Healthy Author-Agent Relationships

SCBWI Notes II:

Bainbridge Island resident Suzanne Selfors is the best selling author of the YA novels To Catch a Mermaid, Saving Juliet, The Coffeehouse Angel, and most recently the first book in a middle grade series, Smells Like Dog.

Suzanne is personable, lively and approachable and at last weekend’s SCWBI Western Washington conference she presented a session focusing on how to develop a healthy author-agent relationship. If you take a look backward at her career trajectory, you might assume she wrote, revised, got an agent and things took off from there. Wrong.

Her reality was more like: write, revise, get an agent, revise, write a sequel to first book before agent sells it, wait while first book doesn’t sell, wait trying to get agent to answer emails and phone calls, rip hair out waiting for agent to call, throw away first book and sequel, fire old agent, get new agent.

Many writers starting out labor under the illusion that once they land an agent, their worries are over. For some authors that may be true. They may find that their author-agent relationship clicks. But for others, it doesn’t. When you think about it, most people don’t marry the first person they date, do they?

To build a healthy author-agent relationship, the Number One Rule to remember is: this is a business partnership. Your agent is not nor should they necessarily be your friend. They are your advocate. The primary factor that will make it work or kill it is communication. If you feel you’ve given it a good shot and there’s no communication, IT’S OKAY TO CHANGE AGENTS. This is your career we’re talking about.

Rule number two which is related to Rule Number One: agents are in charge of your money. Never sign with an agent if they ask for money up front, and never work with an agent without a simple two-to-three page contract that spells out, among other things, how either of you can end the relationship with thirty days notice. (Some agents include an upfront period of six months to a year before the thirty day clause kicks in just because it takes so long to actually start working with a new author.)

Suzanne’s tips on expectations:

REALISTIC EXPECTATIONS:

  • You always want a contract, preferably with a thirty-day opt out clause
  • You should be able to ask where your agent is submitting your manuscripts, and ideally they should have
    a two-tiered plan
  • If your manuscript doesn’t sell, you should be able to look toy our agent for career agent, asking,
    “What’s our next step?”
  • Your agent is your advocate. They should be willing to look at your career and work as long-term project
  • If you’re not getting feedback from your agent, if they don’t answer your emails or calls, then you’re not communicating and you should leave that agent
  • If your agent is not interested in reading your other work, then that agent is not doing their job

UNREALISTIC EXPECTATIONS

  • You are NOT the center of your agent’s universe
  • Once you land an agent, things will happen right away. They won’t.
    The publishing business is extraordinarily slow.
  • Your agent is your friend. They are not—at least not in the real sense of friendship. If they are, it may stop you from possibly leaving them if the business relationship is not working.
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