Tuesday, 15 June 2010

How To Choose A Literary Agent

I’ve had more than one agent. When I was first scouting around, I was looking for status and success, hoping that the glitter of the agency would rub off on me. So for a time, I had an agent who was a partner in a well known, high-profile agency. At first I was delighted to be part of her list, but like many marriages of convenience, ours was a relationship that was ultimately doomed to failure.

She was a physically imposing woman with a large mouth, like a trout, and narrow, mean-looking eyes. Either she possessed a collection of identical tweed suits or she always wore the same one. I suspected the latter. Indeed, I used to fantasise about that suit, imagining it making its way around literary London all by itself while its mistress slept. I wondered which one cut the best deals: my agent, or her suit. Maybe I should have written a novel about it.

She behaved liked the head of a private boarding school in the nineteen fifties and whenever I was obliged to meet her face-to face, I always felt like an interloper who had been caught hiding in the shrubbery near the girls’ dormitory.

She did not like me calling her; she did not like me asking questions about what she was, or was not, up to on my behalf; in fact she did not like me, period. When I finally decided I’d had enough of this treatment and terminated our agreement, she wrote me a letter to say that she thought my latest novel was mediocre.

This was more than twenty years ago. But I still know writers with agents who behave in a not dissimilar way, writers who never hear from their agents and are too intimidated to pick up the phone and ask how things are going. So why do they continue with the relationship? Because they are impressed by the name of the agency and its list of illustrious clients, just as I was.

Writing is a lonely and insecure profession. Authors are at the mercy of editors, publicists, reviewers and booksellers, not to mention the general public. Even when you do have a success, book clubs, supermarkets and powerful book-chains demand outrageous discounts. In this dog-eat-dog world you need an agent who is fairly and squarely on your side. So rule number one: forget the list of famous clients, pick an agent with good manners.

And if you’ve already got an agent, ask yourself this. Does he or she return your calls promptly (or at all)? Do you agonise before picking up the phone to discuss something to do with your career? Do you find yourself stuttering uncharacteristically when you’re in conversation with your agent? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then it looks like you’ve got yourself the wrong agent.


Charmaine Clancy said...

I think your agent might have doubled as my old obstetrician *shudders*.

Good advice, regardless of the work we do, we should look at the people we will work with and evaluate whether it will be a comfortable and productive environment for us. There's a lot of talk about trying to win over agents, but they're just people too, and might not be the type of people we want to spend time with (good for you for giving ol' trout face her marching orders).

Derek said...

It sounds like you were being handled by Joyce Grenfell's unfunny sister!

I suspect that, with the changing face of publishing, where the focus is on profitability (for which they're probably bonused), a lot of the common courtesies have fallen by the wayside. I've yet to connect with an agent or long-term publisher for my novels, but I have definitely been impressed with one or two individuals. Andrew Lownie, for example, though he wasn't in the market for my wares, was attentive, insightful and professional. I won't name names at the other end of the scale, just in case they answer my correspondence before the 6 months are up!

Paul said...

And yet . . . and yet, for those of us who are desperately casting about for an agent, any agent, we don't have the luxury of turning down an offer if the initial phone conversation is uncomfortable. Perhaps when I have a best seller I can call the shots better, but for now I don't think I would dare to decline an offer.

Pink Rose said...

Very insightful, as always. You give great advice to aspiring authors.

Brian Keaney said...

Thanks everyone for your comments. Charmaine, you are absolutely right: they are just people.