Monday, May 31, 2010

Time to part ways?

Q: There are lots of agented writers on AbsoluteWrite and other forums, posting anonymously and expressing their concerns about lack of communication from their agents and whether it’s time to sever ties. These are usually reputable agents but some time into the subbing process, communication starts dropping off and emails are no longer responded to within the week like used to be the case – or at all. [Could you do a] blog post on ‘when a writer should be worried about their agent’.
First of all, do you have realistic or unrealistic expectations?

WHAT AGENTS (often) ARE:  Agents play a lot of roles. They are talent scouts. They are salesmen. They are negotiators. They are cheerleaders. They can be editors or writing coaches. They are usually diplomats, and occasionally bullies.

They also generally have a great deal of interest in piles of money and would be happy to swim in it, Scrooge McDuck style. (Mmm, actually, maybe that's just me...)

But a big part of what agents are is professional enthusiasts. And as much as nobody likes to talk about it, that initial enthusiasm can definitely flag. Agents, like editors (and like the public and most all of you, no doubt!) appreciate variety and freshness in products, whether buying them or selling them.

And not everything sells, let's face it. So yeah, if your book has been out... and out... and out... and it hasn't sold... and you don't want to revise... and you aren't working on anything new... I can understand an agent starting to cool. So ask yourself:

* Have you and your agent discussed a submission plan? Do you understand and feel comfortable with it? Do you trust your agent?

* Are you willing to revise (or even overhaul) your first book, if it goes out to editors and doesn't sell in a first round?

* Are you working on new and exciting project(s) while your first book is on submission?

* Are you communicating with your agent about what those projects are?

WHAT AGENTS (usually) ARE NOT:  Psychics. Magicians. Babysitters. Crit buddies. Licensed Therapists. So ask yourself:

* Do you sit on your hands and not email or call... but then freak out that your agent doesn't like you, is ignoring you, or doesn't know what you are thinking?

* Do you send your agent absolutelyeverything you write, daily in-progress first drafts, in a deluge, incessently, without even re-reading them?
* Do you email or call multiple times a day for non-urgent questions, and/or expect an immediate response to non-urgent questions on weekends, holidays, or when you know that your agent is out of town?

* Are you... how can I put this delicately... are you a downer? I mean, I want my clients to be honest  and communicate with me. I definitely want to help them problem-solve and work out issues. Still, there is such a thing as overkill... do you share GOOD news as well as bad? HOPES as well as fears? Fun and exciting project ideas? What are YOU an "enthusiast" about? I really do want to hear that! Because if all I get from a person every time I talk to them is a big ol' ball of misery, well-- that doesn't make me overjoyed to hear from them. You know what I mean?

(PS: NONE of my clients fit any of those descriptions, so y'all can quit trying to figure out who I am talking about. This is generally speaking!)

WHAT TO DO IF YOU REALLY THINK THERE IS A PROBLEM: It is rare, I hope, but it is something that I know does happen. Maybe the agent seriously falls off the face of the earth, or maybe they just seem to be dragging their feet when it comes to you specifically. Maybe they are reacting badly to new work you are submitting, or maybe you feel like you can't get a straight answer out of them.

It isn't easy to tell how you are going to work with somebody until you actually do it. But obviously an agent isn't doing you any good if you can't even get hold of them, or if they don't want to sub any of your work. So ask yourself:

* You know (or ought to know) how very, very, excruciatingly slow publishing is. Maybe your agent just doesn't have any news to report. Are you truly being patient?

* If you ARE truly being patient, but you just aren't getting feedback from your agent, have you called or written to ask for updates/news, or submission plans?

* If you have called or written to ask for updates, and you haven't gotten a response, have you called or written to ask for an appointment to talk seriously? You need to have The Big Conversation in which you ask for a game-plan, or tell to be more responsive, and express what your needs are in the relationship.

* If you have done all of those things and had The Big Conversation... are you happy with the result? Do you feel like your agent "gets you" and will fix whatever problems you've had?  Do you like them, trust them, and feel that they appreciate you and your work?

If you've had The Big Conversation and you are NOT happy with the result, it is probably time to part ways.  Don't feel that this is a stigma. It is not a bad reflection on you as a writer OR them as an agent... sometimes things just don't work out, for any number of reasons, and you are better off not having an agent than having one with whom you aren't 'on the same page'.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Work Your Inner Fierceness

At the conference I went to last weekend, I got asked this question above any other:
What kind of books, exactly, are you looking for?
I sigh. You see, I know that I am looking for children's and YA books, but the thing I am always most looking for is... something I have never seen before. So I don't know what it is yet. (But I'll know it when I see it!) And since I represent authors, hopefully for their whole career and not just one project, the better question to ask might be what kind of AUTHORS, exactly, am I looking for.

