Five Writers Explain How They Got, Kept and Fired Agents

Let’s say that after a certain amount of time, probably more than a year (and possibly more than a few), you’ve finished your novel and want to find a publisher; or perhaps at the other extreme, five hours ago you started a high-traffic Tumblr, which people are telling you needs to be made into a printed book. Either way, chances are you’re going to need an agent. Agents are the gatekeepers of publishing, which may seem kind of pointless and inefficient until you understand that these days, agents not only negotiate contracts but often also do the lion’s share of the editorial heavy lifting (leaving actual “editors” more time to manage the marketing and production side of things, which to be fair is a lot of work). A good agent will help a writer to sculpt and shape and refine a manuscript or a proposal, before turning to his or her list of contacts in publishing houses (i.e., the editors who actually shell out the cash to buy). With a thought to offer some insight into what is almost always a murky and stressful process, I asked a handful of writers to explain the experience.

I asked them these questions:

1) How did you find your agent? Have you had more than one? Was there a query letter involved (and if so, would you feel comfortable publishing some or all of it)? How much of the book was actually written when your agent started working with you?

2) How critical was your agent as an “editor” of your book, i.e., helping you to shape it? Somewhat related question: do you show your work-in-progress to your agent? Do you show it to friends/partners etc? Any advice in that regard? Is the agent different than the editor in this respect, and if so, how?

3) What do you think are the most important qualities in an agent?

4) Anything else you’d like to add to writers looking for representation?

And now, on with the case studies.

Alexander Chee: Finding the Right Fit.

My agent, Jin Auh at Andrew Wylie, found me many years ago at a reading at the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, an open mike–this was when it was on St. Mark’s Place. I’d just read a story I think of as, well, nuts, but she liked it, which is what matters. She just walked up to me, complimented me on it–I recall even apologizing to her for it–and then gave me her card. This is one of those signs that it might work out–if your agent likes the stuff you apologize for, you’re all right. She’d just started out then and I was already signed up with my first agent. I didn’t need representation and instead just kept her card. This is to say, she wasn’t my agent just yet. The agent I had when I met her was referred to me through a friend who offered to set us up.

That agent, let’s call her Agent 1, signed me in a running jump: I’d attracted the attention of an editor at Morrow for a manuscript he saw based on the interest of an editor at the New Yorker, who’d passed on a story of mine but liked it, and knowing it was part of a longer book, sent it to this editor. Morrow eventually passed on that book, fearing it would become 600 pages by the end, though when I look at the proposal I wrote for that book, I experience a total lack of recognition, followed by horror. I don’t really blame them, in other words. I didn’t have to use a letter in either case. This might be a kind of luck. My advice on letters, though, is be succinct, respectful, and do not say crazy things in a query like “I look forward to working with you,” though if you make that sort of mistake you’re not going to listen to my advice.

Agent 1, I left her after she wanted me to withdraw my first novel, Edinburgh, from submission, after it had failed to sell. It had been rejected 24 times over two years, and she had really tried. We’d had high hopes–it won a prize, the Michener, awarded by the director of the Iowa Writers Workshop, Frank Conroy at the time, and I remember Agent 1 calling me to say Frank had called her to say he was giving me the prize that year, and could he help her sell it in any way? Now she was saying she would not go any further with it, and asked me to consider withdrawing it, which, if that happens to you, is your agent’s way of saying, “We might be about to break up if things don’t change.” She asked me to write my second book, the one I’m finishing edits on now, which the publishers rejecting the book were more interested in, as they kept saying “That’s his big book.”

This was killing me, that a proposal for a book I hadn’t written was ruining the chances of the book I’d written. We were learning a lesson, and the lesson was, “Publishing has changed, we don’t build writers slowly anymore, we don’t want to take risks with material. We try to launch them with blockbuster money and create an instabrand with big books. If it fails oh well goodbye.” This was the years 1999 and 2000. I had a conversation with an editor who reluctantly turned the first book down, very much wanting it, saying, “You did everything right, publishing in journals and making a name for yourself, writing a difficult first book, but we don’t do things that way anymore. You need to start with a big book.”

Agent 1 gave me good advice, even if it was hard to hear: “The first novel you finish isn’t always the first novel you publish.” She said she wanted to withdraw it because she didn’t want to go the small press route with my launch. “I don’t think that’s right for you,” she said. She felt sure that if I wrote the second book first, it would make the first book possible. I understood, but the idea of setting this book aside and writing an entire other book after all that was agonizing. Also, I’d already given up on a book before this.

I felt as if I’d been standing in a loud dark room for years, which, if you wait tables in New York, is basically true, and I wanted out. The whole thing reminded me of a story my mom had told me about going with a friend to her airline attendant audition back in the early 60s, and they wanted her instead of her friend. I just remember thinking, “If they want the pretty sister, they have to take the weird queer one who’s a bit of a pyro.”

