Picking an agent for a novel in progress
July 26, 2017 3:12 AM   Subscribe

Dear literary mefites – I am in a bit of a quandary – although a very lucky one. The short version is that I have had serious offers from two well-known literary agents (in the UK) about representing my novel-in-progress (commercial genre fiction). I have no idea how to decide on which to take up and I don’t have any background in the publishing world. Both want to take me on even though I haven’t finished the book. How can I choose? What is the best thing about your agent? Any advice appreciated.

I am writing a novel in a commercial genre – let’s say political thriller. At a recent writing workshop (in the UK if that matters) I attended, I was able to pitch my novel to a panel of agents and publishers, and it went very well – once I stopped sounding like the teenage kid from the Simpsons trying to get my nerves under control.

All of the judges liked my book and the agents asked me to send opening chapters and synopsis. Agent A chatted to me for a good while and tried to get me to stay for a drink/food, but I had to catch a train. Agent B also chatted for a bit and introduced me to their editorial team and one of their well-known authors in the genre. I was delighted of course but had to run off to catch the train. Agent A found me on twitter and sent me a direct message that evening.

I sent them both opening chapters and a frantically polished synopsis Monday night. I also included a cover letter detailing a bit more about my background as outlined in writing guides (i.e. ‘From Pitch to Publication’ by Carole Blake). I should note here that although I am an early-ish career academic in the sciences, and so am used to writing for journals, I do not have a background in English literature/publishing etc. In my cover letter (and pitch) I was very honest about how much of the book I have written (about 25 thousand words, so not much) and that I appreciated that the usual advice is to finish a manuscript before even approaching agents. I expected them to agree that, yes, I’d better finish the thing before getting back in touch.

Instead, I got an email from Agent A later that night saying they had read my opening, loved it, had great hopes, and are keen to represent me. Agent A had marked up my synopsis and opening with very thoughtful and constructive comments and the email was so nice I almost burst into tears. They outlined their experience and that of the agency, and said that they would like to take me on even without the book being finished – and that they can help me finish it. This agent and agency are well known in the UK and represent the more literary end of my genre and household names. Agent A has suggested they would be doing the guidance and editing of themselves.

This morning, I got an email from Agent B, owner of their agency. They are very well known in the genre and represent some very famous authors including some of my favourite writers. Agent B is also keen to represent me and wrote very nice comments and that they would be interested to sign me on even though the book isn’t finished. They said their editor (who I met) would work closely with me to finish the book.

I appreciate that I am in an absurdly lucky situation, but I cannot imagine how to make this decision. I have been reading a lot about what an agent does for an author and what questions to ask regarding contracts etc. but I have no idea how to differentiate between the two above. Agent A seems very passionate and involved already, while Agent B has amazing authors and has also been very enthusiastic.

I am looking for advice particularly from those with experience publishing in the UK. I am committed to finishing this book and getting it out there, although I understand that a future in earning a living from writing may not be realistic, and have no plans to quit the day job. I know I’ll need to buckle down and work on actually finishing – how can I best judge that from further discussion? Should I ask about contacting their authors and asking them?!

I would like this to remain anonymous for the moment, but could talk names via memail if that is helpful? Everything seems to be about who you know and I don’t know anyone!
posted by anonymous to Media & Arts (9 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Just a thought but it might help if you can name the specific genre (I'm not sure if political thriller was real or not). For instance UK SF/fantasy publishing is a pretty small world with a big fan community and there are almost certainly MeFites plugged into it who could put you in touch with authors who would know the agents both personally and by reputation. Other genres may or may not be similar.
posted by crocomancer at 4:01 AM on July 26, 2017

Wait, they're both at the same agency? It's very weird for both of them to be making you offers. Do they both know about the offer from the other? Are you sure that the head of the agency isn't just trying to recruit you to the agency in general? Based on what I know about American agencies (admittedly, only through blogs), this is a very unusual thing.

A lot of questions out there designed to help you figure out who to choose for an agent involves questions about the contract or how the agency works, which are not relevant if they're at the same agency. In that case, it might come down to who is easier to work with--how much contact they want, how they express feedback, etc.
posted by gideonfrog at 4:40 AM on July 26, 2017 [1 favorite]

From the OP:
The genre I am writing in is crime fiction.
posted by taz (staff) at 4:49 AM on July 26, 2017

From the OP:
Thanks all for the feedback so far and apologies about the confusion. The agents are NOT at the same agency - they are at two separate agencies. Agency A is more literary and includes a film and TV department. Agency B specialises in crime fiction. Both are well-respected in the field. I have set up an email address meta.agent.query@gmail.com if anyone has an questions. Thanks again
posted by taz (staff) at 5:14 AM on July 26, 2017 [1 favorite]

I work in publishing in the UK (second-rights large-print, so whilst most of our submissions come from other UK publishers, we do deal with a few agents too). I'll drop you a line at your gmail, and if you want to contact me with the agents' names, I can let you know if I've dealt with either agency, and any experiences thereof. I might be able to make some hopefully-helpful suggestions if I know the specifics of your situation (exact genre, other authors represented by the agents, etc.).
posted by Morfil Ffyrnig at 5:17 AM on July 26, 2017 [3 favorites]

My experience is partly relevant. My primary agent is in the US, and she sells my children's books to US publishers. However, she has a sub-agent in the UK who has sold my books to a UK publisher. Also, I live in London, so I've had a fair amount of interaction with my publisher here.

