When to Hold or Fold

Agents: Knowing When To Hold One and When To Fold

by Shirley Kawa-Jump

Agents can be a wonderful thing, IF they are working for you and with you. I have negotiated deals with agents, without agents, and have fired agents who didn’t seem to be on the same page as I was. Overall, I believe having an agent makes things happen faster, but they are certainly no guarantee for success.

When Do You Need One?

In short, when you have something saleable. When you have ten partials stacked up under your bed, but no complete novels, or the germ of an idea for a non-fiction book, but no proposal ready, you don’t need an agent. Agents only work with what they can sell. They’re sort of like car dealers that way — they can’t sell just an engine or four tires. They need the whole vehicle, and a good condition one at that, in order to make a sale.

Yes, an agent does take a percentage of what they sell for you. That’s how they make their money. For some new writers, giving away 15% of their advance and royalties isn’t a possibility. Face it, many of us would be starving if we had to support ourselves on our writing income. However, there are many occasions when an agent can get you a higher advance or a better royalty rate, thereby paying for their cut. Weigh this part of the equation before automatically ruling out an agent.

How Do You Get One?

The same way you get an editor. Luck, perseverance, and good writing. Get the Jeff Herman book, WRITER’S GUIDE TO BOOK EDITORS, PUBLISHER AND LITERARY AGENTS.

  • Scan the list at Science Fiction Fantasy Writers of America,  http://www.sfwa.org/for-authors/writer-beware/. Join a professional organization and find out who is reputable and who isn’t. Be informed before you start sending out queries.
  • Make out a top ten list and query them first. Agents get back to you, in general, much faster than editors, so you should have an answer within a few weeks. Follow the rules — if they say send only a query, do exactly that. Don’t try to get fancy or creative or you risk ticking the agent off.
  • Also, network by attending writers’ conferences and joining writer lists. My friend and I once shared a cab with a top agent, who later requested a complete manuscript from my friend. It’s a small world, and you never know where an opportunity might pop up.
  • Don’t give up too easily. Once that list of ten is exhausted, create a new list of ten. If it doesn’t work out, keep pursuing your writing career. Should you get an offer from a publishing house, then you can call the agents on your list. With a sale in hand, you’re more valuable to them.

When Do You Get Rid Of One?

When he or she no longer shares your vision for your work. I severed the relationship with my first agent when it became apparent that she had a different idea of where my career should go than I did. She wasn’t a terrible agent; she just didn’t mesh with me. An agent is like a spouse (although trying to get the agent to do the dishes doesn’t work too well). You and she should get along most of the time, have the same path in mind for your future, and yet expect to squabble once in a while.

Don’t fire an agent simply for not returning a phone call or e-mail fast enough. Agents are busy people — remember, they’re out there hopefully selling your work. Giving you the 100th update on where your manuscript stands with an editor is not always priority A. Sometimes, the agent doesn’t know and isn’t going to ask because he doesn’t want to risk ticking off the editor. It’s no secret that the rest of the publishing world exists on a tortuously slow clock compared to the one writers go by.

Agents can be a great addition to a career, and also a hindrance. In order to find the one who works best for you, ask questions. Talk to other clients, former and current. Don’t be afraid to call the Better Business Bureau in their area or to ask other writers. And don’t take the first agent who comes calling, just because he called. This is YOUR career and you want it to be in good hands.