The topic of choosing an agent came up recently in a couple of different contexts, so I thought I might share a few thoughts on the subject.
First off, it is absolutely correct that the wrong agent or a bad agent is worse than having no agent at all. Your agent is a reflection on you, and an incompetent agent makes you look like an idiot to editors and publishers. The wrong agent, by contrast, probably just won’t get you a deal. Case in point: An early agent for Veniss Underground, I found out later, specialized in selling children’s books!
Secondly, it’s fine to look at the guides to what agents are out there, but some of the best agents don’t really advertise. And even with information on the internet, nothing beats personal testimonials.
The best advice I got with regard to agents was to look around at authors whose books and careers I admired–ones who I thought I could emulate career-wise–and then ask those authors who their agents were, and if they’d recommend them.
That said, my big break came when Michael Moorcock was kind enough to recommend me to Howard Morhaim (the Howard Morhaim Literary Agency). Howard doesn’t really advertise and has an exclusive list of 40 to 50 clients that range from Moorcock and Stephen Donaldson to Jeffrey Ford and Patricia McKillip, as well as K.J. Bishop, Hal Duncan, Steven Erickson, and many mainstream clients, like the guy who wrote The Club Dumas.
I like Howard and consider him not just a friend but my best advisor because he always tells it to me like it is, but if I don’t take his advice, he still supports me to the hilt. I feel like I don’t just have an agent, but I have someone whose word is his bond, someone I’m willing to go to bat for (and, in fact, a handful of Howard’s current clients were referred to him by me).
Four of the qualities I most value are honesty, integrity, a kind of bulldog tenacity, and the ability to get things done. Howard has all of those qualities.
But he also looks the part. He has charm and dresses nicely. If your agent looks like he’s just out of high school, wears loud clothes, and puts more product in his hair than a rock band…remember, once again, that this person is your “persona” interfacing with the publisher. If that’s the image you want to project, that’s great. If not, then that’s not the person you want.
I think one of the fallacies about the writer-agent relationship is that it can be one of suspicion. I know writers who go into that relationship already irritated that their agent is taking 15 percent–who feel their agent is leeching off of them. Anyone who doesn’t understand that having an agent allows you to get 20-25 percent more than you would otherwise doesn’t understand the value of a good agent. When you have a good agent, you’re a team. It’s you and him (or her) against the cold, cruel publishing world.
Also important: foreign rights. Writers split on this, but I prefer an agent, like Howard, who has an extensive network of sub-agents all over the world. Selling those rights individually rather than ceding those rights to your English-language publisher(s) is much more lucrative, and generally a more proactive situation. While your English-language publisher may have contacts overseas, they’re not as likely to auction off the rights to the highest bidder as sell the rights to their “affiliate”, and a lot of times they just wait for offers to come to them, rather than pursue deals.
One last thing: if your agent doesn’t have a presence in New York City, it’s not as important as before the internet. But there’s still nothing that beats having an agent who can sit down to lunch with a potential buyer of your novel somewhere in Manhattan. Nothing beats an agent who can have your novel manuscript delivered personally or by courier to the editor.