Why Finding the Right Literary Agent Is Like Dating

cropped-1408767_87215604.jpegAlmost everything in life worth anything is like dating, in that you put yourself out there, vulnerable and asking for rejection. This couldn’t be more true of the author-agent relationship — which can actually be worse than dating, in the sense that this person controls your livelihood, and can “date” as many people as he/she wants while you can have only one of him/her. For a situation in which you’re supposedly a “client” and this person supposedly works “for” you, the power dynamics feel quite the reverse.

This week I got an email from a friend that’s very typical of the conversations I’ve had many times with fellow writers:

“A week ago my agent emailed to check on the status of the book proposal [for a nonfiction project]. I sent her everything I had. This was a week ago. I called on Monday to touch base. (Since I am a crazy phone person who thinks it’s 1987.) She *emailed* me back and said she was swamped and would call on Tuesday. Have heard nothing since. My knee jerk reaction is that she never bothered to read what I sent her. She will be taking 15% off the top of whatever this book sells for — and yet I feel like I am a very low priority for her. She hasn’t read [my sample chapters for my novel], either. At this point I want to do just this one book with her, and that’s it. I’m not feeling the love but I also don’t feel like I’m being a princess either. #thisiswhyIdrink”

I’ve heard even worse stories, too, with agents taking months to get back to writers on potential projects, ignoring email and phone pleas, etc. Now, I’m sure every agent has a dozen stories about crazy, needy writers, too — we can be a little sensitive. But given the experience I’ve had with four different agents throughout my career, I feel like I’ve learned some things by trial and error that others haven’t been able to. I’m a slightly more experienced than average “dater” who can comparison shop.

My advice in almost all of these situations, provided the writer is not being crazy and needy, is to find a new agent. If this person isn’t vibing on you, she’s not going to be passionate enough to sell your work the way it deserves to be sold. She’s the equivalent of a boyfriend who only texts you when he’s feeling horny late on a Saturday night. You’ll know when you find the right one. I’ve had an agent who didn’t like any of my ideas, an agent who couldn’t greenlight anything without first talking to her boss (who, of course, didn’t know me but somehow got to decide which projects I should do), an agent who went radio silent for months at a time and then wrote me back one-line blow-off emails. (Some of these were the same person.) When I signed with Laurie, my current agent, the angels sang like I’d just found the love of my life: She called when she was supposed to, checked in frequently when appropriate, read everything I sent her in a timely fashion … oh, and sold two books for me within four months of our first phone meeting. She’s always quick to offer an opinion on a career choice if I need it; to me, that’s the whole point of having an agent. It turned out I wasn’t crazy or needy; I just hadn’t met the right match yet.

In literary agency, as in dating, you should never feel like a “low priority.” I say keep looking until you hear those angels singing. And the one thing about this situation that’s better than dating? You can shop around all you like — it’s not cheating, just business.

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