Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

14.25: Choosing Your Agent

Your Hosts: Howard, Mary Robinette, Dan, and DongWon

Guest-host Dongwon Song joined us at WXR 2018 as an instructor, and gave great advice regarding the business side of working as an author. In this episode he takes us through a conversation about choosing an agent.

Credits: This episode was recorded by Bert Grimm, and mastered by Alex Jackson.

Homework: Document the attributes of your ideal agent.

Thing of the week: Magic for Liars, by Sarah Gailey.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key points: Your agent works for you. You have a choice, make it a good one. Think about who you want to work with, who is going to be the right business partner in the long run. Someone who can help you run your business. Who do you want as part of your brand? Make sure they can do a good job. Look at online resources, talk to your network. Ask the agent to talk to their other authors. You may need to change agents as your career changes, or their career changes. Keep the lines of communication open, talk about goals, figure out what you both need. To find an agent, look for authors who have a similar communication style, and talk to them about their agents! Think about someone who can fill in your weak spots. Check which genres the agent works in, and what level of editorial involvement you want. What communications style, how frequent do you want contact? Remember, charisma is not a dump stat. Consider the Kowal relationship axes, mind, manners, money, morals… Murder! Or the Marx Brothers.

[Mary Robinette] Season 14, Episode 25.

[Howard] This is Writing Excuses, Choosing Your Agent.

[Mary Robinette] 15 minutes long.

[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.

[Dongwon] And we’re not that smart.

[Howard] I’m Howard.

[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.

[Dan] I’m Dan.

[Dongwon] I’m Dongwon.

[Howard] Dongwon is joining us again. This is his third episode with us. Dongwon, I understand that you have spent some time working as an agent.


[Dongwon] I have. I actually started my career as an agent, and then wandered off for many years doing other tasks in the industry, and have come back to being an agent in the past 3 and a 1/2 years now.

[Howard] Well, this morning, we had the opportunity to hear you talk about the publishing business. One of the parts that was most interesting to me was that opening salvo of choosing your agent and what that relationship ends up looking like.

[Dongwon] One thing I like to talk about a lot is making it really clear to writers that your agent works for you. If you’re in the query trenches right now, the power dynamic feels very weighted towards the agent’s side. You’re trying to get their attention, you’re trying to get someone to pay attention to you and make an offer of representation. But one of the things I like to really drive home is once that offer of representation has been made, the power dynamic completely inverts. Now, what the agent wants is for you to choose them. One of the reasons that we chose this phrasing for the episode title is the idea that you have a choice in this relationship is a really important one. It’s one that I think a lot of writers lose sight of, because they’re just so focused on getting an agent, any agent. Instead, what I’d like people to do is start thinking very carefully about who they want to work with. Who’s going to be the right business partner to them over the course of their career? Ideally, an author-agent relationship will go on for years, and hopefully decades. Optimally, it’s the course of both of your careers. You need to think carefully about who you’re going to be working with over that period of time, and who you want to be helping you run your business.

[Mary Robinette] This is… I want to say, something that I stumbled on, you’ve heard me talk about on previous episodes, where my first… My very first agent was not a good agent. We often people say, “A bad agent is worse than no agent.” The concrete thing that I had happened was that my first agent… I was… I had warning flags that went off. But it was an agent, and they were excited about my work. I had heard so much about how difficult it was to get an agent. So, even though I had some warning flags that this person might be flaky, I went ahead and signed. What happened was they sat on my novel for a year without sending it out. That was a year in which it was ready. So this was a… actively holding me back. The other thing that can happen with a bad agent, or with an agent who’s… This is… These are people who are just like not good at their job, is that if they try to sell your work incompetently to a publishing house, and then you leave them and you come back, it’s going to be very difficult to sell that same title later.

[Howard] That’s the… There’s a principle here that… It’s a broader business principle, harkening back to, Dongwon, what you said earlier about you’re choosing a business partner. This business partner is carrying your authorial brand as the flag when they march into the office. If they misbehave, if they do a bad job with the pitch, if they happen to be somebody that’s for whatever reason, that editorial team, publishing team, just really doesn’t like having in the room…

[Mary Robinette] That one actually is less of an issue, because, as long as they’ve got good taste…

[Howard] As long as they’ve got good taste. But you just know that whoever you are picking, a portion of who they are ends up as part of your brand, at least to the editors and publishers.

