Author career · Feature · publishing

Fantastic Agents & How to Find Them (5): Published YA Author

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The goal of this series isn’t to tell anyone how an author-agent relationship should be, but rather to showcase the very wide range of experiences out there. Everyone wants and needs something different from their agent, and we hope that by reading the varied thought processes of our guest contributors, writers can begin to figure out what might best work for them.
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Name: LL McKinney

Age category: Published YA

Query: I have queried off and on for about 10 years. I am on agent #3.

Prior agents: Two

When it comes to figuring out what you want and need from the business relationship with an agent, there’s something to be said for the almost indistinguishable difference between knowing a thing and knowing a thing. For instance, when I first started querying, I knew I wanted an agent who was highly editorial, heavy on the highly. Now, after some experience, I know I need an agent who helps with the big-picture-solving side of things rather than getting into the weeds of line edits.

In the beginning, I knew I wanted an agent who was passionate about books. Now, I know I need an agent who’s in love with books but not so much they have to also write them. We’ll come back to that; just put a pin in it.

I knew I wanted someone who was open to lots of communication, meaning I may send a half-dozen emails in the same day—or the same hour—if my thoughts fracture themselves in the processes of getting them down. This results in me sending an email before realizing something else I want to say right after it leaves my outbox. This…has not changed.

Like with most things, what we think we want and need from a situation or arrangement can and likely will change once you’re in the thick of it. You may find you want more of something you didn’t think would matter, or less of something you believed you absolutely had to have. For me, some of these changes were revealed as I moved from one agent to another, and a lot of these changes came about once I told my first book. For simplicity’s sake, let’s start with moving from agent to agent.

Okay, spoiler alert: lots of writers change agents. It happens all. the. time. For a number of reasons. For me, my first agent left the business. She decided she was going to be a writer full time, which she was well within her right to do. When this was revealed, I wasn’t all that surprised. The communication had broken down—sometimes weeks would go by without a response to emails—and manuscript feedback was beginning to suffer similarly. Turns out, my agent was also working on her own writing on the side.

Now, there are PLENTY of agents who are also writers. They have found a balance between these things and all is well. They are amazingly good at both things. However, after my agent left the business—and it was a very cordial splitting—I now had a deal breaker in place where there hadn’t been one before: if an agent is also an author, they are not for me. I also wanted an agent who got back to me within 48-72 hours—I know sometimes they have to go hunt for the answer to a question before replying. Beforehand, these were not things I considered when looking for an agent.

Now, we’re on to agent number two. This agent has no real aspirations to be a writer and is very responsive. They’re also editorial, helping me whip my manuscript even further into shape. I have BETA readers and critique partners, but I wanted an agent that could be the last set of eyes before possible submission to houses, and that’s still true. We do our edits, and go on submission. My agent asks if I want responses as they come in, or if I would like for her to hold on to the rejections until she had some good news to balance with it—which would likely mean longer times between emails. I opted for her to tell me as it came in, not because I wanted more frequent emails, but because I wanted to know what was happening when it was happening, not weeks later. And, thank the Lord, we get an offer.

This is where the soup thickens, as my Granny says. Moving from agent #1 to agent #2 revealed a few things I both did and didn’t want from the partnership. This was compounded after the sale of my first book.

We go into contracts, my first experience in this realm, and I asked a lot of questions. It was important that my agent be able to lay out exactly what something means, and if we’re not 100% sure to ask for clarification. This is why negotiation takes so long, I think, the part where it has to be explained to the author, sometimes repeatedly. Contacts are in English, but I understood very little, so I trusted my agent to explain it all to me, and she did. Through the process, I pushed on some things, conceded on others, got to that not-happy-but-happy place people say you want to land when negotiating, and signed on the dotted line. I will admit there were a few places where I wanted to go for something, but was talked out of it with that whole give or take thing.

Side note: Don’t be afraid to reach out to your peers. If you know someone who has dealt with contracts and are comfortable enough to ask questions, ASK. Compare notes. It’s like the water cooler conversation at work where no one talks about how much they make. Nuh uh. This network of authors is also GREAT for going to when you feel a way about something, maybe you’re scared you’re overreacting, or you want to do a gut check right quick without getting your agent involved, especially if the relationship is a new one.

Anywho, contracts are signed and now we enter the realm of deadlines. This is where the next shift from what I knew I wanted to what I knew I wanted occurred. I was very editorial with my agent before. Now, with deadlines, we ain’t got time. Before hand, it would sometimes take a few months for a full revision with notes from everyone. Now, I have BETAs and CPs that help with the nitty gritty, so things can move along at a quicker pace. I went from wanting my agent to do the same to being okay if my agent looks for overarching issues such as plot, character development, etc. Plus, now I have an editor for that.

This is the point where I send a few more stories to my agent as potential follow-ups to my now acquired series. She reads them—I’m not privy to her processes, I don’t need to know that sort of stuff—and comes back to tell me she thought they were very good, but didn’t feel they were strong enough to follow the story being worked on now. She emphasized that another agent may feel differently, and she didn’t want to box me in.

Appreciative of her being honest about it, I begin querying one of the stories. I let agent #2 know, she’s still handling everything that’s come up so far, we still have an incredible friendly relationship. This did not put a damper in things in the least. Thus begins the hunt for agent #3.

At this point, having gone through looking for another agent once already, then through submissions and acquisitions, then through negotiations and dealing with selling these rights, keeping those rights, blah blah blah, I am equipped with a very narrow idea of what I need from this next, and prayerfully final, agent.

  • Not a writer
  • Relatively quick response
  • Open communication
  • Editorial, but not deeply
  • Will work on story to get it to where they thing it’s strong enough, or will put it out there if I say so.
  • Enables my pushiness when it comes to asking for more
  • More of shark than I am
  • Always down to bad-cop when necessary
  • I’m relatively hands off, as in we talk about it, she goes and does the thing, a contract lands in my inbox along with an explanation. Rinse and repeat as necessary.

Second side note: I’m not saying agent #2 didn’t do any of these, I’m simply pointing out that these are things I knew I wanted now that were different from what I knew I wanted when I first started out.

And that’s pretty much it. I will say if I started out with this latest list of wants and needs, I likely wouldn’t have gone down the same path. There would have been some different decisions and outcomes, particularly at the very beginning. Would I necessarily change what happened? Naw. I learned, I grew, and that knowledge is invaluable. I’m happy with how things have turned out, I’m happy with where I’ve landed overall, and I plan to stay here.


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