Friday Five-O: Should I Sign With an Agent?
Dear Friday Five-O,
A fairly prominent agent read my story in a journal and has offered to represent me. It’s the first story I’ve published and don’t have much other finished work. Should I sign with an agent now or wait until I have a novel or collection?
Thanks for the question.
First of all, congratulations on the story publication and the agent interest. That’s a great achievement, one worth celebrating with a nice night on the town. It’s a huge, huge compliment that someone—anyone—took the time to track you down and even tell you about it, much less express an interest in working with you. Be proud.
What To Look For
Your agent should be a whole lot of things rolled into one: your editor, your business manager, your cheerleader, and—yes—your friend. An agent should be someone who you’d actually like to spend time with, because as your work progresses, you will be spending time with them, on the phone, over email, and sometimes in person. If you don’t have a good relationship, you’re going to have a hard time finding the amount of trust required to work together on something as sensitive as a creative project. You have to, on some level, like them.
Deciding how much of the above qualities you—as a writer and a person—need should be a critical component of your decision. If you’re unsure of your work and need someone to pump you up a bit, that’s an important thing to note. If you want a shark who’s going to find you every penny, that’s important to know as well. If you find yourself disagreeing with most of their suggestions (this is a tough one for you to know, Lucy, which I will discuss a bit more below) even after some time and space, then they’re probably not the right editor for you. They have to love your work. If they don’t, it’s going to be awfully hard for them to sell it. You need someone who’s thrilled about you.
I do think it’s a little strange for an agent to see one story and offer representation. That’s like buying a house after seeing the doorknob. Even if your story was drop-dead amazing, it has to make you wonder how many people this agent takes on, doesn’t it? Are you going to be able to get what you need from an agent with a huge stable of authors? Looking at the list above, maybe you don’t need much hand-holding and your work is polished and doesn’t need much editing.
Then maybe you’re fine being one of many. There are some agents who manage to juggle dozens of writers, some with the help of a team of underlings, some with what must be a drawer full of trucker-strength amphetamines and a hatred of sleep, some with pure desire and love for the job. There are others who only represent a handful. Figuring out which would work better for you is going to help you in your process.
You should not be afraid of your agent. They should be completely willing to answer questions about how your work together will proceed. If they can’t get on the phone to talk to you about coming aboard that’s not a good sign. Even a huge agent should be able to take a couple of minutes to say hello and see what you’re all about. After all, you’re putting your creative life in their hands.
My Own Experience
I once heard Russell Banks tell a story about going with his agent when she left the established company she’d been working for to strike out on her own. She was young (younger than Banks) and hungry and adored his work. He left behind the safety of a big agency to bet on someone who’d bet on him. This left a huge impression on me. When it came time for me to look for an agent, I concentrated on younger agents who had been selling work that I admired. My list, however, was never necessary.
As I have documented on this very blog, my novel has been a long time coming. I was fortunate enough, however, to have a handful of stories published in some great literary magazines. This got me some attention from agents (like you, Lucy) but I told them that I wasn’t looking yet because I hadn’t finished the novel. When the novel needed a little push, I contacted some writer friends about their agents, just to get an idea of the finish line. Some wires got crossed, and I got an email from one of my friends saying that his agent hadn’t heard from me. I explained to the agent why I was waiting, and he agreed to read my stories and the opening chapter of my novel (I’d worked on those pages enough to feel as though they were polished enough for others to see). We hopped on the phone to discuss them, and it was love at first sight. He never pressured me in any way. I knew, beyond a doubt, that this was the one for me. I was extremely lucky.
Isn’t it hard to get an agent?
It is hard to get an agent. There are a lot of writers out there. Building up a resume beforehand can help a lot. Publishing in literary journals shows you’re producing work and people think it’s good enough to print. Going to an MFA program or taking classes at a place like Grub shows your willingness to improve. This all gives them a better picture of you. The clearer the picture on both sides, the better the relationship will hopefully be.
Prom Night Redux
Here’s my advice to you, Lucy: If you feel like the best thing is to wait until you have something bigger, then the agent should be fine with that. In fact, an agent should respect you even more for understanding your process.
Best of luck,
James Scott's debut novel, The Kept, will be published by Harper in 2014. He earned his MFA from Emerson College and his BA from Middlebury College. His fiction has been published in Ploughshares, Post Road, One Story, American Short Fiction, and Memorious among others, anthologized by flatmancrooked, and nominated for the Best New American Voices Anthology and the Pushcart Prize. He has received awards from Yaddo, the Sewanee Writers' Conference, the St. Botolph's Club, the Tin House Writers' Conference, the New York State Summer Writers' Institute, VCCA, and the Millay Colony for the Arts. James has worked for various production companies and publications, Bob Vila productions, and the Boston Red Sox. A former fiction editor of Redivider and issue editor for One Story, he currently writes for the magazine Under the Radar. Learn more at www.jamesscottwriter.com.See other articles by James Scott