I've been watching a certain brilliant reality show of late. One whose host is a razor-sharp judge of character and fierceness. You guessed it: RuPaul's Drag Race, in which a handful of pro and semi-pro drag queens participate in a variety of challenges and stomp it out on the catwalk to determine who will be the next drag superstar. (I can hear you thinking, "Jennifer, are you suggesting that clients must wear high heels and lipsynch for their lives?" NO NO, BEAR WITH ME!)

Ru always tells the girls that she is looking for four qualities above all others in her superstars, and I think that they are really important too (in life as well as art, actually). They spell C.U.N--actually, you know what, let's not do the acronym.  Ahem. Anyway:
  • T is for TALENT
  • U is for UNIQUENESS
  • N is for NERVE
  • C is for CHARISMA
TALENT: Dude, you have to be a good writer. There, I said it. You've written an awesome query letter, you have terrific web presence, blah blah blah, I don't really care unless I am in love with the book.  I think that there is such a thing as native talent, something that you are born with, but that you can always make your skills sharper. So don't rest on being "good" writer, you have to get better. As Ru would say, you better work!

UNIQUENESS: If you do what everyone else does, if you write what everyone else writes, you might be OK, but you won't break out and be truly successful. Plus, I will pluck my own eyes out if I have to read it.

NERVE: Now I realize that lots of authors are shy and maybe even a bit neurotic. They hire agents so we can be the tough guys and take care of business. But I still need my authors to have a spine, be driven and at least a bit fierce. That means speaking up for yourself, having self-confidence, putting yourself out there (even if you don't necessarily feel like it...) It also means bravery in terms of your writing. In  authors: NO BABIES. In writing: NO PABLUM.

CHARISMA*: Yep, I have to like you, and I have to think that other people will too.  It's important. Do you need to wear glitter and wigs? No. Do you need to be a cheerleader-type? NO! But do I want to work with somebody who is presentable, engaging, funny, thoughtful, easy to talk to?  Heck yes I do. Or at least somebody who can turn those qualities on when they want to.  So work it!

Authors, what qualities do you most want in an agent?  (Bonus points if you can frame your answer as a reality-show metaphor...)

(*ETA: I changed this one up a bit. See comments for further discussion of the C-word...)

Saturday, May 15, 2010

How far can I go (with an analogy)?

Today in one of my critique sessions, an author asked me if, from an agent's perspective, it was "OK to be an unpublished writer."

I told him that in a way, sometimes, it can even be preferable.

Sure, your "cool" friends might make fun of you for not being published yet. But so what? Good writers know that there is nothing wrong with waiting for the right deal to come along. Take pride in being a debut author!

Anyway, I'd rather my authors not be seen as having "been around the block" too many times, as desperate, or as easy pickins, available for any old weirdo with a few dirty dollar bills and a wrinkled contract in his hand. (And nobody wants to hear how much you "experimented" with self-publishing.)

Your perfect agent or editor will appreciate that you waited, and will love that you chose to share your gift with them. After all, you can only debut once.

And... err...

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Jenny Hikes to Fitchburg

I'm on my way to the NESCBWI conference in Fitchburg, MA, tomorrow. Cue lots of Thoreau-related humor (from me).

Meanwhile, here's Some Things I Did Today, Boston edition:

* Had great meetings with Houghton and Candlewick.

* In Houghton office, saw an upright piano that'd been handpainted by H. A. Rey, with Pretzel the dog all along the front of the case, and Cecily G. the giraffe adorning the side panel. It was the cutest thing ever - but I was too shy and dazzled to take a picture, it seemed rude. Apparently it had been in the cafeteria and they were like "oh, we're going to get rid of this" (!!!) so somebody rescued it.

* Ate lobster twice. Once in "roll" form, once on a salad.

* Stayed in an officially haunted hotel. I downloaded "Ghost Radar" app on my iPhone and confirmed it. :-)

* Went to an open house at Charlesbridge and listened to Mitali Perkins give a wonderful talk about the reason, then the real reason, then the real reason behind the reason she wrote her latest, BAMBOO PEOPLE.

* Saw Ducklings. Made way for.
* Hung around the Boston Public Garden. Saw alleged "swan boat" which is NOT, as I for some reason pictured it, like a gigantic shiny boiled sweet hollowed out and made to look like a swan that you ride inside of.  Sad.

* Also did I mention, saw DUCKLINGS??


