Staking Out Agents

May 20, 2019 | Authors, Business

Picture this:

You’re in a police car, waiting in a convenient alley or driveway not far from an ominous-looking building. You have 2 dozen doughnuts and a 12-pack of Mountain Dew, as well as some empty beer bottles to pee in. Your partner is at the wheel. He is only two days away from retirement.

That’s right, you’re on a stakeout. Which, if any of this were literal, would mean that you would be waiting for a specific person to come out of their enclosure, so you could either follow them or arrest them on the spot.

The stakeout has a long a cherishes history in law enforcement (and cop movies). But in this post, we are interested in a different kind of stakeout, targeting a different kind of quarry. For we are authors, and we are hunting the most dangerous game.

I’m talking about those most wascally of wabbits: the literary agent.

It’s all Part of the Process

I know it seems like most of my posts are about working toward publication. But there is a lot of nuance, as well as new information to share. Sometimes I learn things. Sometimes the rules change. And sometimes the truth just requires further examination.

For an established author, an agent is often a nice thing to have. And for a first-time author, getting an agent is almost mandatory.

But not just any agent will get the job done. Some agents are lousy, and a great many others are dandy, yet not right for you.

So, who’s Your Dream Agent, Mr. Horne?

Even seen that show, Frasier?

In one episode, Dr. Frasier Crane acquires an agent named Bebe Glazer. She was played by Harriet Harris and became an infrequent guest star on the show.

And she was pure evil.

The central conceit of her character is that she was so dedicated to advancing Frasier’s career that she would make him stoop to any low and sell out in the most ridiculous of ways, all for his greater publicity and recognition. It is implied that she has even committed murder, on occasion, in the interest of her clients.

I am sure I would regret having an agent like that. Yet…I can’t help but be enticed by the idea. My favorite quote from this character, from the show, or possibly from any TV show, is when she tells Frasier:

“I had to choose between being a good agent and being a good person, because, believe me, you can’t be both.”

And, against my better judgment, I have to admire that kind of tenacity. It certainly feels like the ruthless have an advantage in publishing.

But in all seriousness, the biggest worry I have (apart from the idea that I might never find an agent) is that I will end up with an agent who isn’t concerned with commercial success (an irrational fear, I’m sure, considering the nature of the business).

I’m also afraid that the agents I query have no idea how far I am willing to go for commercial success. I am willing to put in the hours, navigate the dangerous waters, and do what it takes to land in every bookstore on the planet. I am not a hobbyist. This is my career. But that doesn’t necessarily come through in a brief query letter.

But we’re getting off track. Today we are exploring the process of staking out an agent. Which, like a literal stakeout, requires gathering intel and strategically following clues to locate and track a specific person.

The only real difference is that we are trying to track that person’s mind, rather than their body.

Don’t Call It Cyber-stalking (even though It Totally Is)

Querying the wrong agent is both a waste of time and a signal, by the author, that he is not ready for the business. To avoid these issues, the author needs to confirm beforehand that the agent being queried is at least within the same ballpark as the book being sold.

This means doing a healthy amount of research, which often involves doing an unhealthy amount of research. Aside from the agent’s own listed preferences and credentials, it helps to lookup past articles and interviews of this agent, their social media profiles, mentions made of them by former and current clients, their work history, and so forth.

A lot of these sources are put out intentionally by the agent. Most of them like leaving obvious hints about what they’re looking for, and in as many places as possible.

But then, every once in a while, you’ll find an agent for whom there is no clear data. They do not list preferences on their agency website. They have no social media. They do not have listings on Manuscript Wish List or AgentQuery. Yet they are not nobodies who have never sold a book. Some of them, I find, are actually senior agents at long-established agencies.

I’d like to believe that they just don’t accept unsolicited queries at all. But no, many of them state they are open to queries. They’re just…not forthcoming about what they want.

Naturally, I find it better to simply avoid these kinds of agents.

So What’s the Best Way to Stakeout an Agent?

Well, my current method involves browsing Amazon for books similar to my own, then discovering who represented those books. This can usually be done with QueryTracker’s “Who reps Whom” tool.

Better methods may exist, but this is relatively quick and certainly efficient. Trying to shop agents by genre alone is imprecise to the point of being largely useless. Agents are readers. They’re looking for something that specifically fits their niche. And that niche is often more narrow than the genre labels that bookstores use.

But whatever method you use, you have to be willing to dig deep enough to get an idea of what this agent really wants. Because if you’re not sure, then you’re bound to be disappointed by the outcome.

If I find a better way, I’ll be sure to let you know. Until then, I’ve always got your back.