Thursday, February 4, 2010

Conference Lesson #1: Overcoming Agent Phobia

Okay, I'll admit it. I was TERRIFIED of agents. In fact, I don't think using all caps even begins to convey the level of fear I used to feel. In my mind they were basically these creepy, evil Fates holding the cord to my dreams in their crooked little hands looking for any excuse to destroy it. (It's cute if you think I'm exaggerating...and yes, I realize this might mean I have issues.)

But think about it! 

Agents have power. Finding one who believes in you is the first step to world domination becoming a published writer--which isn't just a dream--it's THE DREAM!!!!!!!!!! And whenever someone has that kind of power over your dreams it's easy to feel like they're the gatekeepers of some mystical world only the strongest and smartest and bravest are allowed to enter--and you'll never be good enough to get through.

Here's the reality:

Agents need good writers as much as good writers need them.  

Think of it as a symbiotic relationship. Yes--we need an agent to help us sell our book. But agents need to sell books to make money, and if ours is good--they want to represent it. It's a simple business relationship. No evil conspiracies to kill your dreams or keep you down or ruin your life. In fact all the agents I met were...nice. Really nice. Friendly. Funny. And as far as I know, they didn't have glowing red eyes or claws or fangs--and believe me, I checked. 

Now...does that mean we never have to worry about rejection? Sadly no. Every agent panel I attended talked about the inevitability of rejection. I think Anne Hawkins of John Hawkins and Associates put it best when she said she's definitely passed on projects and writers who went on to make a lot of money. But she's also made a lot of money off projects and authors that other agents passed on. It's the nature of the business--and there's dozens of reasons why an agent might pass on something, so we can't take it personally and we can't let it discourage us. If the writing and the story are great we WILL find an agent to sell it, and we will go on to be a success.

But does that mean there's nothing we can do to help ourselves?

Of course not.

I've already told you the first step: have an amazing book to sell. Don't query your project just because you love it, or because you're proud of yourself for finishing. Query it because it is the best thing you have ever written, and make sure you have some unbiased people--like brutal CPs--to back you up on that. And if your current project doesn't fit that criteria, you can still love it--but put it away and wait until you really have your best work to put out there. You only get one chance to make a good first impression, so make sure that the work you're presenting is the best it can be. 

But there's more to it than just good writing. Remember--this is the publishing BUSINESS--and the agents couldn't stress enough the importance of being professional. What does that mean?

Well, it means following procedures. Have a strong, professional query letter--and conform to the agent's preferred querying guidelines. Don't call them to ask if they got your query (actually, most of them said pretty much don't call--ever. Maybe if you're a client, but not before). It means not sending them bitter, snippy emails when they reject you, or trying to convince them to change their minds. And here was another big one: it means not putting anything negative out there on the internet, because they can find it.

Now, a lot of us are savvy enough to know about Google Alerts, so we may not use an agent's name in our venting. But agents do google clients before they sign them most of the time, and if your blog/twitter/facebook page is filled with complaints about nameless agents, or "wrongs" that have been done to you during the querying process, or anything negative, it is a HUGE turn off to them. And that includes negative book reviews. Their advice: stay positive at all times. They talked a lot about "getting a feeling" about clients--that they're looking for any red flags that might warn them they're taking on a liability instead of an asset. Don't let your online presence work against you. 

They also talked a lot about what they look for in an online presence--but that's a WHOLE other subject--which I will get to another day, I promise. But today I just wanted to leave you with what was the single biggest revelation of the conference--for me at least:

Agents aren't scary.

Don't let the fact that they stand between you and publication intimidate you. They aren't trying to block you--they're there to help you. But you need to be ready for their help. So do yourself a favor and polish your draft as much as you can now, and learn as much as you can about publishing. And if you're patient and professional, you WILL find an agent who believes in you and your project, and you'll look back on your days as an unagented underling and laugh about how silly you were for being afraid of agents. Because then you'll be facing an even bigger threat: submissions!

Ugh! Why are we doing this to ourselves?


  1. Your picture are so funny... But I have to agree. I know a lot of agents that suffer the feelings we go through and are trying to be writers themselves. They're there because they want to have a relationship with a writer.


  2. I'm quite the fan of agents -- they're lovely people, and very not-scary. Though it can be intimidating to meet them, because it's always in the back of your mind that they could take your dream and either crush it or give it life. I generally just focus on meeting them as people and pretend I'm not a writer and they're not an agent -- makes it much easier!

  3. I've long since ceased to be intimidated by agents. Reading their blogs and Twitter streams has humanized them. If they can be goofy and have fun senses of humor, why not just relate to them as human beings, not those nameless, faceless gatekeepers of the literary world.

    Joke with them, comment on their blogs, whatever. They're just people, like us. (Only with cooler jobs.)

  4. Symbiotic relationship...symbiotic relationship...symbiotic relationship...

    Okay, Shannon. I'm making this my new mantra reminder to myself. :)

  5. The first agent conference I attended (thanks to SCBWI) cured me of fear. Big-name agents answered our questions, made jokes and were genuinely friendly. It was a great relief to realize I could have an interesting exchange with an agent and feel respected and on equal footing. Yes, they do hold a certain power, but we aren't powerless, especially when we do our job well.

  6. I with Shannon. I'm bookmarking this post for when I begin querying again. :) Great post!

  7. This is a fabulous post. I can't understand why so many people forget that agents make their money from authors, so they clearly have nothing personal against writers (well, there are bound to be exceptions like a teacher who hates kids).

  8. This post rocks! I can't wait to read about online presence.

  9. Hilarious pics! LOL Good info, glad they don't scare you anymore! They are people too, just like us, right? Your posts are so entertaining.

    Will be looking forward to the post on online presence ;o)

  10. It's so easy to be afraid of the unknown, or the next unknown step. It's nice to hear you were able to put a real face/personality to agents and overcome your fear. Awesome! :)

  11. Ann Elle Altman: Aw, thanks. And btw--nice to meet you!

    Marybeth: Yes...I think that's one of the qualifying factors of being a writer

    Frankie: Lol. We'll see if I can keep this attitude when I query

    Simon: LOL. Yes, exactly! Way cooler jobs. Though...I'd rather be a writer than an agent. *shudders at the idea of legal stuff* (Sadly, legal "stuff" is the most technical term I could come up with. #Shannonwouldbeabadagent)

    Shannon: Aw, I hope it helps. It's really true--they need us just as much as we need them!

    Tricia: I think that's the biggest point. If we do our job well they'll be fighting over us. least one will give us a chance. ;)

    Bethany: Aw, that makes my day. I'm really glad you enjoyed.

    Lost Wanderer: It's so easy to forget, but we need to remember. And yes, I'm sure there are some evil agents out there--but they are much less common that I thought they'd be.

    Mariah: Aw, thank you. I'll try to cover that tomorrow, since it's on people's minds now.

    Erica: Thank you my dear. I'll try to make the next post equally funny.

    Jemi: I really have. They are people. And being rejected by real people doesn't seem so bad...

  12. Ah, the dreaded agent! Ha! Agents definitely need to be treated with respect, but I think there are a lot of writers out there who live in fear of their agents long after they've signed a contract. That is not healthy. You don't have to be besties with your agent, but you do need to be able to have (very) candid conversations with them. It can be a tough line to walk sometimes.


Yay-I love comments! Thank you so much! (But please remember to keep your comments spoiler-free. Also, I try to keep this a happy, positive place. Any arguing or intense debate--on any subject will be removed. Let's keep this a safe, fun space.