Posted On May 16, 2012 by Print This Post

Sara Megibow Sells Romance – Who is a “good” literary agent?

Sara is back and she is tackling another sticky issue – what does it mean to be a good literary agent?  Now, we’ve e all been involved in those conversations about response times, rejection letters, and general deets on literary agents and their working style.  But, what should really matter when seeking representation?  Check out what Sara has to say . . .


Who is a “good” literary agent?

I recently received the following email in our query inbox, “Dear Sara Megibow, thank you so much for sending a response to my query. Even though it was a form rejection letter, it’s still better than nothing. You are a really great literary agent.”

This is a polite and thoughtful email response. Typically, it’s not necessary to respond to our rejection letter however the nice ones are always better than the mean ones. Still, and this pains me to say it, there is an error in this person’s response. OH how I hate to admit this because I’m sure my rating at querytracker will go right through the toilet. Yikes. Here goes…

An agent’s process for responding to slush pile submissions (and the speed at which they do so) is not an accurate way to evaluate whether or not that agent is good at their job. Some agents personalize each and every response. Some agencies (like ours) send out a response to everything with a form rejection. And some agents don’t respond at all unless they are interested in the book. I know some writers compare notes: “X agent responded in 12 days” and “Y agent didn’t respond at all” and “Z agent’s form rejection is polite” but I’m here to tell you that this is not a good way to evaluate your potential business partner.

Of course I like being known as a “good” agent but let’s go over what that really means.

My job as a literary agent is to turn my clients books into money. Period. Publishing is a business and I represent one potential business plan for a writer. I offer representation when I believe there is financial potential in a book. Reading submissions and presenting books to publishing houses represents the vast minority of my time each week. Negotiating and auditing contracts, selling subsidiary rights (audio, foreign, film, etc), auditing royalty statements and organizing production, publicity and promotions are how I spend my time. These are the tasks I perform to make my clients money. Looking at it from this point of view, I can’t very well call up Tiffany Reisz to say, “I couldn’t shop THE SIREN for film this week as I was responding to slush pile submissions.” The biggest misconception about the job of a literary agent is that we serve the pre-published author. Unfortunately, that’s not true – we exist to make money for our current clients. That’s a harsh and ugly thing to admit online, but it’s the truth. Another way to look at it is like this – if I offer you representation you’d want me spending my time on your books, right?

The Catch 22 of this scenario is that in order to make money for our current clients, we have to HAVE clients and the vast majority of those clients come from the slush pile. So, how to respond to query letters remains a relevant discussion. I stand by our decision to respond to every email even though it costs us tens of thousands of dollars each year to do so (and it takes hundreds of thousands of dollars in sales in order to make the 15% agency fee to cover that cost). I WANT to be known as nice and friendly and I believe that pre-published authors deserve a response. So there you have it – even though it’s not a perfect process, our agency continues to respond to every submission. But remember – that’s not what makes me good at my job.

A GOOD agent is one who can make you money, not one who responds quickly to the slush pile.

In researching agents, here are good ways to evaluate: Does an agent:
- Negotiate competitive contracts, including royalty rates (profit for an author shouldn’t just come from the advance money)
- Audit royalty statements
- Sell subsidiary rights
- Monitor the production process for quality and innovation
- Help organize publicity and promotions
- Communicate the publishing process effectively so all members of the team can be focused on writing and sales as opposed to being focused on errors and misunderstandings
- Work with an author to craft the career the author wants for him/herself

How would you find this out about an agent?
- When an agent offers representation, ASK! (it’s ok – you’re not being nosy. These are important questions)
- Ask to speak with an agent’s other clients to get a feel for some of these behind-the-scenes tasks
- Follow an agent at www.publishersmarketplace.com or on their agency website and watch for subsidiary rights sales or blog posts about these issues
- Meet agents at conferences and ask good business questions
- Follow agents on their blogs and on twitter (I’m on twitter at @SaraMegibow where I try to answer questions) (My boss, Kristin Nelson, blogs at http://pubrants.blogspot.com/ and she’s tackled each of these topics thoroughly over the years)

I hope this information helps! As you are researching agents for your career, remember to focus on the things that agent will do to make you money. Painful as it sounds, responding to the slush pile is not one of those tasks.

