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.