What I Look for in an Agent

Many writers are so eager to find an agent that they accept the first offer they get. That’s understandable, but the longer I query, the more I realize that find representation is a two way process, just like any job hunt. If I must capture an agent’s interest, an agent must convince me that they can represent me properly. After all, the relation between a writer and an agent is a major business relationship. It only makes sense for each side to evaluate the other. For that reason, as I query, I am starting to develop lists of what to look for. It’s very tentative, like everything else about querying, and can only be developed by inference.

For instance, how old should an agent be? An agent fresh out of grad school may have ambition and a desire to build a client list, but is that enough? Do they belong to an agency where they can be supported by veteran agents? What are their connections in publishing? If they are too inexperienced, they may be no more useful in placing my work than I am.

Conversely, an agent with more experience may have more publishing connections, but by signing with them, I may be one horse in an overcrowded stable. Are they so busy they can’t give me much attention? Have they become more of an executive managing other agents than an active agent?

One indicator may be an agent’s guideline for submissions. In particular, I have become wary of agents who want only the first five pages of a manuscript. This criterion seems to me a poor one, not just because of its brevity, but because the opening is probably the most revised part of any manuscript. Just like a court prosecutor can seem more interested in clearing cases than ensuring justice is done, so an agent who asks for five pages may be more interested in making quick decisions than in the quality of the work. At least when an agent asks for a full manuscript, I can have some confidence that they have delivered a considered judgment.

As for the agents and publishers who want to know how many Twitter followers I have and what marketing plans I have — forget them. These days, writers must be prepared to market their own work, and I’m prepared to do my bit, but these questions soon sound like the burden of marketing will fall entirely on me. If I wanted to do that, I would self-publish.

Of course, I will probably not be spoiled for choice. Moreover, after a few rejections, the temptation to fall at the feet of the first offer and weep tears of gratitude for the attention becomes almost irresistible. But in the long run,I would be doing no one a favor if I did not evaluate agents just as they evaluate me.

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