SELECTING AN AGENT – PART 1: HOW TO NARROW THE FIELD SO YOU SUBMIT TO THE RIGHT PEOPLE

It’s been two weeks since I finished my novel and although I haven’t started submitting the manuscript yet, I’m making very good progress towards that goal. My self-imposed deadline is February 14th.

So far, I have been working on developing my platform; I’ve started drafting my synopsis; and have made some notes about the cover letter. I have also been researching agents, and it’s this research that I want to discuss today.

My first novel, Shakespeare’s Tree, was a winner of the Irish Writers’ Centre Novel Fair and the prize was that I got to spend a day meeting with Irish publishers and agents. Although I didn’t manage to get the novel sold (yet!) I made some excellent contacts. Obviously, I shall be approaching some of the people I met that day, focusing on the ones who were most complimentary about my work and who are still interested in fiction. (Some have changed focus to children’s books or non-fiction.) If you have a contact who might be willing to look at your manuscript, and if your book aligns with their interests, then approach them. Just don’t forget the old saying about eggs and baskets.

There’s a rule of thumb that says for roughly every twelve submissions you may get one nibble. I shall start off with twelve agencies that seem best suited to my work, but the actual list shall be much longer. As I get one rejection, or pass the deadline for a response, I shall not wait but send out the manuscript to the next agent on the list. That will keep my novel in circulation and help me to avoid becoming despondent when rejections arrive.

 Though some agencies continue to insist they get an exclusive look at your novel, the waiting process is prohibitive. Not only can you wait 3 months or more for a reply, but many agencies don’t reply at all if the MS isn’t right for them. So my preference is the simultaneous submission, informing the agent up front that this is what you’re doing.

THE AGENT OR THE AGENCY?

You may disagree, but I think the individual agent is more important than the agency.

You may decide you’d love to be represented by a huge, five-star business that handles all the A-list authors. Good plan. But if you don’t find yourself in sync with the agent assigned to you, you may be unhappy with the way things progress.

Alternatively, even small agencies can offer real powerhouse individuals who will fight for you like you are a blood relative.

Your work must appeal to the individual agent. Research what the agent likes and make your pitch directly to him or her.

In part 2 of this blog (next week), I shall examine the various methods at your disposal to conduct your research. But today I want to focus on how to create a wish-list, a profile of the ideal agent. Once we know what we’re looking for, we can use a variety of tools to identify the representatives who are the closest match to our needs. It’s like on-line dating without the romance.

Or, to put it another way, it’s like buying a house.

ESTABLISHING CRITERIA

If you ever decided to buy a house you’ll remember that wish-list you put together. Must have an eat-in kitchen; four bedrooms would be nice but three would do; don’t need a swimming pool…

Well, your wish-list for your agent should follow a similar pattern. For instance, you may decide your agent must be based in London; he / she should have more than ten years’ experience (though five would do); and you don’t care how many clients they have…

Deciding all these details means I’m focusing my attention on the sort of representatives who meet my needs, and also are the ones most likely to want to see my work.

I find it helpful to set up a tier system with those agents who are the closest match to my wish list on the top; the ones who meet a lot, but not all, of my criteria in the middle; and I save the bottom for representatives who only fit part of my criteria. This system helps me narrow down where I should send the manuscript first.

Here are my criteria which I’ve ranked High, Medium, and Low. Your priorities may be quite different. Compile your own list. Do it as if you were planning to buy a house.

High Priority

Genre: If the agent you’re considering only likes hard-boiled detective novels and you’ve written a romance, there’s no point in wasting their time and yours.  This is the one item I’d consider unalterable. Don’t kid yourself that they’ll be so dazzled by your prose, they’ll ignore all their past patterns and fall adoringly at your feet. Cross them off the list and move on.

Online Presence: When I moved to my new home I was stunned to find there are actually two houses in this town with the same address. Unfortunately, the other house is up for sale, so mis-delivered post vanishes into some postal equivalent of The Twilight Zone never to be seen again.

Given this peculiarity (only in Ireland!), you will understand why I prefer to communicate with potential agents electronically.