Happy writing and thanks again for having me here at Romance University!
-Sara

***

Yes – she went there.  So, what questions or comments do you have about Sara’s post?  What is your experience with agents and the slush pile?  Did it impact whether you would accept an offer of representation? Did it stop you from submitting?

On Friday, the fabulous Theresa Stevens is back!

***

This months’ giveaway for one lucky commenter- a signed copy of . . . .
 
UNRAVELED by New York Times bestselling author Courtney Milan
He has no use for love…
Smite Turner is renowned for his single-minded devotion to his duty as a magistrate. But behind his relentless focus lies not only a determination to do what is right, but the haunting secrets of his past – secrets that he is determined to hide, even if it means keeping everyone else at arm’s length. Until the day an irresistible woman shows up as a witness in his courtroom…
 
But love has other plans for him.
Miranda Darling isn’t in trouble…yet. But she’s close enough that when Turner threatens her with imprisonment if she puts one foot wrong, she knows she should run in the other direction. And yet no matter how forbidding the man seems on the outside, she can’t bring herself to leave. Instead, when he tries to push her away, she pushes right back – straight through his famous self-control, and into the heart of the passion that he has long hidden away…

Bio:

Bio: Sara Megibow, Associate Literary Agent
Nelson Literary Agency, LLC

Sara has worked at the Nelson Literary Agency since 2006. As the Associate Literary Agent, Sara is actively acquiring new clients! The Nelson Literary Agency specializes in representing all genres of romance (except inspirational or category), young adult fiction of all subgenres, science fiction/ fantasy and commercial fiction (including women’s fiction and chick lit). Sara is an avid romance reader and a rabid fan girl of super sexy and intelligent stories.

Nelson Literary Agency is a member of AAR, RWA, SFWA and SCBWI. Please visit our website http://http://www.nelsonagency.com/for submission guidelines, FAQs, resources and sample query letters. Sara’s Publisher’s Marketplace site (www.publishersmarketplace.com/members/SaraMegibow) is a great place to find more about her personal tastes, clients and recent sales. You can also cyber stalk Sara on twitter @SaraMegibowHow an agent chooses what books to read.

 

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36 Responses to “Sara Megibow Sells Romance – Who is a “good” literary agent?”

  1. Hi Sara,

    Thanks for the great post! As an agent, when do you find you’re communicating the most with a debut author (or even an established one)? I know you communicate on a weekly basis with your authors, but I’m wondering if you’re doing more right before a release, right after, or does your communication stay fairly steady all year long?

    Thanks again for speaking with our RWA chapter before the Spring Fling conference. Members are still raving about your discussion. So lovely to meet your dad at the SF book signing, too. :)

    Take care,
    Tracey

    Posted by Tracey Devlyn | May 16, 2012, 4:56 am
    • Hi Tracey – excellent question!

      Typically, there is a rush of email/phone call right as I sign someone. In those conversations we’re talking a lot about how the submission will go, to whom I will submit, what we should or should not say about it online.

      Then, there’s a rush when we get an offer. Those conversations are about evaluating the editors and the offers and what’s next.

      Then, we have a conference call with our marketing director – this is usually 4-6 months before release. Then, there’s a bunch of what-to-do right before release. Amazingly, I find there aren’t a ton of phone calls that first month after release, although maybe there should be.

      Finally, there’s always a ton of communication around the big rights fairs – London, Bologna and Frankfurt.

      Posted by Sara Megibow | May 16, 2012, 8:26 am
  2. Hi Sara,

    To echo Tracey, yours was a memorable presentation, especially the quotes from your son. The waiting for responses back can be nerve fraying. Do you keep a schedule when to send reminders to editors? On average, how many publishers do you contact a week?

    Mary Jo

    Posted by Mary Jo Burke | May 16, 2012, 5:59 am
    • Hi Mary Jo –

      Thanks! I had a wonderful time in Chicago and it was a pleasure meeting all of you! :)

      I don’t tend to “remind” editors until 2 months or so. I honestly believe that no one in this business is sitting around enjoying 4 hour lunches and forgetting about the submissions on their desks. If we don’t have an offer, but we still have editors reading it’s not because they’ve forgotten about it. So, reminding isn’t all that helpful. What’s the MOST helpful is to get an offer on the table. Then, I call the other readers to say “offer on the table” and that’s momentum for you.

      I don’t take on too many new clients, so I’m only contacting editors when I have something to sell.

