I’ve heard the process of finding and then working with an agent be compared to dating before. Mostly in terms of what not-to-do (which I will be doing here…again), but to start things off on the right tone, read this post on how it’s compared to dating in a positive and hilarious way. There’s gifs!
So…back to this post.
I’m not going to give the usual Do’s and Don’ts tips. I’m going to talk about a trend I’ve been noticing lately that leads me (and my colleagues and peers) to re-consider working on a project. I’m talking about: baggage.
In the dating world, “baggage” can mean a whole host of things depending on the people involved (Recently did a stint in jail? Children from a previous relationship? Divorced?). To be clear: NONE of these are actually negative things…it all just depends on the current situation and whether or not these things affect the current situation for one of the parties involved.
Well, the same thing goes for finding an agent. There are a few situations that I’ve seen a significant more amount of lately that do give me pause. No matter how much I like the project, or even the author, it could be the thing that makes me go: I’ve been down this road before, and this isn’t worth it. Here are the top 3 offenders of this, for me personally:
3. Have worked with multiple agents previously.
I don’t stop to reconsider if someone has worked with one agent in the past 5 years. Or even if it’s 2 agents in the past decade. But I have been receiving more and more submissions lately where I learn that the writer has had 2-4 previous agents in less than 5 years. How is this happening?? And it leads to me wonder if I won’t just be another notch in their belt. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think writers are going out there to “collect” agents. But the truth is that if they’ve worked with that many agents and they are still looking, it is most likely they have unrealistic expectations. And when those expectations aren’t fulfilled, they move on.
2. I already have a series under contract, and a film deal!
That sounds like a no-brainer for an agent, right? Well…not exactly. Even if it’s with a Big Five house, you have already sold multiple books (it’s a series), and we (agents) don’t make money unless we’ve sold those books for you. So multiple books already under contract without us means many years before we have the opportunity to sell anything for you and make any more. And I should also point out that these particular type of writers usually contact us at this stage because they are having difficulties with their publisher and/or film producers and need support/help. Well…that’s great, and that’s 100% what we do for our clients. But it is a TON of work, and there is only so long I’m willing to do that kind of work for free. And chances are, if you sold that first series without an agent, the contract isn’t in great shape either, which leads to more work for me, too.
And the biggest, most frequent offender on this list….
1. I’ve self-published my book XXX, and it’s sold a few hundred (or even a few thousand) copies, but I need an agent to take me to the next level.
I’ve self-published a number of books in the past, but now I’m ready to take the next step in my career.
Guys. GUYS. I don’t’ know how many times I can say this, but I will say it again: once you put your stuff out there and the Consumers Have Spoken (a.k.a. book sales), my job becomes much more difficult to help build your career because now there is a certain level of expectation out there for your work, and those expectations are not good. Back when I first started in publishing (before e-self publishing), if someone sold 10,000 physical copies of a self-pub title, it was an incredible feat. Today, to turn publisher’s heads, that needs to be more like: 50,000 copies in one month, at a $2.99 price point or higher.
Don’t get me wrong. I am supportive of independent publishing. We have a number of clients who pursue this successfully, and we even help them do it. But there is a difference between “just getting your book out there” (self-pub) and having a structured business plan that includes a marketing budget, a publicity plan, and a professional editor and cover designer (indie pub).
None of the above items are automatic NOs for me, and they aren’t for other agents either. But they are something that gives us pause and makes us rethink whether or not this is something we’re willing to take on, because all of these things do give us a more difficult job going into the relationship. And yes, we have said No to projects in the end because of the above reasons. Like I said, it really depends on the situation.
Just remember to make wise decisions, each step of the way. And if you make a mistake or two along the way, it’s not the end of the world. It might just take a little more work to overcome it.
Joanna Volpe is a literary agent who represents all brands of fiction, from picture books to adult. When she’s not reading, she’s either cooking, playing video games, or hanging out with her husband and chihuahua in New York City.