Are You Ready for an Agent? Here’s the Skinny…

You worked you’re ass off.

You managed endless hours at the keyboard staving off doubt and hunger and martinis and sometimes sex.

You spent thousands on a kick-ass development editor and/or an expensive MFA program and/or workshops and conferences.

You dotted your i’s and read the draft so many times you memorized it.

And…
Like a prom dress--it’s off.

To a literary agent.  Or a whole slew of them. And now what?

I’m so glad you asked!!

My writers are in the middle of a frenzied selling season, jumping off proverbial cliffs and flying into bright beautiful futures full of book deals, the media spotlight, launch parties and book tours.

But before that all happens, they often call me, saying:

WTF is up with this whole agent thing?  Why is it so compicated(sic.)?

So, I developed a handy dandy little list of ten myths and truths about Agent World.  Now you can know true from false and WTF it really is all about.

1. MYTH: Brilliant Books Get Over-looked.

Did you really sweat blood and tears, hire a fantastic development editor to read the thing in its entirety, spend your spare time in writing workshops, and scrap half a dozen drafts and start over?   Did you polish and lick (gross!) and shine the book until everyone you knew was sick of it?  Did you look at it with loving eyes and then throw it across the room because it didn’t measure up?  Did you, finally, realize it was so “finished” the only other thing to do was try to sell it?  Good.  If the book is well-written, and you keep sending it out, the book will sell. I promise.  Good books sell. If you have a phat platform and celebrity status, you can sometimes sell even if it isn’t good! But not ordinarily.  You can also sometimes sell on proposal. To write a fantastic proposal, you would go through the same process you went through to get a fantastic book.

2.  MYTH: You Have to Know Someone to Get Published.

It’s great to know someone!! Your roommate from college married an agent at ICM!! Your mother’s sister’s aunt’s niece is a reader for William Morris!! Your dad published the Great American Novel in the 70s, and his books are still in print!  Your neighbor is the biggest movie agent in LA!! Knowing someone will almost always get  you a read.  But unless the book is right up the agent’s alley, they won’t take it on. That’s sort of a happy thought. There’s integrity in Agent World, an agent won’t pretend to like you because he knows your girlfriend.  Sometimes knowing someone goes against you. Familiarity breeds contempt and nepotism feels like, well, nepotism.

3.  MYTH: No one Gets Picked Out of the Slushpile.

Many many many many authors were part of a big sloppy slushpile before they got published including Jack Canfield, Jonathon Franzen and JK Rowling. And, umm, me!

4.  MYTH: If They Don’t Call You, Call Them!!

Calling, especially for my corporate clients who are pro-active go-getters, often feels like the best way to get ‘er done. And that seems logical.  Except that a typical agent has about two million manuscripts piled on her dining room table, living room couch, desk (home and work), baby’s changing table, and her passenger’s seat. You will know if she loves your manuscript because she will call you!! She will say: I love it, I want to sell it, when can I talk to you?  Or, I love it, I have a few suggestions (read: major re-write), but then I’m interested! There is one instance, though, where an email is okay: Someone else wants your book. And you can send your hoped-for agent(s) a sweet very polite email saying that someone else is interested (for more on this you might want to meet my writer, Mary Okoye who did just this recently) and you are my first choice, and I was wondering if you wanted to take a stab at it before I signed a contract with someone else?  Mary signed with a very big agent in just this way.

5. TRUTH: Being High Maintenance During the Beginning Stages Can Cost You A Book Deal.

As writers we want a ton from an agent: a (free) manuscript read; an immediate response; preferably no changes; access to their very hard-earned network of fabulous editors (also free); hours of emails, snail males and pitch calls to said editors; and a sale to a big house, where the agent finally gets paid, often as little as 300 bucks.  That’s a lot to ask. I’m not sure I would even ask my mother for all that.  And she’d pretty much give me anything.  If the agent feels like you are making demands or even requests during this process while she’s running around like a chicken for free, it can be hard on your book sale. I like to treat this as a request-for-favor period. It’s not the honeymoon (that’s right after you sell), it’s the first date stages when you’ve only just asked her out, you haven’t even taken her anywhere yet. If you boss the agent around (not that you would, but just if you ever had the inkling), if you don’t respect her, if you are pushy or over-eager or too familiar, the agent who is on the fence might run away.

6.  MYTH: You Have to Wait For Them to Call You.

There are 6,000 agents in the US.  If one agent doesn’t call or says she doesn’t like your manuscript (how dare her?), even if it is very top top top agent, it doesn’t really mean anything. If 140 don’t like it, okay then let’s take another look. Until then keep sending it out. Do what my (soon to be bestselling) writer Susan Strecker did: if you don’t hear or you get a “no”, send out another batch. And another. And yes another. Eventually the best agent in NY might come calling. Susan got a fab 2-book deal for her first novel Night Blindness in just this way.  It’s coming out in October, with a first run of 50,000, there’s already buzz that it’s THE book you are going to stay up all night reading. She can tell you herself how many queries she sent out.  She knew she had a good thing (she does!), and she was patient with the process.

