Saturday, September 28, 2013

Cold Truths & Warm Fuzzies

It's okay. It's all going to be okay. I promise.

I'm littering this post with pictures of fuzzy things to make it happier. You're welcome.

I've learned a lot in the last year. I learned how to drill a stripped screw out of an iPhone. I learned how to do the flick with liquid eyeliner. I learned that breast implants explode in crematorium ovens. And I learned that the WRONG literary agent is a real thing. So this one night, I'm checking my email with one hand and stirring spaghetti sauce with the other when I was caught off guard by a very serious question. Is it time for me to find a new agent? There's a lot more to this question but trust me, you're not missing anything by skipping ahead.

Why I make phone calls from my car.
Suddenly, I was sitting in my car in the dark (playing Candy Crush Saga at the back of a parking lot outside a coffee shop because it's the only place far enough away from the kids to have a quiet phone conversation) talking to the RIGHT agent about the right things and realizing I should've thought about those things a year ago. I was also realizing I probably looked like a meth dealer or a psycho to any police who drove by, but it was the night of the homecoming bonfire and the cops had more important things to do than harass minivan moms who are just looking for some alone time.

A BAD dog.
There's a very important distinction here: the WRONG agent isn't necessarily a BAD agent. It's easy to get crazy excited, query every agent on the planet, and sign with the first one who offers representation. I know. I've been there. I get that. But you wouldn't walk into a dealership and buy the first car you see in your price range. You'd want to take the time to make sure you're making a wise investment. Do you want a manual transmission or an automatic? Something that gets you there super fast or something that you'll still be driving twenty years from now? What's right for one person isn't always right for someone else.

Okay, there's a really sucky part I need to mention before I get too far into this. Remember when I said "the first car you see in your price range?" Sometimes there are no cars in your price range and you need to work harder so you can get something better. When you find yourself hunting for obscure agents because you've been rejected by everyone else, you might want to consider going back to work on your manuscript so you can get someone reliable instead of a clunker. Don't settle. Seriously.

Let's say you're on the lot, cash in hand, and you're trying to decide which car to buy. Have you figured out what features matter most to you? This is where I went wrong. I had offers from several agents but I didn't know how to make my decision. It just happened all at once and I wasn't prepared. I made an emotional decision without doing any research. I ended up with an amazing agent who just happened to be the wrong agent for me. I was like a mother of four who buys a two-seater convertible, or a guy with a long commute who buys a gas-guzzling SUV.

Because I care, and because I love making lists, here are some suggestions to help you start your own list of questions for that all-important phone call. As usual, these are in no particular order--just like my thought process.

Likes to be left alone.
1.    Ask about your manuscript. Find out if it's going to need an overhaul or if there are just minor changes to make before it can go out to editors. This usually isn't a deal breaker question, but it's nice to know what you'd be up against if you sign with that agent.

2.    Discuss communication. This is a really important one for me. You should know up front how often you two will be checking in with each other and how to get in touch when needed. Some people like to be left alone, others want lots of hand holding. Some agents prefer email, others would rather talk on the phone. Is it better to send a quick text or is she quick to respond to letters? Loners don't want to be smothered and hand-holders don't want to feel like they've been left in the dark.

Likes hand holding.
3.    Research recent book deals. Check to make sure the agent is actually selling manuscripts before you hand yours over. Find out who they're selling them to. If all their sales are to tiny publishers who only do eBooks, it's likely that'll be your future as well. You might also want to look at the genre of those sales. Has that agent been selling books in your genre? If they are, they might have a better idea of where to pitch your manuscript.

4.    Look at their client list. Compare the number of published clients (with sales brokered by that particular agent) versus clients who are still working on it. If their client list is mostly newly signed, unpublished authors, your manuscript could be sharing office time with all the others. If their client list is full of unpublished authors who have been with that agent for a while, it's not a good sign. Either the agent's dropping the ball or they're choosing clients with unpublishable manuscripts.

Totally loves your other stuff.
5.    Talk about your other projects. If the agent isn't excited about the other stuff you're working on, you might be agent-hunting again before long.

Bad news? Good.
6.    Find out how involved you'll be in the pitching process. Some agents will come up with a pitch and a submission list without running it past you, while others might want your input. You might want to see all the feedback from editors. You might want to hear only the good news. Whatever your preferences are, make sure the agent is cool with it.

7.    Be open-minded. Maybe there are a bunch of unpublished authors on their client list. They could be working their butts off and have a bunch of stuff in the works that you don't know about. A huge list of recent sales isn't a guarantee that you'll be on that list anytime soon. They may have been on a roll, but rolls end eventually.

8.    Take your time. When you've asked all your questions and done all your research, give things a little time to settle before you make your choice. No, you don't want to leave them hanging forever, but you don't want to rush into a decision and make the wrong one. If they really want you, they'll still be there if you need a few days to think about it.
Little things
can get out of hand.

9.    Trust your instincts. If something just doesn't feel right, don't ignore it. Little things that make you uncomfortable in the beginning might not get better with time. Does it but you that your boyfriend thinks farting's funny? Picture him seventeen years later, ripping 'em in the kitchen and teaching your kids to blame their own on you. Trust me. It happens.

10. Be objective. Just because an agent has big name clients and works at a well known agency, it doesn't mean you're going to get a seven figure deal for your debut novel. Likewise, signing with a twenty-something agent with a super short resume doesn't mean you're not going to end up with a killer publisher and win a Newberry. Respect the young. Listen to them. Don't be scared of their youth. They've got more energy and their spirits haven't been broken yet.

Stalk them. (But be invisible.)
Don't just stop with my list. Ask, ask, ask. Talk to references, snoop around online, stalk them on Twitter. Be informed. I'd love to hear other ideas from you guys in the comments. Post away!

One final thought; I use the words RIGHT and WRONG very loosely. It's really not that black and white. You could sign with the RIGHT agent and still not get published. There are tons of factors that come into play in this industry. I signed with the RIGHT agent last year and I'm signing with the RIGHT agent this year. Comparing them side by side, I think this new one is the RIGHTER agent for my manuscript--just like the old one is the RIGHTER agent for someone else's manuscript. Both my agents are AWESOME.

Good luck!