      Posted by Sara Megibow | May 16, 2012, 8:29 am
  3. Hi Sara,

    Wonderful to meet you (and Tiffany) at Spring Fling!
    At the conference, listening to the process for how you came to sign Tiffany was fascinating – what percentage of your clients were a “revise and re-submit”?

    Thanks so much for your candor,
    Melonie

    Posted by Melonie Johnson | May 16, 2012, 6:10 am
  4. Hi Sara,

    Thanks for outlining what is important when deciding on a potential agent. I do appreciate your agency’s prompt, polite response – even if it is a form rejection. And I can understand why it becomes so easy to confuse this type of courtesy with being a “good agent.” After all, we’ve poured so much into our “baby.” We want potential agents to at least acknowledge it in some small way. But looking at it from a much larger perspective, you’re absolutely right. I expect my agent to invest more time into helping to promote my book and negotiating a good deal than on wading through the slush pile and sending back personalized responses.

    My question: There is so much talk about “high-concept,” but agents seem to define it differently. How would you define “high-concept women’s fiction”?

    Posted by Roxanne | May 16, 2012, 6:57 am
    • Hi Roxanne – great question! For me, in high concept women’s fiction, I would be looking for a book that has a great and easily definable hook. For example, Kristina Riggle’s REAL LIFE AND LIARS is about a woman who, upon gathering her family to celebrate a wedding anniversary, reveals that she has cancer and has chosen not to fight it.

      Be able to describe your book like this in one sentence – like the logline to a movie

      Posted by Sara Megibow | May 16, 2012, 8:51 am
  5. Morning Sara!

    Sounds like your life is a super busy one….=) Juggling a lot of balls in the air at the same time. How do you keep yourself organized?

    Thanks for a great post – definitely one I’ll be looking back on when I look for an agent! =)

    carrie

    Posted by Carrie Spencer | May 16, 2012, 6:57 am
    • Thanks Carrie!

      I have a list of my chores per book (sell audio, get blurbs, organize marketing, find a film co-agent, audit royalties, audit contract, etc etc etc) and I check it every day for each author and each book. FUN.

      THEN and only then do I read submissions (if I have time). I’m not too far behind in my reading, but I am rabid about protecting my time, so if something has to go in a day, it’s always the reading.

      :)

      Posted by Sara Megibow | May 16, 2012, 8:53 am
  6. Hi Sara!

    Thanks for another informative and candid post.

    I do believe that a kind and personalized response goes a long way in softening a rejection, so thanks for taking the time to do that. It’s priceless.

    I noticed that your list of agent duties, did not include editorial feedback to your clients. Is this an agent-to-agent difference? Are some agents more editorial than others? In that case, that is definitely something to consider while choosing, right?

    Thanks again!

    Sonali

    Posted by Sonali | May 16, 2012, 8:05 am
    • Dear Sonali – I definitely offer editorial feedback to my clients, however on the scale of editorial agents, I’m probably on the lower end. It’s different agent to agent, as you say. I’m a firm believer that I want books that I absolutely rabidly love, then the editorial feedback comes naturally to me. In general though, I am looking for books to sell, not books to work on.

      :)

      Posted by Sara Megibow | May 16, 2012, 9:12 am
      • Hi Sara,

        As usual, very informative. Thank you.

        I’m curious about this statement: “In general though, I am looking for books to sell, not books to work on.” Is this your preference or is this typical of your agency?

        Cia

        Posted by Cia | May 16, 2012, 10:38 am
  7. Sara – great post!

    People can have visceral reactions when their books are involved -
    What do you think are the key (objective) signs that a client and an agent need to break up?

    Posted by Robin Covington | May 16, 2012, 9:24 am
    • Honestly, there aren’t many. For the most part, agent hopping (or editor hopping for that matter) is an emotional reaction that comes from not quanitfying ones complaints about an industry that is and likely always will be difficult.

      If an agent hasn’t sent out your manuscript in, say, 6 months – that’s an objective reason to leave.

      If an author routinely fails to deliver manuscripts on time (for reasons other than acceptable and pre-negotiated), that’s a reason I might sever a relationship.

      Otherwise, my suggestion is to have reasonable expectations and really try to understand how this business works as a business. It’s not fast and there are errors and frustrations. Be patient.

