Friday, August 20, 2010

The Agent Story--PART 1

Okay. So I've had a lot of people ask me how the hell I managed to be nineteen and on my third agent. This is actually a topic I've been fairly quiet about, but I think it's helpful for me to be honest because my story is actually, in my opinion, a very good example of the kinds of problems and decisions you might have to make with regards to agents.

So. Here's what happened. I will not be naming every name, because the purpose of this post isn't to call out anyone but to take you through the thought process in choosing an agent, leaving an agent, and dealing with losing an agent.

This is a very long story, so I'm going to divide it into three posts.


I queried four different manuscripts for a total of a year before I got my first offer, which turned into four by the end of that week. It felt as if something had fallen from the sky and landed on my head. Something awesome.

I was sixteen and still fairly new in the online writing community (though not new to writing)

I talked to three of the four agents on the phone. I asked the fourth (actually, the first to offer) if she'd like to talk, and she said she didn't think there was any reason to do a phone call. The first phone call went well. The second went VERY well, and I was pretty sure that unless something unprecedented happened, I would be going with her. The third phone call was fine, but we didn't click, so I confidently went with #2.

Factors in my decision:

--My friend was with her and loved her.
--We clicked on the phone. She was talkative, gregarious, and completely enthusiastic about my work.
--She offered on another manuscript, while all the others offered on BREAK. I liked the other one more and liked the possibility of going out with that one first. We ended up going out with BREAK anyway, and the one she offered on never sold, so there you go.

Things didn't work out.

I feel like an idiot now, thinking about the stuff I let happen before the split. But my logic was really clear: I thought it was normal.

I thought it was normal that my agent didn't do a lot of contract negotiations or ask me for my input.

I thought it was normal that I had to send five to ten emails on a subject, spread out over a period of months, before I would get a response. I thought being on sub meant months of silence followed by, after extensive nagging, an email with every rejection she'd collected but not mentioned.

I thought it was normal that she'd promise edits on my manuscript and never send them.

I want to make two things very clear:

1. This was a legitimate agent. She did not charge any fees or do anything unethical. She didn't steal anyone's work or money. She successfully sold my first novel. She came from a well-known agency. She had many sales before mine and some after. Many of her authors have gone on to be very successful.

I was not cheated, victimized, or taken advantage of.

I just made a mistake.

Which leads me to point two:

2. I was not an idiot. I was young and naive, yes, but I was not in a bubble. I was an active member on AW and knew a fair amount of writers. The Musers existed even before I signed with this agent, and they were with me through this whole process. So the reason I thought this was okay wasn't because of a lack of information.

Really, it was the opposite.

Because this happens to so many people.

I know so many people who have signed with agents--agents that other people I respect have and love--and the relationship did not work for them. Many of them had the same problems I did: lack of responsiveness. There's a reason that I mentioned to both agent 2 and agent 3 that I was paranoid about them dropping off the face of the earth. It happens.

It happens more often than you'd think.

And people don't leave because they are so grateful to have an agent, because getting an agent is hard. And because everyone around them seems so fucking chipper, that they think the problem might be them. They have a great agent. They have the same agent as a celebrity or a friend of theirs or they have the agent that everyone's talking about over on AW. They do not have a bad agent. They wouldn't be that stupid.

No one wants to be the guy who leaves his agent.

When I was applying to college, one of my favorite teachers said to my class, a group of stressed out, hyped up, first semester seniors, "You know, you don't have to get it right the first time. Plenty of people transfer. It's okay."

And we smiled and nodded and uh-hmmed and in our heads we're all going, "Not me, no way, transferring is for other people."

I was the fucking queen of transferring is for other people. I applied Early Decision to the school I knew, absolutely knew, I was going to go to.

I left after a semester.

I am so, so happy that I did.

I left my first agent after 15 months. And I so, so wish I had done it sooner.

Which is why I want to run around spreading the gospel now.

I know what it's like to be happy with my agent. (Hey Suzie!) At the time, I didn't. I didn't know if it could get better.

If you're asking yourself if it can, it can.

Do not stay in a relationship that makes you unhappy. If you have an issue that you have broached that cannot be solved, it might be time to leave. If you two cannot see eye-to-eye on something important, it might be time to leave.

If you think it might be time to leave, it is almost definitely time to leave.

Obviously I appreciate the value of agents. Scroll down a post if you don't believe me. But all those things that I mentioned down there? I only realized they were true when I got with an agent who worked for me.

You need and deserve an agent who works for you.

And just because an agent is great does NOT mean she works for you.

The next post will go over what happened after I left Agent 1 and how I connected with Agent 2. I'll take any questions in the comments, as always, and please feel free to email me if you have any questions you don't want all over the internet (she says as she sprays her problems all over the internet).


