Thursday, September 15, 2016

New agents

A very famous blog always announces new agents with the intro: "New literary agents are golden opportunities for new writers because each one is a literary agent who is likely building his or her client list."

I understand that, but what I do not understand is how new agents survive financially as they build their list and make their first sales. (Truthfully, the economics of agenting itself baffles me even for long-established agents. I mean, you would have to sell A LOT of books to survive on 15% commission. As I writer, I don't see myself ever giving up my day job.)

Many of my author friends are hesitant to query new agents because of their lack of a sales record. I admit they rank lower on my to-be-queried list than established agents. So, back to my question. How do the economics of agenting work? Are there other income streams beside commission, or do new agents also have day jobs?

Basically, I'm looking for the peace of mind that I'm not somehow harming myself by signing with a new agent.

Many younger (ie new) agents have jobs at the literary agency itself. They're the assistants, or the foreign rights agent, or the office manager.

Editors who are transitioning into agenting may have other sources of income: savings, spouses, draws against commissions.

As for the economics: remember that agents also share in the royalty income. My backlist earns just like my front list (advances) do, and steadily.

There's also the percentage we get on film, and foreign deals.

Generally no agent is going to discuss their day job or their income stream with you. If that's a deal breaker for you, query agents who've been around at least five years or more. That's the break even point, generally.

But this isn't the thing to fret about when considering an agent. What you need to know is if a new agent has the right kind of back up and support. The best young agents I know started out about six feet from my fin. They may have run into trouble once or twice, but I was generally able to help them out cause they were close at hand.  While I certainly do not take credit for their success [they earned that themselves] I do think that they avoided some snafus by having someone close at hand when they had questions or wanted guidance.


Sam Hawke said...

I guess the flip side of this is that newer agents are extremely motivated to work for their clients and help them get established, as their long term sustainability as agents depends on them building their list successfully. I know at least one Reider has mentioned how they signed with a big name big shot agent but when they weren't an immediate bestseller they got dropped down the priority list.

I had offers from several agents, and ended up going with the newest of the lot (transitioning from being a commissioning editor to agenting) - I trusted her skills, networks, and knowledge of the relevant labels more than sales history. I don't regret it. We're in it for the long haul together.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

A new agent, with less of a work load, is able to focus more fully on me, not only as an author but as a partner in this business we call publishing. Frankly I'd be more comfortable communicating writing/life pitfalls and triumphs with someone who does not intimidate me. Yup, a seasoned and sleek swimmer scares the shit out of me. So does success. But that's another story for another day.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Speaking of the long haul: Even though I am a brilliant writer admired by many, (my kids love my stuff), have been published hundreds of times, (essays, articles and columns), and am above all humble as hell, I wonder if a new agent would recognize the potential of someone my age, (oh God the age question).

The word "settle" has not risen yet but a part of me feels as though the challenge and chance of going with a 'new to the business' agent, is about the same as that agent taking on a 'been around forever' writer.

Colin Smith said...

As Opie implied in the quote, one of the big advantages of new agents for those in the query trenches is that they are more likely to request fulls, and more likely to say "yes" to projects, simply because they are building their list. That doesn't mean they'll accept anything, but they might be less picky than an experienced agent with a full list.

I appreciate that little insight into how agents earn their keep, Janet--especially new agents. I'm not Opie, but this has been bugging me for a while now. The things I wonder about! Just ask my poor mortgage lady after I pummeled her with a hundred question about how this whole mortgage thing works... :)

E.M. Goldsmith said...

How do I find out if shiny new agent is within 6 feet of your fin, my sharkly queen? That seems a reasonable standard for risking an unseasoned agent. If adorable new agent makes an offer, can we request they begin swimming within six feet of QOTKU's fin? Is "do you know who Janet Reid?" is an unreasonable question to ask an agent during "the call"? Ok, that would not sound kind to new agent, but how do you find out if new agent has that caliber of expert support behind them?