      :)

      Posted by Sara Megibow | May 16, 2012, 9:29 am
  8. Such a great post, Sara! When you mentioned tomato-throwing on Twitter, I assumed you were giving some stern how-to advice to writers.

    Alas, there will be no tomato-throwing from me. ;-)

    This is a great list. A newbie writer/author often isn’t aware of all the tasks a potential agent can help them with, so this is a nice list to reference.

    ~Laurie

    Posted by Laurie London | May 16, 2012, 9:50 am
  9. Hi Sara,

    Thanks for the insight! As for “throwing tomatoes”, I doubt anyone serious about publishing would boo anything you just said LOL! It certainly didn’t hinder my desire to seek an agent in the future.

    I was curious about how an agent can come into play with a trilogy or series when one or more of the books is already published. I’ve asked other writers this same question and they just figured agents stay away from this kind of deal–mostly because the agent wants to sell a complete set to a publisher and it gets messy with other contracts involved. Is this mostly true? I’d love to have representation, but if this is the case, I won’t be querying again for two more books!

    Take care, and thanks!

    Posted by Alythia | May 16, 2012, 9:52 am
    • Dear Alythia – I am sure it is different per agent. For me personally (and this is just speaking for me alone), I am not interested in trying to re-sell something that has already been published. So, with very few exceptions I would pass on trying to re-sell the previously published. HOWEVER, if book #3 in the series stands alone, then I would be happy to read and submit Book #3 as a stand alone.

      It’s a tricky situation because usually Book #3 does not stand alone. However, I could imagine doing quite well with something like this. Book #1 and 2 are on the shelves somewhere and an author comes to me with Book #3. If I fall in love with it, then I am happy to represent it.

      Posted by Anonymous | May 16, 2012, 1:27 pm
  10. Hi Sara!

    No tomato-throwing from this end. I agree sending a custom or form rejection doesn’t define a good agent. It’s more an act of courtesy, and always nice to receive in an age when politeness seems to be tossed out the window.

    I am curious to know if it’s happened where you offer representation and after talking with the author, either you don’t click with the author or visa-versa. As a writer, I can research an agent and his/her agency like crazy on the internet, attend conferences where the agent appears, and everything about that agent seems to be the ideal agent. Then you get on the phone and start to converse and things just don’t mesh. (Of course, this is my fear, especially after all the work and research that goes into the process.) How would you handle a situation such a this? Is it worth giving the relationship a try, or call it quits before it can even start?

    Thanks for connecting with your audience. I love posts like these.

    Have a fabulous week!
    Kerry

    Posted by Kerry Lonsdale | May 16, 2012, 10:15 am
    • Kerry – my suggestion would be to call it quits before you even start. I haven’t had that happen yet, although most of the authors I call to offer rep to have multiple agents offering for them. Not all sign with me and I don’t take it personally. Ideally, it’s the writers choice and it SHOULD be based off of gut (to some extent).

      So, if I didn’t click with someone I suppose I would say “this isn’t the right fit after all.” If the writer doesn’t click with me, it’s 100% ok to say no thank you to my offer of rep.

      Posted by Anonymous | May 16, 2012, 1:29 pm
  11. Sara – When I first started writing, I had it backwards. I thought it would be easier to interest an agent than an editor. I gradually came to realize that the agent’s and author’s success and income are directly connected.

    An editor gets a paycheck whether they sell your book or not, so – even though they may be absolutely buried in submissions – they are still often willing to give an unpublished author a read. I’ve found it’s much easier to get feedback from editors than from agents.

    I can understand why that is. To me, anyway, it seems that agents have to be choosier because their income depends on an author’s saleability (is that a real word?) and productivity.

    I never had an agent when I was writing non-fiction – I did pretty well, but I wonder if I might have done better with an agent. With the publishing world as crazy as it is today, I wouldn’t want to even attempt selling fiction without an agent.

    The hard part for unpublished authors is that even if we note all the points you mentioned (what makes a good agent), that doesn’t really come to the table until we find an agent who is interested in US. And agents, as you mentioned, don’t have a lot of time to spend on slush pile candidates. It’s kind of a Catch-22.

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | May 16, 2012, 10:52 am
    • Good point!!!

      Yes, it is a bit of a Catch 22. If a writer has no offers of representation, what then (perhaps a good post for another date?)

