How to Choose Your Future Literary Agent

I wish it were as easy as reading a list of potential agents and picking out your favorite. Unfortunately, the agent has to pick you back. But if that happy day of acceptance ever does come, you don’t want to have that sinking feeling that of all the agents you queried, this really wasn’t the one you wanted. You want to be excited about everyone you’re querying, and it’s a lot easier to achieve this goal now than ever before.

Back when I first started querying, it was a lot harder to research potential agents because many of the agencies didn’t have websites. I would buy a copy of Writer’s Market and look for the agents that were interested in young adult, juvenile, or children’s lit (middle grade didn’t even exist back then). Some of the well-known agencies listed their big-name clients, although most didn’t. And often the list of agents was far from complete. I would just have to take a stab at it, with no idea if my story was at all appropriate for the person I picked. Those days, I figured that if I stirred up any kind of interest, I would be happy and call it a day with my search.

I think that’s why I was so eager to sign on with my former scammer agent. I never considered that an agent might not be right for me. But after ditching the scammer and looking for legitimate representation again, I decided that I might want to research the next steps. If I were to luck out and land a real agent, what would I expect? What I found kind of surprised me. Not about the publication process but about the courting process.

You see, rarely does an agent send a “Sign on the dotted line – I’ll represent you, and we’ll make millions!” response to a query. I’m not saying it hasn’t happened (although if it does, beware). I’m just saying that an agent may want to see more of your manuscript but then get cold feet. Or – Lord help us – several agents may be interested, and then you’re faced with the daunting job of choosing. Although a positive response is a great alternative to an outright rejection, it doesn’t mean you’re done with the querying process. Only now, the ball’s in your court. It may turn out that only one of these people you thought you liked is really the right fit. It might be that you don’t like any of them and have to keep looking. Kind of depressing, but you don’t want the wrong person representing the fictional world you’ve worked so hard to create.

If you’re building a list of agents to query, the tools are out there to help you find a great match, and I’m going to give you a couple examples of how I’ve used this information to narrow my search. I am strictly giving my opinions of the following agencies. What looks good to me may look horrible to you, but I’ll try to explain as best I can, so you can make an equally informed decision.

First, check out The Bent Agency’s website (click here). Simple but appealing (to me, at least) with bright colors and a stack of books. But the copy is what shines; it certainly sounds as if they’re enthusiastic about their authors. And not only that – enthusiastic for submissions, too. Each agent has her or his own page, and of all the sites I’ve checked out recently, these have the most personable bios. I know exactly which of these agents I would like to have a cup of coffee with. One even has an invitation to her blog. These aren’t people sitting in a tower, looking down on the masses of unpublished wannabes. They’re real people, and they’re not afraid to mingle with us other real folks.

Contrast this with Sterling Lord Literistic (click here). Sterling Lord is the actual name of one of the agents. His parents must have known he would go on to have an agency that would represent the likes of Jack Kerouac and Ken Kesey, not to mention famous children’s books, such as Corduroy, The Berenstain Bears, and Fancy Nancy. SLL has a gorgeous website. It screams, “Professional! We know what we’re doing! We’ve spent big bucks on our marketing, and you’ll see why when you read our author list!”, but it can also be a little off-putting. From their submissions page: “Sterling Lord Literistic is highly selective in offering representation to writers. We receive an extraordinarily large number of unsolicited submissions and can seriously consider only those with merit.” Sounds kind of like, “You’d better think twice before you waste our time.”

Okay, maybe that’s a little harsh. Maybe I was also a little bit rejected by them two years ago. (But I do give them props for actually mailing my rejection via SASE rather than making me guess.) That didn’t stop me from looking at them again. After all, they have new agents on staff, and if you’re seriously looking for an agent, then you know that your best bet to get your foot in the door is usually with an agent who is trying to build his or her client list.

The problem is that while The Bent Agency’s list of agents made me feel all cozy and warm and encouraged, the deeper I looked into Sterling Lord Literistic, the more I realized I was out of my league. Sure, to be represented by them would be amazing, but none of their bios really spoke to me. I may be able to put on a good front, but I’ll always feel like a toddler walking in my mom’s big-girl shoes with these kinds of people. Maybe they speak to other authors who will go on to sell millions of books, but not this girl.

I would still love to sell millions of books, by the way, but if I ever do, I want my agent to be someone that I feel I can be myself with. It’s one of those trust your gut instinct kinds of things, and I’m at the point where I don’t want to waste my time querying someone who doesn’t excite me.

So I’m being picky. I’m using the internet as a tool to delve deeper and deeper and find the agents with whom I hope to connect. (I’m also vetting them on Preditors & Editors – don’t worry! Do yourself a favor, and always check reviews of literary agents before querying them.) Instead of looking for agencies that sell big name authors, I’m looking at agents who are enthusiastic about what I write. I’m looking at agents who are maybe a little quirky and have a sense of humor and who don’t know exactly what they want because they’re willing to have their minds blown by something totally unexpected. (Not saying that’ll be my story, but I do like that kind of agent.) I’m looking for agencies who take a chance on new authors that I’ve never heard of before. Who knows – maybe one day I’ll be one of those authors.