It’s surprising to see that there are still a fair number of agents and agencies that do not have an online presence. I am sure they have good reason for keeping their businesses paper-based, but it seems odd and a bit retro. Not the good, “everyone’s listening to ’60s music” retro, but in the “we’re in 21st century already!” retro.

I prefer to e-mail my submissions and I like to be able to visit the agency’s website and see what I can learn about them. The more information I have, the less likely I am to waste the time of a prospective agent and of my own

AAA Membership: I don’t know why you wouldn’t want your agent to be a member of the Association of Author’s Agents. This is a professional body that ensures you’re dealing with a professional, and not some hack who just hung out a shingle. That said, I believe there are a fair number of perfectly legitimate agents who do not have membership in this association. Lack of membership is not a deal-breaker, but it means you should know everything you can about the agent in question before signing any contracts.

Medium Priority

Client List: I’m not too starry eyed about this, but if having the same agent as JK Rowling matters to you, then find out who that is and make your pitch.  I’m more interested in seeing that my potential agent has a roster of clients whose work is not too dissimilar to my own. That suggests we’ll be a good fit for each other.

Number of clients: I know from past experience that trying to get in touch with an agent who has a huge roster of clients is extremely difficult. Now, I realise that means said agent is probably very successful, but I’d prefer someone who has around 20 to 30 clients, so they can give my work a reasonable amount of attention. I’m not a needy author. I know the agent has other clients who are earning money for them. I’m not looking for daily updates. However, a phone call now and then just to let you know how things are going is not unreasonable. Nor is it unreasonable to expect to talk to the agent him- herself, rather than an assistant. It’s not impossible if the agent has a large client base, but it is a factor.

But the agent being too busy isn’t the only potential problem. One who only has 2-3 clients isn’t necessarily the best choice either. Unless they’re just setting up shop, you have to wonder why they have so few clients. Do they only work part-time? Are they dropping authors because they’re getting ready to retire?

It’s not a deal-breaker if your potential agent has ticked all your other boxes, but you might want to ask them (assuming you get so far as to have a conversation) why they have so few on their books.

Experience: Someone who’s just starting out or one that’s well established? Well, it depends on their background. A lot of agents who are just setting up shop have worked for years in publishing. As with anything else, do your research. One thing in favour of people just setting up shop is they’re looking to develop a client list which may improve your odds of success. My ideal is someone who has been in the industry for a few years, but not necessarily as an agent.

 Low Priority

Size of agency: I don’t like the idea of a huge agency where I may become an afterthought. That said, if a big agency has an agent who fits the rest of my criteria, I’d be inclined to put them on my list. I’ll keep this in mind as I read about each potential agent, but I’m much more interested in the number of clients the specific agent has.

Success rate: This isn’t really low priority, but it’s a hard statistic to pin down. It’s easy enough to find out about an agent’s successes; learning about the authors they took on but whose work they couldn’t sell – that’s something else again.

In a later blog I’ll talk about the questions you should ask if you get a chance to meet or talk with an agent. This is one of those questions.

Number of Agents: Some of the bigger agencies have an amazing number of representatives working for them. That often parlays into glossy websites, attendance at writers’ conferences, big PR campaigns to sell the novels of their clients. It sounds great, doesn’t it? But some people prefer a small one- or two-man (or woman) operation, where you don’t feel so much of a commodity.

For me, it’s more important to know the individual agent is a good match, so I’m less interested in the agency for whom they work. Note, I did not say disinterested. It’s a factor, just not a main one, for me, anyway.

In Part 2 of this feature we’ll look at the tools available to help you find agents who match your criteria. In the meantime, why don’t you decide what matters most to you. You might consider factors such as the city where the agent works (if you live in Yorkshire you might prefer an agent based in the north of the country instead of in London); you might prefer a male vs female agent, or vice versa; perhaps the agent’s fees are a factor, or the events in which they participate. There’s a lot to consider so take your time.

See you next week!

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About Geri Schear

Geri Schear is an award-winning novelist, author of three Sherlock Holmes and Lady Beatrice books published by MX Publishing. Her short stories have appeared in a number of journals. For further information, see her page at Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Geri-Schear/e/B00ORWA3EU
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