Tuesday, December 07, 2010

An Open Letter to the Twitter Agents (And Writers)

I have pissed off the Twitter agents. It all started when one was lamenting the fact that writers sometimes accept offers of representation without checking in with the other agents they've submitted to first, and I responded with my view on why writers might do that. Ugliness ensued. And because I can't adequately respond in 140 characters or less, I figured I'd respond in an open letter here. (I was in the middle of a completely different post for writers, but that'll have to wait a bit. It'll be awesome, I promise.)

This is the actual exchange:

literaticat: For the third time this week, somebody has accepted representation from another agent without giving me the chance to respond. Grr.

If you don't want me to even have the chance to be your agent WHY ARE YOU WASTING MY TIME & FILLING MY INBOX IN THE FIRST PLACE?

I'm not MAD, just, why not give yourself options? Get an offer, tell the other agents - chances are one of them might be interested too.

Me (GhostwriterJG): Hope this isn't rude considering circumstances, but if my #1 pick said yes, I wouldn't feel the need to wait for other answers.

Plus, it feels mean to tell an agent who's loving you and offering rep, "Great! Let me see what your competitors say first."

Without rehashing all the responses, there was a resounding POUNCE! sound, and comments such as that writers like me have no basic business sense, are being dumb, that I've rebuked a smart agent's advice, and "when I see an experienced agent trying to educate people and being slapped down for it online, it pisses me off."

To give this context, I'm primarily a ghostwriter, working in adult nonfiction. I've just signed my 20th book publishing contract. You can see many of my books over there in the sidebar. ---> I don't work with one agent exclusively at this point. I used to, when I was mostly writing my own books, but now, several agents refer their clients to me when they're looking for ghostwriters. (And several editors call on me directly.) There's plenty more in my background about the massive amount of time over the years I've spent helping to educate writers. You can find that out if you care to do basic research.

But back to the current issue. I do sometimes take on clients who don't yet have agents, and I help them with that process, so I've been through the agent search many times for many people. This is approximately how it works:

Client and I are working on a book proposal in the self-help genre. I prepare a list of all the agents I can think of who might be a good fit. To do this, I search (a) the acknowledgments sections of self-help books that are similar, or that I know sold very well; (b) www.PublishersMarketplace.com, where I do searches by genre to see who's sold what; and (c) www.AgentQuery.com, where I can also do genre searches.

As I go along, I narrow my list. My priorities look like this:

1. Track record in the genre: Has this agent made many sales in this genre? Does PublishersMarketplace list them as "nice" sales (low advances), or does the agent have any big deals?

2. Overall track record: Has the agent been in business for long? If not, does the agent have other significant experience-- such as editing for a major publisher?

3. Client recommendations: Does the agent's clients rave about him or her?

4. Personal instincts: Sometimes, you can just feel that an agent would be a good fit for the book based on things like the agent's writing style, personal hobbies or causes, or other factors.

At this point, I probably have a list of less than 10 agents who I feel would be a good match for the book. Among those, one or two are probably my "dream agents" for this project-- agents who've made multiple big deals in my genre, and whose clients love them.

So I send out the proposal. Now that I'm an experienced writer, I may only send it to one or two at a time because I have personal relationships with agents and try to give the ones I love first-look opportunities. Even when I don't know the agents, though, I know that I have the clout to get an answer quickly and that my proposals almost always sell. But when I was newer, I would have sent my query to all of those under-ten agents at once, because it doesn't make sense to wait and wait for individual answers to queries, further slowing down the already slow pace of the publishing industry.

Let's say that I query nine agents, and four ask to see the proposal. Mentioning that it's a simultaneous submission, I send to all four and try not to chew my nails off waiting for responses. I work on something else in the meantime.

A week later, I get a call. It's my dream agent, bubbling over with enthusiasm about my project. "I love it and I can sell it," he tells me. We have a great chat and I feel confident that he has the contacts and experience to back up his words.

This ends my search. I write to the other three agents and say, "Thank you so much for your interest in my work. I'm writing to let you know that I've accepted another offer of representation."

This, to me, is the most decent and sensible approach. If I already know that my top pick said yes, I don't want to waste anyone's time by having them read my proposal while I know I'm not going to accept their offer if they say yes anyway. And I want to give that top pick the respect he or she deserves by being definitive about my answer.

"But what if another agent were more enthusiastic about your work? You'd never know!" Enthusiasm-- while terrific-- is not the main factor for me. Agents with no credits at all can be very enthusiastic, but their enthusiasm will not sell the proposal. So it's track record first, enthusiasm second. (I want both, of course.)

