How do you work with your literary agent
April 25, 2008 1:45 PM   Subscribe

What is your relationship like with your literary agent?

I'm interacting with a literary agent right now, and I'm looking for firsthand accounts of how the relationship works for you. I'm not looking for anything about query letters or scam agents, but instead your stories, both good and bad, about interactions with legit agents once you are past the query-letter stages. Important lessons you learned, mistakes you made, anything like that. Special bonus points for agents who helped you shape a manuscript.

I'd also be interested in stories from the other side of the table (and yes, I have read Miss Snark).
posted by Bookhouse to Media & Arts (5 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Bookhouse: just signed my first contract with an agent (see my prior AskMe's for more info). She solicited me after seeing some of my work on a national media outlet. Since October, we've had several lengthy phone calls and dozens of emails. She's done full rather exhaustive edits of my book twice and made great suggestions that I found well-informed.

The manuscript is going out next week and she has a good line on a good home for it.

Good all around!
posted by arnicae at 2:01 PM on April 25, 2008

Best answer: My relationship with my first agent was AWESOME, except in the end, I didn't really write stuff she wanted to represent, and I drove myself crazy trying to write something she did. We were great friends, I am deeply, deeply grateful for all the time she spent helping me edit my first novel, but we weren't a great fit. I was too afraid to speak up for myself, and she was still new enough that she didn't quite know her niche yet. Got on like houses on fire, though, and I still enjoy her company. I must note, however, that we never managed to sell anything together.

My relationship with my current agent is also awesome, but it's an actual business relationship now. Sure, we know the occasional details about each other's lives, but we don't chat. We don't socialize. We work- and that really works a lot better for me. I don't feel like I have to do every little thing she says just to keep her, and when she gives me revision notes, she doesn't try to climb into my space as a writer. She only tries to improve what's already there. And I must note that she managed to sell my first novel in 3 months, and got a really exceptional deal for it, too.

So my advice is- be personable, but don't try to be friends. Expect to do multiple rewrites before you sell, after which you will do multiple rewrites. Listen to her advice; when you have a question, ask her before you ask anyone else. Understand that you're allowed to say no. Oh, and don't be surprised if your agent doesn't have a contract for the two of you. My first one did, my current one does not. 15% is standard, and it's not uncommon to work on a handshake.

Congratulations and good luck!
posted by headspace at 2:33 PM on April 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I was spared the query letter process since a college friend of mine happens to have a father who is a best selling author; she enjoyed my writing enough to pass samples of it along to her dad, who enjoyed it enough to pass it along to his agent, who also enjoyed it. Since then the agent and I have worked on a couple proposals that haven't really gone anywhere, though I have one in right now that's generated some interest. Submitting proposals is nerve wracking; if you have a good agent editors read your material pretty immediately upon submissions and responses start rolling in really fast. You'll know whether or not your book is going anywhere within a week or two, a month at the most.

The first time I submitted a proposal was a trip because I really was just starting out as a writer and didn't even identify myself as such but because of this stroke of luck I was able to get an agent, complete and submit a proposal in a matter of only a few months. The agent walked me through the proposal writing process and gave me a lot of editorial guidance along the way because I really hadn't done anything like that before. It didn't sell but I was cc:'ed on a lot of correspondence with senior editors at big publishing houses who were really excited about the manuscript but simply felt its timing was poor. That was the first harsh lesson I learned; regardless of your agent's connections or your skill as a writer, if you're trying to sell something that publishers are not buying at the moment you probably won't get anywhere. However, these editors my agent corresponded with also encouraged me to keep writing; they felt that timing and not talent was the issue. That was when I decided to start building a writing career, I felt like if some dude at Simon and Schuster says I should keep doing it, then I might not be deluding myself in pursuing it longterm. Again, I had never really written anything prior to this.

Since then I learned that if your agent thinks you've got something he can sell, he's going to be in pretty constant contact but if you don't, he won't. Once the first proposal didn't go anywhere I struggled with the fact that my agent wasn't really available to me as much, took longer to respond to emails, was pretty quick to get off the phone. That's okay; the fact is that he represents a ton of different writers and if one of them has something promising then he should be talking to them because selling books is how he makes a living.