Maggie said...

God. Your first agent sounds AWFUL. She wouldn't get back to you with edits for MONTHS? That's crazy! I'm unagented (in fact, I haven't even queried yet) but that agent sounds, well, kind of crappy. Sorry. I mean, lack of responsiveness and communication is bad whether it's a romantic relationship, a platonic one or a professional one. It's really bad all around. Imagine having a friend who never responded to your messages or canceled plans at the last minute or told you she would call and then didn't. Sounds really horrible. I'm glad she sold your book, though. OBVIOUSLY. But still, I feel like an agent's role is a bit more than JUST selling a book, right? I mean, am I totally wrong? I really don't know anything about what it's like to have an agent so I could be wrong.

hannah said...

Maggie--you aren't at all totally wrong.

My agent is, as far as I know, no longer agenting. Most of her clients left around the same time I did.

Maggie said...

Wow! Well, then. I mean, GOOD. That was definitely an agent horror story if I've ever heard one.

P.S. Could you do a post (much later, after you're done with your agent series) about first person present tense vs. first person past tense? I read this blog on an agent's site (can't remember who it was, alas) and she was basically saying that present tense rarely works unless it's a short story or a fast-paced novel with a lot of urgency (like The Hunger Games), and that people should avoid doing present tense.

But I disagreed. Some of my favorite books (Speak, Jellicoe Road, BREAK) are in present tense and they ROCK! And they don't necessarily have a sense of urgency, and Speak, for example, spans an entire year in the MC's life. And since you write often in present tense, I would love your opinion on the matter :)

Anonymous said...

Wow. This is an excellent post about an issue we don't often hear talked about. Like having a not-so-great experience with an agent is a dirty little secret or something. I'm currently in the process of querying agents, and I'm glad to have read about and learned from your previous experience. Looking forward to Parts 2 &3. Also, glad things are working out so well for you now. :)

Shelley Watters said...

For the first time since I started querying, I'm looking at the rejection pile I'm accumulating and am grateful for it.

I guess that's why they say you don't want an agent that is 'so-so' about your work. If they aren't passionate about it, how can you expect them to be passionate about it through the querying process.

Congratulations on finding the agent/author relationship that works for you. I hope someday I can do the same!!

hannah said...

Maggie--Ooh, I will do that! Thanks for the suggestion! I'm always dying for post requests, so please (this is for everyone!) let me know if there's anything you'd like to see here.

amongdahlias--thank you! Everything is sunshine and roses now, seriously.

Shelley--YOU WILL. and I *totally* understand that when you have had so many rejections (and I had easily a hundred) it gets so easily to just want whoever will take you. But you're absolutely right; always keep your self respect, and always wait for the person who loves you.

Anonymous said...

This post applies to *every* kind of relationship, not just agent-author! But I'm SO glad that you found an agent that works *with* you! =)

Nadine said...

Thank you for your honesty. When I first started querying, I would have taken any agent with a pulse. It's a blessing no one took me on. Now I've done my research on agents and am ready to start querying again with book #4 next week. :)

maine character said...

From one transfer to another, this is a great post.

As Mireyah said, these tips work with most any relationship, and I also like how you don't judge Agent 1 in anything but her attention to your work. Those of us out here have no way of knowing what kind of personal issues might've been distracting her, and so we shouldn't slam her, but just be glad she got BREAK out there.

Nicole MacDonald said...

Something to absolutely keep in mind, thanks for the info - it's never easy admitting mistakes :) And yay for escaping her!

Graystone said...

Thanks for sharing your story with us. It's an eye opener, and definitely something worth remembering. I'll sure keep it in my mind when I get around to querying. I'm glad you've finally gotten an agent who works with you. Suzie sounds awesome!

suzie townsend said...

Hi back at you! <3

Anonymous said...

Seconding everything in this post SO HARD.

Been there, done that, and Hannah is so on the ball with this one.

It's not about either agent or writer failing; it's about the two of you just not being the right fit. One person's FANTASTIC agent whom they adore, is just not right for someone else.

We also have different expectations. Some writers want as little agent interference as possible, and to only hear from them when there's a sale and they need to sign stuff.

Others prefer an agent who keeps them in the loop, or is a little more editorial.

Neither of these agents is better than the other - they have different styles, and they work best with the writers who fit those styles.

My best advice - and one I only followed through with my second agent - is TRUST YOUR GUT. Even if sometimes you can't figure out why, when everything looks so perfect on paper, and your subconscious is going 'eh I don't think so.' There's a reason for that.

hannah said...

*waves at suzie, high fives cat*

Jennifer Hillier said...

