Editor-turned-Agent Maria Ribas has a guest post for everyone today! It’s a small world in publishing and the story of how Maria and I know each other is a reflection of that. When Maria was an editor at Adams Media … Continue reading
Knowing how to categorize your work is one of the most important skills a writer needs to know–especially while querying. Here’s an infographic to help. It’s not perfect and there are many places that writers won’t fit into and that … Continue reading
Last year I wrote a post about my “four year agent-versary.” And focused on what I was grateful for.
Last week my friend, and super agent, Katie Shea Boutiller wrote about her 4 years as an agent. Including some great tips about why agents have to be strong editors.
This year I’m celebrating 5 years as an agent! So I’m going to share 15 things I’ve learned over the last 5 years and what I think makes a good agent. It’s a long list. Enjoy!
1. You can’t teach taste. It’s inherent within an agent to know their taste. It’s also our job to know what we’re good at selling and that requires constant reflection and adaptation to the market. Good agents read all the trade news, bestseller lists, and talk to editors about what they’re buying an what’s working. But we know what we think we can sell, that’s our taste.
2. You can learn how to edit. I’m not a trained editor. But I edit my clients’ books. I know you’ve all read about how competitive it is out there for debuts and it’s absolutely true. I am an editorial agent, but I edit from the reader’s perspective. What do they need to know to make it an enjoyable and entertaining experience? Agents put more of their touch on a manuscript than ever before.
3. Sometimes the market will surprise you. Sometimes we think something will sell and it doesn’t. And sometimes we’re not sure if something will sell and it does. It’s a big learning curve that no one will ever figure out. But a good agent is right a few times (or more) a year.
4. Doing right by your client is about more than just the manuscript. Being a good agent is more than executing a sale. It’s being there for the failed drafts, marketing dilemmas, cover design consultations, foreign rights and film agent pitches. Support and a successful book depend on all those other factors. We’re there for all those conversations too.
5. Like parenting, your time is the most valuable thing an agent can give. Clients need attention. They need our dedication. As an agent time is the only thing we can give. Good agents can balance their clients in a way that means all needs are met. There is a limit to the therapy sessions (and reading of draft 7+) that we can do. But we’re present when it counts. (However, make sure you have conversations with your agent about what your needs are!)
6. Professional development (a.k.a. reading published books) will keep you connected to the industry. Reading published books is what keeps our taste in check and reminds us of the quality needed to make it all the way.
7. A successful author is more than the words on the page. Attitude, sense of marketing/publicity, perseverance, willingness to grow–these are the things that need to come with a talented writer. There are many talented writers out there; the ones that set themselves apart are the ones that learn the big picture of this business, adapt, and never give up.
8. An agent goes where they’re needed…and sometimes that’s not at all. We learn when to step back and let an author write, or let them work directly with their editor. We are the scaffolding that’s there to lean on or come back to when it’s time to rebuild.
9. A success story isn’t selling a book, it’s career building and helping our writers find their core audiences for books to come. A long career as an agent (and a writer) is about more than just one book. It’s about the career plan and building a readership, one book at a time. That readership starts with the publishing house and grows from there. It’s an agent’s job to convey that excitement from day 1.
10. Lunches are work. Agents try to be available to our clients all the time, but when we’re out to lunch with an author or editor–that’s work too. Creativity doesn’t happen in a box. Creation happens over interesting conversations and willingness to explore, ask questions and bounce ideas around. I’ve originated a deal for a client based on a conversation with an editor about a gap in their non fiction list.
11. There is not “one way” or a “right way” to do this job. Everyone has different taste, strategy and success stories. There are no guidelines for what “a literary agent” is, really. We all abide by a general code of conduct that was built by what we’ve been doing in this role since the 70s. It’s a relatively new career in the grand scheme of publishing as a business. The AAR has guidelines that most agents follow, but many agents don’t subscribe to them all and that’s okay. But we all need to have our clients’ best interests in mind with each decision.
12. This business is small. (Not surprising!) Yes, authors leave agents and we’ve all heard stories about clients being poached or courting a new agent while they still have their former agent. Reputations get around fast, good or bad. Agents who are respected are known for submitting top quality work to editors they’ve connected with, and negotiating tough but fair.
