Agents’ Pet Peeves: A Guide to Working Well with Agents
It’s a real pleasure to be asked to help authors improve their relationships with agents – and to spare agents some authors’ behaviors, often unwitting no doubt, that can mar the course of the day. To be sure I covered the topic broadly and accurately, I consulted with four other agents - whom I will refer to as the Agent Complaint Board (ACB). Each of them contributed great points.
Who are the members of the ACB? We are all very savvy, very kind, very professional, very experienced and very hardworking agents who are always looking for good new projects. We are Stephany Evans of Ayesha Pande Literary, Meredith Bernstein of the Meredith Bernstein Literary Agency, Katharine Sands of the Sarah Jane Freymann Literary Agency, Rita Rosenkranz of the Rita Rosenkranz Literary Agency and myself, Regina Ryan of Regina Ryan Books.
RESPECT AN AGENT’S TIME
The biggest request the ACB has is that authors respect our time. Time is our most essential, most fleeting asset. Our time is maxed out.
Other points in the respecting time category:
-- Before you approach an agent, educate yourself on publishing and on what to expect from an agent. There are many books on the subject. Don’t ask the agent to do basic education like “what will you do for me? How will you earn your money?” You wouldn't, for example, make an appointment with a doctor and then ask them to explain why they should have a doctor and what a doctor does for her money.
-- Before submitting a proposal or project, find out what the agent's stated interests are as well as the agency's requirements for submissions (they are all different) and follow them! Agents’ Web sites often provide this basic information. Above all, don’t call the Agency!
-- Don't expect to talk on the phone with the agent unless the agent is seriously interested in your project.
-- If you have gotten an agent, don’t call up just to chat.
-- Don't expect the agent to be your editor, other than to offer suggestions to make a proposal or manuscript more saleable
-- If your project is turned down, don't ask the agent for recommendations of other possible agents. If an agent knows of someone who would love your project, he or she will undoubtedly tell you in the rejection letter. If they don’t tell you, it most likely means they don’t know of anyone. Most agents don’t know precisely what other agents do.
Also, if you’ve been turned down, don’t ask for suggestions on how to improve the query letter or for a critique of the project. Another agent might feel very differently.
-- Organize your pitch letter so that the agent can immediately tell if it is something for her or him:
-- Right at the top, state if it’s fiction or nonfiction and the publishing category you see the book falling into. Avoid confusing non-categories such as “novelistic memoir.”
-- Explain why you are the right person to do this book.
-- Explain why the book is needed, if nonfiction.
-- Give any social media or other advantages you have or the subject has – right up front.
-- Give the word count.
-- Do not send a query composed of links that require an agent to open various attachments or websites to figure out what you are proposing. The subject of the proposed book should be clearly stated in the query letter.
-- Query letters should be crisp and focused and professional – not chatty and meandering. Query letters have to get to the point fast so an agent can tell right away if it is for her or him. They are not blogs! Try to limit the query to one page.
THE GOOD MANNERS DEPARTMENT
Good manners go a long way to keeping relationships smooth and happy. Here are some mannerly tips from an agent’s point of view:
-- Don’t address the agent as “Dear Agent” – and do not send an email blast that includes every agent under the sun. These queries will usually be deleted. In other words, take the time to figure out the right agent for your project and send a properly addressed email.
-- Even more basic, make sure you are addressing your query letter to the right agent. Don’t send me, Regina, a query and address me as “Dear Rita”!
-- If you have submitted a proposal to an agent and you receive an offer from someone else, give a heads-up to the agent you haven’t heard from and allow that agent a chance to respond.
-- If you accept an offer of representation, let the other agent know immediately so he or she doesn’t invest time in reading your material.
-- Don’t “follow up with” an agent for a response without having allowed the agent a realistic amount of time to read your submission. (Remember agents may be the busiest people on earth! Check the agent’s website for the ETA for responses to a query or proposal or manuscript.)
-- Find out if the agent prefers email to telephone conversations. I prefer email as they don’t interrupt my focus if I’m concentrating on a project or a manuscript.
THE SAVVY AUTHOR DEPARTMENT
These are more advanced tips.
-- If you need a lawyer, find someone who has publishing experience. Publishing law and custom are very different from other industries, so if you should need a lawyer, find one that knows this specific terrain.
-- Don’t take your work being critiqued by an agent personally. Be professional. You and the agent both want to sell the project and are in it together. The agent knows the market and will usually have well-informed suggestions.
-- Have realistic expectations both of the publishing business and of the agent. Remember that this is a long game and instant gratification is rare. Also, understand that publishing is going through difficult times with a shrinking number of houses and lower advances generally. Covid also has played a disruptive role in the last year.
-- An agent may help you promote in an ad hoc sort of way since they are vested in your success, but publicity is not their job and should not be expected.
-- Even after your book is placed, keep the agent informed of any "news" (like good reviews, being invited to talk on a popular podcast, radio or TV show, etc.) as this news can sometimes be used to help sell subsidiary rights.
Onwards! I and the members of the ACB hope this advice will bear fruit in the form of many successful, productive and happy partnerships between authors and agents.