It would be rather awesome to be the writer that put a shiny new agent on the map so to speak.

Stephanie said...

My personal experience with a new agent was a negative one. While she was super enthusiastic about my book and an excellent editor, (which is why I signed with her but not without skepticism) she didn't have the work ethic, general knowledge or on my opinion, enough shark like qualities necessary to be a good agent. After a series of miscommunications, I had to break up with her. She was always making excuses for not sending things or receiving my work. It was always an Internet issue or her computer crashed. I was her only client, so there was no exuse for this. I think my story is a unique one, but my advice is to go with new ish agents, where they have a few clients and at least one or two sales. You don't want to be the guinea pig for someone who is going in blind. Trust me and my shelved MS.

Colin Smith said...

Elise: As much as we love and admire Mighty QOTKU, I would look at the agency at which Shiny New Agent works. New Leaf isn't the only great place for SNAs to shine. BookEnds--what a great mentor Jessica Faust is, I'm sure. And what about IGLA, which Barbara Poelle calls home? Or TBA, where Brooks Sherman, former disciple of La Sharque, is making dreams come true? Newbie Agents at these, and many other agencies, have lots of seasoned Agents on hand to guide them.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

Colin I would feel more than comfortable with a shiny new agent from any of those agencies. We know who their mentors are, but I was referring to agents that are with firms not swimming about the Reef, that are maybe not in NYC or at a smaller agency - I suppose it just comes down to research. I just wonder if agency sales are an indicator of how much mentoring a new agent will get. I am guessing work culture varies from agency to agency. But I would query a new agent if I felt reasonably certain there were seasoned agents to help them navigate the rough seas of publishing. And that those mentors were not Carkoonian in their methodology. I want my books to be read. Not defecated.

AAGreene said...

As an accountant by day, I find the financial side of this process fascinating! There are so many moving parts and many ways to generate income streams. There's no 'right' way to write! That being said, I would prefer an agent that believes in my work and my career goals, rather than just a big name agent. I want someone to champion my work and be in my corner through thick and thin.

DLM said...

Discussions like this sometimes inspire me to wonder what the percentage is, when an offer of representation is made, of authors who simply will take any agent, believing "agent" is in itself a magic word. Clearly, here at the Reef, we have a population who have educated themselves beyond the temptation to think any agent is the agent to have. But how many writers have NOT gotten beyond that point when they sign with someone?

Linda Strader said...

I always took the advice "query widely" to heart, including adding new agents to the mix, especially, as it has been pointed out, if they have more experienced agents in their firm to guide them.

Sherry Howard said...

I'm just beginning to query for the first time ever. Even though I write YA, which QOTKU doesn't represent I followed her directions and queried her. As expected, she declined (so kindly), and now I'm ready to query widely. It didn't bother me one bit to approach the great shark, but I'm now terrified about moving forward. Is there a known medical condition called query anxiety?

Craig F said...

I find myself torn by this question quite often.

Part of it is the little fish in a big pond thing about an established agent. They might be able to help you perfect you style, if they can find the time. You will have to compete for that with that agent's premier authors.

Working with a shiny new agent might put you in a better place for the long run. It is possible to hold the attention of a new agent longer because you are not competing against a big named author for that attention.

The devil is in the details.

Unknown said...

I wish I could comment on this blog with the ease long-time members do. I’m still checking and double-checking every word wondering if it’s misspelled or misstated.

Anyway, I really, really appreciated the post today.

My interaction at conferences (I know, it’s the submission that really counts) with new or relatively new agents has been thoughtful enough, gracious enough, smart enough to offer just the right guidance without slamming the work or showering it with undue praise. They've kept my writing going and always for the better. There’s a short list of new agents for whom I would do a major, major happy dance if she or he would agreed to represent my work.

That said, I still haven’t sent any submission for representation.

