Bad Agent, Good Agent

(reprinted from a 2012 Willamette Writers newsletter)

fork in the road

I did exactly what people warn you not to do – I jumped at the first agent that showed any interest. It was partly because I’d been a writer for a long time before I started looking for an agent (about twenty manuscripts in twenty years) and I felt like I couldn’t waste any more time. Partly because I just didn’t know what to do in that situation. And partly, I suspect, because I feared she would be the only taker. I pitched two novels – a children’s adventure and an adult supernatural drama – to about five agents one-on-one at the 2000 Willamette Writers conference.  Not to worry – this bad agent no longer takes pitches at conference and hasn’t for about a decade.

My bad agent said something we all love to hear: “That’s the best story I’ve heard all weekend.” She had me send her both books and called me a week later or so and we signed an agreement. She told me that half her clients sell a book in the first year. This sounds great, doesn’t it? But it could actually mean that she has two clients and one sold a book after eleven months and the other failed to sell anything at all. I should have researched her, but later when I got around to it, her website was confusing. She was part of a group of agents who partnered up and it was impossible to tell who had which clients.

A red flag should have shot up when she said I should only email her, never call on the phone. But what did I know? I was so green. For the first year she sent me an email every three or four months saying we were “still live” at such-and-such publisher or that she just sent my book to so-and-so and that we should keep fingers crossed. During the second year I heard from her less. Finally my writers support group said I should ask for a submission list and I did. My bad agent hedged and I kept asking every few weeks. Finally, after we’d been together about two years, I asked to see a submission list and also my rejection letters/emails so I could learn from them what to do differently with my writing. A week or so later I got a list with three places one book had gone and one place another had been sent. All of them AFTER the date I asked to see my rejection letters.

I called and the recording said, “If you are a client, hang up and email me.” I emailed and an assistant replied. I said there must be other places my material had been submitted because during the first year she told me more than once that my books were here or there. The assistant answered that if the places my books were sent hadn’t responded, then they had no record of where they’d been already. Okay, I was green, but even I knew this was crazy. I wrote my bad agent a letter saying I was leaving and in thirty days it was legal.

Now I had written a new manuscript (the YA novel I broke in with, A Certain Slant of Light) and I knew that if I wanted a better agent I’d have to wise up. I didn’t want to make the same mistakes twice. First I read Donald Maass’s book The Career Novelist to figure out what kind of agent I wanted.  Some people insist an agent should be New York based and others don’t care. Some agents are trend setters who grab and sell what’s currently hot and are less interested in the longevity of each writer’s career. Others are career-builders who want to find each writer a good home at the right publishing house. Some agencies are small so you get more attention from your agent but they may not have a lot of clout. Others are huge with plenty of clout but might have so many clients you could get lost in the crowd. I decided I wanted an agent who was based in New York (I liked the idea that my agent could go to lunch with NY editors) and medium-sized with an excellent track record (clout and less chance of getting lost) and a career-builder.

Next I read Jeff Herman’s book on literary agents and editors. I liked the Herman book because it not only told me which genres each agent was looking for, but all kinds of extras: their hobbies, pet peeves, backgrounds, and so on. I listed every possible agent for me on 3 x 5 cards and then stacked them in order of preference with my faves at the top of the stack—NY based, medium size, career-builders first.

As I composed my query letter I used some advice that I believe I heard from Noah Lukeman during a workshop at conference a few years before. I made the letter no longer than one page, I didn’t say anything about myself (since nothing about me related specifically to my writing project) except that I had won a few writing awards, and in my one or two paragraph description of my novel I made it clear who the story was about, where it took place (time period and location,) and the main conflict in the plot. Noah said that if you can’t tell the reader those three things in one paragraph, there’s probably something wrong with your story, not just your query letter.

I wrote a good query, let someone else read it (my writer sister,) and rewrote it. Then I sent it to the top ten cards on my stack all at the same time. Only one of them wanted to read the manuscript, but that didn’t matter, because that agent was Ann Rittenberg and she signed me and she’s a fabulous agent.

Before I agreed to become Ann’s client, we chatted by phone.  I had researched her in the Herman book and on the web so I already knew certain things such as the fact that she represented Dennis Lehane – obviously she was a successful agent. Now I asked her some other questions to make sure she was not like the bad agent. And I liked the answers I got. She said she would always give me copies of the rejection letters my books received. She said I could call her whenever I wanted to. And when I asked her what she loved about my book, it was the same kinds of things I loved about it myself. I also found I was comfortable talking to her, a good sign that we would be able to communicate well.

 Within a year Ann sold my book to Houghton Mifflin and landed me two foreign sales and a movie option. Around the same time a warning went out to all members of the Authors Guild of America about my bad agent (apparently she was not paying out royalties to her clients on time) and I was so relieved that I had found a career partner in Ann. Thank you, lucky stars!

 If you haven’t agented up already, start researching your dream agent right now and when they call and want to represent you, have some questions ready. It could make all the difference.

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One Response to “Bad Agent, Good Agent”

  1. Jennifer B. Fields Says:

    Hello, Laura.

    Let me first say how much I loved “A Certain Slant of Light.” It was a gripping story and the first of its kind I’d found that closely resembled my own. I thought I was alone in the world until I read your book.

    Recently my publisher closed its doors and I’m back looking for an agent. Your post is so appropriate for my current situation. Although I’m not thrilled about diving back into the fray, your advice will help me swim a little bit better. This time around, I was wise enough to remember my life jacket.

    Thanks again,

    Jennifer

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