Posted On October 12, 2009 by Print This Post

The Great Agent Hunt

Welcome to Romance University! Today, I’d like to introduce you to Sally MacKenzie, author of the “Naked” series. Sally’s Regency-set booksSally_MacKenzie are endearing, hilarious, and deliciously romantic.

Today, Sally shares her thoughts on picking the right agent and will check in to answer questions. Sally’s generously giving away a copy of her newest release The Naked Baron to one lucky commenter.

Here’s her agent-hunting journey…take it away, Sally!

In a perfect world, I suppose I’d have had an agent when I made my first sale, but things didn’t work out that way.   When I signed with Jessica Faust of Bookends, LLC, I had my second two-book contract on the table–and in some ways this was a good thing.  I wasn’t focused on selling, but on finding a person to help me manage my career, and I’d spent a year working with a New York publisher and observing with keen interest–since I knew I would need an agent soon–how my newly and not so newly published pals interacted with their agents.

I was surprised at how many writers seemed to be afraid of their agents–almost as if they were fifth graders again and their agent was their English teacher.  They didn’t want to bother their agent with “dumb” questions or take up their agent’s time or follow up when they didn’t get a response to something.  Many were unhappy, but didn’t discuss their problems with their agent.  Some wanted to move on, but couldn’t bring themselves to terminate the relationship.  They hoped things would get better.  Or they were afraid to be without an agent, even though their agent had become an anchor to their career and their spirit. Those who finally did fire their agent usually wished they’d done so much earlier.

I knew I did not want an agent I’d be afraid of, but what did I want?  Did I want an agent who read my work and gave me editorial feedback or one who considered her job only to sell?  Was it important to me to be with a Big Name Agency?  Would I mind being a small fish in a big pond?  Would I care if I didn’t work with my Big Name Agent but with her assistant instead?  How did I want to communicate with my agent–snail mail, phone, email–and how quickly did I want to hear back from her?  Was she based in New York City–and did I think her location was at all important?  Did I care if my agent was male or female?

It was also important to me to meet–or at least observe–the agent in person, to see what “vibe” I got, what my gut told me.  I eliminated one agent because I knew her voice would drive me crazy.  Another had a limp handshake.  Still another didn’t make eye contact.  All these agents are well respected, wonderful agents, but I didn’t think they would be wonderful for me.

During this time I didn’t actually query any agents.  I didn’t yet know what I wanted, and I was still working on the second book of my first contract, so I didn’t have anything to sell–though I was beginning to realize I could definitely use an agent’s help deciphering the publishing business.   And then the day came when my editor called with this offer of a second contract, and the agent issue suddenly moved from the back burner to boiling over on the front of the stove. I knew there must be many, many good agents out there in publishing-land, but I wasn’t going to be able to meet each of them in the week or two my editor had given me to decide on her offer.  And I was getting the glimmer of a clue that there was probably no one perfect agent for me, but a number of agents with whom I could work.

I’d recently had an interview with Jessica.  I’d liked her.  She had a firm handshake and a pleasant voice and seemed very smart.  I checked the writer grapevine and heard good things, so I called her, reminded her who I was, explained my situation, and asked if she’d like to read some of my work to see if she might be interested in representing me.  She went out and got my published book, and I sent her my next manuscript so she could see where I was going.  It was really important to me that she got my writing–and, happily, it was important to her, too.  I asked her for the names of a couple of her clients, and I called or emailed them to see what they had to say about her and the way she worked.  It was all good, and Jessica offered to represent me.  Now I had to make the decision.

The_Naked_baronJumping into an agent relationship blindly or in desperation is not a good idea.  Not only it is hard emotionally to break off the agent/writer relationship–or at least it seems to be difficult for many writers I’ve talked to–but you’ll have a legal and financial relationship with this person for as long as the books she represented stay in print.  Yet even making a considered decision is nerve-wracking.  No matter how carefully you do your homework, when you finally chose an agent it’s still a leap of faith.  You can’t know for certain you’ll be a good team until you’ve worked together.

I took that leap when I signed with Jessica in July 2005, and I’m delighted to report I’m even happier with my decision today.

Sally, thank you so much for joining us!

Readers, care to share with us your agent-hunting process? Don’t forget – leave a comment for your chance to win a copy of The Naked Baron.

BIO:

USA Today bestselling author Sally MacKenzie writes funny, hot Regency-set historicals for Kensington’s Zebra line, and her books have been translated into Czech, Japanese, Norwegian, Portuguese, Spanish, and Russian.  A native of Washington, D. C., she still resides in suburban Maryland with her husband and whichever of her four sons are stopping back in the nest.  To find out more about Sally and her books, visit her website at Sally MacKenzie.