13. It’s not our job to be friends with editors, but it is our job to be friendly. Remaining professional with editors is an important part of the job. Sometimes we’re in really tough auction situations or an editor loses out on a book. You don’t want the personal to interfere with the professional because there are always more books to come.
14. We care about our client’s books almost as much as they do. We didn’t write them, but we sure get invested in them. We field the rejections and the offers. We see you go through emotional ups and downs. We go through emotional highs and lows too. It’s impossible to be passionate about something but also keep your distance–so what agents do is not keep distance but keep perspective. It gets a bit easier the longer I’m doing this. But the nerves about sending a new project on submission never go away.
15. To get quality projects writers have to know who we are as agents. The reason I started this blog was to give a voice to my taste and expertise. It’s why I go to conferences and teach webinars. I want to see everyone’s great books. I want to be on the top of writers’ submission lists. Here’s my current wishlist, pitch me! Follow me on Tumblr, Instagram and Twitter to see what I’m reading.
I’ve read thousands of “page ones.” Very often I don’t read page two.
Sometimes all I read is that first page and I make judgements based on what I see there. As an agent and a reader my practice is that if I’m not connecting with the material I move on–and quickly.
I wish I had time to give writers (and their books) more of a chance but I can tell a lot by one page: sense of dialogue, setting, pace, character, voice, and writing talent–yes, usually all from one page. Five at the most.
So how are you supposed to get us past one page?
6 Tips To Hook A Reader on Page One
1. Learn how to balance what readers need to know vs. what you, as the writer, want to tell us. I can sense a writer who is trying to show off very quickly. It really only takes one paragraph to see that. A command of language is knowing how to write for your audience, not showing off how you can set a scene with a vocabulary that your reader can’t connect with. Showing off isn’t going to win readers over. It’s going to make the decision to walk away very easy. All the reader needs to know is who has a secret (see more at point 3). This tip is all about going back and editing your first page over and over again. Polished, but not so shiny that we think we’re reading a magazine ad.
2. Learn what “start with action” really means. We’re not asking every writer to start their book with a car crash. In fact, most shouldn’t! What we’re asking is to make sure that your book starts in a place where plot is happening, not merely an introduction to the scene or characters. The longer you take to drop some hints the more confused we are and that encourages people to put down the book. Action means movement of some kind: start of a conflict, effects of a previous conflict, or dialogue about new/existing conflict.
3. Let us know who has secrets; keep the reader curious. Every character must have a secret. It is linked to their stakes and why they must achieve their goal. Don’t underestimate the power of a secret. It could be something as small as what they were embarrassed by last week or something as big as a major mistake at work. And read this PubCrawlBlog post to learn more. Remember that characters need to feel like they had a life before we entered their world via the book, and that they’ll have an interesting life afterwards too.
4. Be wary of information dumps. The number one killer of a page one: more didactic text and backstory then we could possibly need. Instead of information dumping on us (remember we’re joining you at this exact moment–so what do we need to know to enjoy this moment as it stands?) try things like dialogue instead. Dialogue is a great way to get plot moving while introducing us to your world. If you’re tempted to give us more backstory or facts than we need (I don’t need to know where your character is from, their hair colour, or their sibling order) remember that there is a reason you started your book in this place and it should relate to the fact that their life changes in this instant. No facts are needed if you start in the right place.
5. Introduce characters on a need-to-know basis. There’s nothing more confusing than reading more than 3 or 4 names on page 1. Not only is it hard to keep straight the names themselves, I’m also thoroughly confused about which name matches which voice especially in dialogue. Be careful to only mention characters we need to know at that time. That will prevent the reader from putting down your book before we’ve even begun because they feel they can’t keep up.
6. Never assume a reader is going to finish your first page, first chapter, or whole book. Free time is a luxury these days. When a reader picks up a book that’s a huge statement about how they spend their free time. Dedicating 8-10 hours to your writing should never be assumed. So if you keep that in mind as you write and edit you’ll be in great shape to keep the pace moving and stakes high.