[Dongwon] A lot of the industry’s interaction with you will be filtered through your agent. So if your agent has a certain reputation, has a certain way of operating, that is going to influence how people see you. It’s not entire. You will have your own brand, and, I know, many writers have the opposite reputation of their agents. But Howard is absolutely right, that in those initial contacts, those initial meetings, that would definitely color it. So, sort of… The first step in choosing an agent is don’t choose someone who’s bad at their job. This last year, there were… Have been a couple sort of highly publicized incidents of agents who turned out to be acting against their own writers’ interests. That’s been a very challenging moment. My heart goes out to all of those writers. It can be hard to spot that person. There’s some online resources that you can use to check out, like query tracker or query shark, but really, your best defense is having a good network. Talking to your friends, making friends with other writers, and asking around about somebody’s reputation before you make a decision to go forward with them.

[Dan] You’re also well within your rights to ask that agent if you can talk to some of their other authors. I get a lot of requests from my agent, “Hey, could you talk to this person? I would like to acquire their book.” I’m always happy to recommend my agent. If you get an agent whose authors are not happy to recommend her, maybe stay away.

[Howard] Are you still with the agent you were with a year ago?

[Dan] Yes. Sarah Crowe. She’s amazing.

[Mary Robinette] So I just… I actually just changed agents in the last year. The reason I did that was not because I had a bad agent. My agent was very good. But my career trajectory was such that I needed a different type of agent than I did at the beginning of my career. So the thing that was happening with my career trajectory was… The reason that I felt like I needed someone who was a little more aggressive, was that I was in the downward spiral. This happens to a number of writers in the course of their career, that there’s what they call the death… The series’ death spiral. So I’d had that happen. Then I had a novel that came out, and my book tour began on election day in 2016, which was a fraud year regardless of where you were. Book sales generally were declining. But when people are looking at your numbers, they don’t look at the current events that are going on around it. They just look at the numbers. So I needed someone who was more aggressive. It was a difficult choice, because it would have been easier if my agent was doing things that were actively wrong. That wasn’t the case. It was just I needed a different style. This is one of the things that I think you have to… While it’s ideal to have an agent that stays with you over the course of your career, it’s also important to know kind of what you need going into it.

[Howard] That is… And again, coming back to the general principle of business partners, there is this point of diminishing returns between what I need out of a new agent, what I lose if I don’t switch, and the cost of switching. It’s easy for us… in crossing that chasm, it’s easy for us to overestimate the size of the peril, and just, out of fear of changing, stay in the same place.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah.

[Howard] It’s difficult.

[Dongwon] Many, many writers will have multiple agents over the course of their careers. There’s nothing… There’s no inherent problem to that. Like any long-term relationship, what you need out of it will change over time. It’s also important to remember that your agent is also not a fixed point. They’re evolving in their career as well, and how they operate, what circumstances they’re in, what agency they’re at, all those things can shift and change over time. Those changes will impact, and impact how the business operates. So it’s very important to keep that line of communication open, and be talking about your goals, and are they being met in this relationship or not, and then figure out what you need out of that.

[Mary Robinette] That was very much the case with my agent, my previous agent, was that they had had a promotion at work, and were suddenly handling more things than they had been. So the attention that they were able to give to individual authors was shifting. Like, none of us were being neglected, it was just the communication style had changed. The aggression, I think, had shifted, or at least my perception of it. So that was one thing that was also going on there, was that a change in my agent’s life as well.

[Howard] Let’s take a quick break and talk about a book. Dongwon?

[Dongwon] Yeah. This week, I want to talk about Sarah Gailey’s Magic for Liars. This is Sarah Gailey’s debut novel, coming out from Tor Books. It should have just come out on June Fourth. It is a murderer-mystery set at a magical school for teenagers. It is not a young adult novel. It is a very adult novel about a woman who is called in to investigate a murder of a faculty member at this school. The protagonist’s twin sister also is a teacher at this school. As you would have it, that sister is magic and she is not. She needs to figure out what happened and unpack this really gruesome murder and figure out why teenagers are so goddamned terrifying.