I tried it her way. I withdrew the manuscript and then spent about five months unable to write the second book. My unconscious mind was not playing ball with this plan. So I took a long train ride to work with my novel, and on the way back, read it, determined to put it aside if I really thought it was no good. I hadn’t looked at it in a while. It was better than I remembered.

With a heavy heart, I took my leave of Agent 1. It was a sad day for us both—she’d made no money on me, really, and I felt badly, as she’d put a lot of time and reading into me, cheering me on, leaving me messages on my machine at the New Year saying “Maybe this is the year you finish!” and introducing me to people at parties when I ran into her. I found an editor at a small press on my own a few months later, at a panel we were on together at the Asian American Writers’ Workshop (communities matter, is a lesson to the side here) and when, to my shock, he said he wanted to publish it, he referred me to someone we’ll call Agent 2, who drew up the contracts.

Things finally went well for my first book, scouts were excited, reviews went well, the paperback rights went to an auction that had publishers who’d rejected it in hardcover asking to see it again (11 of the 18 asking to see it had rejected it).

And then my small press went bankrupt, owing me a great deal of money from the Picador sale and it seemed I’d never get it. Agent 2 said, essentially, I can do nothing for you there. I fired her, because I needed someone who could do something for me.

This was not precipitous: If your publisher goes bankrupt, you are in line after their printers, etc. You are small fish, even if it’s a lot of money for you, and in this case, this was money I’d hoped to use for writing, say, away from restaurant work. The paperback deal had other agents interested in me. I saw how perhaps it had been a mistake to just go with whoever was interested next (the agent thing is a lot like the love thing) and this time, made a list of four agents I knew that I thought might be good and selected a first choice, Jin, and gave her a head start (someone had advised me to set it up this way and I don’t remember who—thank you, whoever you are). I gave all of them two proposals and sample pages, and a letter describing what was happening with the first book. Some agents don’t like it if you’re in touch with several at the same time, I’ve heard, but I think that’s naive, and really, do you want an agent who is afraid to compete? Jin was my first choice because I’d recently run into her during the summer of my crisis, at an event for another client of hers, and she knew about my paperback sale, had seen the reviews for my book, and complimented me on it all, which showed me that about seven years later she was still paying attention to a writer she’d seen at an open mike in the East Village. That meant a lot to me.

When I met with my prospective agents, I paid attention to several things: their level of interest in my future projects and their ideas about how to handle these projects as well as my problem with my first publisher. All were great, but with Jin, I felt she just intuitively got how I worked and displayed a lot of information about approaches to both my future projects and my current crisis in a way that gave me confidence in her. And when I met with her just prior to leaving for my paperback tour, she asked me to send her a list of the places I was staying and to make sure she had the phone and fax numbers of the hotels. This was before she’d even signed me. She is still this thorough. She handled the bankruptcy stuff for me, and even got me some of what was owed me, which, in bankruptcies, is a miracle. I was able to quit that restaurant job, and about a year and a half later she sold my next book as a partial in a 9-day auction. She also put me through what she called “proposal boot camp”—no more horror story proposals like that first one. She’s a brilliant agent. Anyway, moral of the story: go to your open mikes.

Agents are very critical to editing, i.e., essential. And it isn’t just the notes, keep in mind: the enthusiasm matters too. Every exclamation point in response can keep you going for years. I’m completely serious about that. Jin will send me notes and meet with me to talk about my unfinished manuscripts, in the way writers once expected from editors but don’t always get. This has been very helpful. I really respect her opinions. My current editor is amazing, though, and is not the hands-off kind we’ve come to know, the editor too buried in emails and meetings to really edit—she sent me a scrupulous, thorough editor’s letter for the new book, and we’ve had great conversations about it. I feel very lucky with both my agent and editor.

My partner Dustin is a helpful primary reader. He’s got a very sophisticated sense of narrative, and he regularly notices things I don’t. I do show work to friends, typically some who are also writers, some who are not, who just love books. I think it’s important to choose a mix of people as readers.

Agents have to think you’re a genius. I know way too many people with semi-indifferent agents, and they don’t like the way they’re getting handled. If the agent has never really loved, genuinely loved something you’ve written, you should probably get out. Other than this, a lot of it depends on what you want from an agent. But publishing is a game of telephone: whatever your agent feels and says about your work is most of what comes back to you in terms of your career, and so it has to start out strong.

Finally: Watch your own expectations. Be a professional about how you handle yourself. Don’t expect them to wave a magic wand and then everything is better.

Next: An anonymous nonfiction author explains how you know when an agent is failing you.