If there is no clear frontrunner among my four interested agents (or if I wasn't utterly positive that my first-responder really "got" my book or my goals), then I'd say to that agent, "Thank you so much! I have a few other agents reading it at the moment. Can you give me a week to respond?" Then I'd write to those other agents and tell them, "I've been offered representation, but I'd like to hear back from you before I accept it. Do you think you could read my proposal and get back to me by Friday?"

Then I'd hear out any offers, go back to my list of priorities, and try to determine which one I think might be the best match for me or my client.

This is the process that has worked for me, and I have long-standing relationships with many terrific agents and editors, so I don't plan on changing it. I also know that agents and editors are not the only people who know anything about publishing. Indeed, there are plenty of smart writers out there whose advice should be considered as well. I don't accept that I should not dare to question or offer another viewpoint because I am not an agent.

Searching for an agent is a different process from searching for a publisher, which I think is obvious enough that I'm not going to bother defending myself against the "how would you like it if your agent accepted the first publishing offer that came along" comparison.

It bothers me that it seems even agents can get caught up in "groupthink." And that the nastiness I received to my response (which was not in any way "rebuking" or disrespecting anyone) has distracted me from my real work today. So I'm going to get back to it now.

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14 comments:

  1. I missed the brouhaha, but this is a smart piece. I wonder though, if perhaps the agents who are upset by writers not giving them a chance to respond are not upset with pros like you, but with a writer who they have requested a partial or full from and then invest time reading it and don't get the chance. There's a big difference there.

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  2. Thank you, Joelle. If they've already invested the time to read it, though, they should have responded. In the more likely instance that it's still in their to-read pile, then they haven't wasted much time in just reading the query and requesting it-- it's part of doing business.

    In the instance that they're in the middle of reading it, I can see that it would be disappointing to have not had a chance to finish and make an offer (or not), but I still don't know why they'd blame the writer for making a decision and notifying people in a timely manner. It's as if they want to pretend that all agents are on a level playing field. They're not. I don't think it's wrong for a writer to have preferences in mind when sending out queries or proposals.

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  3. I've nothing of expertise to add here, but as a Twitter follower of @literaticat and @papertyger I wanted to help you set the records straight that the "mindblowing" exchange was not in reference to your post, but actually about AGENTS who accept editors' offers without letting the other editors who have it. I think we can all agree that THAT certainly isn't in the author's best interests:-)

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  4. Hi there,

    I personally was never "pissed off" and certainly never at you. I totally agree that if you are an experienced writer with a great deal of knowledge and resources at your disposal, who has worked with editors and agents (as in your case), you probably have a good idea of who you want to go with and are in a good position to make it happen. Mazel tov.

    However, 95% of people (at least) who query me are not in this privileged position. They are total newbies, whose only contact with agents is possibly twitter (if even that). They may have done research via outdated paper guides, or the helpful but oft-wrong online resources like AgentQuery. They may even have subscribed to Publishers Marketplace, though as you know, many very fine, reputable agents never post on there at all.

    So what they are armed with is partial knowledge, and hopefully a KICKASS book. They go into the world with it. They've done their research, as far as possible, so they query agents as in the guidelines. But what they haven't done is actually met these agents, or worked with ANY agents or editors.

    So let's say they query multiple agents (as they should, we both know that exclusives pretty much stink). A week goes by. Agent 1 says that they'd like to offer rep, and the author says, and withdraws the manuscript from everyone else.

    Well cool. Abrupt, but OK. Good luck to them. I might be irritated, but I am not ANGRY at them, I don't BLAME them for anything. Am I disappointed that I never even got a chance to look at what might have been an absolutely perfect project for me? Sure. And that the author will never know if they might have had MANY offers of representation, and had the opportunity to compare the different agents work style, what their clients say, etc etc. Who knows how things might have played out?

    A similar situation occurs quite commonly when I take a manuscript out on submission. If there was an editor that I knew my author loved to work with and they had a relationship, and I knew this book would be a good fit, I would give that editor first crack at the book (for a short period of time) - that is fair. But if it is out with multiple editors and we get an offer, very often there are suddenly there are two or three offers.

    Each interested editor is in a position where they have to woo the author - and THAT is the ideal position for an author to be in. Where they can weigh all offers, use the competition as leverage to get better terms, talk to every editor, and make a truly informed decision about who to go with. I would never just say "okeydoke" to the first offer to come our way.

