The Path to Publication, Part Five: Picking the Right Literary Agent

(Photo Courtesy of Toby Hudson)

When I queried my first novel THE MERMAID GENE, I suffered from a common misconception. I believed almost all literary agents were created equal.

I say 'almost,' because I knew some literary agents were con artists. They asked for fees for their services, and they never really did anything except steal your money--and probably smoke cheap cigars in a dirty office somewhere.

But here's where I went wrong. I figured I could weed out all the unsavory literary agents with a simple search on Preditors & Editors or the AbsoluteWrite Forum. If those searches came back clean, the agent MUST be a reasonable human being, right? Even better, the agent MUST be a powerhouse superhero ready to take on the world and make us both filthy rich in the process, right?

Wrong. Obviously. I shake my head at my naiveté now, but I was so giddy at the thought that a real-life literary agent may someday want to TALK to me that it didn't even occur to me that I needed to interview her, too.

Here's what happened...

After more than eight months of querying THE MERMAID GENE, I finally got an offer of representation from not one, but two (!!) literary agents. My elation was unparalleled, and I immediately sat down and tried to figure out which offer I should accept.

The problem is, I only looked at things that were quantifiable. I didn't pay enough attention to intangible things like the agents' personalities, how well we clicked or how well they 'got' what I was trying to say. I also didn't monitor their enthusiasm for my work or their long-term investment in my career, because I figured EVERY agent wants his or her client to be a lifelong client, right?

Wrong. Obviously.

Before we get into that, let's take a look at both agents, stacked side-by-side:

(Photo Courtesy of Marco Bellucci)

AGENT A

  • Established agent with lots of clients and sales
  • Came with a "co-agent," which seemed pretty much unprecedented
  • Very established house with lots of sales and a "highly recommended" Preditors & Editors status
  • Smooth talker, with plans of taking THE MERMAID GENE to the Frankfurt Book Fair in just a few short weeks
  • Very well-connected to the literary and film worlds. Spoke of a particular contact at a particular (VERY well-known) film production company who was already interested in considering THE MERMAID GENE for a feature film
  • Didn't see the need to do extensive edits and thought we could get the manuscript out on submission within a couple of weeks

AGENT B

  • Brand-new agent with only one other client and no existing sales
  • Very established house with lots of sales, but no "highly recommended" Preditors & Editors status
  • Wonderful rapport and the feeling that she really "got" me, but no specific plans for editors she would contact quite yet
  • Felt THE MERMAID GENE would require fairly extensive edits, including changing the entire manuscript's tense and shortening/tightening the first 50 pages
  • Didn't want to rush submissions, because she wanted us to take our time with edits and make sure we got them right

Can you guess which agent I picked? And can you speculate which agent I should have picked?

I will spare you the long story, as there is no sense in dwelling on the past. Let's just leave it at this: if something sounds too good to be true, it most likely is too good to be true. 

Fast forward to today. Agent A is no longer agenting, and Agent B has several six-figure deals under her belt (including one for that first client, who would have been in line just in front of me). THE MERMAID GENE has been shelved--partially due to being blasted out before it was ready--and I found myself dropped as Agent A's client within four and a half months.

And you know what? It was my fault, because I listened with my wallet, not with my heart. I heard, "Let's make a ton of money with no work at all," and I chose that over, "Let's do this right. It may take some time, but I really believe in this book." 

Moral of the story: don't take the easy way out. Ever. And listen to your damn gut. If it's screaming for you to not believe everything you hear, please don't turn a blind eye to that.

Also, remember that agents are just people. Some will care about you more than others, and it's up to YOU to determine which one deserves to be trusted with your career. Don't leave a decision that monumental to websites like Preditors & Editors or the AbsoluteWrite Forum. Those websites are important places to start, but ultimately, the decision is in your hands. No matter how starstruck you feel, you need to keep your head on straight. 

Remember that manuscript... the one you just spent the past few months or YEARS of your life writing? Its future--and your future--depend on it.

So... Where did my story leave me? That answer is simple: agentless and broke, with a dead manuscript and no idea what to do next. 

Please tune in next time to see what happened next!