Since then I've put together another idea that is promising and once again we're in pretty regular contact, I'm getting a lot of feedback from him about material, how to shape the narrative, stuff like that. As far as his helping shape the manuscript, I really trust him pretty implicitly. He's not just trying to shape it to make it more salable, he's really smart, has high standards and has been working with writers in this way for more than 25 years. Sometimes he makes a suggestion that I bristle at, but I hold my tongue and think about it and usually conclude that he was right. Basically, he's a really good editor, too.

If this current proposal we're working on doesn't go anywhere, we'll probably fall out of contact again, and that will be okay, again. The good thing is that he really believes in me, has stuck with me from the point of my being a total novice through my developing a freelance career to becoming someone who has now staked a real claim as a writer and commentator at least in Philly.

Good luck, this is the stage when it gets really hectic, but also really exciting.
posted by The Straightener at 2:44 PM on April 25, 2008

Best answer: So I had this hot agent, of some fame. What I remember from our relationship is rewrites and flattery. In principle, rewrites are a great idea. Nothing is so crucial as an editor who will kick your ass. But these were bad rewrite ideas, stuff that watered down the proposal, and took so long that we failed to strike when the iron was hot (this all started when I was on TV and a major publisher had shown interest.)

As I kept working over the proposal to her specifications, the Word doc just got less and less focused, less spontaneous, just sort of inert, poseur-ish, and stupid. But I was blind to all this, because I was mesmerized by the fact that Manhattan book world badasses were discussing the idea of publishing me, some guy who went to UC Davis.

Author and caustic commentator Dennis Perrin absolutely nails the feeling in this blog post:

Picture yourself sitting in a top editor’s office inside a large building in midtown Manhattan. Look at the numerous smiling faces around you. Listen to the flattery. Feel your back being slapped. You never went to college, and here are all these ambitious Princetons and Yales kissing your ass. You’re loose, funny. You can’t believe this is happening, but convince yourself that it’s your due.

(The post is about how, miscalculating the situation, he's now working as a janitor.)

So anyway, there I was, reworking this 50-page .doc file to death at the request of the hot agent. "Thanks for being such a good trooper," my hot agent would say after every new revision. This took as much as a year, so that today my Mac lists literally dozens of files, spread over the months, with names like "proposal-absolutely-last-version.doc" and "proposal-this-is-it.doc!" I just assumed that every piece of advice my agent ofered was right on the mark, instead of trusting my gut. I mean, who knew how to sell a book, I thought, the woman who brunches under the Conde Nast building or a guy sitting around watching Timecop?

Anyway, despite the reknown of the agent, the proposal was a total, total wipeout, though years later the book is finally out. (I went agent-free and found a little publisher, although the price of going without an agent was a stingy royalties contract.)

I wish I'd taken the advice of some friends at a magazine, who suggested I switch to a more ruthless, bulldoggy agent. They were right. I also think that pride can prevent you from wanting to let a second party help develop a manuscript; being left alone to write whatever you want can be a "be careful what you wish for" scenario. The key, of course, is that the interference will be smart and not lame. And that the agent will understand the genre, too.
posted by Kirklander at 3:12 PM on April 25, 2008 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I love my literary agent. The first year I was with her, I was so impressed with her and all her connections, that I grilled her about what I should write and then I would write some samples and we would work on them and she would arrange conference calls for me with directors and I would take notes and...nothing. Nada. I couldn't write that way. I was never inspired and thus never had the time because I was too busy working on stuff that I actually wanted to work on.

In a way, I felt deeply disappointed by the relationship. What good was it if I couldn't write what she wanted? Except - and this is a big except - that is not what she wanted at all. I had made it up in my head and was seduced by her other well-known clients. My agent had indulged my novice questions and explorations because she honours her client's wishes but after puttering around for a few months, she asked me straight out, "What do you really want to write?" And then I knew. I knew I just had to write for me, not to please anyone else. It sounds obvious, but I caught her attention because of my work, which is very specific to me and my politics. And that's when I'm happiest, writing in my voice, from my point-of-view. I'm writing what I want, so I end up writing more. More writing, more commissions! Everybody is happy!

In terms of our relationship. She listens, she's honest, she's not afraid to fight for me and she's not willing to let me sell myself short even though I'm just starting out. We're friendly but not friends. We're professional but we also laugh. We need each other, so we're respectful of the other's skills and knowledge. I think the most important thing for me though, is the fit. My agent 'gets' my work and knows the market for it.
posted by typewriter at 4:07 PM on April 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

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