Hello all! I would say “hello from the banks of Brays Bayou,” but that would be untrue, since I’m back in NYC! Brooklyn, specifically, so “hello from the vicinity of Fort Greene Park.”
In my last letter I said that the criteria for choosing an agent would require a whole ‘nother entry - so here it is!
How to choose an agent
In an ideal situation, you have a choice of agent - there are two or more people vying for your attention. Of course, as those numbers increase, the decision becomes harder (I was once part of a 16-way beauty contest; let me tell you that my ego did NOT do well when I lost!) But regardless of whether you have one offer or ten, there are some easy criteria to look at to make a decision.
What’s their agency situation?
This is the most practical question, I think. Presumably you’ve done research into the people you’ve queried, and found out what kind of agency they’re at, but The Call is the chance for them to describe their agency to you. What kind of resources does the agency have? Who does the agency partner with for things like foreign translation and film? Do they have in-house contracts advice? Accounting? Some of these things might be very important to you, some less-so.
It would be a lie to say that I only asked for advice when I was first starting out. I ask for advice all the time from my colleagues - help with submissions list, critique of a pitch I’ve written, advice on negotiation strategy. Far from being a sign of weakness, it’s a sign of strength that I have so many avenues of experience that I can draw from in order to help my clients. If they’re newer, or a one-person agency, who are they asking for this advice?
Apart from advice, knowing how they plan to help you with subrights sales is important - many agencies partner with agencies in other countries who know their markets well, and others work with agencies in the US whose specialty is translation. If a film adaptation of your work is the burning hope of your soul, target agencies who have in-house film help or a strong partnership with a film agent in LA or NYC.
Are they transparent and upfront about financial arrangements?
Absolutely get a sense of what their financial arrangements are. What are their commission rates? (15% for domestic contracts, 20% for film and foreign are standard rates.) How is their agency agreement structured? What commitments are you making to them, and what commitments are they making to you?
A good agent will not ask for money up front. Money flows TO the author, not away. If there is a reading fee or a pay-to-play element, run the other way.
What is their vision for your book? How do they plan to sell it?
This is where we get into intangibles a bit. “Vision” encompasses everything from revision ideas to where they see it fitting in the market. If the agent you’re talking to doesn’t have a vision for your book that aligns with yours, then the relationship won’t work. By vision, I mean - do they see what you’re trying to do? Do the ideas they suggest actually make it better, or are they turning it into something else entirely? If you query a contemporary romcom and they say “this would be great if one of them were a dragon,” then that might be a different vision from yours.
In terms of how they plan to sell it, agents will rarely give you a specific submission list on the phone. This is because those relationships aren’t - proprietary is the wrong word, but we spend a lot of time building up relationships with editors and having conversations, and we don’t want to necessarily give away a submission list before we know someone will sign with us. But an agent should absolutely have an idea of how they would pitch the book, how they would position it, what kind of comps they would use.
Do you like them?
Another intangible! You absolutely don’t have to be BFF with your agent. Remember, it’s a business arrangment first and foremost. But it always helps to get along with people you work with! You don’t want to dread a call or an email from your agent, and vice versa. This is truly where anything I say is subject to your own judgment - you are the best judge of your own feelings with regards to vibing with someone, so pay attention to those feelings.
Have they sold stuff before?
I list this last not because it’s the most important, but because it can be the most complicated to answer. If someone is brand-new, but they’re at an established agency that has many sales under it’s belt, their track record can be less important, because being at an established agency is its own kind of track record. If someone is more established or at a smaller agency, but has good sales in the genre that you’re trying to break into, that’s a good sign. (You can find most of agents’ deals on publishersmarketplace.com. PM costs $25 a month, but is absolutely worth paying for for a month while you’re doing research for who to query. I’d say 75% of deals done in the US are listed on PM.)