It’s liberating to feel that I have this choice. It’s also nerve-wracking and scary to put myself out there and not know if what I’ve done is good enough. But it makes me feel like I’m doing the right thing for my story, which at the end of the day, is finding someone who cares about it as much as I do. For everyone who is looking for representation, I suggest that you settle for nothing less.

For a great place to start, check out Writer’s Digest‘s Editor Blogs/Guide to Literary Agents (click here). You’ll find all kinds of helpful articles, as well as the bios and submission info for new literary agents.

A Story of a Scammer

William Faulkner's Underwood Universal Portabl...

photo credit: Wikipedia

It’s like being the unpopular girl for so long that when any old popular guy shows a bit of interest, you immediately latch onto him and proudly proclaim him your boyfriend, ignoring little things such as barely knowing or having anything in common with him.

What’s like that? you ask. Shopping a novel around with literary agents for nearly five years, and when one finally says, Sure we’d like to see it, signing up with her and e-mailing all your writer friends to say, I’m successful! I finally landed an agent! We’re in the money!

That was me in early 2009, when I thought my writing career was made. Easy Street? No. But I thought that at least any future rejections would be filtered through someone who would believe in and stand up for my novel. I completely ignored the fact that having an agent doesn’t equal publishing at all, and even publishing doesn’t equal book sales. I was just thrilled to be done (I thought) with the agent search.

If you take nothing else from this blog, know this: You should always, always, ALWAYS double–no, triple and quadruple check out literary agents before you query, much less sign a contract with one.

That said, I’m sure you can guess what’s coming. I didn’t check.

I thought I’d be able to spot a scam a mile away. I thought that finding the agency’s listing in Writer’s Market was the same thing as a writing industry stamp of approval. I was impressed by a professional-looking website. I was sucked in. And they got 68 of my dollars pretty quickly, too. What’s the first red flag you look for with a scammer? They want your money. You should never pay an agent for any services, until you sell books (unless they say up front they’re going to charge for postage or copies). And I knew this. But I rationalized that it was only a book critique, and I would pay a professional outside the agency more, so $68 really wasn’t all that much, if the critique helped me publish my book.

I did have this little twinge that said it was too easy, or that just because one agent was interested didn’t make her the right agent to represent my novel. But, as I mentioned, I’d searched–and been rejected many a time–for almost five years. I’d put my story through a number of revisions, some of them pretty drastic. Still, the rejections came, and they wore me down after a while.

When I first started querying agents, e-mail queries were a big no-no. Most of the agents I looked into had little more than an address listing on the web. And everything I read cautioned against simultaneous submissions. So I queried one at a time, via snail mail. As I am sure you can imagine, it took forever.

I compiled my list, starting with the agencies that seemed really promising. Some requested authors give them a month, and after that, no response equaled rejection. Others promised to respond but never did, even though I always sent SASEs. So I refined, searching for info online, just to make sure I had the correct address and the right person at a particular agency. I received one hand-written rejection that I remember. I cherished it, feeling like someone had finally read my query instead of throwing it away and stuffing a form rejection in the mail. I remember getting those self-addressed envelopes back, always thinking, Oh here’s that rejection I’ve been waiting for. I guess it doesn’t help to always have that defeatist attitude, but I thought of it more as, If I expect a rejection, I won’t get disappointed. But who am I kidding? I was always disappointed, even if only by the merest amount. And I think a big part of me was disappointed in myself for not being able to write a mind-blowing query that would convince them to beg for more. I wrote some kind of snarky queries, mainly to blow off steam. I didn’t mail those, although I did play around with some, figuring, What the hell? If they’re going to reject me anyway, I might as well have a little fun.

By the time 2009 rolled around, I wasn’t sending out queries nearly as often. I had a one year old who occupied most of my time, and it had been a long time since someone had lit a fire under me. But I still searched the web, looking for potential matches.

One day I found the website of one of the agencies toward the end of my list, one I’d never tried before. And it not only encouraged e-queries, but there was a form right on the website that I could fill out with all of my info. It seemed a little off-putting. Don’t send a nicely formatted letter? Well, okay. I typed away and hit “Submit,” and almost before I could blink, I received the wonderful news (I thought) that their children’s division would love to see my manuscript. It all seemed odd and informal, but then the contract came and all kinds of info that seemed legit, so I just ran with it, leaving my second-guesses in the dust.

First was the $68 critique. The agent explained that I really couldn’t get started without it, unless, of course, a professional had critiqued my book before. (Didn’t a workshop of more than a dozen fellow writers count? Well, no, not if I didn’t pay them for it.) At least the critiquer gave me credit for writing good dialogue, always my strong suit. Titles, however, are not, and that was also pointed out in the critique. So I changed it, no problem. But that wasn’t the only change I needed to make. Of course, I always expected a thorough edit (or two or three) before publishing, but I did not expect the critiquer to come right out and say that I wasn’t competent enough to follow through with necessary changes. I silently fumed and thought, I’m an editor! I know how to properly structure sentences and fix typos! Give me some credit–$%*&#@!!!

