This is a compilation of a series of blog posts I wrote on picking an agent.
Picking an agent #1—FINISH THE MANUSCRIPT
Yes, I’m shouting.
Before I go into some tips on how to pick an agent (and possibly receive an offer of representation), I want to point out this very important part of the submission process.
For some people, this is a no-brainer, but I’m always amazed at people who’ve never heard this piece of advice.
Before you query that agent (or editor, for that matter), finish the manuscript. There are TONS of writers who never finish that first manuscript, and agents know this. Therefore, if they are interested in your story, they are going to want to see the full, completed manuscript.
For one, they want to know you finished it.
For two, they want to know if you can sustain your brilliance in the first chapter throughout the rest of the book. Many novels sag in the middle because the writer loses steam. If that’s the case with your manuscript, it’s not ready to submit. Period.
You want that manuscript ready to go if they come back with a manuscript request. You won’t want to make them wait for a few months.
Sometimes, the agent is interested in your particular idea because it’s hot in the marketplace right at that moment. If you wait, they might receive 20 other manuscripts of a similar idea and sell one of those instead. Or the market may be saturated. Or the market changes (which it always does).
Agents are also typically much faster than editors. They won’t often leave you hanging for months at a time.
Strike while the iron is hot. Make sure that puppy is primed and ready to submit.
Update: Julie Carobini pointed out that it is possible to acquire an agent with just a fiction proposal and not the entire manuscript, because, in her words, "time is money." She also had a strong freelance career at that point, too, which added to her credibility. In my opinion, it's not the norm to successfully query with an unfinished manuscript, but it certainly is possible.
Picking an agent #2—Do you like them?
This might seem like a dumb question, but think about it—here is your chance to choose who you get to work with. You want someone you get along with and who has the same work ethic as you do. You won’t necessarily be buddies, but you want to at least be happy to talk to them.
That’s why it’s good to research the agents you query. Read online interviews or buy CDs from conferences of workshops the agent gave, or agent panels the agent was on.
If you can afford it, go to conferences to meet them and talk to them. They don’t bite. Just get to know them, even if you don’t have anything to pitch to them.
You will get a good feel for who you’d like to work for, and which agent has the same types of goals you do in terms of career.
Picking an agent #3—To brand or not to brand
I’m going to flash around the b-word, so if you’re easily offended, skip this post.
Some writers agree with branding, some don’t. Some writers like finding a marketing niche, others feel it hampers their creativity.
There’s nothing wrong with either opinion, but your agent should agree with whatever your opinion is.
Some agents are heavily into branding. They not only pitch your manuscript, they’re pitching your brand, you as the writer. They’re pitching you so that the house will take you on and develop you as an author with that particular flavor of writing.
Some agents are more open to writers who want to branch out into different areas. They encourage creativity, no matter where that may take the writer. They can recognize good writing and push whatever genre manuscripts their authors put out.
There is nothing wrong with either side. But you as the author should decide which type of agent you want to target. That’s why reading their online interviews or listening to workshops on CD or meeting them at conferences is so important.
Picking an agent #4—location?
Some authors insist that agents reside in New York so they have more opportunities for face-to-face time with editors in New York. I can see the logic of that.
So what about if your agent lives in California? Or Colorado?
It depends on which publishers you are targeting.
Let me say that again: It depends on which publishers you are targeting.
Not all publishers are in New York. This is especially true for CBA publishers. If you are targeting Bethany House, they’re in Minnesota. If you’re targeting FaithWords, they’re in Tennessee. If you’re targeting Zondervan, they’re in Michigan.
My agent lives in California, which is terrific because I can meet with her every so often. She flies to visit publishing houses every year, and she has connections with all of them that she encourages by attending various conferences.
She is the primary reason Zondervan bought my chick-lit series, because of her connection with the Zondervan editor.
So . . . New York? In my opinion, not necessarily. However, it is up to you.
Picking an agent #5—How to know if they’re interested?
For some houses like Heartsong Presents and Steeple Hill, a writer doesn’t need an agent to sell to them. Some writers who have targeted those houses worry an agent is just taking them on for an easy sale.
