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Sep 16, 2010

Agent Beauty Contests

Power comes from having choices. When writers query an agent, the agent usually has all the choices: hundreds of other queries to choose from.

But very quickly, that situation can be reversed. If a half-dozen agents all court the same author, then the author is the one who has to make the choice, and the agent is the one who has to live with it.

I’ve been in this situation a handful times in the last six months or so. I recently saw two of the books I’d offered on announced as sales in Publisher’s Marketplace, under other agents’ names. I was happy for the authors and I love the books, obviously, but gosh darn, I sure wish I could’ve been the happy agent listing those deals. I’m not whining about losing out on these manuscripts at all, and it’s not sour grapes. The author went with the best fit for them and that, at the end of the day, is the best possible thing for everyone involved. The clients I get and the books I sell all happen for a reason. And I do genuinely mean it when I tell the authors who go elsewhere that I look forward to reading about a huge sale in PM.

But for me, there are other issues at play here, other than, “Gee, I wish I’d gotten that one!” Being the first to offer (usually) and being myself and losing makes me wonder what types of things the other agents are saying that tip the scales in their favor. The last thing I want to do is to disparage any of my brilliant and hard-working agent colleagues, at my agency and outside of it. But there are different agenting styles, and I wonder if my particular agenting style isn’t serving me in this regard....

There’s also, of course, the issue of track record. I’m a newer agent. I have six sales listed on Publisher’s Marketplace. Though that’s not a comprehensive view of my sales, that’s the only thing writers can check. The first books I sold won’t be out for another nine months or so. I don’t have years of track record or bestseller clients to woo with… yet. And I’m very conscious that in a “beauty contest” (as we call these competitive situations), these things really do weigh in. (See my pro’s and con’s of newer vs. more established agents post for more on this.)

What’s the reason for this recent trend of multiple offers, then? Or for those times when it didn’t go my way? (Luckily, I’ve offered and won many, many more times than this, and I’m thrilled for the clients I do have.) I don’t know. But I’m really curious. As the comments on Kristin’s post mention, it could be an issue of agents hopping on the bandwagon when they hear about an offer. I have to admit, when someone comes to me and says they have an offer of representation, my interest is definitely piqued and I read fast to see if I want to throw my hat into the ring. I want a chance at the fantastic manuscript, too! But it seems like every offer has competition these days. I wonder why that is and, I have to admit, I’d love to be a fly on the wall and see how other agents are offering representation.

What would you all prefer in your offer of representation (other than, you know, getting that offer in the first place)? Big, exciting promises or my preferred brand of “cautious optimism”? Is the offer phone call the time to really rip out all the stops and get the writer hyped up or is it a frank chat about the business, the market, and how this manuscript will into the big picture?

These are the questions asked by agent Mary Kole, an associate agent at the Andrea Brown Literary Agency.

I think this is a good reminder that power is a ladder. It goes both up and down, and you should be careful not to step on anyone along the way. Don't criticize agents for being superficial, shallow, mean, etc. because one day you might be in the position to have to make a choice. And when you do have the power to make choices, be polite, be professional.

More importantly, realize that we always have the power to make choices. Nor do we ever have to compromise ourselves to win "beauty contests," whether we are writers, agents or just human beings.


Michelle D. Argyle said...

Wow, Tara, thanks for posting this! This puts things in a much better perspective, if you ask me.

C. N. Nevets said...

I've always hoped I would not be one of those authors who simply, out-of-hand, snipes at agents simply for rejecting them, even if it was rejection at a glance. This excellent post helps me process through one of the reasons why that's not a good idea.