Saturday, October 17, 2009

“How many agents should I approach?”

On page 24 of your book
The First Five Pages, which you wrote in the year 2000, you state: "Instead of feeling you have to query twenty or thirty agents, narrow your list to two or three." Lately, however, in your recent blog posts as well as in your newest book, How To Land And Keep A Literary Agent, you seem to advocate a different approach, one of submitting to 50-100 agents simultaneously. Could you share with us the sorts of factors that have inspired you to evolve your thinking in that regard? Thanks in advance.
-Eric Vincent

A good question, and I can see, in retrospect, how this may seem confusing. If there is ever a future edition of The First Five Pages, I will be sure to clarify this. Thanks for pointing it out. Let me clarify here:

In general, I advise that aspiring authors approach at least 50 agents when submitting their query letters. If they can find 100 or even 150 agents who are appropriate for their work (and effective), then so much the better. Publishing is enormously subjective, and sometimes you just need to have a large number of people look at a manuscript in order to find someone who gets it.

The reason I emphasize this point is because I have encountered so many authors who have given up after receiving rejections from merely a handful of agents. It is quite possible that in many of these cases, if these authors had simply queried 50 agents (instead of 10), it would have made their difference in their getting published. As an agent, when I submit a book to publishers, I will often receive dozens of rejections before I sell it. And in many cases, these books go on to become bestsellers. If I had given up after 5 or 10 or 20 rejections, these books may never have been published.

When I wrote that sentence which you quoted from my book, The First Five Pages, it was in the context of urging aspiring authors to take greater care when researching and approaching agents. So many queries I had received were addressed “To Whom it May Concern,” and were about topics that I clearly did not represent. It was obvious to me that these authors had not taken much time to research agents, and were merely sending out as many letters as they possibly could. In the book, I wanted to make the point that it is better to mail off queries to a few, select agents who are well researched than it is to merely shotgun it off to 100 agents whom you have not carefully researched. My intention, though, was not to suggest that one should terminate the submission after only a few queries. On the contrary, as I say throughout the book, one should never give up.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

“If my agent doesn’t like my next book, should I fire him?”

“If you submit something to your agent and he/she doesn’t like it, do you believe him/her that it’s not up to par, or do you spring free and find another agent who does like it?”

--question asked by Barbara DeMarco-Barrett on behalf of The American Society of Journalists and Authors. Barbara is host of “Writers on Writing,” a weekly radio show airing on KUCI-FM (88.9) in California

To be thorough, one cannot give a blanket answer for this question, as each case will vary, depending on a number of factors. This really must be answered on a case by case basis. That said, here are a few general issues to consider:

If your agent has represented you for a number of years, sold many books for you, made you a lot of money, and has always been right in the past, and one day you come to him with a new manuscript and he doesn’t like it, then chances are that he knows what he’s talking about. You should respect his opinion, put it aside and write something new. Having representation with a good agent is very valuable in and of itself, and it may be worth setting aside a particular book to continue that relationship, particularly if you trust your agent’s opinion. You always need your agent to be excited about what he’s selling: if he’s not, then you don’t want him to be out there selling it. (Keep in mind that I say “chances are,” because this business is not a science, and there is always a remote possibility that your agent, who had always been right in the past, makes a mistake in this case, and steers you away from writing the next Da Vinci Code. One never knows.)

On the other hand, if your agent has never landed you any book deals, and if you come to him with a new manuscript which you feel strongly about and he rejects it, then it may be time to look elsewhere—particularly if he is unwilling to give you good reasons for his rejection, or to help brainstorm with you to come up with something more marketable.

In either case, before making the decision to terminate the relationship, get some objective feedback: share your manuscript with several trusted readers. If they all have issues with it, too, then it may help you realize that your agent is in the right.

More importantly, there are steps you can take to make sure you don’t end up in this situation to begin with. First, you can—and should—bring your agent in at the very beginning of the process: share your concept with him before you begin writing. If he doesn’t like it, ask him why. There may be a good reason: perhaps he knows of competitive proposals, or recalls similar proposals that weren’t able to find a publisher or that performed poorly as published books. Perhaps he can help you fine-tune the concept, or brainstorm to help you come up with a new concept altogether.

If you are writing fiction, you can share pages with him as you go: for example, before spending years writing 500 pages, stop at page 50 and show him the pages and a detailed synopsis for the rest. If he’s a good agent, he should be able to make an evaluation based on this. If he doesn’t like it, it can save you years of writing.

Agents will appreciate that you respect them enough to bring them in early, and it will make them feel more invested in the project. If you don’t trust your agent’s opinion enough to do this, then he probably shouldn’t be your agent to begin with. And if you are the type of author who writes whatever he feels like writing, regardless of what others think, then you need to realize that a long term career in publishing needs to be collaborative.

That said, there is always the human factor: agents have been wrong about many famous books in the past, and they will be wrong many times in the future. In this industry, one can only make an educated guess. If you have a burning passion for a particular manuscript you’ve written, and your gut screams that you should go elsewhere, then sometimes you will need to listen to that. Just don’t make the decision hastily: in my book, How to Land (and Keep) a Literary Agent, I discuss the six reasons to drop an agent, and all the factors you must consider carefully before doing so. If you terminate the relationship over a particular manuscript, you may find yourself in a position where you cannot sell the new manuscript and cannot find a new agent.