You're so brave for sharing this story. So many people don't talk about these types of experiences. Your honesty is why I keep coming back to your blog. Brava!

amy said...

great post, from another person who has been there. it's true that ending an agent relationship (or having one end) can make you feel like a loser, or a failure, or like you might be one of those dreaded "difficult" authors... but I've come to understand that it really is better to have no agent than one who is the wrong fit.

I will also add that, even if you only get one agent offer, if that agent gives you warning signs that this might not be a great match (like she has a totally different vision for the book, or doesn't seem that enthusiastic, or whatever)... WALK AWAY. It might be the hardest choice you make in your life, but you're better off revising, polishing, and sending out more queries than settling for an agent who doesn't feel right.

don't sell yourself short -- if you're good enough to get interest from one agent, you can get interest from others with a little effort.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting post, thanks Hannah. As I'll be going on the agent trail again (hopefully by the end of this year, if not early 2011), I'm looking forward to your next two posts on this subject.

I did have an agent in the early 1990s. She took me on from a fairly random submission to an agent listed in the Writers' and Artists' Yearbook. (No Internet in those days - all done by snail mail.) I was certainly much younger and more naive then, and in retrospect warning bells should have sounded, as she didn't reply to the letters I sent.

After ten months she did reply, to say that the novel (which she had pitched as YA) had been rejected by two publishers, she was leaving the agency (to travel the world IIRC) and no-one else in the agency wanted to take me on, so here was my MS back. The rejection that wasn't a form said that while my novel was ambitious I didn't yet have the sophistication to do my themes justice - not what I wanted to hear back then, but I suspect it was true. Hopefully I've progressed since! I haven't submitted to an agent in about a dozen years, partly because I was writing short fiction nearly exclusively, partly because I'd allowed myself to get discouraged.

Lisa Amowitz said...

Hi Hannah! Oh to have had your wisdom at such a tender age. But then again, I didn't even start writing until much, much later in life. I had a crappy first agent experience myself with a "big name" agent who most people would fall over themselves to have, in fact. My new agent (that it took me over a year to get and with a new novel) is young and untested, BUT, I feel so WANTED and appreciated. I feel this young agent (who is smart and doing her homework) will run to the ends of the earth for me and back again because that's how much she believes in my work. And the point is, whether she does sell my book or not, it has a huge impact on my writing. Agent #1 scared me (and also never gave me a full edit on my book while demanding a revise and never being satisfied) and NEVER did sub my book. Her attitude toward me (oh yes--she did answer me right away) a terrible negative affect on my writing and plunged me into a huge depression. That was while I was with her. When we split, I felt a hundred times better. With my new agent I feel empowered and inspired. Like I have a true partner and we are a real team. It's a wonderful feeling.

Jamie Grey said...

Wow - fantastic post! As someone hoping to re-enter the query trenches (and who would jump to have *any* agent interested in her work) this is really eye opening. I'm definitely going to take my time with the agent search and be 100% sure. And if I ever have to transfer, it's not the end of the world :)

Kara Mustafa said...

Suzie rocks <3 And I transferred from the school I "ABSOLUTELY KNEW I WANTED TO GO TO," too!

Jennifer Hoffine said...

Suzie does rock, and I had to learn the hard way too. I also wasn't cheated in any way by my first agent, but I wasn't treated well either.

Now, I didn't do it on purpose, but I would consider it a sound agent-hunting strategy to target new agents at larger agencies. You get the enthusiasm of a fresh agent along with the experience of her agency.

But even great agents with the best of intentions can end up being the wrong agent for some of their clients. Don't be afraid to leave and find the right one for you.

hannah said...

Jennifer--I am SUCH A HUGE FAN of new agents at established agencies. Best of both worlds.

Lisa Amowitz said...

Well that is perfect, because you just described my wonderful new agent, Victoria Marini of Gelfman Schneider.

Suzy said...

The best advice I ever got was from a Broadway actor. I was being approached by agents in NY and he said to me, "Just remember, they work for you, not the other way around."

I should have left my first Hollywood agent long before I did. I still regret it. Congrats on figuring it out.

Suzy said...

Also? Here via twitter and @eileenwriter.

hannah said...

Suzy--It's amazing advice, and some I've repeated to writers countless times. So many writers are afraid to email their agents or to ask questions about the progress of their careers. This is your future. No one cares about it as much as you do.

Livia said...

The sad thing is that your story isn't all that uncommon. Just in my one year of networking I've run across several writers with that experience. Now I'm getting all scared about going on the agent hunt :-P Not only do you have to land an agent, you have to land an agent who's a good fit. Gahhhh
But thank you for sharing, Hannah. I forwarded this to a friend with a similar experience, and she feels much less guilty about leaving her first agent now.

Shooting Stars Mag said...

Wonderful post. I'm glad you decided to share this with everyone. I'm definitely a fan of newer agents from established agencies myself. I'd love to work with one of them.


