The following article written by Natasha Kern appeared in RWR (Nov-Dec '92) ...

How Does a Writer Get the Right Agent?

In a previous column (RWR, Jan/ Feb 1'92) I wrote about the issue of location in determining whether an agency was right for you, and concluded that although first-time writers often think location matters, it is the least significant criterion for selecting an agency. So what really does matter?

The first question to resolve is whether you need an agent at all. If you plan to write an occasional category romance, perhaps for one line like Intrigue or Kismet, it may not be worthwhile to pay a 15-percent commission to an agent. Or, if you are the type of person who prefers to do everything for yourself, who wants a sense of control, you may want to negotiate your own contract and plan your career unassisted.

However, if you hate to argue about money, decipher fine print in legal contracts, market yourself and your work to editors, and have no idea what a long-term career plan looks like, then you probably will feel more comfortable having an agent assist you.

Agents do a lot of things for their clients besides making the sale. If it were an agent's function simply to find a publisher, writers like Janet Dailey or Danielle Steel would not have one. They have publishers calling them. Agents can help you get not just a deal, but the best possible deal. They can help you understand publishing as a business. In order to know whether an agent is right for you, you must first understand what an agent does.

Agenting requires an understanding of sales and marketing (nope, they are not the same thing); literary law; editing; publishing practices, industry standards, requirements, and protocols; publicity and promotion; counseling and career development; international markets and film rights; arbitration; and a myriad of other things, including the rapidly burgeoning opportunities in high-tech publishing.

Because there is such a broad range of expertise required, no one starts out thinking, "I'll be a literary agent when I grow up." Agents come to this job with different backgrounds. Some were formerly editors, attorneys, subrights managers, or sales reps. Keeping this in mind will help you make a decision. Do you want an agent with editorial expertise? There is no question that professional feedback can be of help to writers. Most agents who are lacking in this area work with independent editors associated with their agencies. They at least must know what properties to represent, and have standards of literary merit in order to stay in business. Agents without backgrounds in law or film may retain lawyers or subagents with this expertise.

Obviously, every agent must start somewhere. Anew agent may not have a long list of clients or properties, but she may have strong contacts in the industry and be well-respected. However, you should be very cautious about committing your work and your career to an agent you meet through a conference or a query letter, who is not listed in the Literary Marketplace, has no professional references, and no background in publishing. Anyone can call herself an agent, and even though it seems that having a poor agent is better than no agent, this is not the case. I don't have the space to tell you the disaster stories about writers who were badly represented and burdened with contracts or decisions, made by an agent, which were detrimental to their careers. I know it is tempting to be grateful to anyone who will take you at first, but do exercise caution.

This leads to the number one concern in selecting an agent: Is she competent to represent you? Does the agent know your genre? Has she sold similar books before? Can you see a client list or talk with clients? Can you see a list of recent sales? What is her work history and her relationships with other clients, colleagues, editors, and subagents? Most importantly, how can you find these things out?

It is important to ask if the agent is a member of Association of Authors Representatives (AAR) simply because she will have met at least some standards of performance to become a member. Some good agents are not members. Is she recommended by RWA, by your editor, by other writers?

A second concern that is of equal importance: Does the agent like your work? It is not helpful to you to have your manuscript on a shelf in someone else's office for months. If you sent a partial, did the agent really want to see the manuscript? Has she really read and understood your work, and does she understand your strengths and problems as a writer? A sense of championship for your work is the most important thing to look for in addition to competence. It is this enthusiasm that keeps the agent positive about you and able to sell your work even when difficulties arise, or she is actually losing money on representing you, or nothing has sold in a year or two. You don't want an agent who will drop you if problems arise, or who works hard for other writers on her list but not for you. You want to get what you are paying for, but you also want the concern and support that can only come from someone who believes in you and what you are trying to achieve. Keep in mind that more writing careers develop like Rosamund Pilcher's than Amy Tan' s.

A compatible work style is also important. Some agents are in frequent contact with clients, make payments promptly, and consult closely about submission strategies. An agent you rarely hear from may be working just as hard for you. The important thing is that you feel comfortable and that your expectations are realistic. Make sure you know if you will receive copies of all correspondence and be informed about progress.

A sense of mutual trust is extremely important. Once this is lost, it is time to consider a frank talk with your agent and, if issues are not resolved, changing agents. We agents must trust you, our clients, to comply with contract terms, let us know if you cannot make your deadlines, and tell us about problems. Writers must trust the agent to handle their financial affairs and their careers properly.

