If you’ve been reading this blog for about as long as I’ve been writing it, you know I haven’t been shy about talking about parting with an agent and signing with a new one. You know I don’t think there’s any shame in ending a relationship that isn’t right for you, and that I definitely don’t think you’re “damaged goods” when you go into querying again.

I don’t wanna write too much here about leaving your agent because I already talked about it in that post, but you can listen to me (and agent extraordinaire Jenn Laughran) talk about it in this podcast. You can also read a great post about it from Patrice Caldwell, who’s gone from editor to agent while also being an author who’s switched from agent to agent!

I do, however, wanna talk about the part where you look for what’s next when you already have something of a career behind you.

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If you’re not familiar with my career, in a nutshell: I’ve published three YAs with a small press, two of which were under my first agent and one of which was under my second agent. I’ve self-published three NAs. I’ve been in three anthologies, all of which I’ve handled myself as a contributor. And I’ve had an agent sign me for a single project (through very mutual agreement), His Hideous Heart, which is releasing through a major publisher. It’s all a little messy and complicated, and on top of all of that, I’m in the NYC area, have a lot of experience in publishing, and I’m a blogger for B&N, which means I’ve also developed a lot of relationships with publishing professionals, which puts me in an extra-weird spot and has given me something of a “platform,” as the kids say.

It puts me in a spot that made a lot of people think that if I just snapped my fingers, I’d get a new agent. So, a few thoughts on that:

  1. I did have agents ask me to send them my query when I was ready with a new manuscript. I did not have agents tell me to just get in touch so they can sign me up. It’s like the verbal equivalent of doing PitMad: you get a little bit better of an idea who might be into you, but it doesn’t mean anything without the work behind it.
  2. I wasn’t looking to do it that way, and here’s why: after three years of not finishing anything other than short stories, I didn’t want to sign on with an agent without being sure I could finish another novel. Also, after having had an agent who was so Not That Into Me that she shot down two completed manuscripts from me in a row, I wanted to make sure an agent was signing me for what I actually do.
  3. I cannot emphasize that last line enough. One fear when you’re going into querying with something of a platform is that that‘s what agents want from you, and to be honest, I did still leave some of my phone conversations with offering agents feeling that way. it doesn’t matter how long you’ve been doing this; an author never wants to feel like you don’t care that much about the book they’ve queried with.
  4. I specifically focus more on my platform here than my publishing history because honestly my publishing history isn’t hugely notable; there are a lot of authors out there with indie histories, and if you think I did unusually well for a small press, let me tell you, I did not. Please still buy my books. For other authors, obviously their publishing history is a stronger pull, but mine isn’t much of a selling point.

Hmm, where was I. Oh yes! Querying somewhere in the middle of your career! This thing that feels extremely weird because not only have you had an agent before, but you’ve been on bookshelves before. “How am I back at the beginning??” you wonder. “Aren’t I supposed to be past this??”

Look, straight-up, some authors are past this. Some agents just kinda jump to a new agent with a proposal or really just amazing pub credits that require a constant partner. I don’t know at what point you’re officially qualified to be one of those authors, but my personal feeling was that I wasn’t one of those authors, so I can only address this whole thing from that perspective. There are definitely situations in which you may proceed differently!

This post is for people like Me, people who have some stuff behind them that wasn’t a Career Maker, whose needs changed or personnel changed or whatever whatever, who are ready to move forward and need a new publishing partner to do it with. People who aren’t newbies and know not to fall for the schmagentry but also just kinda didn’t expect to end up back here and don’t know what of the same rules apply from the first go-around and what don’t.

So, again, my backstory:

I’ve been going without a full-time agent for about five years, and only recently have I wanted one again, so in pursuit of that goal, I put blogging on the backburner, prioritized finishing my novel, sent it to my CPs, revised the hell out of it, and queried! Having been around the block a time or twenty (and having talked to people about their experiences for the past five years), I had a realllllly short query list this time around, focusing on agents who:

  1. Represented both YA and Adult, since I knew I wanted to write in both of those categories
  2. Bluntly speaking, I hadn’t heard lousy things about, or even just experienced things with that told me they were not for me for this particular partnership
  3. Had demonstrated interest and experience with diverse books
  4. Had sales and experience
  5. I thought would generally like not just the manuscript I was querying but what I had planned for the future
  6. Came from agencies with good subrights records

There’s nothing unusual about this criteria list, and I imagine it pretty closely resembles most people’s. Here, though, you’re seeing the first two steps:

  1. Write and polish a manuscript
  2. Make a list of what you want in an agent

Looks kinda exactly like the first time around, right? It mostly is! But that list is pretty long and pretty specific, and it makes some exclusions I wouldn’t necessarily look for the first time around. Do you think I cared about subrights in 2012? I did not! Did I factor in Adult each time I queried with YA? I did not! But at this point, I want and need an agent that can handle whatever I throw at them, and it’s gonna be a lot more mixed now that I’m a person who gets more, different opportunities than I did when I was just starting out. Plus, that second item on the list filters out a lot more people over the years…