With huge piles of frustration, in spite of a lot of revision which sometimes feels like just moving the peas around the plate, my work hasn’t reached ‘good enough to submit’ status. It’s getting there. The craft is improving. But printouts of beginnings that don’t work well, character’s that don’t arc enough, worlds that don’t pull readers in right from the start, all this tells me – not yet.

Here’s where I hope that those new agents will still be available and not think horribly of a writer who doesn’t ‘give them a try’. It’s not them. It’s my writing.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Claudette, reelax regarding mispelings and yucky usage. Typos around here become legend.

Colin Smith said...

Claudette: I still proof-read and spellcheque every comment I write, and I've been commenting here a few years. Sometimes ad nauseam. :D My mantra is, if you're a writer, whatever you write, write like one. In other words, apply the same skill and care to a comment you would to your WiP. Within reason, of course. You don't want to put your comment in a drawer for a month before posting it. Or maybe I should... :-\

DLM said...

Claudette, 2Ns and Colin right - I was sick once and misspelled comment ... and the term "vomment" was born. People liked it as a description for run-on comments. And I'm a prime offender in the vommenting department. :)

I tend not even to see typos until people point them out. Even if I do notice, I recognize what it is and don't care. Life's too short!

CynthiaMc said...

I read all of the agent interviews and spotlights on Writer's Digest and highlight the ones who are interested in what I write. I write my novels and screenplays at the same time so I pay particular attention to those who rep both. I have blog followers from all over the world so international is also a plus.

I met Jessica Faust years ago at a conference when she was just starting out and I liked her a lot, so have continued to keep up with her.

I popped in here for a look-see also from Writer's Digest and never left.

I follow quite a few agents on Twitter to see what they say about what they're looking for, what the market is like, if they're tweeting mean things about their clients, if they've been arrested.

And I pray. Dear Lord help me write the things you want me to write and send them where you want them to go.

I figure there's an agent going "I'd love to see a book about x" while I'm going "I'd sure like to find a home for this manuscript."

And I pay attention to author interviews to see who represents them and look at thank yous in books by authors I admire to see if their agent is mentioned.

JulieWeathers said...


Relax. Some people may be super professional like Colin, (tosses laser like glares his way) but others just vomit words. I fall into the later category.


In real estate, you don't get paid until the house you listed sells and funds or the house you sell passes all inspections and funds. It can be months if not a year or more. People have a variety of funds supporting them while they get that stream of income established. If they didn't they wouldn't make it. You can't count on selling the first house you show and it closing without a hitch, even though I did and tried to talk the people out of buying the house.

I'll query both new agents and experienced agents, but I mark agents off both ends of the spectrum. One very successful agent did an interview that totally put me off. If his people can't crank out a book a year he isn't interested. I guess Diana Gabaldon and G.R.R. Martin better look elsewhere. Another top end agent I like very much is so busy I'm sure I'd get lost in the shuffle.

On the other end there was a new agent with a brand new shiny agency who also did edit work and publishing for a fee. I think that's a conflict of interest. Anyway, she was haunting the twitter contests for a while and let people know if she requested, she expected an exclusive.

Yeah, not happening.

I wrote a blog post years ago about shopping for agents and compared it to going to a horse sale. My opinion hasn't changed. I still look at the big picture. You can't look at a horse and say, "Oh, I'll take that one, he's gray." Great, you bought a gray Percheron, but you needed a race horse. I have to look for experience, training, ability to do the job I want them to do, desire.

The big difference is an agent doesn't have a number on their butt and they've usually got a good support system or should have.

Janet Reid said...

No one should worry about typos. I make enough of them for all of us.

Colin Smith said...

Thangkew, Djanit! :D

Colin Smith said...

Julie: Professional is as professional does. *Pours more glitter into the query envelope* ;)

Lucie Witt said...

If there was a typo team, I think I would be captain.

Like Sam I signed with a newer agent. There were also new agents I struck from my query list, like Julie. Here's how I made my way through the decision:

While making my query list - I checked if the agency was well established. I checked if the newbie agent had intern experience or other valid pub experience. Yes to both and they went on my list.

