A peach of an agent

July 31, 2010

Is this how the agent search makes you feel? Like a rather bruised ‘second’ – a soft fruit just a little past it sell-by date? Maybe you’re even tempted to include a PS in your latest query: ‘Please, please buy me. I won’t cost much, honest!’
Finding an agent for your work must be like the seventh ring of hell. Every knock, every well-placed kick makes it just a little harder to struggle up again, but somehow you know you must keep venturing back into that fiery torment.

What you may not realize is that everyone in this industry – author, agent, editor, publisher, scout – has experienced the pain of an arrow to the heart. Many. And probably more recently than you know. This is a business that is intensely competitive at every level. It is not a science, but a mixture of business and art. Opinions can be very subjective, and decisions can be influenced by very subliminal, often unconscious factors.

I have administered pain to a number of people this week – and I’m talking editors – as I resolved a very big deal (more on that soon). Not everyone could get this book and author, however hard they tried, however good they were. Some people had to lose in order for one to win.

It is hard to administer rejection – and it is hard to receive it (and I have). Look, in the world of publishing, we all bleed some time. And you might not believe how involved, how committed, how emotional, we professionals can get when we want a particular book and author. We may tell you that it’s all business, but the truth is – we really, really feel it. We’ve just trained ourselves to kick the wall in private and sound philosophical in public!

But to every rejection there is an antithesis. The one who wins. And don’t we all want to be that winner! Courted and admired, the centre of everyone’s attention, success is a fabulous feeling – even if we know we can’t stay forever in that circle of light.

With ever more agents on the children’s/YA scene (I can count 10 new ones in the past year without even trying), the most standout new writers will increasingly experience the thrilling, bewildering fluster of The Agent Battle. When a number of us – the biggest one I’ve been in so far has included NINE agents – turn our guided-missile charm on a debut author. We all want her/him, we all know how well we could sell him/her, and even more importantly – we have fallen in love! This person has beguiled us, seduced us, thrilled us with their story – AND WE JUST HAVE TO HAVE IT!

For the author this can feel like a ‘be careful what you wish for ‘situation. Look,you wanted an agent – but how do you decide between five or TEN? And what happens when you realize you haven’t a clue how to make the decision and don’t even know what questions to ask?

And perhaps, horror of horrors, you realize these agents of ice-cold repute are actually REAL PEOPLE who FEEL THINGS. Perish the thought, but (let’s whisper this) they are actually quite nice! How will you say no to them?

Now, after all that dreaming, you finally have to put your eggs (or melons) in one basket.


So, here are my thoughts – as objective as possible – on what you should look for when choosing between agents:

1 Do you like this person and feel comfortable chatting with them? Is there some level of personal chemistry? If the agent feels seriously intimidating to you, analyse it (don’t mistake intimidation for your natural shyness in this new milieu) and if you know in your heart that you’re always going to be scared of this individual, they’re not right for you.

2 Don’t go ga-ga just because of a Big Name (agent or agency). Small agencies can do a great job; start-ups can be powerhouses. You could be a big star on a boutique list, but a little overlooked on a list of huge clients.

3 Trawl online for interviews and information about the agent. Most of us are all over the web. Talk to the agent’s client(s) – BUT please remember we can’t be constantly putting people in touch with our clients, so be considerate. [I once asked a client to email a prospective author on my behalf – at the author’s request. My client’s message was never even acknowledged. This is embarrassing and time-wasting. Please be respectful.]

4 If you know in your heart of hearts that you’ve had an offer from the agent you want, don’t put the rest of us through flaming hoops that can take several weeks of work and stress. Be thorough, analyse your own heart and mind, and then make the decision.

5 Make sure you go with an agent working in your area – but don’t think because your book is YA, you should go with someone who exclusively sells YA. At Greenhouse we like to represent a range of ages and genres within children’s/teen fiction – look, we all sell to the same editors. Just because an agent reps five major authors doing the same kind of thing as you, doesn’t mean they’re necessarily the best home for your book. I like to take on people who are contrasting and offer something a bit different within the agency.

6 VERY IMPORTANT – CONTRACTS: Prioritize asking about contracts. I have concerns over the lack of contracts knowledge around. At Greenhouse (and all other good agencies) contracts are hugely important. I work closely with a contracts colleague (Kevin – aka The Smiling Assassin) who has 20+ years of corporate transatlantic contract experience. And I myself have been negotiating contracts at least that time (big and small, with publishers and media lawyers). Every line is important to us. A deal is not just about up-front money; you need precision and detail throughout your agreement. It should optimize your success – and protect you if things go wrong.

7 VERY IMPORTANT – FOREIGN/SUBSIDIARY RIGHTS: At Greenhouse we put great value on all foreign and subsidiary rights, including both halves of the English-language equation North America/ UK and Commonwealth (depending whether you are a Brit or American reading this). There are very, very few occasions when we will grant more than North America to a US house or UK/Comm to a British house. Why? Because reserving the other rights for you and selling them ourselves will make you considerably more money in the long run, particularly if your book is likely to be of international interest.

This is a complicated argument and I’m happy to return to it later in more detail, but I worry when I see agents giving away World rights every time. Again, a deal is not just about that up-front advance. Will your agent approach your interests with care, patience and meticulousness – not just a mad rush to agree terms and post a deal?

8 Look for an agent interested in your long-term career, not just your first book. Of course, we can’t guarantee you will follow up with a second (or third etc) as commercially viable as your first, but listen to whether the agent talks about ‘representing authors’ or just projects. You want to stick with this agent for a good, long time – they will become one of the most significant people in your life.

9 I forgot this first time around, so just doing an ‘edit’ to make sure it’s included. VERY IMPORTANT: Will the agent return your phone calls and emails? I see an increasing number of ‘exiles’ from other agencies appearing in my submissions inbox. Why? The biggest reason cited is non-communication. Non-communication during submission process, and on ordinary follow-up stuff. The writing life can be anxious, isolated and stressful – you need someone who will be your ‘professional friend’, reassuring you and answering you in a timely way. Obviously that doesn’t mean you pester your agent constantly about nothing (balance, people!), but if your question/request is reasonable and necessary then your agent should reply fairly rapidly – if only to say, ‘Sorry, I can’t get to it now, but I should be able to get to it next week – or whenever.’ You are not the only star in the firmament, but your agent should make you feel like you are!

So, the Big Decision. Are you going to be in a safe pair of hands? Will your agency help you grow into a ripe and delectable fruit? Nothing in life is guaranteed, but if you feel a strong confidence that they will, then banish paralysis and jump with bold excitement.


Finally, I’m off on vacation this coming week until later in August. As you’ll see on our submission guidelines, Julia will be taking over the North-American queries inbox while I’m away. You are very lucky because she has fantastic taste, loves a great story, and you can be sure we’ll be discussing submissions of special interest on my return.

Enjoy a fruity, tasty, and very successful summer!

PS: Photos taken at Del Ray Farmers’ Market, Northern Virginia