Of course, this got thrown up in the air a little when I ended up entering PitMad immediately after, so I’m going to talk a little bit about how each point went down, bearing in mind I actually ended up sending about 15 more queries than I’d ever planned to. First, though, a quick rundown of how I actually did that research, since I know some people have been out of this game a while and aren’t sure if the same tools are still the best:

  • For what agents rep, Querytracker is a good bet, but follow up by looking at their actual websites. Additionally, know that even if it’s not an agent’s specialty, it doesn’t mean they can’t or won’t sub it; that’s a conversation you have. I did end up querying some agents who are known to be Kidlit-only, but when we talked about Adult, they were totally open to do it using industry resources and doing their own networking.
  • For who to avoid, Writers Beware and Absolute Write tend to be the tried and true. Of course, as with all things, keep nuance in mind; there’s criticism that means an agent is a red flag incarnate, and criticism that suggests an agent isn’t the best choice for a specific kind of author. For example, it’s not “bad” for an agent not to be editorial, or for an agent not to be a handholder. It is bad for an agent to withhold your sub list.
  • For sales and subrights, Publishers Marketplace is the best, but it’s not free. It might be worth paying $25 for a single month to do your research, but it’s not like you can’t find information by combing through the free Lunch Deluxe Weekly emails or Publishers Weekly deal announcements, or even just looking up authors and seeing where they’ve sold to and who repped them for those deals. You’re gonna use that same information and some really basic Twitter/MSWL research to figure out the rest anyway.
  • MSWL is a newer tool than when a lot of us were starting out, and it’s very cool, but don’t be overly reliant on it, especially for self-rejection.
  • Talk to your friends. For the love of God, talk to your friends. Learn how to filter, don’t take a single person’s unproven word on things, etc. etc. but do not be embarrassed to ask questions; that’s what we’re all here for.

Okay, so! The points!

I’m clearly not dancing around the fact that I got multiple offers here. This isn’t to brag; it’s to make clear that I’m working with a decent data set. It’s also, though, what has ended up being the scenario for most of my friends who’ve queried mid-career, so it’s not without its relevance regardless.

  • Represented both YA and Adult, since I knew I wanted to write in both of those categories

While this had been my initial target, thanks to PitMad, I ended up querying some people I didn’t know repped both, and when we had our phone conversations, it was a very upfront topic for me: “What are my options in terms of writing both YA and Adult?” Some agents were wholly onboard, some were willing to try, some felt more dismissive of it, and some, clearly did not really want to do it. It’s…not hard to pick out. So if you do want to write in more than one category or more than one genre, A) you should really talk about it on the call, especially since the query doesn’t give you a chance, and B) you should decide where you need the agent to be at on this.

  • Bluntly speaking, I hadn’t heard lousy things about, or even just experienced things with that told me they were not for me for this particular partnership

The former is pretty obvious; the latter, maybe not so much. How this played out? I skipped on querying a “good” agent who asked me to, who definitely is a good agent but didn’t treat me nicely the last time I queried; I was never going to be able to shake how I felt about that.

I skipped on querying an agent I know to be fairly attached to their visions of how books should come out, and I’m too stubborn for that.

I skipped on querying a very good agent who told me they don’t like to work on a certain kind of book that I personally hope to work on in the future.

I skipped on an agent I know from querying in the past is just way too slow for my liking.

Your experience can teach you a lot even about the people you didn’t sign with, and there’s nothing wrong with letting that inform your choices, especially in the first round.

  • Had demonstrated interest and experience with diverse books

Obviously this isn’t gonna be of equal interest to everyone, but beyond the fact that it’s a personal interest of mine from a support perspective, I was also querying an f/f book with plans to write more. So, it’s something I wanted agents to care about from a personal perspective, but it’s also something I wanted them to support me doing in the future. That’s level 1. Level 2, I wanted to know that they knew something about who wanted the kind of books I was writing, that they at least knew what they were doing when they subbed it. Yes, ideals matter, but this is a business decision and there’s a space to be both idealistic and mercenary in your thinking.

  • Had sales and experience

I think this is always an important one to talk about, because people always have Feelings around “new agents” and it’s important to dispel that it’s a unilateral category.

I had already been a new agent’s client and had mixed feelings about the experience, but when I left it was primarily because said new agent was becoming The YA agent at another agency I didn’t know. Mentorship is really freaking important for a new agent, in my opinion but like the kind of opinion I think is really a fact. Again, I ended up cracking on this list item due to PitMad, and it taught me a lot about it, because some new agents had senior agents with them throughout the whole process, and some were totally solo, and it made me wish I could have a talk with the latter’s agencies to say “Throw some more weight behind these people!”