Tomica Bonner said...

Thanks! I really like when I hear people give advice that actually helps the inexperienced writer. Sometimes you just have to do what's best for you.

Kristan said...

Thanks for being open and honest about this. I look forward to hearing the next 2 parts.

Question: Did you ever figure out (or did Agent 1 ever say) why she was responsive to others and not to you? I'm not surprised to hear this happened -- I've read enough horror stories online -- but I admit, I figured it was usually because of bad-overall agents, not good-to-some-but-bad-to-others agents...

hannah said...

Kristan--It turned out, Agent 1 WASN'T responsive to others and not to me,w hich is why most of us ended up leaving.

Steve Lewis said...

Hannah, amazing post! And I gotta tell ya, you are definitely an inspiration. I can't believe how much you've accomplished at 19. Wow. And the fact that you're already a seasoned veteran in the publishing business. Again. Wow.

I just wanted to mention, that you or anyone who's interested in more agent discussions should have a look at (Dean actually posted about your post, which is why I checked it out.) We've been discussing very similar things over there for the last few months. Good stuff, maybe not as colorful or entertaining as here but still good. :)

Angie said...

Amazing post! Thanks so much for sharing your story. I feel like I'd definitely need one of those agents who answer every email and question immediately. I've read some agent interviews where particular agents say that they are very responsive, but I sort of think to myself who wouldn't say that when asked in an interview? So how do you find out except the hard way or unless you know lots of agented/published writers that you can ask? And even then, as you said circumstances may vary.

Lots of stuff to think about.

hannah said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lea (YA Book Queen) said...

Yikes...sounds like Agent 1 wasn't too big on communicating effectively. I'm curious about Agent 2 now, (but at least you ended up finding a wonderful agent you adore - so that's one great thing that came out of all of this)

hannah said...

Hoping to have the post about Agent 2 up today or tomorrow. Depends how the Zombie Tag edits go...

aspiring_x said...

that must have taken so much guts!! good for you hannah! (and thanks for letting the rest of us know to be aware!)

The Empress said...

Amazing post. Thank you for sharing this information. I have to read your books now, but hopped over here since Suzy Soro is honest about her feelings on people she finds, and she eels strongly about you and your work. So, I'm here, and I'm impressed.

I'm going to learn a lot here, think you.

I;ve been working on a book on and off for years. I get discourages b/c everyone else seems to beat me to the punch for content. It's like "girl in translation."

Wonderful to meet you.
And many congratulations on your tremendous success at being published. How sincerely wonderful.

hannah said...

Thank you so much, Empress.

James A. Ritchie said...

I'm confused about the edits? Did you want the agent to edit your manuscript? I'd fry in hell before I'd allow any agent to touch a manuscript of mine.

As for editor edits, they always come straight to me from the editors, never through thr agent.

hannah said...

James--I absolutely disagree, and I think you'll find I'm not the only one who does.

My agent edits my manuscripts before anyone else sees them, yep. And I am so entirely grateful that she does.

My first two agents didn't edit at all, so I didn't understand the value of an editorial agent until I signed with Suzie. Before I signed with her, I was also wondering why she had such amazing stats, and why such a huge percentage of her books went to auction.

And then I signed with her, and she started ripping my manuscripts apart and showing me exactly how to put them back together.

She's edited, I think, five of my manuscripts now. I have never been even close to as happy with something I've written than I have with one of my books that she's edited. The differences she makes are absolutely astronomical.

And I think there's a reason the only book of mine that she's subbed went to auction in a matter of weeks. That had never happened to me before.

So yes. My agent edits for me. And I would fry in hell before I'd tell her to stop.

This isn't the first time we've disagreed on something like this, James, and not the first time I've inferred you to say that anyone who approaches publishing in a different way must be doing something wrong. The publishing industry has changed dramatically since you first became involved. I wish you would see that the views you cling to are not all still relevant.

Anonymous said...

As someone who left her agent and still hasn't found a new one, I have to say I agree with everything here. Even after searching for a new one for so long, I am still glad I parted ways with the first. My experience was different, of course. He was a great responder, but we couldn't see eye to eye on those responses. I was willing to revise my book heavily (and I did), but what he wanted was a completely different book with the same basic concept. He wasn't interested in any of my other novels or WIPs, and I worried that the poor quality of his e-mails to me were reflective of the quality of his e-mails to publishers. I know that many of his fiction authors have left him since I did because of his failure to sell novels, although I know he does well with non-fiction. So even though I haven't found an agent since, I'm still certain I made the right choice

Nicola Marsh said...

Great post, Hannah.

As someone who has been in the same position, you've articulated the feelings at the time extremely well.

Good on you.