Sunday, October 4, 2009

Footloose and Agent-free

I spent about 5 years trying to get a literary agent to represent my work. I read books about the author-agent relationship and went to conferences where agented authors gave advice about finding an agent. I sent out endless query letters and chapters of my work and my growing list of publishing credits, but to no avail. No one wanted me.

When I attended conferences, the authors who had agents always gave advice like, "You have to interview the agent before signing to make sure he/she is the right fit." They would say this was our right since the agent works for the author, not the other way around. They suggested keeping a list of interview-style questions next to the telephone to ask the legions of potential agents when they called. They insisted that having the "wrong" agent was way worse than having no agent at all.

I always shook my head and thought about how useless all that advice was. In the event that an agent was ever interested in me and actually called, I couldn't imagine going through a list of tough questions that might turn the agent off. As far as I was concerned, if the agent was breathing and had access to a Rolodex with publishers' names in it, that was all I needed. Those authors who already had agents could walk around with lofty ideas about the "right fit" and "interviews," but I had to be more practical.

Then one day last December, I finally got the dreamed-off phone call from an agent who wanted to represent me. I was thrilled! I was overjoyed! I couldn't think straight, and for a brief moment wished that I had a list of questions next to the phone so I could ask some of them. But I also knew that there was no way I could turn down this offer of representation, no matter what the agent said. It had been so long in coming, and it was entirely possible that no one would ever want me again. So I say "YES!" and signed the contract. I had an agent!

There were warning signs of trouble early on, even before the contract was signed. In fact, we had some issues with the contract itself, but that didn't put me off. Did I mention I was thrilled? Things went fine for a few months, then the rejections started rolling in. That's when our differing views on my writing career and the publishing industry as a whole came into sharper focus. Within six months, I realized that I should have asked more questions. I should have insisted that my agent read more than just one of my manuscripts before agreeing to let her represent all of them. I should have negotiated the agency contract, even though that might have meant that I'd end up with no agent at all.

Within nine months, our relationship broke down completely, and my agent and I parted ways. We just didn't see eye-to-eye on important issues, and we frequently misunderstood each other. I blame myself for not asking more questions at the beginning, because if I had, we could have avoided months of problems.

So now, I'm footloose and agent-free all over again. Only this time, I think I’m wiser. Now I know how important it is to ask questions and make sure I'm working with the right person. Would I like a new agent? Of course! It's wonderful to have someone in your corner who knows the publishing industry and wants to help you succeed. But it has to be the right person, otherwise the friction will outweigh any benefits from the relationship. It's like wanting to have a "significant other" in your life. It's great to have a boyfriend or girlfriend or husband or wife, but if the two of you don’t get along, then you're way better off on your own. And who would marry another person without asking a few questions first? Well, from now on, not me!

Peace and positive relationships,
Kimberly Garland


Terry Odell said...

I understand completely. I split with my agent about 6 months ago, although it was a mutual parting of the ways. I did do my homework before signing, and we did have several long chats, and I think she worked to get my manuscript out there. Her focus seemed to change over time, though, and breaking things off seemed the best way to go.

Sometimes, even what starts out 'right' ends up being not-so-right. And sometimes, it's nobody's 'fault.'

Glynis said...

I think I will be looking for an agent in the new year. I wonder what sort of questions I will have/should have on my list. I am definately having a list after reading your post, thanks.

Genella deGrey said...

As flattering as "that call" may be, New York isn't ready for my books. I write out of their box, which I'm finding the readers and genius e-publishers LOVE.
So I think I'll hang on to my 15%, thank ya kindly!

Kimberly Garland said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kimberly Garland said...

From what I'm hearing, finding that "perfect fit" with an agent is tough. When it works, though, I understand that the relationship can be great.
It felt strange to not be sending out my own manuscripts while I had an agent, but having more time to write was terrific. There are clearly advantages of both having an agent and being "single."
And Glynis: In the future if I have a list of agent questions next to my phone, it will include "Will you agree to only represent some of my manuscripts, instead of all?" This is important because my former agent represented all of my work, but she had only read one of the manuscripts when we signed the contract. When I sent her the other stuff (that spanned multiple genres for both kids and adults), I suspect that she wasn't crazy about them but was too polite to say so. I wished I had kept the right to submit that other stuff on my own, while she worked on the manuscript she liked.

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