Next up–Wayne Wednesday. Wayne Levine gives RU readers a look behind the scenes of the BetterMen Retreat. A weekend without women!

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22 Responses to “The Great Agent Hunt”

  1. Hi Sally,
    Thank you for joining us today.This is such a difficult topic for many aspiring authors. Some query their A list, then move on to their B and C list when they don’t receive any interest. It’s starts to feel like the agent is picking you rather than vice versa. But, I would think if an agent is on a writer’s list, whether it’s A, B, or C, she admires the agent’s work.

    Do you have any thoughts on how a writer can keep from “settling” on an agent?

    Also, what were the pros and cons of signing a book contract without an agent?

    Thanks!
    Tracey

    Posted by Tracey Devlyn | October 12, 2009, 7:49 am
    • Hi, Tracey. It’s great to be here! Let me see if I can offer any good answers to your questions–but I’ll say right up front that these are only my opinions. I don’t think anything is cast in stone.

      I think it’s important to try to keep in mind that a bad agent is, indeed, worse than no agent at all. And by “bad agent” I mostly mean an agent that’s a bad fit for you. I don’t really believe that the agent/writer relationship is exactly like a marriage, but maybe in this respect it is. Settling for a spouse because you’re tired of looking or think it’s time to get married, usually doesn’t work out very well. And then you have this legal relationship to untangle when you realize you made a mistake–that’s the same as with an agent.

      Maybe if you can’t interest a good agent, your work isn’t quite ready for publication. Maybe it’s better to put the publication goal aside for a little while to work more on your craft. Or maybe you need to polish up your query or rethink what you want in an agent.

      I totally get the feeling of desperation and frustration that someone could get even thinking about looking for an agent, though. But decisions made in desperation aren’t usually good decisions.

      Another thing to keep in mind is going with any agent, even your “dream” agent is scary. And things still might not work out. You do the best you can and then reevaluate if things aren’t working out.

      As to signing a book contract without an agent–I don’t think there are any pros, though I know there are successful writers that don’t have agents and don’t want an agent. I wouldn’t have signed without an agent if I’d done any agent hunting before I got the offer. Folks told me I should use that first book contract to get an agent, but because I was so clueless, my agent “hunt” would have been something like opening Literary Marketplace and seeing what name my finger landed on. Bad idea. I should have had a literary attorney look over the contract, but I didn’t do that either. I was very lucky I didn’t shoot myself in the foot, because there are clauses, especially the option clause, that can really come back to bite you.

      An agent can help you polish your work till it’s the best it can be. She or he will target your work to editors he/she (okay, I’m going to say “she” from now on or I’ll goes crazy) thinks will like it and with whom she thinks you’ll work well. She might even be able to get an auction going. She’ maybe be able to get you more money in the advance. She’ll be able to spot the bad contract clauses. (Here’s something I didn’t know when I started–a publisher has many “boilerplate” contracts. Your agent has already in other negotiations gotten rid of some of the “bad” contract provisions, so when she’s negotiating for you, she and the publisher start with that boilerplate. An unagented author gets the worst boilerplate–any clause that can be slanted in favor of the publisher is.)

      I love my publisher and my editor, but when we are in contract negotiations, we are not on the same side.

      Hope some of that made sense.

      Posted by Sally MacKenzie | October 12, 2009, 8:50 am
  2. Hi Sally!

    Thanks for a great post…I’ve thought through the agent question, but since I don’t feel I’m ready yet, I haven’t gone any further with it. Just something, as you say, keeping on the back burner.

    When I do decide to take the big step, however, what questions did you ask of an agent that made you feel you were both heading in the same direction? Chances are, I won’t be able to arrange a face-to-face meeting, so the handshake issue is out…=) but what other questions should we be thinking of to ask our agent to see if we’re a good fit?

    thanks!

    carrie

    Posted by carrie | October 12, 2009, 8:22 am
  3. Hi Sally,

    I haven’t queried many agents yet, only about a dozen, and luckily my top choice has asked for a larger partial (150 pages) after reading my first 30 pages. Because she is my number one choice I’m now waiting before I query another batch of agents.

    Do you think that’s wise? I know people always say to continue querying until you get an offer for representation, but I’d be over the moon if this agent made an offer to represent me. I’ve heard so many good things about her. She’s not NY-based and from a small agency.