But I continued with other parts of the process. I filled out all sorts of marketing forms, keywords and loglines. I agonized over a brief (actually, I’d consider it a G-string) synopsis and a slightly longer one, neither of which I felt did my book justice. I was annoyed by the five or six articles my agent sent that had guidelines for writing said synopses because the guidelines all disagreed with each other. Was using a byline good or not? Should I put the title in italics or all caps? I did the best I could, sent it all to the agent, waited for some good news.

Then came the e-mails about a wonderful opportunity. The agent had a publisher who would sell my book internationally. I wasn’t quite sure why the Chinese market was a better fit than the American one, but why not? Publishing is publishing, right? Well, not if it’s self-publishing, and that’s what this publisher was. Of course they were “interested.” They didn’t have a clue what was in my book, and they didn’t care, as long as I paid them to print it. And I don’t say this to belittle self-publishing. It’s a lot of thankless work that usually goes unpaid. (I know–I’m an indie publisher, myself!) But if someone can tell me why a self-published author needs an agent, please enlighten me. I declined, and that’s when my agent started pressuring me about getting a professional edit. She gave me industry rates and said that she had a list of editors on hand (might as well have said “on staff”) who could help me. Yet again, I declined, started saving my pennies, and looked for editors on my own. At that point, I knew something was up. They wanted more of my money, and I already regretted the critique, which I knew was their ploy to show how desperately I needed their particular writing services.

This didn’t happen quickly, either. There were weeks or sometimes even months between our e-mails. After the agent told me I needed a professional edit, however, she refused to so much as lift a finger. As soon as you get your edit, we can move. . . I still have that list, if you’re interested. And I was torn, of course. I was saving money for website development and also for the second baby my husband and I hoped to have.

I don’t remember why I did it, but one day I Googled my agent, and one of the first searches that popped up had “scam” written in it. I almost didn’t go through with it. Ignorance is bliss, right? But choosing ignorance is really just stupidity. So I did the search, and oh boy did I find a lot of revealing stuff. That’s how I discovered WRITER BEWARE and Preditors & Editors. I found blogs filled with experiences that sounded eerily similar to my own. I felt sick. . . but also vindicated. No, those other writers’ experiences didn’t mean that I was a better writer than my critique let on, but they gave credence to the idea, at least. And I won’t deny that there were a few positive comments sprinkled in with all the negativity. But they were all from people who did self-publish and really just needed someone–like an “agent”–to guide them through the process because they were absolutely green when it came to publishing. Unfortunately for those authors, they don’t have any sales behind their books (and neither does the agent, to this day). After nearly two years of dealing with my agent’s shenanigans, I used the I’m-a-busy-mommy-so-I-don’t-think-I’m-going-to-write-anymore excuse to get out of the contract. I knew that she was just waiting for me to end it; after all, I wasn’t giving her any money, so why should she bother with me?

And you know what? I’m glad, as with many negative experiences in my life, that I went through it all. I don’t think of it as a waste of time, as if I could have found a legitimate agent and been in my third printing by now. Other life and writing experiences have caused my novel to grow in a way that it would not have if I’d given in and self-published, like my agent wanted. (That doesn’t mean self-publishing is off the table for the future, just that the time wasn’t right back then.) Also, I am now armed with a lot more knowledge about what not to do. Like that electronic contract? Completely bogus. Turns out that nothing was binding about our relationship, although I didn’t know it at the time.

The publishing industry has changed, big time, since I first started querying. E-mails are the norm now, although some agencies still use the good ol’ USPS. I reviewed The Complete Guide to Hiring a Literary Agent: Everything You Need to Know to become Successfully Published for a small publisher recently, and not only was much of what I already knew confirmed, but the author added that it’s crazy not to submit simultaneously; otherwise it could take years to even send queries to all the agents you like. (Tell me about it.) Also, indie (or self-) publishing has come a long way, especially for ebooks. And I know a great place (Smashwords.com–check it out!) where I can epublish for free and who distributes to all the big ebookstores, if I choose to go that route. (As I did for my short story “Stranded”–and other stories to come soon.)

As for my young adult novel, there is an honest-to-goodness agent looking at it right now. I researched her former and current agencies before taking her kidlit webinar, and both agencies passed the test. By the way, it is very common to meet agents through conferences, seminars, webinars, and workshops. I highly recommend it, to broaden your writing knowledge and contacts, if nothing else. Who knows if this agent will show any interest, but she is going to give me a critique, and I’ll go from there. When my book is ready, I will get it into the hands of young readers, one way or another. But the next $68 I spend will fill my children’s Christmas stockings, not some phony agency’s coffers.