    But again... this is my own position. I am sure that other people work differently. It is a big old world we live in.

    And I am sorry if you felt insulted by my words, or my use of capitalization. I am an enthusiastic tweeter, but I am certainly not aiming to offend.

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  5. Err... I meant to say "and the author says YES" above. Sort of a word missing there. :)

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  6. Thank you, Jennifer. A classy response, and I appreciate the clarification.

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  7. You've been away from AW long enough that you don't remember how easily internet users fall into the "pounce on opinions you don't agree with" crowd? ;-)

    For the record, I think your example is the decent way to handle the situation...not sure why an agent (a professional one anyway) would take it personal...

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  8. I really don't think you pissed anyone off. Agents will get annoyed when they spend time on a manuscript and find out it's no longer available. I think most of the comments were general venting because it happens a lot, and it wasn't about you.

    Every agent I've heard talk about "The Call" says they expect writers to take time to think about their offer and contact other agents who they've submitted to. It's not being mean to the agents; it's common courtesy. As one said at a conference, "The right agent for you might not be the first one who picks up the phone." In my case, it was the second. I was lucky enough to have two interested agents, and took time to talk to both of them before making a decision. I loved them both or I wouldn't have subbed to them, but there was one who felt like a better fit for me. I know I ended up with the right agent, and I would have missed out on her if I'd said "yes" to the first offer.

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  9. Not an agent, by the way.

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  10. Kristen, thanks. I'm not sure what else the post meant. ("I am all-capsy right there with you on both counts.") But I've just asked papertyger what the other count was, then.

    Aston, I apparently have been away too long. ;)

    Lynne, I was mostly referring to Colleen's statement that it pisses her off when an experienced agent gets "slapped down" for offering advice, right after I posted my response (which I don't see as any form of "slapping down").

    Colleen, I know. I didn't take the time to specify "or former agents who now work for one of my publishers" in the title.

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  11. This is a good post :) As Jennifer said, a lot of us newbies go into the whole business with partial knowledge of how to handle any situations like this. So it's nice to get a little insight on what a professional might do. Thank you!

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  12. Hey Krstin,

    I'm a "twitter agent" and while I saw the exchange, I didn't comment.

    Jennifer's response was spot-on-- you're surely in a different position than the vast majority of the slush pile.

    I wanted to comment on your "If they've already read it, they should have responded." Many times I read in large batches-- 3, 4, 5 manuscripts, often over an evening or weekend-- then sit down and respond to them. It's entirely possible for you to withdraw your material from an agent who has, in fact, already invested the time reading it.

    Secondly, I'm also a published author, and my first agent, in 2006, was my "dream agent." 8 months later, I fired her. She was truly terrible--but had dozens and dozens of sales in my genre and clients who raved about her on their blogs. Eventually those clients left too. You clearly have the business sense to know what you want and recognize it, but most newbie authors don't. They *want* to jump on the first thing-- it's exciting and overwelming to get an offer, and they're terrified it will disapear if they don't pounce.

    When I offer representation to authors, I expressly ask if there are other agents reading, and then I suggest said writer takes a week and gets back to me with the decision. And when I request fulls, I specifically say in my form language, "I do not ask for exclusives, but I do ask that if you receive an offer of representation while I have your material, you allow me one week to read and respond." It's a condition of my request.

    I think writers do themselves a disservice by hanging their hats on 'dream agents' or "#1 choices" without allowing all agents involved to talk to the writer and discuss their ideas/plans. You may talk to one agent who is your dream agent and shows passion for the project, and then you might talk to #2 agent who expresses ideas you'd never even thought of. In fiction, particularly, revisions can be really, really important. Perhaps the agent who you don't know as much about ends up having a brilliant editorial vision, and you cllick on the phone. Perhaps she has huge deals she wasn't allowed t list on PM. You won't know these things without talking to her.

    You don't know unless you give them the chance. And maybe in the end you still go with #1, but you've conducted yourself professionally and given all parties a fair shake, and that's all we can expect.

    Mandy Hubbard
    D4EO Lit

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  13. I love this blog. Entertaining, Educating and Engrossing. Keep up the good work!
    The Septic Tank Man

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  14. Jenna,

    Love this blog post. As a clueless newbie myself, I'm not sure I can begin to express how grateful I am to you. You are generous with your wisdom and experience.

    Paula

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Nice to hear your voice! Er... see your voice? See your text? Bah! You know what I mean.