How to Lose an Agent in Ten Steps
by Kellie Larsen Murphy
Many writers either already have an agent or are actively seeking one. Generally, it’s the first step in selling your work to a publisher (large or small). To help, there are dozens of websites and blogs devoted to telling an author how to go about getting an agent but there are none who that can tell you how you can lose one—until now!
This month’s Writing Show, How to Lose an Agent in Ten Steps, could be renamed What NOT to do if you want to keep your agent! Moderated by Kristi Tuck Austin, the format for this month’s show was modeled after David Letterman’s Top Ten List—complete with a “House Band” to count down from #10 to #1.
John Cusick (the guest) is a YA agent and author. He joined Greenhouse Literary Agency in January 2013 after several years with a small New York agency. He is also a sought after speaker on writing, both at writers’ conferences and via webinars. Mr. Cusick is currently looking for fiction by North American authors, from picture books and middle grade (MG) through Young Adult (YA).
Currently working on an album, Ty and the Family Soul performed as the “House Band” and include Ty (age 13), Kayen (age 21), and Thomas (Dad). Thomas has shared the stage with acts such as George Clinton and KC & The Sunshine Band. Ty plays with the national 70’s revival act Groovespot and Kayen is a member of The Jordan Project and Concussion Theory.
To start the show, Kristi asked John how he became an agent. He admitted he first made the rounds looking for a position in editing and ended up finding a job on Craig’s List as an assistant to a literary agent. He stayed in the business out of love for children’s books. In addition to his day job as an agent, John is also the author of Cherry Money Baby and Girl Parts. Being an author helps in his job as an agent. He knows what it’s like to get rejection letters and sit on the other side of the table. John also told the full house at the Broadberry that being an agent is part representative, part therapist, and part bartender!
When asked what types of books he’s looking for, he said, “stories about growing up and space travel. Great stories that are humane with an extra twist.” He is attracted to “contemporary realism” in young adult and used the example, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
And then it was on to the Top Ten, How to Lose an Agent in Ten Steps.
#10 – Limit Your Agent’s Purview
John explained that when you’re looking for an agent, you should expect that agent to be able to manage the broad spectrum of your career even if you write both YA and non-fiction. It’s important to share all your information with your agent.
#9 – Have Creative Differences
The agent/author relationship is a creative partnership and as such, it’s critical to find someone who shares your vision. Authors should see what other projects the agent represents and even ask questions.
#8 – Be Dishonest About Track Record or Other Agent Interest
John told the crowd about one author who routinely submits work under multiple names to a variety of agents. He then follows his submission with a story that he has an offer in the hope of generating interest. His dishonesty has only led to a lack of interest.
Although he admitted it’s true that agent interest can make other agents “sit up and take notice,” John said, “avoid the temptation to fabricate.” The agent/author relationship is not only about creative vision but should be founded on trust.
#7 – Revise Lazily or Insubstantially
John admitted that one of the few times he fired a client was after he’d written a ten page detailed edit and the author returned the revised manuscript in two days without significant changes. Other pet peeves include sloppiness, typos, and formatting errors. He looks for clean manuscripts.
Kristi asked how long he expects to wait for a revision. He admitted this varies and could be three months or even a year. He has one client who routinely takes six months to revise. He advises talking to your agent and just asking what they expect.
#6 – Barrage the Agent with Questions and Countless E-mails
Although John acknowledged that sometimes agents are unavailable to authors, even when there is a need for an immediate answer. However, he had one client who sent five emails a day, each with several detailed questions. Ultimately, the author didn’t really need responses and was just “thinking out loud.” He also said, “Never cold call an agent that is not your agent.” He told the crowd that agents work for their clients. For him, reading manuscripts and answering queries is done in his free time.
#5 – Red-Line the Author Agreement or Lower Agent Commission
Contracts have base parameters and most are standard boilerplate. Nitpicking the contract will end the deal. 15% is a standard commission for agents and is not negotiable.
Kristi asked if authors have resources to make sure a contract is “right.” John said it’s important for an agent to be a member of the AAR which has a “canon of ethics.” Always research the agent and agency through Publisher’s Marketplace and Preditors & Editors (a kind of YELP for agents).
#4 – Be Crazy on the Internet or in Real Life
Agents will google you. They will read your Twitter, Facebook, blog, etc. Be professional in your online life. If you are a writer, John said, “Your online persona becomes part of your job.” If you want to sell your work, being unprofessional can damage your sales.
“When you google, what would wow you?” Kristi asked. John said this is not about the manuscript being interesting but the author being interesting. He looks for websites/Tumblr pages that are fascinating. They might feature popular art or vignettes. He looks for authors who are skilled at getting people interested. He does not advise making your blog about your novel.
#3 – Disregard Your Agent’s Advice & Expertise
Trust that your agent won’t change your book in a way that’s disagreeable. This should be mutual respect. Communication is essential. “Trust me or fire me.”
#2 – Stalk Your Editors Online or in Real Life
“Don’t talk to editors while we’re on submission,” John says. It’s unprofessional. And don’t communicate with an editor after rejection. Go to your agent with any problems and let your agent be the bad guy.
#1 – Have Wildly Unrealistic Expectations
Talk to your agent about what you hope to achieve with your work. All goals are worthwhile but an agent needs to know what they are. For example, an author should know that non-fiction picture books don’t make much money. Listen to your agent to work together to reach your goals.
After a short break, John returned for a Q&A session.
It was a great show and a great way to close out the summer. Be sure to mark your calendar for the September show, How to Meet Your Public: Networking for Writers
with Literary Agent Paige Wheeler moderated by Julie Geen.