Many writers I know are currently seeking an agent, love their agent, or at the very least, tolerate the one they have. Not many would intentionally try to lose their agent. And most agents are not looking to lose good writers. But that relationship is like any other – complicated. So how can a writer by fired or vice versa?
Last month, John Cusick, an author and agent with Greenhouse Literary, shared just exactly how that could happen. (Thanks to James River Writers for sponsoring a great Writing Show!) In a fun spoof of the David Letterman Top Ten, complete with a house band, John counted down 10 ways to lose an agent.
#10 – Limit Your Agent’s Purview
John explained that when you’re looking for an agent, you should expect that agent to be able to manage the broad spectrum of your career even if you write both YA and non-fiction. It’s important to share all your information with your agent.
#9 – Have Creative Differences
The agent/author relationship is a creative partnership and as such, it’s critical to find someone who shares your vision. Authors should see what other projects the agent represents and even ask questions.
#8 – Be Dishonest About Your Track Record or Other Agent Interest
John told the audience about one author who routinely submits work under multiple names to a variety of agents. He then follows his submission with a story that he has an offer in the hope of generating interest. His dishonesty has only led to a lack of interest.
Although he admitted it’s true that agent interest can make other agents “sit up and take notice”, John said, “Avoid the temptation to fabricate.” The agent/author relationship is not only about creative vision but should be founded on trust. Only contact a prospective agent if another agent has actually made an offer.
#7 – Revise Lazily or Insubstantially
John admitted that one of the few times he fired a client was after he’d written a 10 page detailed edit and the author returned the revised manuscript in 2 days without significant changes. Other pet peeves include sloppiness, typos, and formatting errors. He looks for clean manuscripts.
About waiting for revisions, he admits this varies and could be three months or even a year. He has one client who routinely takes 6 months to revise. He advises talking to your agent and just asking what they expect.
When asked, “What was the worst reaction to your feedback with changes?” John answered that it was both an unwillingness to change and a suspicion of why he gave that feedback. He feels strongly that if he’s wrong about his recommendations, then perhaps it isn’t the right working relationship.
#6 – Barrage the Agent with Questions and Countless E-mails
Although John acknowledged that sometimes agents are unavailable to authors, even when there is a need for an immediate answer. However, he had one client who sent 5 emails a day, each with several detailed questions. Ultimately, the author didn’t really need responses and was just “thinking out loud.” He also said, “Never cold call an agent that is not your agent.” He told the crowd that agents work for their clients. For him, reading manuscripts and answering queries is done in his free time.
His agency response time to a requested full manuscript is usually 6 weeks although each agent in the firm has varying response times. Some are speedy and some are slower. He admits some agencies don’t respond to queries at all assuming their lack of response is their rejection.
If he is representing your book, it’s important to stay in touch with him regarding all pertinent information including signings, appearances, etc. He wants to know everything that happens with your book(s) and believes editorial back and forth depends on the agent.
#5 – Red-Line the Author Agreement or Lower Agent Commission
Contracts have base parameters and most are standard boilerplate. Nitpicking the contract will end the deal. 15% is a standard commission for agents and is not negotiable. Generally, he will first email the agreement and author is not committed with that email. John said it’s important for an agent to be a member of the AAR which has a “canon of ethics.” Always research the agent and agency through Publisher’s Marketplace and Preditor’s & Editor’s (a kind of YELP for agents).
#4 – Be Crazy on the Internet or in Real Life
P.S. This is one of my favorites!
Agents will google you. They will read your Twitter, facebook, blog, etc. Be professional in your online life. If you are a writer, John said, “Your online persona becomes part of your job.” If you want to sell your work, being unprofessional can damage your sales.
To wow your prospective agent, it’s not about the manuscript being interesting but the author being interesting. He looks for websites/tumblr that are fascinating. They might feature popular art or vignettes. He looks for authors who are skilled at getting people interested. He does not advise making your blog about your novel.
#3 – Disregard Your Agent’s Advice & Expertise
Trust that your agent won’t change your book in a way that’s disagreeable. This should be mutual respect. Communication is essential. “Trust me or fire me.”
#2 – Stalk Your Editors Online or in Real Life
“Don’t talk to editors while we’re on submission,” John says. It’s unprofessional and don’t communicate with an editor after rejection. Go to your agent with any problems and let your agent be the bad guy.
#1 – Have Wildly Unrealistic Expectations
Talk to your agent about what you hope to achieve with your work. All goals are worthwhile but an agent needs to know what they are. For example, an author should know that Non-fiction picture books don’t make much money. Listen to your agent to work together to reach your goals.
Really great stuff from John and the audience loved it. Bottom line is always be professional, trust each other, and do your best to find the one that fits. Of course, as with many things worth doing, it sounds easier than it is!
John Cusick is a YA agent and author. He joined Greenhouse Literary Agency in January 2013 after several years with a small New York Agency. He is also a sought after speaker on writing, both at writers’ conferences and via webinars. John is currently looking for fiction by North American authors, from picture books and middle grade (MG) through Young Adult (YA).