How to Choose an Agent (2019)
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Sue Stanley: Welcome you’re listening to a 2019 WriteOnCon podcast. This is Sue Stanley from the WriteOnCon team. I’m thrilled to talk today with agent Caitie Flum about how to choose an agent. Caitie, thank you so much for joining me.
Caitie Flum: Thank you for having me. I’m really excited.
Sue: For those of you who may not know, Caitie is an agent with the Liza, with Liza Dawson Associates. Caitie can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Caitie: Sure. I’ve been agenting since working at Liza Dawson and Associates since 2014 and have recently become a full-time agent. I work with basically every age group and genre except for picture books, and I just love working with creators of all ages all interests. Very passionate about middle grade and YA and I just really love working with authors. It’s my favorite part of everything.
Sue: That’s nice. That’s nice. So our topic as I said, is how to choose an agent. So my first question for you is, what do you think is the most important piece of information for an author to have about an agent before they query?
Caitie: Probably the number one is that they are a legitimate agent and not what we like to call a “smagent.” And those are people who do the big no-nos who are charging writers which agents should never do. Who are just not actual legitimate agents. That is the number one thing is to not send your work to someone who is not an actual agent working for writers.
Sue: How can authors who are looking to query recognize the difference? So you mentioned charging. Are there other things that a, that authors can do to confirm that their agent is actually legitimate?
Caitie: Well like I said the biggest one is charging. An author should never be paying the agent money. Money goes to the author, not from. And that’s one I will just repeat probably even more times because it happens far too often and it’s awful. The other one is people who are not with established agencies. Yes, there are people who can just come in and start their own agency but it’s a big red flag. People who have done a six-month internship think that they know everything and just kind of start on their own. And a lot of those end up being a little sketchy in that they don’t have the contacts or they don’t have all of the information you need. I know that there’s been a couple of really good blog posts that go through all of the big differences. I think Jennifer Laughran might have done one and I would look there as well. But anything that makes you second-guess for a second. But like I said, the biggest one is the charging. People have been screwed over by those types of agents who aren’t.
Sue: Yes. Yes, I I’ve known some that have made mistakes like that. So where are the best, most effective places to research an agent?
Caitie: I’m only going to talk about the ones I’m familiar with. I’m sure there are others that are great but I highly recommend Manuscript Wish List (manuscriptwishlist.com). It’s this great site where agents go and put exactly the kinds of things they’re looking for. Genres, they talk about their favorite books. They talk about things they’re excited about and they get updated relatively frequently. So that’s just a great one to see from agents. Another great one is Query Tracker (Querytracker.net) on query tracker it kind of lists everybody. You can keep track of who you’ve sent to. You can see genres. You can see other people’s experience though always take those with a grain of salt. Just because some people get angry when they get a rejection or kind of, it’s not completely based in facts. So it’s just read everything a little carefully on there in the comments. But it’s a great place to see who’s out there. What genres they represent and then there’s also agency websites.
It’s a lot of work to go to them but it’s a great chance if you want to look through and see who at each agency is the best fit. And the final place is, a little less than it used to be, but Twitter is still a good place to see because you can see what agents are talking about what they’re interested in, And that’s a good overview. The final thing which is a little more work but I always suggest that writers keep a list of their favorite books or all of the books they’re reading and look in the acknowledgments and see who that agent was. Because, say you notice that you love how you know this agent, a certain agent has great characters in all their books. You’ve written this great character story so you can know who to go to. It’s a really great, quick way to see agents who you might like what they do again and again. So you know that they might be a good fit for what you do.
Sue: That’s a great suggestion. Once you begin querying and you begin to get requests from agents. What are some red flags to look for? Like let’s say that you’ve looked on Query Tracker maybe it’s a new agent or an agent that hasn’t sold for a long time or where there’s not a lot of information available but they seem legitimate when you start. They’re not charging. What are some things to look for before you send the manuscript or even after you’ve sent the written manuscript if you’re not hearing back or if you are or if you’re concerned? What would you, what would you say authors need to be concerned about once they are querying and getting requests?
Caitie: I would say there’s not as much to be looking out for at that stage. I think the biggest thing is making sure that they aren’t saying some things on Twitter. That’s a good way to kind of see. If you suddenly see somebody’s not a fit anymore. But there aren’t really that many red flags because response time can vary so much. I know some people would think, oh someone requests immediately that’s a red flag. But it’s not. Some people are just fast. Some people will be like, oh it took them six months. I’m still querying. It took them so long that sort of, I that’s not necessarily a red flag because they’re putting their time into their current clients and if you’re their current client that’s what you want. So some people will think that kind of thing. Some people think if they request pages and then take a long time again that could be a red flag. I mean they’re not interested that kind of thing.
