An agent/writer relationship is like choosing a lover or life partner, but writers fail to see that. They enter into the agreement with a sense of inferiority and fear of rejection. Like any relationship, this can lead to emotional abuse, wasted years and a screwed-up career. If you’re in the market for an agent, you must approach it as you would a healthy relationship: with respect, honesty and clearly stated goals and expectations. Of course, this is tricky, because while you’re monogamous, your agent is a polygamist. It’s unrealistic to expect her/him to be smitten by you 24/7. This can deepen insecurities and cause you to feel unloved. Even so, a lot of heartache can be avoided by choosing the right agent to begin with. Below are a few guidelines to help you.
Enthusiasm. Check any guide to literary agents and you’re likely to be told to look for an agent who is passionate about your book. Wonderful advice, but that’s not all there is to it. Sometimes, an inexperienced agent may find your story compelling because the topic is a hot-button issue, but he or she may not recognize that the writing isn’t ready. Such an agent ends up sending unpolished manuscripts to editors that provoke rejection. If the agent has a website, watch out for typos and poorly written prose. That’s a red flag. Don’t jump into bed with the first agent who says yes to you. Value yourself. Take your time to find out more.
Experience: You want an experienced agent. Sometimes, the individual may have only recently opened his or her agency but interned and or spent a few years with a big agency like Writers House, Folio and the like. Don’t reject such an agent because of apparent lack of experience. Most likely, they are competent. On the other hand, you could have an agent boasting ten years’ experience with a tiny agency whose client list is unimpressive. Find out the last time they sold anything. The publisher’s marketplace is a good place to start. Google, google, google. The agent may also have experience selling romance novels, but little or zero experience selling the memoir you want to publish. That means he or she cannot properly evaluate your manuscript, or may not have the appropriate contacts. It’s best to go with an agent who has experience selling the kind of book you’re writing/have written. Nicholas Sparks was rejected by all agents except one Theresa Parks. She had zero clients but had worked for a large agency. She was honest with him and he took a chance on her. The Notebook, his first, sold for a million dollars. That’s an exception, of course.
Money: No agent should ask for reading fees or money upfront. Agents get paid only after selling your manuscript. They get 10–15% commission on your royalties or advance (Check on country’s agency practices), not 25–50%. Flee from any agent who is also a publisher or editor affiliated with a publishing company. They are scammers who want to exploit you.
Communication. A wise man once said to me, all relationships are ninety percent communication. Remember, once you have an agent, you’re a client, not a supplicant and deserve to be treated with professionalism. You want an agent whose communication style meets your expectations. Do you want to know which publishers have your manuscript? Agent should be willing to provide a list. Do you want Agent to share responses from publishers? Make that clear. Be friendly and respectful, but not subservient. As stated earlier, you’re part of a polygamous relationship. Your agent has several lovers, so you don’t expect them to write you daily to check up on you or tell you how things are going. However, if you write to your agent, it’s reasonable to expect a response within 48 hours at the latest. If you’re not in the habit of penning daily emails, Agent should response. If Agent is in the habit of not responding, then you have a problem.
Agent could be preoccupied with an emergency, such as a contract for another client or even a family emergency. Make allowances for that. But if Agent ignores your emails for weeks and weeks, you may want to have an honest conversation and clear things up. I have more than two colleagues who have been through horrible experiences. I myself have. So, I will give you a couple of scenarios in which you must leave, and quickly.
Scenario Uno: You may already have a contract. Maybe Agent sold the manuscript as a concept though you hadn’t finished. Now you’re working on it. You send your manuscript and Agent promises to get back to you in one week. One month passes but no news. You send a polite inquiry. No response. You wait and wait and now it’s three months. You’re anxious. Second scenario: maybe your agent hasn’t sold the manuscript yet but wants you to make changes. Third scenario, Agent sold your first completed novel and now you’re working on second one. You experience the same misery as in scenario one. No response to emails. (We’re not talking about daily harassing emails. That’s annoying and inconsiderate. Communicate when you need to, stay positive. Don’t phone without scheduling a call.) Say you schedule a phone call. On the day of proposed call, Agent emails to reschedule because the cat got sick, she bought a house, the son broke a leg, Papa died, Mama died, Auntie had a stroke, Uncle died. If Agent’s relatives keep getting sick and dying, chances are that having sold your manuscript and received the commission, Agent has lost incentive, or your unsold manuscript no longer inspires, or Agent has found a client who is a cash cow and you are no longer worthy. Bottom line, Agent no longer wants to invest in the relationship. In that case, end it. Find another agent. Write a new manuscript if yours didn’t sell for whatever reason.
Chances are Agent won’t want you to leave because you have a good name and look good on website’s list, or Agent recognizes your potential but is too lazy to bother. Agent might call you and apologize and promise things are going to be better. So, you give him or her another chance. It’s worth it, just in case you were wrong. But if the pattern repeats, know you’re in an abusive relationship and must leave regardless of what Agent says. Don’t be afraid of being alone. The saying is true, not having an agent is better than having a bad one. Don’t let the pattern continue for four, five, ten years. It won’t change. You will lose your confidence and inspiration. You must be your own advocate.
Most agents are in the business because they love books and want to discover new voices and bring them to print, while making a decent profit. However, there are those who prey on unsuspecting, naïve or desperate authors. Like all relationships, everything feels wonderful when there are no issues. How you handle problems is the most important thing. You and your agent will get rejection from publishers, agents are no stranger to that. Things will go wrong sometimes. When they do, Agent must treat you with respect and honesty, not ghost you. You’re worthy.