On finding the right agent

I recently read a manuscript that I thought had amazing potential. The concept really drew me in, I loved the characters, and although I felt that the plot wasn’t hanging together very well in places, it was nothing that couldn’t be fixed. So I reached out to the author and asked if she’d be interested in chatting with me about it.

She said no. She was looking for an agent who liked the plot just as it was, and wasn’t interested in making any major changes to her manuscript at this stage. And I thought good for you.

It’s always disappointing to lose out on a potential client, of course, but I love it when authors really know what they want in an agent – it makes things easier for everybody. If she’d said nothing and ended up signing with me just to have an agent, we’d have had a terrible partnership, with me constantly suggesting revisions and her feeling aggrieved, wondering why I’d taken this book on if I didn’t even like it the way it was. And neither of us would be wrong, we just wouldn’t be a good match for one another. It’s sad, but there it is.

I wonder how often this is the root cause of a relationship breakdown between an agent and one of their clients – it’s something that hasn’t happened to me yet, but I’ve watched enough of these dramas unfolding on the internet to know that I never want it to. Before offering representation to somebody, I try and explain as much as possible about how I work, to make sure that we’re on the same page about things. Here are the three main questions I ask every potential client:

How do you feel about being edited by your agent? We already discussed where I stand on this one, and TRF in general is pretty keen on editing – sometimes we even work with freelance editors (whom we pay ourselves, of course) to get clients’ manuscripts to the highest possible standard before submitting them to publishers.

How do you feel about submission lists? I tend to submit to a largeish, carefully-selected, group of editors, for several good reasons which I will explain when we talk. If you only want your manuscript submitted to five people at a time, I am not the agent for you because I don’t believe that is the most effective way to do things. Also, I’m happy to give people a list of imprints submitted to, but I won’t divulge editor names at the time of submission, because I prefer to respect editors’ privacy. Not that you’re going to go emailing editors directly and asking them why they haven’t read your MS yet or anything crazy like that…but just in case.

How much agently contact do you need/expect? I exchange so many emails with my clients in the period heading up to submitting their work, and the fact that my correspondence suddenly dries up right after submission makes me feel a bit self-conscious. Are they secretly angsting about things and not telling me? Do they think I’ve forgotten them? On the other hand, there’s always a bit of dead time after submission while you’re waiting for editors to respond, and I’m not going to send clients emails just to let them know that I still haven’t had any news. I guess I’m aiming for the kind of relationship where if clients are angsting about submissions (or about redrafting, or anything else), they feel comfortable emailing me to say ‘help, I am angsting’ and I will do what I can to make it better. I can’t fix a problem that I don’t know exists.

 

The other questions I ask will vary depending on the person and the manuscript, and I’m always happy when authors ask me questions too, because it shows that they’re thinking about this stuff. Nobody has to accept the very first agent that comes along. If you know you want an agent who will submit your manuscript immediately to your three top-choice imprints and no others, don’t settle for one who thinks it needs work and wants to submit it more widely when they feel it’s ready. It sounds straightforward enough, although I know it’s hard to remember when you’ve been querying agents for a really long time and you’ve finally found somebody who’s interested in you and you don’t know if it will ever happen again. But if you and the agent disagree on key matters like the ones above, you either need to adjust your expectations (willingly and happily, not grudgingly), or you need to walk away. Don’t step into a relationship when you already know you’re incompatible.

So yes, I’m glad that that author turned me down, and I really hope she finds an agent who is the perfect match for her. Meanwhile I’ll keep looking for clients – autumn’s on its way, and I’m longing for more treasures to sell.

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