But again, it’s all about them balancing their time and remembering that agents don’t get paid until they sell things. So that it’s just not necessarily the top thing they can do. So there’s not many things at that point. I know a lot of writers will start thinking there are because the waiting process is awful. I totally, on the agent side, I totally understand. I hate that. Seeing like my queries being so old and not getting back to them. Or requesting materials. But there’s not too much there. It really is the time to just kind of focus on the next person to send to and writing your next thing not as much as worrying about what things can mean except if it’s on Twitter. Like if you see that they’re suddenly saying all of these things on Twitter that seem against what your manuscript is or are just things that make you uncomfortable. That’s where you might see the red flag. But again not obsessing about it is probably the best thing.
Sue: Okay excellent advice. And so from the other side of that, what are some red flags for agents? Let’s say that you have, as an agent, you have read a query. You’ve made a request and there’s things that make you uncomfortable. Not necessarily about the manuscript when you know the manuscript is really good but about the author themselves and choices that authors make that may cause you to pass just because you don’t want to work with that particular author.
Caitie: So that is something that is definitely a concern. Once I’ve fallen in love with something and I’m getting to the point that I need to see more about the author, social media is the first thing I go to. I’m not saying anyone has to ever censor themselves on social media but if there’s someone who is using, uses slurs for example. I have passed on things because of that. If they’re being just mean about talking about agents in particular, that’s a big red flag or editors. Not, you know, criticizing something that they’ve said or done out there publicly. But just oh, this person’s so terrible because they passed on my manuscript. There have been a lot of times not with me, but with other friends of mine that this has happened. That like someone, they’ll find that this writer has an entire blog post saying nasty things about agents. That kind of thing.
The other bigger one is in communicating with them. I am very much a rule follower. That is my personality. That’s the kind of, also the kind of people I want to work with. And I’m pretty clear. Like please don’t follow up unless you have an offer or you know, revisions. And if somebody follows up once, that’s fine to check in. But if someone’s constantly nudging just to do it and without those. That will usually have me pull back a little. Or if sometimes it’ll just be, I’ll sometimes even have questions for them before setting up a call if I’m to that stage. I want to know something and there’s been times that someone is just rude back. And it’s a very professional relationship. And I always try to be professional when I’m speaking with writers in any form of communication. So it’s just that getting that back.
It’s only happened a couple times that I’ve been like ready to offer on something and then kind of do this research and pull back. It’s not something that happens often. And I don’t think it’s something writers should obsess about but just to remember that being professional. I do want to say with that like talking about politics online can still be totally professional. Pushing out, back against you know, racism, homophobia. Pushing against all that stuff it’s totally fine too. I don’t want anyone to think that they should be censoring that because I know that to read, something that hits them right away is when people say, oh I look at social media. like that’s not what it’s about at all. It’s just looking at more are you unnecessarily nasty to other people not, and critical is fine. Being critical is great. I love working with writers who are critical.
Sue: Okay that’s good to know. Your footprint matters.
Caitie: Yeah, yeah.
Sue: Okay what are the markers of a good literary agent? Once you’ve signed. Once you have made the selection or you’re down to the last, you’ve gotten multiple offers and you’re trying to make that decision. What are the markers of a really good agent?
Caitie: A lot of it depends. Because a really good agent is a really good agent for you. There could be, you know, there’s times that people are choosing between somebody at one of the biggest agencies there is who has like the best track record all of these bestsellers and someone who’s newer but with the newer person they feel like they’ll be a priority. And for some debut authors that’s really important because they know that they’re gonna need a lot of editorial work. They’re gonna need a little more help. They’re gonna need a little more hand-holding so they’ll want to go with the newer.
For some people, they’re like oh, no I’m fine with going with the huge person who has a hundred clients and I’ll be one of those. And that’s what I want. So it’s about knowing what you want as a writer which is really really hard. That’s probably the hardest thing because you don’t know until you’ve been there. So the kinds of things that I always want think that authors should ask about and a lot of times if I’m on a call, offer call with them and I haven’t yet, I’ll bring it up is communication style. That’s one of those things that is super important for it to be compatible with your agent. If your agent only wants to do phone calls and you’re the kind of person that you need to see everything in writing to comprehend it. Or you want all of that. You’re going to need an agent who will be flexible to that. If your agent will only send emails and you’re the kind of person who wants a mixture. I always say with for my clients it’s what they’re comfortable with because I can be comfortable with anything. But I know not agent, all agents are like that and that’s fine. So making sure that your communication styles will work together is super important.