    Thanks for the great post today.
    Tina

    Posted by Tina Spear | October 12, 2009, 9:09 am
    • HI, Tina. I’d keep querying for two reasons. First, she might say thanks, but no thanks. While getting a request for a partial is great and exciting and means you’re doing something right, it’s not a guarantee of representation. So why waste any time? If you’ve got other queries out there, you’ve got other irons in the fire. If this agent turns you down, you haven’t lost any time. If she offers representation, you can just withdraw the queries.

      But that’s my second reason for keeping those queries out there. You think this agent is your number one choice, but how do you know that? Until you get an offer and have the chance to really interview her, can you really know? An agent might have a great rep, but once you dig deeper you may find it’s maybe not so deserved. Or maybe you’ll find that she’s a great agent for your friends, but maybe won’t be a great agent for you.

      Falling in love with an agent from afar can be like having a crush on a movie star. If you really married the guy, you’d find he wasn’t that big a prize.

      This is not to say you might not be completely right in thinking this is the agent for you, but I’m just saying, being a little skeptical until you have the chance to kick the tires (changing metaphors here).

      Another trap I think we can fall into in looking for an agent is thinking there is only One Agent for Us. I’m not sure about that. Agents aren’t gods. You’re hiring someone to work with you in a business relationship; you’re the one with the goods to sell and they are the salesmen (or women.) I’m guessing an of a number of agents can do a good job of selling your book and helping you along the publication path, so I think it’s probably best not to get your heart set on one agent, especially before you get the chance to see her warts and all. And I’ve got to think all agents have warts–they’re people, so they can’t be perfect.

      Posted by Sally MacKenzie | October 12, 2009, 9:21 am
  4. Hi, Carrie. Great question. There are places you can look in books and on line for a list of questions to ask. There are lots and they can get quite technical. In no particular order, here are some things I would want to know.

    1. How the agent likes to handle the editing process. Some agents just sell, they don’t really edit. Other agents might be very hands on and expect to line edit you. I love how my agent handles things. for me–she reads my stuff when I feel it’s ready to go and points out any general things she thinks aren’t working. Since I knew I wanted something like this, I liked the fact that my agent had been an editor before becoming an agent.

    2. How they like to communicate. My preference is for email, and that’s probably the norm these days. Connected to this is how quickly do they get back to you when you have a question. If you’re a new author, chances are your agent is helping you learn the business, so you want to feel free to ask questions. And also in the communication area, will you work directly with them or with an assistant.

    3. Get the names and email addys of a few clients and then contact them. Talking to clients should give you a better idea of how the agent works.

    Since I was published, I had a better idea of what I needed in an agent than I would have had if I’d gotten an agent first. I also really listened to what my friends were saying about their experiences. So maybe the most important questions to ask are the questions that are most important to you, that concern you the most…if that makes sense.

    One of my friends was really smart about the agent hunt. She had a list of agents she was interested in. She happened to get an offer from an editor through a contest, so she was ready to contact her “A” list right away. Actually, I think she had queries or partials out to a number of them already. She called me and I was able to help her some–but I tried very hard not to push my agent on her. She called the various agents that expressed interest a few times, I think. Even that process told her something–who got back to her quickly, who was really eager to get her, things like that. They were all good agents, but she decided not so much on the name or rep of the agent, but on what she needed and felt comfortable with.

    Hope that helps. I seem to be going on and on in these answers–but they are good questions. Maybe other readers will have things to add as well.

    Posted by Sally MacKenzie | October 12, 2009, 9:10 am
  5. Thanks for the great post, Sally–and the ansers to these questions.

    I’m in the agent hunt right now and although I’ve a few partials and a full out, I’m finding that I’m reluctant to follow up on requests from agents who don’t respond to my original queries for months. Doesn’t give me a feeling of confidence in how quickly that person will work on selling my book. I know they’re busy and as an unpublished writer, I’m low on the list, but…

    Most agents post an expected turn-around time for queries and partials/fulls. When the time extends way beyond that, should that send up a flag or do we just need to be patient?

    Thanks again,
    Barb

    Posted by Barb Huddleston | October 12, 2009, 10:44 am
    • Hi, Barb. I think my agent may have addressed this on her blog, a great source of info, by the way. It’s at http://bookendslitagency.blogspot.com/
      But I’ll give it a shot–I may be inadvertently stealing her ideas.

      I think it depends. As I understand it, agents get to queries in their off hours. They are pretty busy–you hope–with their current clients, working on proposals, shopping stuff, reviewing contracts, etc. And they may actually have lives as well. I would be far more concerned if they were slow getting back to their clients on things–that would be definitely a question to ask the agent and their clients should it come to the point when you’re deciding whether to take an offer of representation. My agent gets back to me when I have a question quickly, usually the same day, sometimes the next day. If it goes much longer than that, I prod her, figuring the email got lost in her inbox.

