I think there’s a big misconception about agents. Amid the many “How I Got my Book Deal” posts, signing with an agent is devoted only a single paragraph, maybe a footnote. Even in posts devoted to acquiring representation, agents are presented as a step in the long process of getting published–almost like a “Yay! Almost there!” That process looks like this:
Step One: Write a book. Step Two: Get an agent. Step Three: Get published
But there’s a lot that goes unspoken there. What happens if the book your agent loved doesn’t get published? What happens when you decide to also pursue a new genre, a new age category? What happens when you butt heads with your publisher? What happens when you find a new publisher?
The agent/author relationship, I argue, is far more important even than your editor/author one. Because with an agent, an author can be 100% honest all the time. It is all about you. Your career, your long-term strategy, your satisfaction. They’re your partner, not just for Step Three, but for Steps Twelve, Twenty, Eighty. Your publisher might only be your publisher for one book, or one genre. Your agent is your partner for all of it.
Because of this, I think even more emphasis needs to be placed on signing with the right agent. It can be frustrating to sign with an agent who doesn’t suit your style–I should know, I’ve had more than one agent. For a querying writer, the biggest hurdle might only seem getting that agent, and I get that. And there are a lot of specifics about an agent you might not know when they query (Are they super hands-on editorially? Are they tough love or gentle?). But while querying, it is really worth taking a step back and reflecting on what you want. Because sometimes we throw out descriptors of agent/author relationships but we never really define what they mean. So here we go!
Editorial versus not
A lot of writers talk about wanting highly editorial agents–as writers, we naturally love savvy feedback, and receiving it makes us feel like we’re being taken care of. So we’re quick to say we’d love a super editorial agent. But what does that actually mean?
Most agents in kidlit–to the best of my knowledge–are some degree of editorial. I’ve never heard of an agent who genuinely doesn’t edit. Instead, there are levels of it. These are what they might look like.
A deeply editorial agent might go through multiple rounds of revision for you–including line edits–to get your manuscript into submission shape. It won’t be sent out until it is 100% perfect. This is great when you and your agent totally share a vision for your book–you can ensure that book reaches perfection! But it will most likely be a slower process. Revisions and line edits take time. You might not be on submission for months, even over a year. Because your agent isn’t just editorial with you, they are with all their clients. And you might get frustrated when you’ve already revised a book twice and are asked to do so again.
A less editorial agent might only send a manuscript one round of notes–more only if the book truly needs it. There’s a higher degree of trust placed on the author to deliver a good book–the agent might not even read your revision before submission, if they believe you addressed all their key points. The process is more hands-off, but it’s faster. It might mean less stress over the agony of waiting, but it could also mean more at not having a “perfect” book.
Another phrase that gets thrown around without a set definition.
A deeply hands-on agent might send you emails checking in. They want to know what you’re working on, how much longer it’s going to take on that deadline, etc. They’ll ask for a list of ideas when it’s time to prepare a new project, and they’ll weigh in. But what if your heart was telling you a new project? Or what if you start working on something they approved but then decide to work on something else?
A less hands-on agent might not need those check-ins. They’ll learn about your new project once you get them a proposal or the manuscript. You’ll get more freedom, but less guidance. You suddenly start writing a super weird book but worry if they’ll like it. Months will go by and you realize you might not have talked to your agent at all.
Tough love and praise
As you can imagine, authors are nervous creatures. We put so much heart into our manuscripts that we always feel vulnerable. Rejections hurt. Waiting often feels like a rejection. An edit letter lacking in praise can easily be translated into “I hate it.”
A tough love agent isn’t necessarily there to praise you–they already love your work; they’re your agent. Your fragile heart might wither when every edit isn’t followed by a compliment. But you can trust that they’ll be direct–no blows will be held back, no miscommunication will be had. A tough love agent trusts that the author is a grown-up and a professional–and thus they treat you like more of a professional, less of a friend.
A gentler agent is more giving in their praise; they’re there to remind you that you’re the shit, no matter how many rejections you got this month, or how much work your project needs. But they’ll be more cautious with you–sometimes sugarcoating an issue leads to miscommunication. When there comes times when you might not see eye-to-eye, it might be more stressful–how could you want to push back on someone who has always been your cheerleader?
If you’re wondering if any of these scenarios happen, they do. All the time. And as any good Slytherin would tell you, it’s never too early to think about your brand and your long-term career! For me, I’m married to the fantasy genre, but I love hopping age categories. I’ve got a lot on my burner all the time, and I switch between projects and reorder and change my mind often. A hands on agent sounds nice, but I can barely keep up with me… I don’t know how an agent truthfully could! And the further I’ve gone in my career, the happier I’ve become with a less editorial approach. I like the trust that comes with choosing my own project or subbing a 90% perfect book because the right editor will click with it anyway, and they’d be better suited from taking the project to 110%.
So the bottom line? Don’t settle! Your agent is not your step two! Your partnership is meant to be for the long-haul, so it’s important to find an agent whom you would absolutely trust with your career as a whole, not just your own project. You’ll thank yourself when it comes time for Step Four!