As a writer, you can tell if an agent is truly interested in you and your writing. Did they read your manuscript? Offer suggestions or feedback? Do they plan which specific editors to send it to because they know the editors’ specific tastes? Do they communicate with you quickly and consistently? Is their communication thorough?
And for goodness’ sake, if an agent requests your proposal or your full manuscript, SEND IT! They don’t have time to request those things if they aren’t genuinely interested in your story idea. It’s not like they have nothing to do but log in manuscripts and then send a rejection letter. They have a lot of other things taking up their time, and they’re not going to waste any of it by asking you to send something they intend to reject later.
Picking an agent #6—Multiple submissions?
Many writers worry about sending queries or proposals to several agents at once.
First of all, if you received these submission requests at a conference, it’s understood that you might have multiple requests and therefore multiple submissions.
It’s also fine to send multiple queries to multiple agents, however you should check the agent’s website to see what his/her policy is on multiple submissions. Some agents discourage it. Some agents don’t care.
Whether you have multiple submission requests from an conference or you’re just sending multiple queries to agents, in your cover letter or query letter, let the agent know that your manuscript has been submitted to other agents. It’s a common professional courtesy. Do NOT skip this bit of communication.
If an agent requests a partial manuscript or a full manuscript, e-mail or write to the other agents you submitted to and let them know such-and-such agent has requested the partial (or full). It might garner more interest in your writing, it might not.
If an agent offers representation, but you’d also like to see if the other agents you submitted to are interested, then e-mail, write, or call them. Let them know you submitted to them, but you’ve been offered representation by another agent. Ask them if they would they be willing to look over your submission and give you an answer before you respond to the other agent. Be polite.
The main thing is, make sure you are clear and consistent in your communication with all the agents you submit to or query.
Picking an agent #7—Bad agents
Randy Ingermanson wrote an excellent article about bad agents in his Advanced Fiction Writing Ezine:
No agent is much better than having a bad agent. At best, a bad agent will not push your manuscripts promptly and will waste your time. At worst, a scammer will take your money and ruin your chances with publishers through reprehensible business practices.
Anyone can print up a business card and call themselves an agent, whether they have any experience or connections with editors and the industry or not.
Don’t go with any agent who charges a reading fee or sends you to a specific book doctor or editing company.
Check that the agent is a member of the AAR (Association of Authors' Representatives). Members are required to adhere to their Canon of Ethics, which prohibits scammers.
Picking an agent #8—Communication
All agents have different communication styles.
Some agents are more minimalistic—short, to-the-point e-mails, and not very frequent. Some of them don’t mind if you contact them often, they just won’t contact you back as much. Other agents, however, prefer minimal contact from you, as well. For some people, this type of minimal-communication agent is what they prefer—they don’t want to be bombarded by information they don’t really need, they just need an agent who will work in the background for them.
Other agents are more in contact with their clients. They e-mail and/or call frequently, and welcome reciprocal contact from clients.
Since I am a more chatty person, my agent is the latter. That simply meshes with my personality—it’s an individual choice.
For you, figure out what kind of communication the agent has. Ask questions. Give hypothetical scenarios.
“How often will you contact me in a typical week?”
“Once you send the manuscript to editors, how often will you contact me? What will you contact me about, and what will you not contact me about?”
“What is your preferred method of communication?”
“If I e-mail or call you, when can I expect you to e-mail or call me back?”
Picking an agent #9—Ask around
If you don’t have a chance to go to a conference and meet the agent face-to-face, or if the agent doesn’t attend the conference(s) you go to, then ask other writers about their agents.
If you belong to an online writers group, ask them to e-mail you privately about their agents. Ask about communication styles and work ethics. Ask them about their relationships, how the agent works, etc.
Also, tell them you’ll keep all their information completely confidential.
Another good idea is something a published author did (I want to say Rene Gutteridge did this, but I’m not positive)—she contacted several editors and asked them to give her the top three agents they enjoy working with. That way the editors aren’t put on the spot about any particular agent.
Any other questions?
Leave them in the comments and I'll answer them!