Wednesday, July 20, 2011

My Fiction Day - Why Use an Agent Anymore?

It's Wednesday! My Fiction Day. I want to address one topic about the novel that some take for granted, others abhor, and some simply do not understand. Finding an agent.

Yes, an agent. With all the enticements of self-publishing, I could not get past a deep burning urge to be vetted and found worthy, starting with finding an agent who wanted me as much as I wanted him or her. Maybe it's the child in me seeking parental validation, but I did not want to publish without knowing that I could make it past gatekeepers.

I did research on publishing, so I wasn't totally in the dark. I interviewed, read and studied the biz in order to keep ahead for FundsforWriters. But then I had dinner one night in Mississippi with an intellectual property attorney who, like me, was on the faculty of the Mississippi Writer's Guild Conference. What he said almost made me drop my fork. (paraphrased) "When I worked for a big publisher, my goal was to negotiate as many rights for the publisher, and as few as possible for the author. I saw authors who I knew would never see a penny from their book sales." 

Wow. So I asked him what's an author to do. He advised to nab an agent, and even then, consider running any contract past an attorney as well. He actually flipped sides after several years. He works on behalf of authors today instead of publishers. He likes the environment better. And his words confirmed my desire to land an agent.

But that was a couple years before ebooks went crazy and self-publishing became an acceptable practice. Why bother with all that back-and-forth, the negotiations, the worry about who's scamming who when you can pop into CreateSpace or Lulu and create your book? Why have an agent when DIY is all the rage?
  • Because reputable agents know what the heck they're doing. 
  • They keep up with changes in the industry. 
  • They know editors and publishers. 
  • They see what sells and what doesn't, way before you do. 
  • They understand the odds and play the game with more savvy that you.
  • They have a big-picture view of whether your style book has a chance.
  • They want to protect your interest since your income is their income.
  • They take the burden off of you to find a publishing venue, so you can continue writing.
I could not understand why people were not seeking agents harder. I even had FundsforWriters readers, critique group members, and peer authors tell me gobs of reasons why I didn't need an agent:
  • The chances were too slim.
  • Agents are arrogant and have preferred clients.
  • Time was ticking too fast to wait two and three months or more for agents to response to queries.
  • You have to know someone to find an agent.
  • Agents don't know writing or they'd be writers (love that one).
  • Why get an agent when I had a platform within FundsforWriters to sell books?
  • There are too many agent scams out there to take a risk.
But I wasn't giving up. Having spent years in lending, appraising and real estate, I knew the risk of purchasing a house without a real estate agent. Agents knew the market, the rates, the best terms, the school districts, the deals and the disasters to avoid. Sure, I could eventually learn all that information on my own, after months and even years of research. But that infamous clock keeps ticking, and even if I studied hard, I wouldn't be experienced. Research is one thing. Hands on knowledge is another. Did I want to endanger my novel's future by being to stubborn, impatient or cheap to hire an agent?

So I boned up on query letters. Spent two weeks composing one and running it through my writers' group. Then I pitched a dozen agents at a time, once a month, writing each letter individually, personalizing it for each agent. In twenty months, I submitted 72 queries, opened 55 rejections, and received invitations for seven complete manuscripts. I landed an 88 percent response rate, and ultimately, a contract with an agent.

I did my homework. I learned who was a member of AAR. I joined and read who was landing what contract and how many contracts agents amassed in the last year. I studied where agents were from, where they went to school, who they'd already signed, what books they had a hand in publishing, what hobbies they had. I made a list of my attributes and interests and sought to match an agent's to mine.

My book takes place in the Southeastern US, mostly in the rural regions. The protagonist is female, educated, but with a slight red-neck edge during her weaker moments. I gardened, read mysteries, and at the time mentored teen writers. My husband is a federal agent, which help put some teeth in my research. Then I sat back and read website after website, the Writers Markets, and Publishers Marketplace. And I pitched to anyone that had an inkling of a match with any of the above, using the personal touch to connect.

My agent raised horses, mentored teen writers, published books of her own, and used to be in law enforcement. Bingo!

I'm still an agent advocate. Sure there are some less reputable out there. There are scams with publishers, editors, graphic artist cover designers, etc. That's why you study them before signing with them. Heck, before pitching to them.

This business is all about knowing what you want, studying it well, and going for it with a vengeance. It isn't about throwing your writing out on the Internet and hoping to be discovered. Be methodical. Be steel-eyed focused. Be the person that others watch with awe, because you know you want the gold.

Give me your take on agents! Are they still needed with self-publishing exploding?


Sylvia Ney said...

Thank you for this post. I've published articles, poems and short stories, but the agent/editor scams and scares you hear about have kept me from submitting any of my manuscripts. I still have a lot to learn about agents and have felt a bit overwhelmed with the idea. Thank you for sharing your own experience of searching for the right agent for you.

Michelle Fayard said...

Hi, Hope,

I think we need agents more than ever, and I've noticed some agencies starting to play a role in the self-publishing process too. I like the peace of mind of knowing I have another person in my corner with an extra set of eyes helping make sure my books and my career evolve into all they're meant to be. Your post is enlightening; it also shows that what we don't know could be frightening.


Karen Lange said...

I have always thought having an agent was best but I can't say I've done as much research as you have about it. I heard Laura Resnick speak recently at a conference and she shared about several terrible experiences with agents. She advised us to do our homework, agented or not.

Thanks so much for sharing your "agent" journey with us.

Dianna said...


This is a really interesting post. Personally, I've done a lot of research and I've decided that I want to go the small press route-preferably with a publisher that does ebooks as well as print books. I do plan to query a few agents when my book is ready, but I will also be querying small press publishers.

I don't think an agent is absolutely necessary, but I don't want to self publish either. I still want some kind of gatekeeper feeling, but more than that, I want to be able to write while they figure out my cover art and all the other fun stuff.


Unknown said...

It's tough to land a good agent, but I fully believe it'll be worth it when it happens for me. I want to know I'm good enough to make it. I want the validation of someone choosing me. I also need a bit of handholding as I embark on the journey to publication. Someone who knows the ropes and can guide me through (mostly) unscathed would be a valuable member of the team.

Your agent seems to be a perfect fit for you, Hope! I hope to be so lucky. :)

Elizabeth Boyce

Hope Clark said...


You'll find someone. I've read your work. It's damn good, and I think you know you're on the right track. You'll get there.


D.G. Hudson said...

I'd prefer to have an agent, for the same reasons you mentioned, Hope. Validation and support during the process. I followed part of your journey as you looked for an agent, I know it takes work.

Your blog is one of those that motivates us to keep at it. Thanks for that.

Hope Clark said...

It takes daily attention and a drive to get what you want and a love for doing what you're doing. That's it, yet it's so much, too.