Consider specific problems you would like your agent to resolve: Can she help you make a jump from category to mainstream? Has she done it before? Can she advise you about if, when, and how you should quit your job and write full-time? Can she help you to decide whether to write for only one house or several, use a pseudonym or not, switch genres, get more money, handle publicity more effectively, or get your synopsis in better shape?

The more clearly you understand what you need and want, the easier it will be to assess whether a particular agent can meet those needs. First develop a list of needs. Then start listing agents who seem to be appropriate, i.e., they represent the genre you write, they have a good track record, are well respected, etc. Request whatever brochures or handouts the agency has available. Talk to other writers. One enterprising writer asked about my agency on an electronic bulletin board and got a surprising number of responses.

You must look at this process as one in which you are hiring someone with expertise to assist you, much as you would hire a doctor, lawyer, or real estate agent.

Submit your work to your top choices. Some agents do not accept multiple submissions, so in that case you must decide whether to risk weeks or months on the chance the agent will accept you. Be sure to find out each agent's requirements for submission and follow them carefully. I accept multiple submissions because I want a client to choose to work with me because she knows I am the best agent for her, not because I am the only one who expressed interest. If I take too long and lose a possible client, that is a risk I think it is fair to take.

If the agent expresses interest in you and your work and offers a contract, talk to others who work with her. If you already have an editor, ask what he or she thinks of the agent. I know of more than one case in which the writer was told by the editor that she would not work with a certain agent, and the writer lost a contract opportunity as a result. Contact local and national writers' groups. This is the time to request any additional information from the agent that will help you to make a decision.

It is important to have a written agreement with your agent so that rights and responsibilities are spelled out clearly, and you know how to terminate the agreement if you want to. Is the agency contract acceptable to you? Is there an escape clause? Avoid commitment for a long period. If you have a disagreement with the agent and the time isn't up, what will you do? Stop writing? Make sure you will be working with the agent you like and that you will not be passed on to someone else in the agency, either now or in the
future. This happens frequently with alarming results. Two of my present clients had to leave their former agency because they were reassigned to someone who did not like their work, or with whom they were incompatible.

If the contract is terminated, is it spelled out what happens to works that are sold or are under submission? Does the contract state clearly what will be included or excluded if you write a column or articles, or other genres? If you write for a broad market, can the agency represent all of your work? If not, what will happen to your children's books or film scripts? Do you like the personal attention of a small agency or the glamour of being one of hundreds of clients at a large agency?

You should communicate your hopes, dreams, and career aspirations to your new agent, and she should talk frankly with you about the possibilities for fulfilling them. Talk about problems you have encountered in the past or are concerned about, and see what kind of solutions she proposes. Find out what kind of marketing plan she has in mind for your work - submitting singly or multiply, changing houses, or writing a better book for your current publisher as a means of advancement. She may not have everything nailed down at this stage, but she will have a view of you and your career. Some of my clients had problems with other agents when they were typecast as only being able to write category romance, for example, when they had aspirations to develop in other ways. They did not feel supported by their agents in making this transition. Try to ascertain how much support you are going to get in making difficult decisions. Most agents are committed to helping their clients grow and achieve success.

There are also some basic financial questions you should ask: How much does the agency charge? Will you be billed for expenses? Which ones? Will they be deducted from your income on the sale, billed directly, or credited against an initial deposit? Is there a marketing fee? Does the agency maintain a client trust account? How soon are funds forwarded to clients?

Keep in mind some of the less tangible benefits agents offer, like availability and reliability. Your agent is working for you and will be with you when editors, and even publishers, come and go. She can help you with tasks as diverse as rights reversion and reselling your backlist, or deciding whether bookmarks or an ad for your book will actually benefit your career. You want an agent you can rely on to help you with all aspects of your career.
Always keep in mind that communication is a two-way street. Your agent cannot help you if she doesn't know what is on your mind. Many times writers have called me with concerns about their agents. Most of the time, a simple conversation with the agent resolved the problem and a change was not needed.

However, if you are in the unhappy position of finding that your present agent is not working out as you had hoped, there is still some recourse. You can change, of course. You should also report all grievances to the RWA Professional Relations Committee. The purpose of this committee is to assist authors in resolving difficulties with professionals in the industry. Complaints are recorded, and offending agents can be dropped from RWA's recommended list. So support fellow writers by filing comments if you feel they are warranted, and if you are looking for an agent, call and find out what is on record.

Getting an agent is an important step in becoming a professional and taking your writing and your career seriously. Writing books is so difficult, and trying to actually earn a living at it is so daunting, you should get the help you need in achieving your publishing ambitions.

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