[Dongwon] Especially when they have magic powers.

[Howard] Okay. As the father of two current teenagers, I would love to know the answer to that question.


[Howard] Magic for Liars by Sarah Gailey. I’m a big fan of Sarah’s. Their cowboy hippopotamus books.


[Howard] Loved those so much.

[Howard] Okay. I want to talk about your toolbox as an author. I’m big on the toolbox metaphor. What are the tools that authors have at their disposal to start searching for agents who meet their criteria?

[Mary Robinette] We’ve talked about a couple of them on previous podcasts. The advice that I’m often given… Had been given and often give is to pay attention to what authors are happy with their agents. Specifically, looking for authors… There’s… We always are told to look at the authors whose work is similar. But I actually think you should also try to look at the author… Authors whose process is similar. Because that’s going to be people with whom you have a similar communication style. I’m going to continue using myself as a useful representative example. When I left my previous agent and moved on, because of where I am in my career and I am… I do have multiple Hugos. I am marketable. I had the good fortune of having a couple of choices. I was doing due diligence, and I went into it expecting that at the end of having done due diligence that I would be signing with Dongwon. I was just like, “But I’m going to check with some other people just in case.”

[Howard] Oh, she went there.


[Mary Robinette] I cleared it… I cleared this with him before, before we got into it. It was a really hard choice. Because, like the authors that he represents are people that I like, there people that I have a lot in common with. I think he’s wicked smart, and there were all these different things. When it finally came down to, Dongwon and Seth Fishman, who is my agent now, was I realized that what I needed was someone who filled my weaknesses. The difference between their agenting styles, in a lot of ways, they’re both very good with developmental stuff and things like that, but Dongwon is about building relationships, and Seth is a shark.


[Mary Robinette] And…

[Dongwon] I’m a nice shar… No.

[Mary Robinette] I know. Well, that’s the thing. It’s like you’re the nursemaid shark. He’s… There is nothing…


[Mary Robinette] But it was basically, I was, like I’m good at relationships. That’s not the spot that I need bolstering. So both of them would have been a good choice, but it was really about learning what I needed. It’s quite possible that that is what I needed early in my career as well, but I didn’t know myself as well, as an author and what my process and how I was going to fit into the industry was. So when you’re looking at the toolbox, it’s important, yes, to be able to find the agent, but just knowing a list of agent’s names is not as useful as knowing what it is you need out of the agents. So, Absolute Write is a good source for checking to make sure that the agent isn’t shady. I also find that if you type in the agent’s name and scam afterwards…

[Dan] And hope there’s no hits.

[Mary Robinette] Hope there’s no hits, yes. Harassment after that. These are… Scandal. These are good words to just kind of…

[Howard] Good things to not be attached to.

[Mary Robinette] Then, looking at Publisher’s Weekly, Locus. Looking at who made sales, and…

[Howard] In 2006, I, we played with the idea of having Schlock Mercenary represented, agented, shipped out to a publisher, because self-pubbing actual paper books that weigh actual tons of actual mass is hard work. My friend Rodney had written a technical manual a few years earlier, and had an agent… His experience with the agent was funny. He said, “Yeah, I’ve already sold the book. I can’t mess with… There’s nothing you can do.” She said, “I tell you what. Let me represent you. I know the contract’s been signed, but let me represent you.” She went in. She got him a 50% raise on the book. Her 15% came out of that, and Rodney was like, “Oh. Oh, I do need an agent.” Rodney introduced me to that agency, which was the Barbara Bova agency, which does a lot of science fiction. So I came into this from outside the industry, through a contact to was just somebody I knew in the tech world. Part of the toolbox is talking to people and listening to their experiences. That experience of Rodney’s… Like, I want that to happen to me. That agency… The results were the best possible results. Which were… Everybody we talked to said, “We love this, but it’s not what we do.” Or, “I mean, we already read it, but it’s not what we do.” And, “Wow, this sounds awesome, but it’s not what we do.” The agent went out and determined that the market I wanted at the time didn’t exist. The relationship’s over now, because the agent’s not going to make any money. But that is… I consider that a success story.

[Dongwon] It really is.