7. TRUTH:  Your Don’t Have to Surrender to the Process.

You don’t have to. You can decide it’s a horrible business and you don’t like waiting or being politely patient or putting the fate of your manuscript in the hands of someone else. Big houses won’t accept un-agented manuscripts, but small houses sometimes will and so will hybrid presses. And self-publishing is always an option.  Lava Mueller, one of my very best fiction writers, got big agent interest for her new book Don’t Tell, but she self-published and everyone reading that book is loving it.  Looks like it will be going viral in the YA lit market…

8. TRUTH: Agents Are People, Too. 

They have opinions, and they often aren’t sure if a book will sell. They are afraid of picks that wind up rocking the charts, and they are totally sure about picks that die an immediate death after the launch.  Thank goodness they aren’t gods. One agent is just one opinion. One.  And the person she has lunch with next week might pick your book up and sell it in a heartbeat.  It happens. A lot.  Many writers think their books (or proposals) are bad or wrong because an agent tells them so.  They get scared and change the whole book and lament the fact that they don’t know have the right stuff. Some even put it in a drawer and never look at it again. Don’t do that.

9.  TRUTH: You can change the publishing world and the way it works.

True! Once you are in it. And selling well.

10.  TRUTH: You are not the expert, your book is.

Your book will decide the path it takes to reach a yes.  At this stage, watch out for the almighty ego. This is way too out of control for the ego. The ego is kicking and screaming. The ego wants to break every rule on this page. The ego does not understand that we are not our books. Our books are the true drivers here. We are tools and vessels to get what they want to say written. The books know what path they want to take to present themselves to the world. So…do everything you can and then?  Make way for ducklings, relax.  The book will find its way.  Trust it.

If you still have questions, ask them in the comment box below and I will love you up with some sweet industry know-how. I am routing for you, always always, and if a book has come to you, it's only a matter of time and serendipity before it lands on the bookstore shelf...

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8 Responses to “Are You Ready for an Agent? Here’s the Skinny…”

  1. Laura Rothschild June 25, 2014 at 7:58 am Permalink

    Thank you Suzanne for the gentle reminders and tid-bits of wisdom that help keep us writers going. You’re like a beacon of light illuminating the way! 😉 Love this-“Our books are the true drivers here. We are tools and vessels to get what they want to say written. The books know what path they want to take to present themselves to the world.” YES! YES! YES!

    • Suzanne Kingsbury June 25, 2014 at 8:14 am Permalink

      LR, this is esp true for you my sweet, those books are just carrying you along!! It’s like God is chasing you with the creativity urge. LOVE the novel and can’t wait to see it FLY! XO

  2. Lava Mueller June 25, 2014 at 9:23 am Permalink

    Suzanne, you are on fire! Thank you for sharing your wisdom. I love self-publishing, there is a wonderful freedom in it. My agent gave me the go-ahead since she didn’t think Don’t Tell was ready to be published, yet I knew it was. I was right, and it’s a huge hit in both the YA and the adult market. My agent, Sarah Davis of The Greenhouse Agency, is anxious to see my next book (ready for her this fall!), so I’m playing both games: self publishing and traditional publishing. The MOST important thing I have done is to hire you as my development editor. Not only did you get the manuscript in perfect shape, you taught me how to be a better writer. I feel like I got my MFA working with you. You are that good. (Good thing you don’t have an ego!)

    • Suzanne Kingsbury June 25, 2014 at 9:26 am Permalink

      baby doll, such a huge beautiful risk to go it alone, but my GOD your book your book your book, THAT’S what’s on fire. I am so proud of you. You claimed ownership and now it’s out into the world snowballing along the YA market. Are you coming in August? let’s do it up!! Can’t wait for the second one to hit the stands. When that happens, the first one often gets picked up by a big house so you get double the moula, and moula is always nice!! ILY!! xxxooo

  3. Lorraine November 10, 2014 at 11:44 am Permalink

    Do you have a recommendation for a literary agent in Nashville, TN? I am currently using Ideas Into Books Westview Publishing for self-publishing with Ingram doing the printing. The process is taking a very long time. Also, I think for my next book (children’s book: a cat writes letters to a human friend), I would appreciate more hands-on help. Thanks, Lorraine

    P.S. I spoke with you in a tele-conference with the Carnegie Writer’s group a few weeks ago. We all loved you. I hope you will have a retreat in Nashville.

    • Suzanne Kingsbury January 11, 2015 at 6:07 pm Permalink

      Dear Lorraine, so happy to hear from you!! And so so so sorry it took this long to get back to you… There aren’t too many lit agents in Nashville (mostly the agencies are based in NY and Nashville hosts a lot of music booking agents etc..) Yes Ingram can take a while. You might have already done this, but if not give me a holler at my gmail address suzannekingsbury@gmail.com when you get a chance, and we can set up a time to chat! LOVED talking to you at the event for Carnegie, and so so happy you got in touch! xo, Suzanne.

  4. Jaimie Scanlon January 9, 2015 at 5:50 am Permalink

    Hi Suzanne- Thanks so much for this website and for being an inspiring well of positivity for writers! I live in Brattleboro and work as a freelance educational materials writer and editor and PR copywriter. I have a children’s (picture) book, which is partially written, but has been idling the past couple of years while I’ve directed any spare creative energy toward my two young kids. I’ve designated 2015 as ‘go time’ and want to finish my ms and send out to agents. A couple of queries: Do you work with children’s book writers? Do you recommend any particular agents or agencies? Thanks In advance for any info you may be able to share!

    • Suzanne Kingsbury January 11, 2015 at 6:02 pm Permalink

      Hi Jaimie, so happy to get your message and to know you are right in my neighborhood. The children’s book market is in some ways very different and in some ways similar to the adult market in terms of selling. It would be wonderful to set up a time to talk about what trajectory to take and what might be the right route for you. If you have a chance give me a shout at suzannekingsburyatgmaildotcom (I am spelling it out so we don’t get spammed!) Thanks my dear and so excited about your work. xo, Suzanne.

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