      And yes again – editors tend to be more willing or able to provide feedback to something they are either acquiring or passing on. I wish the business were easier – I don’t really have any idea how to make the process work more humanely. But, your point is a valid and excellent one!

      Posted by Anonymous | May 16, 2012, 1:31 pm
  12. Hi, Sara. I so love these posts!

    I actually got my agent after I was published. Looking back on it, I think (for me) this was a good thing. Since I’d already been through three book releases I knew what to expect during the editorial and book release process.

    I think having this knowledge helped me when I chatted the first time with my agent. I knew I didn’t necessarily need a lot of hand-holding but I wanted someone who would be there for me if (at some point!) I was ready to slice open a vein.

    This may sound a little crazy, but I don’t think I was ready for an agent before because I didn’t know what I needed and would have probably made the wrong decision on which agent to choose. I think sometimes we have to know what it is we need in order to ask the right questions.

    Posted by AdrienneGiordano | May 16, 2012, 11:26 am
    • This is an excellent observation!

      One thing I try very very very hard to do with clients is explain the process of publication and set realistic expectations. I believe in celebrating each and every piece of good news – a sale, a great review, a good placement in B&N, a signing, etc. Celebrate, celebrate, celebrate. Each book has errors, frustrations and failures, so I believe in letting authors know in advance that this is normal.

      Posted by Anonymous | May 16, 2012, 1:33 pm
  13. Thank you for your post, Sara; and everyone who’s commented.

    Allow me to ask a question. I’m trying to find an agent, but I fear it will be even harder for me than usual.

    I write romances that push the envelope. As both a reader and a writer, I don’t care for formulas. My idea of romance can’t be confined to a set pattern. I bend genre rules as much as I can get away with. And then some.

    Therefore, I must acknowledge that I’m hard to place. I naturally assume I’ll be lucky to get any agent, “good” or not.

    As a result, I’m not picky. My main concern isn’t how much money an agent has earned for her clients. It’s whether or not an agent will even consider a square peg like me in the first place.

    Am I wrong to think this way? I welcome feedback from Sara or anyone. Thanks!

    Posted by Mary Anne Landers | May 16, 2012, 1:48 pm
    • This is an excellent question!

      As an agent, I tend to represent things a bit outside-the-box so I know what it looks like when a team goes after a book deal with a hard to place book. When I fall in love with something, I don’t care if it’s a wee different, however you are right it might be tough. Tiffany Reisz’s THE SIREN was WAAAAY outside the box and it’s doing so well right now. But, I know that’s an exception.

      If you are writing romance (with a happily ever after and it’s about the development of a relationship between two people), then just keep going for it. You might find that the 80th agent is the one who offers and s/he is just the right fit for you. Newer agents might be a good fit for you – someone who hasn’t posted a ton of sales yet might still be awesome – we all started somewhere.

      Does that help?

      Posted by Anonymous | May 16, 2012, 4:29 pm
  14. Great article! I just wrote a post about all the different things writers can prioritize when we search for an agent, and I added this link to my post. I appreciate seeing the same question from an agent’s point of view. :)

    I agree with your take of some of the most important items to look for. The problem for me has been determining which agents (other than your agency) fit the bill. I wish there was a master spreadsheet on the internet to check off “contract knowledge,” “audits royalty statements,” etc. :) Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

    Posted by Jami Gold | May 17, 2012, 6:27 pm
  15. And the winner is . . . . .Roxanne! Congrats and thanks for commenting!

    Posted by Robin Covington | May 21, 2012, 1:11 pm

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. [...] to add a post I just found) An agent’s take on what makes a good agent by Sara [...]

  2. [...] Sara Megibow was at Romance University this week laying it all out Sara Megibow Sells Romance – Who is a “good” literary agent? [...]

  3. [...] Over at Romance University, agent Sara Megibow (@SaraMegibow) discusses what makes a good literary agent. [...]

  4. [...] You all have your list of questions ready to ask prospective agents, right? If not, make one. You want to ask them things like what they loved about your manuscript, how much in the way of revisions they foresee before you go on submission, what happens if the agent asks for a change you disagree with, and how often you can expect to hear from them. I didn’t know this at the time, but other good things to ask about are how the agency handles subsidiary rights, how the agency might help you with promotion after your book comes out, etc. (Aside, you can find some great fodder for coming up with these questions in this post.) [...]

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