Manuscript Monday: Working with an Agent

Manuscript Monday: Working with an Agent September 2, 2013

Manuscript Monday is a series I’ll be writing as I work on my forthcoming book. If you’ve got a question about the process of writing a book, drop me a line and I’ll include it in the series.

I’ve gotten a couple questions by email lately about using a literary agent. Picking and using an agent is a tricky thing, so here’s my story:

In 2003 or thereabouts, when the emergent movement was the hot new kid on the block, I was garnering lots of interest from publishers. I’d written a couple books already, and I had a couple more on the way. Every conference I attended, it seemed like I was being taken out by publishers for every breakfast, lunch, and dinner. (Please note, this no longer happens to me — while some authors. Also, the publishing world has changed dramatically since then. While some authors surely get wined and dined by publishers, I’m not among them. More on that below.)

At the Emergent Convention in Nashville, I sat down with Phyllis Tickle — it was the first time I’d ever spoken with her. I told her that I was feeling overwhelmed by the interest from publishers, that it was a dream come true, but I felt that I was in over my head. She told me to get an agent. In fact, she told me that I should use her agent, Joe Durepos.

So I contacted Joe the next week, with an endorsement from Phyllis. I thought, “Well, that was easy.” Then Joe told me, “Sorry, I’m not taking any new authors at this time.”

Ugh. It turns out that just about any agent that’s any good says that. That’s because, if they’re a good agent, they’re already representing plenty of great authors, and they’re making a living at it.

But, of course, every agent is actually taking on new clients. The good ones can afford to be picky. So they look over your stuff and, if you don’t rise to their standard of quality, they let you down easy by telling you that they aren’t taking on new authors.

At that point, I set about my quest to find an agent. I asked everyone I knew in the publishing world — publishers, editors, authors, marketers, PR agents — who they liked working with and what kind of agent they thought I should have. One editor was so engaging about my writing life that I told him that he should become an agent. He later did. His name is Greg Daniel, and he represents a lot of my friends.

Throughout my conversations, as I talked about my hopes as a writer and author, one name came up over and over: Kathy Helmers. Every agent has a specialty. I’ve got friends who are represented by attorneys — they’re known for strong contracts. Other friends are represented by agents who sell well into New York or who negotiate hard or who get big money.

Kathy cares about the words. That’s what people told me over and over, and that jibed with my own preferences. When we get a proposal from Kathy, we know it’s strong, they said.

That’s not to say that Kathy doesn’t get good advances or negotiate strong contracts — it’s just that her specialty is the books themselves. When I first spoke to her, she said that if she weren’t an agent, her dream job would be to edit theology books for Eerdmanns. Pretty much a match made in heaven.

I also knew that I wanted to work with someone who’d help me all along the way. A lot of agents get you a contract, then they move on to their next author. And a lot of authors want this — the last thing they want is an agent meddling in the book itself. Not so for me. For whatever reason (insecurity?), I want a whole team of people giving me input on every book. Kathy’s been great in this regard, always reading drafts even though she’s off-the-clock once the contract is done.

That’s not to say it’s always been peachy. 2012-13 has had its ups and downs for Kathy and me. My last major book sold well enough, but didn’t blow the doors off. Publishers are a bit squeamish these days based on the economy and the uncertainty in their industry, so Kathy and I had two different proposals roundly rejected in late 2012, before coming up with the book I’m writing now. But even that proposal was a tough sell. And when you’re having a hard time selling a book, it’s hard to know what the problem is: the idea itself? the proposal? the pitch? the author’s platform? the agent? Who knows? It’s not like the publishers are very forthcoming when they reject your proposal (except for the evangelical houses, several of whom said, “We like Tony, but we’ll never publish him again because of his stance on gay rights.”). Not unlike any other working partnership, when things aren’t going well, it can cause tension. And it did.

Nevertheless, we’ve stuck together. Next Monday: 10 tips for working with a literary agent.

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