During the call: I straight up asked about agency support and how closely she worked with her peers. I asked detailed contract questions (found in the Treasure Chest maintained by Colin) and paid attention to how well she could answer on her own.

Like so many things in writing and life, pay attention to your gut instincts.

Good luck, OP!

JulieWeathers said...


"And I pray. Dear Lord help me write the things you want me to write and send them where you want them to go."

Amen. Also, I really appreciated your comment yesterday and your service. I had planned on entering the military after high school, but my mother raised so much hell about it I finally gave in and told them I wouldn't be. It's one of my major regrets in life. I have so much respect for women who do serve. Hats off.

Anyway, I think we just have to stay focused on writing the best story we can and then be professional about researching agents. Part of the mix is also personality. The author and agent have to fit.

Everyone acquaints Civil War horses with Traveller and assumes he must have been the perfect war horse. He wasn't. He had a bone-jarring gait. Lee told his son to take Traveller and go somewhere. His son later said he was sure it was some form of punishment and he would never ride that horse again. During a charge five men had to hold the horse, because Lee couldn't hold him back. Regardless the horse loved Lee and went crazy if he could see him and Lee loved the horse, so they made a great team.

Sometimes being able to work well with another person trumps a lot of things.

Colin Smith said...

Here's the Treasure Chest for those who are curious.

JulieWeathers said...


"Julie: Professional is as professional does. *Pours more glitter into the query envelope* ;)"

There is a service that will send glitter bombs in the mail to people you don't like. Open the envelope and glitter goes everywhere. If I remember correctly a few years ago an agent got one from someone they rejected.

On another note, Gage the Blunder Dog nosed a corn cob out of the trash and gnawed it clean. Then he puked up the corn on the chair pad under the desk. Nothing ot get the creative juices going like pukified corn.

Janet Reid said...

*sets aside lunch after reading Miss Julie's comment on corn*

CynthiaMc said...

Julie - thank you. I love the story about Gen. Lee and Traveller. Great team.

I honestly hadn't planned to join the military myself. I just got tired of trying to find a new job every time my husband got a new duty station. A recruiter heard me bitching at a Hail and Farewell, signed me up and then joined the Army. There were many times I thought "Why am I doing this?" I would have quit but there was a pool going as to how long I'd last and that made me angry so I ended up as a squad leader and honor grad. Looking back, it's one of the best things I've done, but oh lordy at the time...

Colin Smith said...

Julie: "Nothing ot get the creative juices going like pukified corn."

Or carrots...

E.M. Goldsmith said...

My heart is malfunctioning. Which apart from obvious problems has put me on a "special" diet. Today it is quinoa with peas and mushrooms. Which is hard to stomach by its own merits. Add Julie's wonder dog and corn and just no.

Lord, save me from ailments that involve special freaking diets. Why is whisky, cake, and coffee not a special enough diet? I don't understand.

Ly Kesse said...

I always enjoy reading about the mechanics of agenting. I figure the more I know... (And yes, I apply that dictum to the WiP as well.)

I am endlessly curious, which helped me when I wrote news (decades ago, now).

Lennon Faris said...

Interesting peek into the agenting world...

EM - like, a literal malfunction? (I have to ask, coming from a writer). I hope you're ok!

E.M. Goldsmith said...

Lennon I have a myopic heart- left ventricle is too big but it's a slight myopathy. Just causes me to pass out here and there and have to eat kale and such against my will. It's manageable and only a slight annoyance. My doctor assures me I am just as likely to die of a shark attack as my funky shaped heart. He doesn't know about Janet. *sigh*

Colin Smith said...

Elise: Since when is having too big of a heart a bad thing? ;)

I can see how the passing out can be inconvenient. But at least you get to eat kale (yum yum)!! :D

literary_lottie said...