Another really important thing is how editorial of an agent you want. There are agents who just get a manuscript and send it out which again for them is totally fine. It works. There’s other agents who’ll take things that they think need more work and they’ll talk with the author on the call about the kind of changes. And they’ll do sometimes two, three rounds of edits to get it as polished as it can be before going out to editors. So you want to make sure that if you want one thing or the other that that’s the agent you’re going with. And kind of the other thing is especially with newer agents. I’ve seen a few people say this. And I’m sorry I can’t quote who said it first. But for a new agent, you want them to have two or three things. To be at a well-established agency, to have been in another facet of publishing, and to have other agents at their agency who are mentoring them in the same genre. If they have two of those three it’s usually not a red flag at all. And there can be people who only have one who are still great agents. But it’s something to be thinking about and something that should be considered.
And I’d say another really important thing is thinking about what you want to write in the future because, say you have this great YA fantasy right now but you know in the future you want to also write you know, a middle grade contemporary. Or you have an idea for a picture book or you see yourself doing some adult as well. Trying to find an agent who can do as many of those things as you want is always good. I know a lot of agents say, I’m not open to picture books. But if I have a current client who is interested in picture books, I have people at my agency who specialize in that and who will help us so that that client can do it. So just thinking about your career a little bit more and figuring out that, get the agent who is going to be able to help you for as long you can is always really important too.
There’s just so many things to be thinking about. I know it’s really hard. Another thing I always say is talk to current and former clients of that agent. See, kind of to find out communication style. To find out what worked, what didn’t. That kind of thing? Usually, if you should, I always say, you should probably ask the agent first off if they have a current client, just because they know which of their clients have that time right now. But you can also reach out on Twitter or in other ways and just contact those people. They will be very honest. They will, everyone I know who’s a writer is happy to talk about the good and the bad about their agent. So that’s always a really good way to kind of figure it out because there’s not certain markers. Like not all sales are published publicly everywhere. You don’t know what’s going on behind the scenes. You know, you don’t know exactly how much they’ve been doing. Maybe they’ve been working with another agent and they did a lot of work on these other projects and their name isn’t on it. Maybe they’ve been out with projects that just have been getting to that point where they go to editorial meetings at three places and it doesn’t go through. That’s still somebody who’s a good agent. They got a book all the way that far and there’s so much in publishing that just is timing.
So kind of finding those questions. Finding what’s important to you and being willing to talk about it. The final thing is no matter where your agent is and who they are, you need to feel like you can talk to them. I know a lot of first debut authors get very nervous no matter who their agent is when they have to ask questions. But you need to feel comfortable in sending that email setting up that phone call whatever sending a DM whatever it is how you communicate anytime you have a question. That is an agent’s job to help you. They might have their own method like, hey you know, every two weeks send a list and we’ll go over it. Any time you have a question just send it over but you need to be comfortable with talking to your agent because that’s where all the problems happen is when you can’t. And then you just start asking all of your writer friends. Get all this contradictory information and then send yourself into spirals. It’s usually the biggest thing whenever I see a writer freaking out about something who’s agented. I’m like talk to your agent. So if you can’t talk to your agent then that’s probably not the agent for you.
Sue: It sounds like it’s a bigger decision than just the particular project that you’re working on. The particular manuscript that you have in front of you that you’re querying. It sounds like the decision needs to be broader than that.
Caitie: It does and just because a lot of times that manuscript doesn’t sell. There is author after author after author that you hear that the first thing with their agent isn’t the one that ended up selling. It’s sometimes the second or the third. And it’s also good to know that a lot of people do change agents. You know, if you make the decision and it doesn’t work out, it doesn’t mean that everything is over. So it’s not the worst thing possible. It’s not your only chance even though I know it sometimes feels that way. But it is, it’s, there’s a lot to think about and a lot to consider and sometimes it also just comes down to, during the call, were you comfortable? Did you like their editorial selection, like ideas? Did you feel like you matched? Like, you don’t need to be friends with your agent by any means, but is it someone who you can talk to? Is it someone who you think understands where you’re coming from either in your manuscript or for your career?
Because there are also some agents who will say I represent this book and there will be others who say I represent this author and just figure out what you want. Some people say yeah, that’s fine. They represent this book and then we’ll see you know, with the next book if they represent that book too. And some people want someone who will represent their career. So it’s finding these things out about yourself and knowing also that if any of these things change for you, say you start out wanting this communication style, and then you realize it’s not working and you want something else. That, you can always ask for that. And most agents I know will be very flexible. Like agents want their authors to be happy and understood so things can change and that’s okay.
