Looking for the Perfect Agent

I recently parted ways with my agent. It was very amicable. She was, and is, a wonderful person, a great agent and a good friend. I’d have no qualms recommending her. She’s dedicated, smart and very good at what she does. But for all sorts of reasons it didn’t work out. So now I’m looking for a new agent.

Gulp. Much much easier said than done.

First of all there’s the researching, asking people in publishing—writers, editors, publishers, publicists etc. etc—about all the agents they know. Who does what? Who’s looking for new clients? Who handles Young Adult? Adult fiction? Both? Genre? Non-fiction? Who has a client list that I’d fit in with? Then there’s approaching them and seeing if they’re interested. Then meeting them. Then deciding who to go with.

Fortunately I’m not doing this alone. Scott is also in the hunt for a new agent. He’s gone agentless for several years and has decided that it’s time to have someone else take care of the parts of being a writer he’s least fond of (negotiating deals, checking contracts etc. etc.) and that it’s worth giving 15% away to have them do it. Even though we mightn’t go with the same agent, we decided to look together so that we could compare gut reactions, and point out cool career achievements the other one forgot to mention. "Scott just won an Aurealis." "Justine just got nominated to the BBYA list." (Always easier to have someone else toot your horn for you.)

While deciding which agents to approach we put together a list of what we wanted from an agent. Here’s mine (Scott’s was a lot less mushy):

Someone who

  • I can trust;
  • understands and enjoys my writing;
  • has long-term plans for my career and can give me advice on what projects to pursue next and how and when;
  • is based in New York City and on a first-name basis with most of the editors and publishers here. NYC is, after all, still the centre of publishing in this country. And also so I can see them face-to-face during the northern summer when I’m here. (I also plan to get myself a Sydney agent to handle my Australian career.);
  • knows the business inside and outside. Not just the people, but how the strange arcane business of publishing works;
  • responds to my calls and emails promptly;
  • understands and loves young adult fiction;
  • understands and loves genre fiction.

Not that huge a list really, and yet . . . It’s such a strange relationship, that of agent and writer. Some end up being psychologist, social worker, mother, father, editor and banker to their clients as well as everything I listed. I don’t want any of that. I got plenty of people in those roles already! But I do want someone I feel is looking out for me and will fight to protect my 85% as much as their 15%.

So ever since we got back to NYC we’ve been meeting with agents. All of whom have been lovely. Seriously, we haven’t met a one we haven’t liked. Still I’m not sure that liking your agent is the most important aspect of this particular relationship. My previous agent was the first agent to ask me. At the time I was unpublished and had been knocked back by the two agents I’d approached (one in Sydney, one in NYC) and could not believe my luck. It’s much much much harder getting an agent when you’re unpublished. It turned out that I liked her a tonne, but even so that wasn’t enough for our agent/writer relationship to be what we both wanted it to be.

The meetings, mostly lunches, have been very very weird. It’s like a first date except that . . . actually, no except, it’s exactly like a first date, right down to them bringing you a present (not flowers—much better than that—books! which is how I got to read Holly Black’s brilliant and amazing Valiant so early). It’s awkward and tense and exhausting. Just like a first date you’re wondering whether they like you, whether you like them, whether you’ll be good together, whether this has a future. You’re analysing everything they say and don’t say. Why did they pick this particular restaurant? Why this part of town? Why did they dress that way? Should you have dressed this way?

Still, it’s early days, we have the whole summer to decide and already we’ve both met an agent we’d definitely feel more than comfortable with. We both have high hopes it’ll work out okay.

In the meantime, if anyone out there who is an agent, or has an agent, has any thoughts on this peculiar, yet incredibly important relationship in a writer’s life I’d love to hear from you.

Wish us luck in our search!

New York City, 12 May 2005