      If you were in the situation my above-mentioned friend was in, where you have a number of agents interested, I would be wary of signing with someone who didn’t jump into contention for your business right away. Agents are salespeople and when they’ve identified you as someone they want to sign, they should be all over you without being obnoxious, of course. If an agent didn’t try to persuade me to go with her at that point, I’d worry she’d be that way with my manuscripts–not following up with editors, not being enthusiastic, etc.

      If the expected turn-around time has passed, I’d definitely follow up with an agent. It’s possible that something got lost or they are really swamped with client business. If you don’t get a reply to a follow up at least telling you when you should expect to hear something, I think that might make me cross someone off my list.

      Posted by Sally MacKenzie | October 12, 2009, 11:28 am
  6. oops, “answers.”

    Posted by Barb Huddleston | October 12, 2009, 10:46 am
  7. Thanks for the post….I really enjoy reading your books. You have such fun and loveable characters. I find all the behind the scenes stuff very interesting and am very grateful that you go through it so that we can have your final product! Thanks again

    Posted by Heather Line | October 12, 2009, 12:39 pm
  8. Sally -

    What a wonderful post. Thank you!

    A few times, I’ve heard the sentiment “It’s easier to get an editor than an agent.” Can you tell us a little about how you made your first sale without an agent?

    It sounds like you feel selling before having an agent worked to your advantage in the agent hunt process.

    Thanks again for being with RU today!
    Kelsey

    Posted by Kelsey Browning | October 12, 2009, 12:47 pm
    • Hi, Kelsey. It’s great to be here.

      A little bit of history on my writing life. I decided I wanted to be a writer when I was in 5th grade, unfortunately before the era of personal computers–and I was a lousy typist. Nothing much came of the dream, though I did seek out writing opportunities in school. After I graduated from college and dropped out of law school, I wrote my first full manuscript–on a typewriter. Ugh. Just imagine revising when you need to retype most if not all of your 400 page work. Let’s just say I’m pretty sure I didn’t send that book anywhere.

      Then I had four sons. When they were little, I tried writing picture books during their nap time. Those I did try to get published. I got a number of “good” rejections and even went through revisions with one house, but didn’t make a sale. Again, this was in the dark ages before email–but I did have a PC! That’s when I learned something of the publishing business. And I have to say one reason I tried picture books–besides the facts that I had a better chance of keeping 1,000 words straight in my head than 100,000 and much of my day was spent reading that “genre”–was the fact that you could just send them in “over the transom”–you didn’t need an agent.

      Then I got deep into the carpool years and stopped writing for publication. When kid #1 was starting to head to college, I realized it was now or never–either follow the dream or let it go. So I wrote The Naked Duke. After it was finished and revised, I joined RWA and happened upon a yahoo group that was trying to “save” the Regency category in the Golden Heart contest. This was a category for the shorter Regency books that none of the NYC publishers publish anymore–they did publish them then (the fall of 2003), but just barely.

      So, I edited the manuscript to fit the word count and one of the published authors on the loop helped me write a synopsis–another thing that had pushed me into writing picture books; no synopsis needed there. I entered the contest and–surprise!–I made the final round. The final round judges are editors. Hilary Sares at Kensington was one of the judges; she really liked the Duke, so she contacted RWA, got my contact info, and called me out of the blue. I came home from the dentist to find her lovely voice on my answering machine. Luckily I’d been on enough loops by then to know there was indeed a Hilary Sares. She wanted the Duke for the Debut “program” Kensington has that publishes first time authors.

      So, you can see while I wasn’t totally ignorant of publishing, I was pretty clueless. And while we all work as hard as we can to perfect our craft and write great stories, I think luck does play a part in this business.

      Of course, I do sort of wonder, if I’d had an agent, would the Duke have gone to auction? I’ll never know. Things worked out great for me–and as I say, luck plays a role–but I think having an agent first does help limit the role luck plays somewhat.

      In a perfect world, I think I should have had an agent first. But this isn’t a perfect world. And I definitely was more aware of what I wanted and needed in an agent when I did finally get an agent.

      Posted by Sally MacKenzie | October 12, 2009, 1:19 pm
  9. Hi Sally,

    This is such a great post! Thank you for sharing all of your advice with all of us. I am hunting for an agent right now, and it is so hard! There are so many great agents out there. I found online interviews, comments in chat rooms and forums, and even some podcasts.

