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Author JA Konrath separates "the good from the bad" in our first guest post

Today is the first in a series of guest posts from our clients which we’ll be adding on alternate Thursdays. Starting us off is JA Konrath, author of the Jack Daniels mystery series that includes WHISKEY SOUR, BLOODY MARY, and RUSTY NAIL. He also recently edited the anthology THESE GUNS FOR HIRE.

AGENTS: KNOWING THE GOOD FROM THE BAD
by JA Konrath

If you’re writing poetry, short stories, newspaper articles, or a memoir about the 38 years you spent watching television, you probably don’t need an agent. Pretty much every other writer does. But how can you tell the good agents from the bad ones, and how can you find one that’s right for you?

Dystel & Goderich are my agents, and they are good ones. I chose them over five other agencies who offered me representation. D&G stuck with me through three unsold novels before landing me a big contract. They’re savvy, professional, personable, and connected.

Unfortunately, not all agents are created equal.

There are people on the fringe of the publishing world who call themselves agents, but really aren’t. These folks prey on new writers by asking for money in the form of reading fees, representation fees, critique fees, book-doctoring, promotional fees, or editing services.

NEVER give an agent money. Agents should make their money by selling a client’s work, and that’s all. Standard commission is 15%, which is taken from the checks they mail you. You should never have to mail them a check for anything. D&G ask for copies of my manuscripts to send to publishers, so they don’t even charge Xeroxing fees. This is how good agents do business.

If an agent wants to represent you, and their service requires any kind of up-front fee, walk away. Anyone can claim to be an agent. No license or special training is required. Research the agent before you send to them. Visit Writer Beware (http://www.sfwa.org/beware/agents.html) and Preditors and Editors (http://www.anotherealm.com/prededitors/pubagent.htm) for tips and lists of questionable agencies.

If you do get a legitimate agent interested in your book, be genuine. Be grateful. Be excited. This is awesome. You should be celebrating big-time.

But before you sign with them, think about what questions you want to ask the agent. There is a great list of questions to ask at the Association of Author’s Representatives website at http://www.aar-online.org. Here are a few:

  • Who have you sold? Can you put me in touch with some of your authors?
  • What do you think needs to be improved in the books? Revised? Tweaked? Edited?
  • Do you have editors in mind for these books? What’s your selling plan? Have you sold books similar to these?
  • What can I expect, in terms of time frame to sell this?
  • Will I get copies of my rejection letters? Will I be kept in the loop–who has the manuscript, when you expect to hear from them, etc?
  • What can I do to make your job easier?
  • What happens if you can’t sell these books? Would you like to still retain me as a client, and see more work from me?
  • Does your agency deal with subsidiary rights? What are they, exactly?
  • What is it about my work that you like? That you don’t like?
  • Do you have an agency contract?
  • Do you give a 1099 tax form at the end of the year?

The AAR also has a free service that lets you look up agents to check if they are an AAR member (the AAR doesn’t allow fee-charging agents in their organization). Keep in mind that the site is rarely updated, so even if an agent isn’t listed on the site as an AAR member, she still might be one. Ask.

The agent should also be able to give you a list recently published titles, happy clients, and be able to put you in touch with authors who can supply a reference.

It goes without saying that you shouldn’t bug an agent with these questions until they’ve asked to take on your project. And it’s perfectly acceptable to tell an offering agent, “This is a big decision, I need a few days to think about it.” Which will give you time to check her references, and call other interested agents and let them know you have another offer… that should light a fire under their butts to read you quick.

Beggars can, and should, be choosers. A bad agent is worse than none at all (and I know this for a fact, because I had a bad agent before signing with Dystel & Goderich), so you owe it to yourself to find one you’re compatible with.

In my opinion, here’s the MINIMUM an agent should do:

1. Return your calls and emails within a few days.
2. Let you know which publishers have the manuscript.
3. Give you copies of rejection letters from publishers.
4. Submit manuscripts within a few weeks of accepting them (assuming they’re ready to be submitted).