[Howard] Because I found an agent who, in the space of six months, told me that the business plan that I already had was the right one.

[Dan] So, let’s expand this toolbox a little bit more. When you’re talking to people, when you’re talking to other authors, what are some of the questions you can ask them to find out how they work with their agent? Two of the big ones for me. First of all, is what genres does your agent work in? Because I got the… I started with Sarah because I had written a horror novel, but I knew that I wanted to write more than that. One of the reasons that she and I work so well together is that she covers horror, but also science-fiction and also YA and middle grade, which kind of covers all of the playgrounds that I wanted to play in. Not every agent does. So finding someone who’s willing to go with you when you start hopping genres is valuable, if that’s what you want to do. One of the other ones is what level of editorial involvement do you want your agent to have. Because different agents do it differently, different authors want different things. So if you want an agent who will be very hands-on or very hands-off, ask their authors what that relationship is like.

[Dongwon] That’s one that you should also ask the agent directly. Going back to Mary’s example, we had a series of very long conversations. I mean, we probably spent upwards of seven or eight hours on the phone over the course of a few weeks talking a lot of this through. When… I get nervous when I’m signing a new client if they’re not asking me questions, then I start to have a little bit of a hesitation in my mind, actually. Just because I’m worried that they’re not putting the work in to make sure that this relationship is going to work out, and that I’m going to be right for them. Really, at the core of this, is communication style is really one of the most important things. Do you want someone who’s very formal in their communications? Do you want a letter that’s laid out? Do you want something that’s very casual? Do you want to be… Talk to your agent once a week, once a month, once every six months? I have certain clients I talk to almost daily, and there certain clients I talk to about every three or four months. It depends on what it is. I am very informal in how I relate to a lot of my clients. I think, for certain people, that would drive them nuts, right? There’s certain people who really appreciate that, and sort of need that ability to check in periodically and be like, “Hey, is everything okay? Am I on the right track? Is this going well? What’s happening with this?”

[Howard] At risk of going over-general again, this is the… Your reminder that charisma is not a dump stat.


[Howard] The ability to have a conversation with someone in which the two of you connect and determine what you expect out of this kind of relationship… You can build that skill set without talking to agents. Learning that skill set when your feet are in the fire is frightening.

[Mary Robinette] So you remember in a previous episode, I talked about the Kowal relationship axes, which my mother-in-law came up with as a way to describe someone that you’re dating. That you want to be roughly aligned on intelligence, you want to be roughly aligned on where you feel money is important, morals… Actually, you want your… You want a moral agent. Towards you!


[Mary Robinette] But manners, similar communications style. These apply to your agent as well as to a character. There’s a really good agent that is someone that I could have gotten because they are… They’re the agent of a friend, they’re very successful. I would have run a fire poker through them within two minutes of conversation. Because our communication styles are wildly out of alignment. At the same time, you’re not looking for a best friend. Right? It is a business partner. It’s good if you can be friends. But that’s not… You need someone who is good at their job first, and then someone you can communicate with second.

[Howard] Mind, manners, money, morals, murder…


[Mary Robinette] Marx Brothers. We try to be more positive about it.

[Howard] All right…

[Dongwon] I will say, I often try to avoid the romantic relationship analogy when talking about finding your agent, but it is inevitable that it comes up at some point, because I think there are a lot of similarities and parallels.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah.

[Howard] There definitely are. On those notes, Dongwon, do you have homework you can assign to our listeners?

[Dongwon] Yeah. So, your homework assignment is going to be a little bit of self-examination. I want you to think about your career and what’s important to you and how you like to operate. Think about times you’ve been in a business setting, at a job, in a meeting, and think about the things that you found very frustrating, and what you would find your dating to work with over a long period of time with somebody who is working with some of the most important work to you. Make a list of those attributes. What are you looking for in an agent? What kind of communication style? Do you want someone who edits you, do you want someone who doesn’t? How would you like them to pursue a deal? Do you want them to go all out all the time, or do you want them to build relationships and be very targeted? Those are questions you should ask yourself, and start making that list of the attributes that are important to you.

[Howard] Make the list. You gotta write this down, because this is Writing Excuses, and you’re out of excuses. Now, go write.