If someone has sold a lot of books but they’re not in your category, this is also complicated. Have they sold mostly nonfiction, and you have written a novel? It’s a different skill set, and a different set of contacts - but that’s not to say that they couldn’t sell your book. This is where the agency around them becomes important - if they’re a nonfiction agent taking on fiction, but they have fiction agents around them to draw advice from, then it’s less of a red flag.
At the end of the day, choose who you think is best
You may choose an agent and after working with them for a while, you realize they’re not for you. Maybe they’re not as communicative as you’d hoped. Maybe they try and fail to sell a couple of books for you. If you need to end the relationship between you and your agent, that’s absolutely OK. But hopefully you and whoever you pick as your agent will ride off into the sunset together, merrily accruing book deals along the way.
Got a question? Leave it in the comments or reply to this email and I’ll answer it in a future newsletter!
Happy Book Birthday to Francina Simone and SMASH IT! This book is a deligthful coming-of-age story following Liv, a girl held back by fear, who creates a "f*ck it” list to take control of her own life. Order it here.
Happy belated book birthday to Marieke Nijkamp and EVEN IF WE BREAK. Check out this page-turning thriller about a group of friends determined to have one last weekend of fun before graduating - but for some of them, it’ll be their last weekend, period. D&D meets Cabin in the Woods! Order it here.
This Week in Hockey
The Dallas Stars have made it to the Stanley Cup Finals, versus the tragically un-horny Tampa Bay Lightning. I’m delighted for the Stars and will be rooting for them all the way. Right now the series is tied 1-1.
Learn To Like A New Sport By Finding A Good Crush by Kelsey McKinney (Defector)
A couple of winters ago, distressed by the end of the baseball and football seasons, I decided that it was my time to get into hockey. Hockey was a perfect sport for me to learn to love because it is (in a normal year) played when my other favorite sports are not, and I had some basic knowledge of how it worked since I grew up watching the Stars with my dad. But I hadn’t really watched hockey as an adult. I did not understand what “backchecking” meant and I wanted to, but could not figure out how. I watched a few games while mainly looking at my phone and felt hopeless.
**NB: Defector is the new site from some of the writers of Deadspin! I’ve subscribed - it’s well worth the money.
I Am All Love Blaseball (And You Can Too) by Cat Manning (The Garden of Forking Narratives)
So how do you participate in the cultural event that is blaseball? First, there's a distinction between different types of participation. There's how you interact with the game itself, on the blaseball website, but then there's also how you interact with the social and fan experiences that have built up around the game, and which, crucially, feed back into the game itself. A lot of blaseball is intentionally cryptic, strange, and obscure, which is a big part of its aesthetic. Let me tell you about that aesthetic!
Top Dog: An Oral History of ‘Wishbone’ by Christian Wallace & Cat Cardenas (Texas Monthly)
Set in the fictional Texas town of Oakdale, Wishbone, which first aired on PBS in 1995, followed a plucky Jack Russell terrier as he daydreamed his way into literary masterpieces. Wishbone’s fantasies, paralleling his human family’s modern-day experiences, transported him to places like ancient Greece, where he envisioned himself as Odysseus, and events like the Hundred Years’ War, where he took on the role of Louis de Conte, a page of Joan of Arc’s.
Bruised egos, gobs of money, and the bitter feud that took down New York’s absurdly ubiquitous accident law firm by Jeremy Kutner (NYMag)
That’s where Cellino & Barnes presided: Barnes, the former Marine with the gravelly voice and startling intensity, and Cellino, the cuddly-looking Everyman with nerdy glasses. TV. Radio. Bus stops. Subway entrances. Everyone knew Cellino & Barnes — most people even knew that Barnes was the bald one with the strained smile, staring at the camera for just a bit too long, and that Cellino was, well, not the bald one. And the jingle. Good God, the jingle. Even if you would never dream of trusting your legal representation to a commercial, it set up camp in your brain and never left. Eight hundred, eight, eight, eight, eight, eight, eight, eight. In New York City, Cellino & Barnes was as familiar as yellow cabs, halal carts, or a subway “Showtime!”