For me, considering a querying strategy is less like putting the cart before the horse and more like building a whole fleet of fancy carriages before the horse is even domesticated, but when it does come time to query, I will probably focus on younger/newer agents. The rationale that newer agents building their list are more likely to take a chance on an unknown, and be hungrier to sell and keener to promote than someone with an established backlist, is definitely a consideration, but not the only one. It's also a generational thing. I'm young, mid-twenties, and I plan on having a very long career, and I want an agent who's going to be in it for the long haul with me - someone who will help shape my literary path forward. I know established agents do this, and I would definitely not kick an established agent out of bed for eating crackers (so to speak,) but I find the idea of working with someone who's learning and growing and progressing in their career just as I am to be very exciting. I know there are risks, and I know what sounds exciting to one person is terrifying for another, but I think as long as you do due diligence that having a new agent could be very rewarding and mutually beneficial.

There's also the fact that - maybe because I'm young, maybe because I'm a wimp - I'm a'skeered of authority figures. And I automatically think of anyone 10+ years older than me as an authority figure. I just started my First Real Job, and I am still getting used to the idea that my older coworkers don't actually have any authority over me. It is hard going and whenever we disagree over something, or there's a problem with a project, I retreat back into the "uh oh, I fucked up and now this person is going to punish me" mindset. And holy cow, I do not want to have that sort of relationship with my agent. I know all agents are super nice (even the sharkly ones) and that this is a weird personal issue of mine, but I want an business partner, not a boss, and I feel like a newer/younger agent is the more likely candidate for the type of working relationship I want. YMMV, as always.

Donnaeve said...

Hello shiny new agent - meet the shiny new writers.

If you don't yet have your agent, you, dear woodland creatures = shiny new writer and are just as much of a risk to SNA as you believe they are to you. :)

We all have/had to start from somewhere. It sort of reminds me of being turned down for a job b/c I didn't have enough experience. How would I get that experience? Having a job.

This is a brilliant group of folks (proven tenfold yesterday), and all y'all know just what to do. And if you don't, you will, cause you're here.

I'll be in Savannah tomorrow and Saturday! #SIBA16!!! Wish me luck that I don't trip over my tongue, or my own two feet as I navigate my first ever book signing and panel. Yikes.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

Donna Good luck. You'll almost be in my neck of woods. Almost. Savannah can be a lot of fun. Especially if you're not being subjected to a special diet. I miss pralines.

Colin Smith said...

Charlotte: Thank you for that insight from the younger generation of writers. I never considered a young writer might actually feel more comfortable with a young agent, but that makes sense--especially if you feel an older agent might intimidate you somewhat. You're right that you need a good level of comfort with your agent, so you can throw ideas back and forth without feeling your agent's opinion is intrinsically superior simply because s/he's older than you.

Donna: You'll be fine. More than fine, you'll be OSSUM! Just be your wonderful, charming Southern self. :D

CynthiaMc said...

Donna - Best of luck to you! Please let me know if you come to Orlando.

Panda in Chief said...

Interesting question, answer and discussion!
Just hopping in to say it makes sense to choose a new agent who works at at least a midsize agency where they get lots of support and maybe a paycheck until the client dollars start rolling in.
On being a not-so-young SNW, I am happy to have an agent who is younger than I am, that he won't retire before I do, hopefully. I figure I have at least another 25 years or so as a productive artist/writer.

EM, Sorry your ailments preclude a diet of cuppycakes, whiskey, and coffee. I'm hoping I don't discover anything that will keep me from enjoying those things.

Cheers everyone!
Any word on a house for Colin and famile?

Colin Smith said...

Panda: Maybe. I might have an update for my "Links and Stuff" blog article tomorrow... ;)

Lisa Bodenheim said...

I love the watercooler conversation at this place. Julie's corn and Janet's discarded lunch and Donna's excitement! So Donna, should I say break a tongue?

EM: I'm trying to get my GERD under control and told myself to behave, foodwise, for at least 2 weeks. rats. So, full sympathies, especially with regards to whisky and caffeinated beverages. And spicy food cos I want to make a batch of chili.