Sue: Okay, so if an author were to sign with you, what would be the next, what would the next step look like?
Caitie: So usually the next step is an edit. I’m a very editorial agent. I, since I just read it, it’ll be one of two things. Either I already have most of the edit letter written and I will send it or we’ll have talked about a few things but I’ll want to get down into it more and go through the manuscript again because originally I’m reading it for, do I love this? Do I think I can sell this? What are a couple of ways I think it could be stronger? And when I’m sending that first edit letter it is more picking apart each aspect and getting the full thing. So that can be a couple weeks up to a couple months and I always give the idea of how long it’ll take which sometimes changes. But I always try to give a ballpark and do a big edit. And we’ll usually do the big edit and then a smaller line edit.
And after that it is time for submission list. And submission letters, I’ll always put together the letter. Do it on my own. Send it to a few colleagues who also will take a look. Then send it to the author. I always want my authors to know what it looks like. See if they have any feedback. And then I put together the submission list and also do it in a very similar way. I work at a very collaborative agency. We work together for everything. We have monthly meetings. I call up people and ask questions all the time so I get to put, I put together that list of editors I’m thinking for a first round. And I always ask my author, is there anyone who you definitely want me to send it or anyone you definitely do not? Most of the time they’ll be like oh, yeah send it to this, like, send it to John Green’s editor. And I’ll be like well, she doesn’t really buy too much so, here’s another editor at that imprint who’s a much better fit. And here’s why. But saying that I do always take what they say into consideration. A lot of them have you know, that list of books they love and who the agent was and who the editor was and I want to make sure that that’s collaborative too. So they’ll always get the list of who it is. They’ll know when it goes out that kind of thing. So that’s kind of the next steps is the edits and then sending it out.
Sue: So how do you know? Let’s say you’ve gone through the submission process and either the book has sold and it’s been a while or more likely for whatever reason this particular manuscript did not sell. How do you know as an agent or how do you make the decision as an agent that the, that it’s time to move on. That the author needs a different representation. That you know that it’s not going to be a part of your list that’s going to be effective for you or the author. How do you make that decision or how do you know when it’s time for that?
Caitie: So for me, it tends to be more of what’s the author working on next not a move on from the author because I do sign people for their careers. So while they’ve been on submission they’re writing their next thing we’re talking about issues we’re figuring out you know, where things need to go next. We’re having conversations about when it’s time to put this manuscript in the drawer and work on the next one. For me, I haven’t actually yet said that I think it’s time for someone to go to someone else. It’s been that it’s time to try something new. Either a new genre. A new book. A new age range kind of what I’m seeing in the market. So that’s kind of from my perspective.
I’ve never had a time that I’ve been like, okay you just, I can’t do anything else. But for friends I know a lot of the time when they are saying that to their clients they will actually say hey, to all of, we have kind of a couple of email groups for people in our kind of positions, where they’ll say hey, I have this great person who’s written this it’s an amazing book. I don’t know how to how to sell it so I’m going to let them, I’ve let them go, but I want to give them a list of people who are interested. Are you interested? So if you’ve had a good relationship and it comes down to that a lot of the times. Your current agent will try to help you find your next one. Which is great because yeah, there’s sometimes just times, that this is the project the author wants to work on and if I, if I can’t do anything with it. If I don’t know how to sell it. If I don’t know who it’s gonna go for, but this is what they have their heart set on. I will say go find someone else well let me give you some ideas of who that is.
Sue: That’s great. Well thank you so much Caitie. You’ve given us some great information. I really appreciate your time today.
Caitie: Yeah I hope it was helpful. I know it’s so hard all of this is so hard for authors and if I made any part of it easier, then I’m extremely happy. Like, remember that we all want you to succeed too.
Sue: Yes. Yes, that’s nice to hear. That’s nice to hear. Sometimes I think when authors are buried in querying it’s hard to remember that there are people on the other side of that letter who are also making decisions and wanting to know that they are choosing work and choosing authors that they actually can sell. Because there’s no point in representing someone where you don’t think either of those things are gonna happen.
Caitie: Exactly. So thank you so much.
Caitie: Thank you. Once again this is Caitie Flum who is with the I lost my place. Liza Dawson Associates Agency. So thank you so much for being here, Caitie and you have a wonderful day.
Caitie: Thank you. You too.