5. Keep track of who owes you money, and get it to you promptly.

Good agents also:

1. Keep in touch with you on a regular basis.
2. Tell you what they like and don’t like about your writing, and offer suggestions.
3. Have a plan on where to submit the book.
4. Actively take an interest in your career, what you’re currently doing, what you plan on doing next, and offer advice.

5. Keep an ear to the ground and an eye on the market, knowing what publishers are looking for.

6. Have Hollywood contacts.

7. Explain the business to you.

Of course, relationships are a two-way street. Keep in mind that you also have to be a professional, and keep up your end of the deal. Here is a list of things that agents are looking for in their clients:

1. A book they can sell.

2. A writer who is easy to work with.

3. A writer who can accept advice and criticism.

4. A writer who understands the market.

5. A writer who can meet deadlines.

6. A writer who is in it for the long haul.

7. A writer who doesn’t call and pester them constantly.

8. A writer who is grateful.

Like any good marriage, the agent/writer relationship is based on communication, similar values and goals, and the ability to compromise and get along.

And like any good marriage, you can pretty much assume the agent is always right. At least, mine is. :)

15 Responses to Author JA Konrath separates "the good from the bad" in our first guest post

  1. Stokey says:

    So if all the agencies listed in Writers Market say that they get most of their new clients from referrals from current clients… how does one get a referral from a current client?

  2. JA Konrath says:

    I’ve referred people to my agents before. It usually involves an author buying me beer…

    But seriously–go to conferences. Network with authors. Pick their brains. If I run into a new author and read some of their work (and I really like it) I always pass it along to my agent.

    That’s no guarantee my agent will like it (they know what’s hot/what’s not better than I do), but it might get you to the top of the readig pile.

    Keep in mind that, for many authors, they’re just as behind in their reading as their agents are. I’ve got an 8 month wait in my TBR pile. :(

  3. Michelle says:

    Joe, you’re the reason I pitched DGLM in the first place after reading your WD article. So I can thank you for that!

  4. Robert Burton Robinson says:

    Joe, thanks again for more great information and links. You’re a tremendous help to the yet-to-be-published writer. I don’t know how you make time for sharing with us, but it’s very much appreciated.

  5. Maprilynne says:

    “And like any good marriage, you can pretty much assume the agent is always right. At least, mine is. :)”

    I had to laugh at that.

    This was a very informative, helpful post.

    Thanks!!!

    Maprilynne

  6. Jude Hardin says:

    Great post, Joe.

    And I love this site!

  7. Aimless Writer says:

    Great post Joe! Can I print this and share it with my writer’s group?
    Jeannie

  8. Bernita says:

    Wonderful, clear post, Joe.
    Think the bit about what they think might be improved, revised, etc. is especially important.
    Every writer needs an agent who will work with him/her because their editorial expertise is industry specific.

  9. Ty says:

    Joe Konrath, I’ve never even read one of your books, but I’ve been following your blog for a few months now. I find so much great advice there, I always pass it and a link along to fellow writers and friends. Just wanted to say “Thanks!” for all you do for other writers.

    And yes, I’ll get around to reading some Konrath … Bloody Mary is in my stack of TBR.

  10. Willem Jansen says:

    Hi Joe,

  11. Willem Jansen says:

    Hi Joe,

    I am from the Netherlands, we have here two literary agencies at most, which is minute compared to the amount you have in the US.

    It is nice to hear that I picked a good agency to sent my query synopsis (The Siege Of Holland) and 50 pages to.

    Why the hell I want to publish in the US? That’s another story. (I had it professionally translated, donot worry)

    (Whenever you’re around in Amsterdam I will buy you beer)

  12. Anonymous says:

    Years ago,I tried an agent referred by Writer Beware and they stunk. They charged me hefty reading fees and I was very dissatisfied in the service, which wasn't very good. I would never trust any of those sites for a referral.

  13. Anonymous says:

    I too was very disappointed in the advice from Writer Beware . They do not seem to be as professional as I was led to believe they would be, and one of them was quite offensive.

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