I’ve been a part of the writing community for several years, and I’ve been lucky enough to have amazing friends who were “ahead” of me in their journeys (that is, they signed with agents before me, sold books before me etc.) and could offer me guidance and perspective. A lot of my decisions and thought processes when I built my agent list and queried were shaped by their experiences and the wisdom they were generous enough to share with me. And as a result, there were a few things that I knew I was looking for in an agent even before I queried.
- Editorial. I have wonderful critique partners, but I’m also a bit of a perfectionist. Though I’d done what I could on my own, I knew I’d be very uncomfortable going on submission with a project that I knew needed more work. I wanted to ensure I had someone who could help me “level up” and also offer strategic guidance based on industry knowledge to make sure we were going out with the best possible version of my book.
- Career agent. I knew I didn’t want someone who only loved the book rather than my writing. My biggest goal in publishing is longevity, and so I wanted to make sure I signed with an agent who would continue to represent me and my work if the first book didn’t sell or performed poorly. I also want to write across age categories and genres so I knew I had to make sure my agent represented everything I wanted to work on.
- Strong communicator. I think “good communication” often ends up being translated to “this person responds quickly.” Fast is great, especially in an industry like publishing where so much time is spent waiting on other people. But strong communication, in my opinion, isn’t about that. It’s about being able to have difficult conversations that we don’t necessarily like or want to have. Over the last few years, I’ve learned that parting ways with your first or even second agent is quite common. And if, for whatever reason, things weren’t working out between me and whoever I signed with, I wanted to know that we could handle that conversation effectively and professionally.
- Time. I think this is primarily because of my anxious personality, but I knew pretty early on that I didn’t want an agent who would just sell my book and leave me alone. I’m lucky I have a lot of friends I can turn to with questions, but everyone’s journey is so different and specific. I wanted to work with someone a bit more hands on, who was maybe still building their list and would have time to answer any silly questions or explain unfamiliar details of the industry.
- Champion of diversity. I didn’t want to be the only POC on someone’s list. I wanted to know they already had a strong track record of representing and uplifting marginalized voices and they would continue to do that for me.
Now that I’ve been working with my agent for a few months, I want to add a few things I’ve since learned that I value in the agent-author relationship.
- Adaptability. Everyone has different needs and expectations from their agent. I know I work a specific way and do things differently than even my friends who are also represented by my agent. For example, my agent knows that I need a hard deadline to get anything turned in, and she makes it a point now to give me one every time she sends me notes. But that’s something she does specifically for me. She doesn’t assign her other clients deadlines if they don’t need or want them–and she doesn’t impose someone else’s working style on me either. Agenting isn’t one size fits all, and like in any relationship, both parties have to be willing to compromise and meet in the middle. It’s hard to get anything done if either the author or the agent says “this is how I work, end of discussion.”
- Comfort level. When I was querying, a veteran author gave me the advice of signing with the agent I felt the most comfortable with and felt like I could be honest with. I had a few difficult months in the beginning where I was struggling with my revisions, but I hesitated to reach out to my agent because I didn’t want to bother her. After several months, she emailed to check in on my progress, and at the urging of some friends, I finally stopped pretending everything was fine and told her how hard things had been. And my agent immediately got on the phone with me and came up with some concrete suggestions to help me finish my revisions. Looking back, I honestly wish I’d talked to her earlier. And since then, I’ve come to realize that it’s quite important to me to be able to share with my agent when things are hard or ask for advice–and I really appreciate that she gives me the space to do that.
- Editorial. So I want to expand on what I said earlier. I ended up signing with a very editorial agent, and I absolutely love it. Her edit letters are always so detailed and thorough, and she questions every element of the manuscript. Every time she sends notes, she offers to hop on the phone to chat about them. I get that not everyone loves phone calls, but as someone who Skypes critique partners both when giving and receiving notes, I find calls to be immensely helpful for detailed or nuanced discussion. In terms of editorial style, I don’t know that I went in with any expectations, but I appreciate that she generally phrases her notes as questions for me to consider, and then trusts me to make my own decisions on how I want to address them. I also appreciate that everything is open for discussion. The first time she sent notes, I actually sent back my own list of additional things I wanted to fix or change. She was very welcoming of my ideas and actually took notes on all of my thoughts ahead of our call.
The one thing I hope readers take away from this series is how subjective everything is. Everyone wants something different out of their writing career–I have friends whose goal is to publish one single book in their lifetime and I have friends whose goal is to publish 2 or 3 books a year. And different agents are simply going to be better fits for each of those scenarios. Remember, this is a career decision, and ultimately, you have to find the person who can champion your work and give you the best chance at achieving your specific goals.