent, too. A favorite author of mine sold his first novel on his own and has been with the same publisher for over 40+ books and is happy with the contracts that he receives.

The thing is, there is no one magic way. What you need to be aware is "You are responsible for your own career."

I'll also add "Never let one person stop you from writing"

I met a writer and were discussing that exact thing when it comes to getting feedback from critique partners, but let his College creative writing teacher tell him to stop writing horror, even though he loved it.

The author/agent relationship can be many things. It is a partnership. It could be they are mostly a sales rep. It could be more of a product manager role. It could be an AP\AR role.

As a writer, you should be able to do these things yourself so you understand what your partner is doing, even if they are better at these things than you. Ideally they ARE better at these things than you.

*takes off serious hat and disappears*

MOLLYC said...

I have the dream agent. The fact that she is my daughter has absolutely nothing to do with it!

Patty said...

I'm not at this point... YET! (she says, fist in the air) but thought this was a great post.

Tawna Fenske said...

Great post! I agree wholeheartedly that having a great working relationship with my agent (who pretty much rocks) is one of the best tools I have in my arsenal. She has skills and connections I can't even dream of having, but obviously I bring something important to the table as well. It's a partnership, and that's how I think it should be.


Cynthia Reese said...

Anne, you'll get there! And hopefully you'll have a choice between great agents.

Harley May, that "clicking" is so important. This is a person that you intend to work with for a long time, and that ingredient is critical.

Patrick, you wear a serious hat very well! And yes, ultimately, authors have to be responsible for their career. The most important decision writers can make is a barebones assessment of what type of clients they are.

Do they want a close personal relationship with their agents? Do they want an editorial agent? Do they want the big name agent with lots of clients? Or would they rather have an agent who is just starting out? Because unless a writer knows what s/he wants, the only way to figure it out is through the process of elimination, and a writer should never query an agent that doesn't mesh with what s/he wants from that agent.

And I so love what you said: Never let one person stop you from writing. That rocks!

So please don't disappear!

MollyC, LOL!

Patty, you'll be ready -- and far better prepared than I was as a newbie. The internet is a wonderful thing, no?

Tawna, I think the thing that impresses me so much about your agent/client relationship with Michelle is how it IS most definitely a partnership. You're right -- Michelle rocks!

Al said...

I think given how authors have to go cap in hand to get an agent the power is essentially with the agent.

I guess JK Rowling would be entitled to say she is then boss. But she is the exception rather than the rule.

I must have an evil side. My immediate thought was that the dog was tasting the kitten to see if it was good enough to eat. :)

Nate said...

Personally, from everything I've read and experienced over the past couple of years, I don't see how anyone could even hope to succeed in 'dis business without a good agent working hard for them.

I just wish I'd started sooner. I never thought I'd say such a thing at age 40, but there it is.

Thanks for the great post, Cynthia!

Patrick said...

I believe the agents are our are future

Teach them well and let them lead the way

Show them all the beauty they possess inside

Give them a sense of pride to make it easier

Let the agents' laughter remind us how we used to be

Paul C said...

You express well what the ideal relationship is with an agent. Something you hope for in a financial adviser as well.

Cynthia Reese said...

Al, I'll never look at that pix the same way! Too funny!

Nate, agents are essential if you're doing non-category romance writing -- any sort of commercial fiction, as they are, like it or not, the gate-keepers and first-readers for major publishing houses. And 40 is NOT old. I know. I'm 40, and I'm NOT OLD. (who AM I trying to convince here?)

And ROFL at Patrick! Now I've got a Whitney Houston earworm in my head!

Paul C, excellent analogy! Why didn't I think of that? It fits well with Patrick's point about ultimately being responsible for your career, but also finding the smartest, most with-it person you can partner with. Thanks!