There is a lot of information out there about how to secure an agent. You can browse sites like Absolute Write and Agent Query Connect. You can read incredibly helpful blog posts by fellow writers and agents. You can follow agents on Twitter, and utilize the #askagent hashtag. And, obviously, you can check out my Perpetual WIPs series 😉
But what there isn’t a lot of is information about the reality of Life After Agent, and in fact, I’d venture to say there’s a whole lot many writers don’t know about the ways in which agents can vary after you’ve all signed on the dotted line. You can read all the interviews and ask all the “right” questions during “The Call,” but the fact of the matter is there are just some things you can’t even know to ask until you bump up against them, some situations you simply can’t foresee until you’ve been doing this a while, some things that just aren’t issues until they are.
And now that I’ve been doing this thing for a while, and talking to other people who have as well, I’m finally beginning to understand just how much information isn’t really being conveyed on a grand scale. So I’m hoping to fix that a little bit, because in the age of Twitter and Facebook (sort of) and blogs, oh my, there’s just no excuse for lacking communication!
To preface, the following statements aren’t judgments of any agents. They aren’t statements about any agents or agencies being bad or good or supportive or not. They’re simply ways in which agents are different, and I happen to think they’re pretty good things to know, and maybe even good things to ask on your Call, or to ask of other clients when making your decision, in case any of these things happen to be of importance to you as an agent-seeking writer.
An agent is not obligated to represent every single one of your projects. In fact, an agent is obligated to represent exactly one: the one he or she offers on. (And obviously even that can fall into question if a writer isn’t sticking to the contract.) Yes, you may be done querying for the duration of your time as agent-client, but that doesn’t mean that you can throw whatever you want at the wall and expect them to sub whatever sticks. There are several different ways an agent can respond to reading a manuscript from a client that they do not care for, and yes, one of them is to simply say, “Nope, not subbing that.”
Think that sounds cruel? Remember this about agents: they get no money until you sell. So if your agent subs your book for a year and it doesn’t sell, he or she literally just put in a year of work on your manuscript for no reward. Can you imagine putting a year of work into a project for which you got no money and which you didn’t love?
That said, you may want an agent who’s really committed to the idea of being a career agent, who’ll rep whatever you write (within reason) no matter what, albeit with tons of revision. As far as topics to discuss on The Call go, this is a pretty good one, and it’s why discussing your other WIPs and ideas can be very, very important.
An agent can refuse to submit your manuscript to certain publishers. You might be the kind of writer who only wants to see your stuff published by a big six. Or you might want an agent who’ll sub to a combination of large publishers, mid-size, and small. You may want to go to every conceivable editor. Or you may want to set a limit at 1-2 rounds of 8-10 editors and stop there no matter what. The thing is, submission strategy is up to your agent; he or she is the one who makes this decision. So if you want to ensure that you’re going to go to big-six publishers, or to small presses, or whatever, rather than leaving this completely up to your agent’s discretion, this is conversation you probably want to have at the get-go.
Now, you might be thinking, “Duh, my agent wants me to sell, period – of course he or she will sub everywhere,” but again, remember that whole “earnings” thing. Agents’ cuts come from percentages; the standard is generally 15% of your advance. So when you sell to a small publisher and that advance is somewhere between non-existent and a thousand dollars? Again, that might be an amount they don’t see as worth their while. (And you may want an agent who doesn’t think that way, obviously.) Or, alternatively, with larger publishers, they may not like the way a certain house operates, or its contract terms. Plus, you know, agent-editor relationships, etc.
An agent can insist on “branding” you. Love writing lots of different genres? That’s awesome. But not every agent is going to want to embrace the glorious chameleon that you are. This isn’t because agents are lazy or don’t want you to do what you love. In some cases it’s because branding you as “the writer of dance-themed contemporary YA” (to use a really narrow example) simply works. In some cases, particularly with agents who have smaller client lists, it’s because they might want to ensure that their clients aren’t competing with each other. So if you think this may be an issue for you, again, that falls under “discuss this!!!”
An agent can leave his/her agency… and/or agenting, period. Now sure, you know this, because agenting is a profession, and if the pope can resign, someone who reps authors can probably do it too. And no, in this case, I actually wouldn’t really recommend having that conversation early, because that’s weird. But it does happen, and it’s just good to know that. So what happens when it does? Well, if he or she moves to another agency, hopefully they’ll just notify you and take you with them and all will be cool. Or you might be given an option to stay with the agency as opposed to the agent. (For example, as in this post by Fiona McLaren.) Or it might the point at which a client culling happens. And no, there’s nothing you can really do here, but at least if it does happen, you’ll know you’re neither the first nor last to have experienced it.
And that’s the truth about all of these things – it might hurt when you bump up against something you didn’t expect, but 1) it’s not personal and 2) it’s not just happening to you. Remind yourself of that as many times as you need to, and if/when the time comes that you find yourself looking for representation, whether for the first or second or third time, take the time to make sure you’re asking the questions that matter to you. Because really, both writer and agent are ideally looking to be partners for the long haul; shouldn’t you give yourself the best shot at making that happen?