Thursday, December 24, 2015

How Not to Choose An Agent

The rise of the Internet has brought us dozens (maybe hundreds) of websites that attempt to give advice to aspiring authors. And then we have the countless chat rooms and message boards, where peer-to-peer counseling thrives. And after twelve years in the business, I’ve come to a conclusion:

There’s an awful lot of bad advice getting passed around out there.
Mind you, it’s not that reliable sources don’t exist. Writer groups, mentors, reference books, and conferences abound. But in my experience, most writers aren’t interested. They just want to write, and then take their chances in the fickle, unpredictable marketplace.

Today I’m starting a new series of blog posts, to settle some of these important issues.

In one online advice site this week, I found the question: “Am I better off to sign with a large well-known literary agency, or a smaller boutique operation?” The answer:

“In a larger agency, if your book isn’t a good fit for Agent A, he can pass it over to Agent B.”

Sure, that could happen, and does. But the more likely scenario is that Agent A will just decline your project altogether. Agent B already has a tall reading pile of his own.

“A big agency has a foreign rights department.”

Perhaps. But if anything, it’s more likely to be a foreign rights guy. And no matter how good your book might be, it might not be a good candidate for a German translation.

“The smaller agency can give you more personal attention.”

Really? In truth, the size of the agency has nothing to do with the individual agent’s workload.

“A larger agency represents big-name writers, which means they carry more clout to get you a better deal.”

Actually, the single biggest factor in the quality of your offer is all about you: Your writing and your platform. An agent can get you in the door, but then YOU have to deliver.

“A small agency won’t have as many industry connections as a bigger operation.”

This depends on the experience of the individuals involved. But even if true, it might not be important, depending on your genre. If you write about medieval French architecture, it won’t matter that another agent knows 10,000 editors. You need the guy who knows the two dozen editors who acquire French history.

“In a large agency, the member agents can share their connections.”

Perhaps. But a lot of agents work in a narrow specialty; if one guy handles romance novels and the other acquires thrillers, this is no advantage.

“A large agency will have a lawyer on staff to evaluate contract offers.”

Unlikely. Sure, a lawyer is nice, but nothing in that contract is regulated by statute anywhere in the USA. In any event, an experienced agent is perfectly competent to negotiate that deal for you.

You might be impressed by the website of a big-name agency. Maybe you picture them chatting at the water cooler and trading tips. Staff meetings in a conference room where the old man dispenses wisdom to the junior agents. But most can’t afford such overhead. Often, those reps work remotely from their home offices in other cities.

Make no mistake, yes, a larger agency can enjoy certain advantages. But the guys in that league don’t sign new clients often, and when they do, it’s strictly by referral.

If you’re working on your first or second book, you’re in no position to hold out for Super Agent. Instead, be realistic. Network like there’s no tomorrow. Pitch your work far and wide. Attend a writer’s conference at every opportunity, and meet the dealmakers in person. Follow their submission instructions to the letter. Bring your A game. Seek out an agent who works in your genre, not necessarily the guy who made the million-dollar deal last week.



  1. Find the person you think you can work with, who is ready to hustle on *your* book.

  2. I found my agent--ahem, the author of this blog--at a writer's conference. Conferences are a great way to feel out the right agent for you. It's not one size fits all.