Opie: thank you for asking this question. I am learning lots from reading through everyone's response here.

BJ Muntain said...

Yes, you still want to vet agents, whether they are new or experienced. I look at Janet, Don Maass, and other well-established agents and think: I wonder who their first client was. Because even the most successful agent had to have a first client. While I doubt I'll ever be anyone's 'first', I'm definitely open to being their best. :)

EM: Special diets suck. Quinoa, while healthy and not lettuce, can get to be too much. If you look for gluten-free food, there's a high percentage of it with quinoa.

My sister made some special quinoa dish for a barbecue. People loved it. She told me, "You can eat it. It's gluten-free." I thanked her very much, but passed on it. I get enough quinoa. When I'm at a barbecue, I want meat. All. The. Meat.

So what's for supper today? A brown rice, lentil, and quinoa blend. I shall share in your dietary unhappiness. And if it helps, cupcakes - unless specially made - are off my diet, too. (((hugs)))

Donna: Good luck. I know you're going to do well, and sell many books.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

BJ Someone assured me I would like quinoa as much as white rice or potatoes. Well, not so much. I had grilled chicken breast with quinoa at dinner with raw carrots and unadorned berries for desert. I am turning into a rabid rabbit.

Death by cake, whiskey, and coffee seems a pretty fair way to go right now. And Colin, perhaps one of your many offspring could make kale yummy for me because I have thus far not managed to do it on my own. After all, I still have nightmares about Carkoon and its toxic kale fields.

Still, there's my book and some spanking new agent waiting for it possibly. Only thing about these shiny new agents is that for most part, I am old enough to be their mama. Can you send a shiny new agent to their room when they misbehave? Drive them nuts with "when I was your age, little whippersnapper, we used rocks and chisels to write stuff. You think your query load is heavy now..." Kind of tales?

Querying is a while off for me so those shiny new agents may age nicely by time I return to those harrowing pits. My book is taking a dark turn as my evening snifter has been exchanged for a minty green tea. What self-respecting writer can operate in this way? Off I go,

Theresa said...

Enjoy the signing, Donna. Perfect your signature because you'll be doing a lot of it!

MA Hudson said...

BJ - brown rice, lentils and quinoa sounds delicious. I'd love to eat that stuff. Unfortunately my kids' bland tastes mean boring fibre-free carbohydrates at every meal.

Julie - Just wondering, can anyone verify that agents DON'T have numbers on their butts? Maybe they have tattoos of the date of their first sale, or they use Roman numerals to tally up their sales and do a comparison at the pub after work each Friday?

JulieWeathers said...


"Julie - Just wondering, can anyone verify that agents DON'T have numbers on their butts?"

While I have freely confessed to being a Wrangler patch admirer, and even written about it, I would never in life confess to any desire to checking out agent butts. (And agents everywhere breathed a sigh of relief.) If they do have something tattooed on their butt, I don't want to know about it. I have enough to think about when querying, pitching, visiting with them.

Aurora said...

I usually just lurk, but I wanted to comment here because the timing of this post couldn't have been better for me. I just received an offer of representation from a SNA, and all of your thoughts did wonders to help me figure out the pros and cons of the situation and figure out what the best decision would be.

(As it turns out, the SNA in question has an agenting pedigree that can be traced directly back to La Sharquesa herself (aka QOTKU), so I know I'm in good hands. I think I'll most likely accept the offer.)

MA Hudson said...

Haha - yes, Wrangler patches are probably much more inspiring. And now that I think about it, literary agents probably much prefer head-butting to number-on-butting anyway. :)

MA Hudson said...

Aurora - Wow! That's awesome. Congratulations!
It's always good to hear from people who have crossed the threshold from querying to agented.

BoldWriter said...

Great post Janet! There are so many insightful comments to go along with it that I garnered information I have long been wondering about. Quenched my thirst for more knowledge in the land of agents, old and new.