Sunday, September 19, 2010

A Writer's Education: Being Agent Ready, Part One

Preface: I've been thinking about this blog post all month. It's the 'why' behind what I do, after reason for being in my capacity as coach. So, consider this part one of two.

I began The Lit Coach, my publishing consultancy and writers’ life coaching practice, after a few years' analysis of how writers approach literary agents and the publishing world in general. If you’ve read my bio, you know I was a literary agent for several years in Los Angeles. After working with many authors, published and yet to be, at every stage of their literary career, a few things became clear: when they began their journey, they didn’t realize the hefty work load that was around the corner; they were so eager to be accepted by an agent, they blissfully ignored bad business practices and glossed over the fine print of the agent contract; they expected their writing career to pay the bills; and they expected the publisher to do all the talking for their book. Writers, there’s really no way to be 100% ready for what lies ahead on your publishing path, but there are a few key rules of the road you need to understand before you head out on this journey.

Rule #1 Writing is WORK

I'm talking about writing for money, here. I'm talking about earning a living off the thing you're most passionate about and good at. Finishing a novel or nonfiction book is a lot of work, right? Agreed. Anyone who completes their own book should give themselves a well deserved pat on the back or in my case, something edible. It’s an accomplishment few can boast about. But most of the time when an agent wants to represent you and your project, chances are you’ll have to rework it. And if you’re not reworking your book (which is totally rare, unless you’ve hired a top notch professional editor to make it sparkle), you’ll have to work on boosting your platform, creating a web presence, tracking down info/pictures/blurbs for your book or making connections. There’s always something to do to make your whole package better. It takes an abundance of time, effort, energy, enthusiasm and most of all, persistence.

And then, hallelujah! Your book sells! I can’t express the mix of emotions you’ll experience, but it’s a great day to be remembered. At that moment, or soon after, you’ll realize all the hard work you put into your creation was so totally worth it. But it doesn’t end there, my dears. You’ve got a new publishing family to meet who will be expecting even MORE work from you. But you know, to do anything brilliantly well, you’re going to have to work more and ___ (insert sleep, watch TV, screw around on facebook) less. That’s just the way it is, right?

Writing a book and publishing it is a full time job that pays first. When you've finally got a few successful titles under your belt, you'll only continue to work to keep your career going by publishing articles, speaking to groups, sitting on panels with other successful authors, etc. It’s A LOT of work. But FUN! So if you’re going to enter this club, be ready to roll up your sleeves. Keeping yourself relevant in the world or words takes a heck of a lot of effort. But what else would you rather be doing?

ACTION: For those of you who are writing around full time jobs, families and other responsibilities and obligations, plan your writing time and agent search around these need-to-do activities. It's often said writing is a selfish practice and as writers, we choose to steal time away from these other activities and responsibilities to focus on ourselves. It doens't have to be this way. Choose to schedule your writing around your more important responsibilities, like your job and caring for your children. It's not a race. There's no need to rush out your novel or hurry up to find an agent. You've got time, so enjoy your life and enjoy the process. Yes, it's work and you'll need to make a few time sacrifices. Maybe that means less screen time...not a bad switch. Most importantly, be clear with your family or those you live with that the time you devote to writing/pitching is sacred and can't be interrupted, unless it's an emergency, of course.

For those of you who don't have many obligations to schedule your writing time around, realize your gift of time is precious and use it wisely. Work smart and always plan your weeks ahead of time. Working without a plan leads to distraction. You'll avoid this altogether if you work your plan, letting that positive momentum drive you forward.

Rule #2 Agents come in several packages; choose wisely

Writers, there are three kinds of agents:

The Snow Whites or Prince Galants: These are the wonderfully talented agents out there who will practically hold your hand every step of the way down your publishing path, always ready to steer you clear of a series of unfortunate events, making sure you’re all singing a happy tune. I'm glad to tell you, there are many agents like this out there working anywhere from home offices to high rise offices from New York to Kansas to California . If you've signed on with this agent, thank your lucky stars and send her/him a bottle of wine or gift card to Starbucks. Often. Advance payments from publishers don’t cover all the good they do for writers in this world.

The Divas and Porcupines: These agents are good at what they do, often brilliant. They have fabulous client lists and offices to die for, but they are not likely to invite you to The Hamptons or The Club unless you’re a six figure deal. You are a business property in their eyes (and make no mistake, publishing is a business!). While their agent aura is certainly awe-inspiring, their attitudes can be off-putting, leaving you searching for a sweater. This agent is all about the business and only for the very self assured writer.

The Wild Cards: These are the agents who will leave you with a funny feeling after talking with them or reviewing their agency agreement/contract. Sure, they seem fabulous upon first meeting them, they have some successful clients and seem legit but it appears their business practices are questionable (charging reading fees, editorial fees or other unreasonable expenses). They’ll hold you to an unreasonably long contract (these contracts should hold you no longer than 12 months, at which time you can re-negotiate. Better yet, opt for a letter of understanding which clearly outlines both party’s obligations and expectations, holding neither of you to an iron clad contract if the agent is not working in your best interest). Always go with your gut with these folks, writers. If something smells fishy, just pass no matter how badly you want to be represented. No representation is ALWAYS better than bad representation! Remember that.

The point is, agent characteristics aside, you should only sign on with an agent you feel 100% confident about and be assured they'll work in your best interest, be it with Prince Galant or Ms. Diva.

Caution: You should never pay fees of any kind with a reputable agent and there should be a reasonable, traceable effort that shows your agent is trying to sell your work. While it would be unreasonable to demand real time progress reports from your agent, he/she should be willing to share at least the first names of the editors they've sent your work to and to which publishing houses. Before you sign on with an agent, discuss how you will be notified of when your project is going out and its progress along the way.

Stay tuned as later this week, we'll wrap up Being Agent Ready with the final two rules of the road.

Have a fruitful week, writers!


  1. How perfectly apropos The Lit Coach abbreviates to TLC! Thank you for being my Snow White...and hmmmm....much of this feels like a loving call to action....

    Time to start handling my time more deftly!

    Love to you and yours!

  2. Thank you, Cheryl! Cheryl was one of my clients when I was a literary agent. She's the author of Twinspiration: Real Life Advice From Pregnancy Through the First Year (for Parents of Twins and Multiples).

  3. Erin, I posted on your FB page, but I enjoyed your post. I wish the whole blog business was available five years ago when I first began sending queries to agents. I secured one in 2004, but I'm not which category she fell under; I didn't really get to know her too well. I think my new one falls under the second category -- he's business-like, but also supportive. Not too prickly. I stick to emails with him because I become speechless when I talk to him on the phone. I can't suppress my excitement and don't really know what to say to him except, "Find me a Publisher!" Any advice on how not to treat agents as if they are Gods?

    Marina @

  4. Thanks for you kind comments, Marina.

    Sounds like you have a good agent...a healthy balance of support and professionalism. No need to get speechless when talking with an agent. Remember, without you there would be no agent. They make a living off of selling YOUR work. I'll address this more in the Q&A with the Lit Coach session later this month.

  5. Thanks for this post Erin :). I'm planning my "agent attack" for early next year :). While some of your points have been said before, one can never read them too often! Especially about the "no agent being better than the wrong agent" *shudder* it scares the heck out of me when I see some writers jump at the first agent they see. Then they can't answer any real questions about them!

    I've seen some on the Divas-LOL- and each time I met one I carefully cross them off my dream list ;).

    Thanks again for the post!

  6. Thanks, Marie. Good luck to you with the search! Let us know who you land with.


Leave your thoughts! Feel free to share with us your success stories or tips.