So, I'm going to share the experience that I think is generally applicable. But if somebody with more specific expertise in UK agents contradicts me, you should listen to them instead of me.

When you talk to a potential agent, it's natural to feel like you're talking to a potential employer, but it's actually the other way around. You are the employer, and you're interviewing a potential employee. It's an employee with a very specialized skill, who can be invaluable to your business, so you want to be very respectful of their talents (and obviously, beyond that, everybody deserves to be treated respectfully by potential employers). But fundamentally, they will work for you, and you should ask whatever reasonable questions you need to ask to make sure you are hiring the right person for the job.

Among other things, it's completely reasonable to ask to speak to one of their clients. This is a fairly common thing. I've been the potential client asking "Can I speak with one of your other clients?" and I've also been the enthusiastic client singing the praises of my agent to a potential new author. Obviously they'll put you in touch with their most enthusiastic client, but it's still a useful way to learn about their approach.

For me, the crucial issues are these: your book is still in progress; both agencies want to put you in touch with somebody who will help you finish it; and each agency has a slightly different style of book they tend to represent.

Have I got that right? If so, my prediction is that your choice of agency won't just shape how your book is sold; it will shape the kind of book you end up writing. So if I were you, I'd want to know what direction each agency wanted to take your book in. I'd also want to meet with the editor I'd be working with, just to make sure there weren't any personality conflicts. If the agent or editor says something about your book that doesn't feel right to you, you should politely express your disagreement, and see how they react to it.

The overall goal should be to end up with a team that will push you to write the best version of the book that's in your head -- but not to write an entirely different book that you don't want to write.

Beyond that, some things I like about my agent that you might want to look for in yours:

• I genuinely like and respect her as a human being. Some authors would probably tell you this doesn't matter, but it's important to me. Having her on my team makes me happier and less stressed.

• Within her specific field (children's literature), she's extremely knowledgeable. When I send her a manuscript, she knows which specific editors at which houses are likely to click with it.

• As a result, editors trust her judgment and taste. She has a history of sending editors manuscripts they will like,
and so when she sends them one of mine, they approach it in a positive frame of mind.

• She also trusts her own judgment. When she believes in a manuscript, she will keep hunting for the right editor for it. She doesn't just send something out, get a few rejections, and abandon the hunt.

• She understands what I'm going for in my work. If I am writing a tongue-in-cheek adventure story, she will offer feedback to make it a better tongue-in-cheek adventure story. She won't push me to make it a sober bildungsroman.

• She knows what she doesn't know. Because film/TV rights and foreign sales aren't her specialty, she has sub-agents who handle those things for her clients. Her agency also has a marketing expert on retainer who can help authors with publicity questions.

Hope that's helpful. You're welcome to MeMail me with specific questions. Good luck, and congratulations on having this happy dilemma!
posted by yankeefog at 7:21 AM on July 26, 2017 [13 favorites]

I'm in the industry in the US. Frankly, go with the one with the strongest history of getting their authors good book deals with major publishers. You can snoop on the web, or even ask them outright what percentage of their clients land book deals with the top three publishers.
posted by kapers at 8:50 AM on July 26, 2017 [3 favorites]

Everything yankeefog said.

Some folks sign on with agents who make them rewrite so much of the novel that it's no longer theirs in any meaningful sense. Unless this is the kind of handling you're in search of, avoid this. In order to avoid it and to truly know who "gets" your vision, you have to get a taste of their tastes and their editorial approach. My gut instinct would be to go with the agency that represents the writers you love, but there's more to it than that and you need a full picture, here.
posted by Miss T.Horn at 12:01 PM on July 26, 2017 [1 favorite]

Hello, red flags. Your book obviously sounds very marketable, which is great. But you don't have to rush into anything.

Do you care about cultivating your unique literary voice? If you sign with either agency before completing your novel and then let them shape the book, it will be more packaged agency product than your author's art. And what happens if the publisher wants to apply a secondary edit? Will you recognize the book when it's finished? Will you want to write in the same style later?

Do you have an attorney representing your interests? Talk to one before you sign with any agency, especially if the agency wants to sell film and television rights to your characters and stories.

Also, ask yourself: what is the benefit of getting an agent right now? Is working with an agency editor appealing? Would you get stressed out, or be inspired to work faster, if you knew a publisher was eager to put your book out soon?
posted by Scram at 6:01 PM on July 27, 2017

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