Saturday, September 15, 2007

Agent research -- what do you really know?

Sorry for the blog silence as of late -- new job, following up on agent submissions, all of that fun stuff. But trust me I've been thinking about y'all and wondering just how much I should post about my agent search. Originally I was going to have a query tracker (sans agent names) where I would list every query, request, rejections, etc. But then a friend pointed out that you generally don't go into a job interview shouting out how many rejections you've gotten.

So that's left me a little gun shy on posting. After all, this blog is out there for all to see, maybe even a potential agent (yes, I know they have much much better things to do).

While I contemplate how much of the details of my search to post (feel free to chime in the comments with your thoughts), let me talk about something else I've been pondering and that is agent research.

Now, when I first started the query process, I was committed to personalizing every query letter and really knowing the agents I was submitting to. I didn't want to take a scattershot approach; rather, I wanted to take a measured and educated approach. And so in my research I set out to find those agents that I thought would like my book and want to offer representation. After all, that was my goal: find an agent who wanted to represent my book.

I started my research with the agents I already "knew," and then moved on to the agents whose blogs I read regularly. I then looked at the hot selling YA books and figured out who their agents were and wrapped everything up with a few recomendations from friends. In the end, my list contained about 13 agents to query first.

As part of this research I read their clients' books, I looked up their recent sales, checked out their websites/blogs, and agent-query. I created a large index card for each agent with their contact information, their preferences, and any other tidbits. On the back of each card I kept a log of what I'd sent out and when and any responses (this was in addition to a spreadsheet with the same information).

I was really really proud of my approach. I knew a lot about these agents, enough that when people posted on loops about them asking questions, I was able to answer them. I felt great about the way things were going.

But now I question my approach. Because when I started to look past all the stats I'd compiled, what did I really know about these agents? What did I know about Agent A other than the fact she had some hot YA sales? What did I know about her style, her history, what she's like to work with? The same with all the agents -- what did I really know?

When I started this whole process, a friend asked who my top choices were and I had to shrug. I felt like I was back in 9th grade when someone asked me who I wanted to go out with and my answer was "whoever wants to go out with me." Or when I was in law school during job hunt season and people asked what firm I wanted to work for and my answer was "whichever firm hires me."

And you know what happened in law school? A bunch of firms gave me offers and I had to choose and suddenly I realized that I'd positioned myself to get the offer, but hadn't prepared myself for what happens after that. How do you choose which firm to go to when they all pay the same, are all located in the same place, all have lots of attorneys, etc? I didn't even know what questions to ask to differentiate one firm from another -- honestly, to a 1L or 2L they were all pretty much fungible.

I would never intimate that agents are fungible, but sometimes when all you're looking at are the basic stats, it can get overwhelming. You can have a list of agents who all charge standard rates, who all work at well-known agencies, who all have a good solid track record with some phenomenal sales. You can have a list of "essentials" and it's pretty likely you'll find a lot of agents who fit your criteria.

And so how do you look past the initial research in order to figure the best match?

I guess what I'm saying is that, while I'm proud of the research that I did, I feel I fell short and was short-sighted. I think I should have looked beyond just "will this agent want me," and perhaps looked a lot deeper into "if this agent wanted me, woud I want this agent and would we make the best match?" In looking over my list, I can equivocally say that I would be honored to work with every agent on it. But is that because they are great agents, or because they would be a great agent for me?

Like interviewing for jobs in lawschool, it's hard to be picky when all the power rests in the employer hands. I'm just saying, sometimes you have to be prepared to figure out what's what if that power ever shifts to your hands.

What do you think? What sort of agent research do you think is necessary before querying? How did you approach these things?


Spy Scribbler said...

I think an important part of the process is the interview. I mean, the get-to-know-you part can't really happen unless you talk to them.

And that has to happen so late in the process, LOL ...

K J Gillenwater said...

I agree, Spyscribbler. Most of what you base the agent search on is their track record and other books they represent. And you can also look on Absolute Write or other places to hear what people have to say about individual agents.

But beyond that, I don't think you can really make a good decision as to whom would be best, until you find yourself having to choose between agents...and sometimes it can take a LONG time to get to that point.

How can you get a feel for someone's personality and work style when querying? You really can't.

I say worry about that later...and then keep track of this post from Kristin Nelson when the day comes for you to decide who will represent you:

Anonymous said...

I agree that the getting-to-know-you part is very important. Talking to agents (whether on the phone, in pitch sessions, at conference bars/workshops/etc) has given me an opportunity to draw my own conclusions. The other thing I think is super-important is the agent's enthusiasm for the story. I would choose a junior agent who loved my book over an A-list power agent who was meh on me and my book but was sure she could sell it. But that's just me. Choosing an agent is a very personal decision and it ends up that only you can decide. How did you determine which law firm to go to? Interviews, asking around, tours, benefit packages, comparison of intangibles? I imagine the culling of the agent list to be similar.

Carrie Ryan said...

I agree, Spyscribbler, that an important part of it is the interview. But even then, what do you ask? I would think that most agents are going to tell you great things about your book, are going to be excited about the possibility of selling it.

Thanks Kristin for that post -- I love that blog and I'd forgotten about that post! I scoured Absolute Write for information, but I took everything with huge grains of salt. It seemed that a lot of what made a great agent was someone who responded to queries quickly (which is great, but not what I'd base my decision on...).

Erica -- so funny... I chose my law firm one summer because it was not in my hometown and I wanted to try something different and I chose my law firm my second summer because there were bad rumors about the other firms I was looking at. Not the best idea to choose a firm on rumors :) But, I also really didn't like that firm and it was a terrible fit!

In the end, all of y'all are right that you just have to talk to them and figure out the best fit... so what happens once you get past that point and more than one seems like a great fit?

Diana Peterfreund said...

I can't imagine an agent, A list or otherwise, who would WANT to represent your book unless they were excited about it. (Except for scam artists.)

I think you gathered as much information as you could at that level of the process. It's only after the offers that you can get more.