To be clear, I don’t think going with a new agent is a bad choice at all, but in the best-case scenario where they’re well-mentored, you might be dealing with two people, not just one, and that’s something to keep in mind as you also have your own opinions. In the scenario where they’re not well-mentored, well…I leave that to you!

I 100% queried new agents I would happily recommend to other people after speaking with them, is my point here, and that I would have comfortably gone with if I hadn’t had more experienced options, but this time around, experience happened to be of particular importance to me.

  • I thought would generally like not just the manuscript I was querying but what I had planned for the future

This was a big one for me given my earlier agent experiences, and it landed in some very different ways. There was:

  1. Enthusiasm about everything (rare, extremely nice, varying levels of believable)
  2. Interest in everything, with some suggestions about how to best make that work (rarest, contributed significantly to my ultimate choice)
  3. Not much interest in what else I wanted to do, but confidence that they would submit anything within reason (something I would’ve been totally fine with if I didn’t have my personal past experiences under my belt)
  4. Cautious interest that sounded more like “we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it after selling this very commercial YA” (reasonable! and the most common)
  5. “Ehhh whatever, let’s talk about this book though” (Just…not what I’m looking for at this point in my career, at all.)
  • Came from agencies with good subrights records

Eh, what’s to say about this? Some agents clearly knew a lot about how it worked and how it generally went down for their agencies and my kind of work in particular, and some didn’t, and that’s whatever; I’m not an author whose career is ever gonna be made by subrights. However, there are others for whom it’s much more relevant (e.g. authors who self-pub very successfully) and then you definitely want to make sure you’re happy with how an agency does this, and you also definitely wanna see an agency contract or term sheet, something some agents provided without asking and some did not.

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Okay! We are now 2500 words into this post and I don’t know if it’s helping a damn bit, but I’m just gonna keep going and discuss my favorite mid-career question that I had on a few calls:

What did you learn from your past experiences that you need/want in a new agent?

For the record, I’ll give some examples from my own answers:

  • Communication is very important to me. I care about speed but I also care a lot about transparency, and when I say I want to see my rejections, I literally mean “please click ‘forward’ on my rejection emails, no accompanying handholding necessary.”
  • I want to be able to give opinions, and while I defer to an agent’s expertise and of course their experience and networks, I have my own experiences and network and I’d like to be heard on that front.
  • I don’t need or really want a heavily editorial agent, but I do then need to know at what point you get involved in a manuscript’s development and what happens if you don’t like what I deliver.

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So what else comes up?

Well, you might be asked to give a rundown on your publishing history and specifically why you left your past agents.

You might be asked what you see yourself writing going forward.

You might be asked what your planned followup book will be, and discuss whether that fits into a brand of sorts.

And of course, there might be editorial notes. Let’s talk about those.

Editorial notes were a complicated part of this process for me, and once again, I’ll break it up into how they fell into categories for me.

  • Really great reads of the book with some notes I really loved or at least found useful that I’ve already put into my revision
  • Notes that definitely had their merit and showed a lot of thought but didn’t feel like a fit for me and my style
  • Notes that strongly missed the mark for me and felt, for lack of a better description, like very hetero reads, which I don’t say to make a judgment but to say that was clearly not going to be a match for me as an author, especially considering what I like to write

Where I got really hung up on editorial notes was two-fold. First of all, at this time you’re so proud and excited you got all these offers, you have a bajillion different opinions on how to tear it apart. It’s one thing to have an editor, but this is A Lot of people editing your work, and in my case, only three people had ever looked at it before they did.

Lemme tell you, not every agent uses the sandwich method; some of them dove right in to what they wanted to change before ever saying a word of praise on the call and it is jarring.

Second of all, that category of notes that had their merit? I felt bad for not liking them. I felt lazy for not doing them. Even though I didn’t think it was right for my work! I played a lot of “Do I only think it’s wrong because I don’t wanna do it?” And thank God for publishing friends to remind me that I’m not lazy when I like the notes; I jump right the hell in when I like the notes. I know when something feels right and I’m allowed to keep trusting my instincts, especially this far down the line.

So uhhh I think that’s it? Choosing an agent at this stage was really freaking hard, and yes, I cried, and no, I don’t think there’s a way to ever be “sure” you did the right thing, only to go with your gut. The greatest factors in my choice didn’t end up being exactly what I thought they’d be and that’s always a scary thing, but sometimes you have to go through the process to figure out the thing you need most that you might not have even realized you could get.

And of course, this is just my experience; there are tons of factors that vary from one to another. For instance, consider that I’m not interested in, say, writing for Marvel, while this is a huge career goal for other authors and so querying someone who’s clearly made inroads there is something that might not have been on your radar as a debut but should be now.

Oh, and the “talking to clients” thing? Really, really do the “talking to clients” thing. Really. It can make a world of difference.

So, uh…any questions?

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