It was the best of times … it could also get pretty cruddy.

You see why I am writing publishing columns instead of lunching with John Grisham.

But my first sentence also accurately describes the state of publishing today, particularly as it relates to writers. There are tremendous advantages out there for aspiring writers, and then there are pitfalls.

We’ve been discussing author promotion, and have touched on agents and things like that. Today I want to explore both self-promotion and the implications of finding an agent.

(By the way, a subscription to “Publishers Lunch” in Publishers Marketplace might be a good investment. There is a lot of industry news, and most importantly, you can track author/agent deals.)

The topic of an agent is one of the first authors mention to me. What is an agent, and what are the implications?

Loosely, an agent is an author advocate who navigates through the details associated with securing a publisher contract. It’s usually about how much money they can bring to the table; occasionally it’s also about building an author’s career. Obviously, an agent can either help or hinder his client.

“Getting” an agent is not terribly difficult, just as it’s not terribly difficult to get a steroid shot for poison ivy.

That’s a joke.

A fresh-faced writer, oozing with talent but naïve in publishing, could use a good agent. This advocate will help you query the right publishers – matching your project with relevant publishers (not always a given) – and then help you read a contract, and, perhaps most importantly, strategize for the long term.

Lots of things in that paragraph. Most of them assume you can get a good agent. My personal top rule in dealing with agents, from the standpoint of an author, is this:

They are interviewing with you, not the other way around.

Sure, you have to present well, and the agent has to feel there is merit in working on your career. But too many times, writers get intimidated by publishers, agents and the like. In reality, we’re all trying to get through life. A writer needs to have enough confidence to approach people who can help advance his or her career.

You want to find an agent with some track record of success. In today’s climate, don’t expect dozens of books deals per month. But here are some critical things to look for:

  • Does the agent “get you?” Does he or she understand your slant on life? I do believe it’s important to at least have an understanding of life philosophy. You don’t have to both embrace the same things, but at least your agent must understand you.
  • Does the agent understand the market? That is, does he know which publishers are interested in your material? Shotgun queries are amateurish and nonproductive. Your agent should have a plan.
  • Can you gauge whether the agent appears to be the type who will maintain reasonable contact with you? This of course doesn’t mean that you have her second cell phone number so you can call at 3 a.m. in the middle of a meltdown. It does mean the agent should be reasonably accessible.
  • Can you maintain a rapport with the agent that will serve both of you well when things don’t go well? Finding out a serious flaw deep into the relationship isn’t good. Do your best at the outset to discern whether this person is stable or not.

I know several authors who are happy with their agents. The authors are aware that if things break right, they can make some money, perhaps even a lot of money.

Then there are other stories.

A few years ago, I was having lunch with an author friend in Washington. She had an agent who had pitched a really solid idea to several publishers. Two or three were interested. The one most interested – a publisher I know – would be a good fit. Yet the publisher was negotiating the idea of no advance upfront, but other incentives. This model is not fringe anymore, in fact; a lot of publishers don’t want to offer an advance. In this economy especially, it’s felt that that upfront money can be better spent on marketing (I happen to agree).

But my friend’s agent played hardball. No advance, no deal. The publisher didn’t flinch, either.

My friend was left out in the cold. The project still sits on a shelf.

In all my years as a book editor, I was never moved by the strong-arm tactics of agents. I never recall a project I couldn’t live without. This is why publishers and editors can say no without raising their heart rate. There are simply too many writers/projects to choose from. Too many authors are so arrogant, they believe their manuscript is the greatest in world history.

This is where nuance and patience would pay off. If you get to this position, you must weigh the options. Think about your long-term career. Would you be better off taking less money upfront, work your tail off, and demand good money down the road?


And this is another area a good agent can be great: crafting a promotional plan that fits an author and builds his or her career. This agent will know which speaking/signing venues might pay off and build your name brand. He will know which organizations might give you an endorsement.

Now, having discussed briefly the advantages of signing with an agent, might there be a situation in which you wouldn’t? The answer is, of course.

Most mainstream publishers do not accept unsolicited queries. I don’t blame them. One would need a separate office suite to keep up with the paper, even in an age of computers. Much better to screen potential authors.

This is where you must decide whether self-publishing is a better option. Publishing with a mainstream house, getting catalog and store placement, author parties – all that is possible. More than likely, though, that is a multi-year strategy. Can you wait? Might your time be better spent building your own platform from the ground up?

There are opportunities for writers who are creative thinkers to get published without an agent. All the social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook are valuable for that.

Only recently, I’ve dialogued with major publishing insiders who don’t know me from Adam. But if you contact them about a certain subject that they’re interested in, they’ll answer. And you never know when that leads to a potential book deal.

You can also make some networking headway by attending writers conferences.

Above all, when it comes to securing an agent or publishers contract, patience is a virtue.

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