    I really like to know who the agent represents, and if I have read their client’s work. I love it when I come across a podcast or a blog that lets me get to “know” them. At this time I wouldn’t be able to make it to a conference to meet them in person.

    And it is so great to find a fit. I found about 5 agents I really like, and that are interested in the genre I write in. I want to start there, but it seems overwhelming to query that many at the same time.

    Especially because I know someone who decided to query about 100+ at the same time, and I know I could never do that.. I have a hard enough time trying to figure out who out of the 5 I should query first!

    Do you have any advice on taking the jump?

    A bunch of years ago I decided to send out my first manuscript (I know!) directly to editors. They were so nice and offered a lot of feedback. Now that I have other projects finished.. I would like to start with an agent first. It’s scary thinking of sending my stuff back “out there”.

    Thanks so much for your time, Sally.. I can’t wait to read the Naked Baron! Fun! I love the Naked Nobility. It sounds so fresh.

    Posted by Laura T | October 12, 2009, 12:51 pm
  10. Hi, Laura,

    It sounds to me as if you have things well in hand and a good plan. I definitely think querying 100 plus agents at once is…crazy. I think you should only query people you think you’d want to work with–how can anyone possibly know if they would want to work with any of 100 agents? How much can someone know about that many agents? It’s a little like applying to college–a process I never enjoyed, at least as the mom of the applicant. Good advice is to find some colleges you’d like to attend and apply to them; don’t waste your money applying places you’d rather die than go to.

    As to taking the jump–I think you’ve just got to close your eyes and do it. Wade in there. And I think five is a good number to query at one time. I don’t think you should do one at a time–that could take forever. It IS scary, but so is being published, having your stuff out there for anyone to read. (Here’s a tip–no matter how great your stuff is, someone is NOT going to like it and will probably post his/her opinions all over the internet. The need for a thick hide doesn’t stop when you’ve got a book contract.)

    Posted by Sally MacKenzie | October 12, 2009, 1:30 pm
  11. Hi Sally. All of my questions have been answered already (LOL) so I’ll just say thank you for a great post!

    Posted by Adrienne Giordano | October 12, 2009, 4:07 pm
  12. Thanks, Adrienne. I do seem to have gone on at some length, eh? But, again, these are just my opinions and observations. I’m sure others might have a different take on the subject.

    Posted by Sally MacKenzie | October 12, 2009, 4:17 pm
  13. Sally, thanks again for joining us! You’ve provided some great advice. Every little bit of knowledge helps writers make informed decisions.

    Best,
    Tracey

    Posted by Tracey Devlyn | October 12, 2009, 5:02 pm
  14. Hi Sally, I love the Naked books! Okay, fangirl moment out of the way. :)

    I have always sort of likened agent hunting to relationship hunting (or yes, boyfriend or hubby hunting…). You get so caught up in the thought of “Will they like me?” that you forget how important it is that YOU like THEM. A relationship needs to be a two-way street, whatever the type.

    But right now, because I’m with a small press, I’m okay with being “single.” LOL But since I know I’ll be branching out soon, I’m doing a lot of what you did — watching agents, the relationships my friends have with theirs and making notes about what I think works for me. One friend has an agent who would scare me under my desk. I’d be petrified to ask her anything. LOL She’s a great agent, but not one I want for me. So it does help to think more in terms of “what’s the best fit” rather than “God, I hope someone likes me…”

    Posted by Jeannie Ruesch | October 13, 2009, 2:02 pm
  15. Hi, Jeannie. Fangirl moment–ha ha. You’ve got me grinning–thanks! So glad you like those Naked nobles.

    You’re exactly right–what’s a perfect agent for one writer, would be a nightmare for another. Sort of like if I were married to my brother-in-law, I’d probably drive him crazy–or as we Regency writers liked to say, to Bedlam–in no time flat. But the dh seems to tolerate me fairly well.

    The other thing to keep in mind–which I can’t remember if we really touched on, but which I was thinking about today–is you’re getting an agent not to make a sale so much–though when you’re trying to break in that’s often the main focus–but to help you manage your career. An agent helps with all the business stuff, of course, but also helps you decide where you should go next. And here’s a little dirty secret–it’s sometimes easier to get that first contract than to get a second contract. So once you’re swimming in the NY publishing waters, it really helps to have a publishing professional at your side. Or at least that’s my opinion.

    Good luck with your quest!

    Posted by Sally MacKenzie | October 13, 2009, 2:45 pm

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