Sunday, May 09, 2010

Prequeries & Followups

Twitter Q: If a query is rejected, are follow up questions such as "Do you know of agents who would be interested?" appropriate?
 The short answer: Nope.

But blogs are for long answers, aren't they? And this actually reminds me of a couple of trends that are threatening to drive me batty.*

Prequeries: "This is my project. May I query you, and if so, what should I do?"

This is maddening and it happens at least five times a day. That is at least five emails that I shouldn't be getting. Look, we are open for submissions. The submission directions are right there, on the website, big as life. If we didn't want to get your queries, why would we bother having submission guidelines? How did you get the email address to send this to if you didn't LOOK at the submission guidelines or website? What did you think that they meant?  AHHH!

OK, taking a deep breath. The point I am making is, DON'T PRE-QUERY. If you want to query, just follow the directions and do it already. The worst that can happen is, we say No. So what? You never heard the word No before?  Toughen up, buttercup.

Followup #1 - The Fawner: "Thank you so much for your rejection, it means so much to me that you even took the time to look at my poor little query, I am as a worm unto you O Great One"

Look, it is no big deal. You asked "would you like to rep this?" I said "No thank you." The loop is closed now. If you are a person who absolutely must say thank you, a quick "Thanks for the look" is OK (not needed, but OK.)  And if I have given you notes or specific feedback, a "Thanks so much for the feedback" is totally appropriate.

A weirdly fawning thank you to a form rejection, though, is never called for. It isn't going to make me remember you as That Nice Polite Guy, it is going to make me remember you as a bit of an oddball, at best.

Followup #2 - Mr. Grumble: "I did do my research and follow all the directions to the letter, and yet you say it is "not right for you". Hm. Well, you are a hypocrite. I happen to know you represent lots of YA books, so... any clue as to what agent it might be right for, then, if you're so smart?"

Hey, whoa there, fella! No need for the attitude. I know that the original asker of the question would never be so rude about it, but followup requests for referrals, whether posed nicely like the original asker, or rudely like Mr. Grumble, boil down to the same thing.

* If I loved your submission, I'd want your submission. I don't.

* If I hated your submission, I am not going to give you a list of my friends to inflict it on.

* If (much more likely) I felt lukewarm or 'meh' or 'just ok' or 'fine' about your submission, I've already stopped thinking about it and have moved on with my life now.  I don't want to do research for you, I don't want to re-read it and scour my brain about who I know might like it, that is not my job.  Again, the loop is closed. You asked, I answered, the end.

Hand to G-d, if your book is not for me but I know of an agent off the top of my head who I KNOW would love it, I will definitely definitely tell you, and even offer to pass it on myself or say you can use me as a reference. I promise.  I have no reason to keep this information from you. I want you all to succeed. Really!

* Though items similar to these appear in my inbox many times every day, these examples are fabricated by me and not quotes from actual authors.

Saturday, May 01, 2010

A Bird in the Hand

Tweet-Q: Would you rather rep a writer with a deal on the table? I heard this is ideal for 1st.
I don't presume to speak for every agent here, but for myself, I'd actually say this is a less-than-ideal situation.

If you have an offer from a publisher already, and you query me (or any agent) with a subject line like "Offer From Random House!" or similar, I will definitely read your query immediately. However, that is by no means a guarantee that I'll offer rep.

I still have to love the book.

Also, when I send out a project that is MY project, I have worked hard to craft a great pitch. I've made sure that the manuscript is in as good a shape as I can make it. I have created a submission list based on both my knowledge of individual editors tastes and needs, and with the input and advice from my entire agency.  Publisher expectations are also set - they know the kinds of rights I am going to want to keep, for example, and they will make their offer accordingly. I have often timed the submission in a particular way for a particular reason... and I find that I have a pretty good success rate.

When YOU do those things, and then try to bring me in after the fact, I haven't been able to do any of that good stuff, including (especially) choosing the editors that I think will be the best fit.

The offer on the table is usually not a great offer. The publisher is usually not in a particular mood to negotiate considering that there was no agent involved when they first made it... so while I'll probably be able to negotiate the advance up to cover my commission, and improve the terms, it isn't like you'll be leaping into a totally different sparkly-deal stratosphere just because you hired me.

The point I'm making is, it is fine to do things backwards and get an agent after you get a deal, it will probably help you and certainly won't hurt you.  But it is by no means better to do so.  And I personally think you are likely to get a better deal with an agent in your corner from the beginning.

(And for those who think that they CAN'T get an agent as a debut author... I'm gonna have to call shenanigans on that one. Half my clients are/were debut authors!)