~ By Maureen McGowan

These days, writers have options to get their books into the hands of readers, but many are still looking for something resembling the “traditional” publishing experience. And the simple fact remains, to up your chances of getting your manuscript read by editors at the big publishers, you need an agent.

Since I’ve done the agent hunt thing, twice, I thought I’d share a few thoughts for those of you on the hunt, to put it in perspective, or at least to offer a slightly different perspective. I hope an empowering one.

Yes, while on the hunt, often it feels like agents have all the power. Even once you’ve got an agent, it can take a while before that power imbalance starts to stabilize (depending on how your respective careers are going). But one thing writers often seem to forget is who works for whom.

To remind us, I thought it might be interesting to boil the agent hunt process down to the business basics.

First, at the risk of going all Econ 101 on you, the reason the power feels out of balance is a matter of supply and demand. That is, there are more aspiring writers and manuscripts, than there are qualified agents. Ergo, agents are a scarce commodity, and even if they’re looking for new work, many can afford to be picky when choosing new clients. The more successful they are, the pickier they can afford to be.

But the scarceness of the supply, doesn’t change the substance of what’s going on when a writer is agent hunting. It doesn’t change the fact that the writer is the potential employer and the agent the potential employee, essentially making the agents job applicants.

(Okay, the writer/agent relationship is more of a business partnership, where success is in both party’s interest… but for my analogy to work, let’s pretend it’s an employer/employee relationship… go with me…)

Let’s say you’re a writer with a manuscript in need of a publishing contract, (and it is a truth universally acknowledged, that a manuscript in possession of good words, must be in want of a publishing contract), and let’s say you’re not currently represented by an agent. If you’re in this position, you’ve got a job that needs to be done–the job of shopping your work and landing a contract. Some writers will chose to fill the agent position themselves, instead of hiring from outside the firm, so to speak, but savvy writers will have noted that the chances of landing a great publishing contract goes up if they hire an expert, a sales specialist, to handle the part of the transaction.

So, let’s say you’ve decided to find an agent. To attract qualified applicants for this position, you need to advertise. But because you’re picky, and smart, and don’t want to waste your time interviewing just anyone, you don’t put it out on Craig’s list, you target your want ad directly to those people you hope will apply for the job.

These specialized want ads are called “query letters”. Agents currently looking for more work, who were lucky enough to receive one of your ads, and who think the job sounds like one for which they might be qualified, will respond, effectively applying for the position.

But before the applicants can be seriously considered for the job, each must pass a test administered by the potential employer. To pass this test, the agent-applicants must demonstrate they understand and love the employer’s product and have a plan to find an editor who will feel the same way.

This test is administered via something called a “submission”, and typically the potential employer lets the applicants choose whether to complete this submission test in a one-stage or two-stage process. For example, less confident applicants (or applicants whose offices are particularly cluttered) might chose to start with a sample of their potential employer’s product, often called a “partial”, while others may decide to take the entire test at once by requesting to review a “full”.

Some applicants are so eager, and/or competitive, they ask the potential employer to take all the other applicants out of consideration for a set period of time. This is commonly referred to as an “exclusive”, and employers may choose to accept or reject an applicant’s exclusivity request.

Agents who pass the submission test are granted the privilege of moving on to the final interview stage, often conducted over the phone, but sadly, many agents fail the submission test.

Why the high failure rate? Can we assume the quality of the agent applicant pool is low? No. It’s more complicated than that.

Selling works of fiction is a passionate process, passion’s a tricky thing, and sadly some applicants fail to find the requisite level of passion for all the products they apply to represent. Some discover they don’t share the same taste as the potential employer, and didn’t enjoy the product as much as they’d hoped. Some reach the conclusion that the quality or uniqueness of the product is such that they fear their sales skills will prove inadequate to place it. Still others might fall in love with the product, but don’t believe they have the specific abilities and/or contacts with the right editors to do the product justice.

Yes, there are many reasons why agents fail the submission test, but there’s no reason for agents to feel ashamed about this, or take it personally. Sometimes the fit simply isn’t right. 😉

Agents who fail the submission test send a letter to the potential employer to announce their withdrawal from consideration for the position. Occasionally, if the agent feels particularly demoralized, he or she might fail to withdraw their application in writing. In these cases, the dejected agent sends out passive-aggressive signals, such as breaking off all communications and/or not reporting their test results for an extended period of time, assuming the potential employer will deduce the agent’s failure to pass the submission test.

But most agents will send a written notice of their submission test failure, and these letters are often referred to as “rejection letters”. This term is highly misleading slang as they rarely, if ever, contain the word rejection. The letters are simply the agents’ notification that they no longer believe they’ll be able to adequately perform the job for which they’d applied.

If a large number of applicants fail the testing portion of the interview process, or if few potential applicants respond to the initial want ad, it can be frustrating and disappointing for the potential employer. At this point, the employer will have to round up another group of potential applicants, perhaps by using a revised version of the initial want ad, or by widening the pool of applicants to consider.

If a writer has already widened his or her agent search net to include every applicant who shows potential, but has not yet found anyone qualified to hire, the writer has at least three choices.

  1. He or she might choose to let some time pass and then try to identify more applicants at a later date.
  2. Or, the writer might choose to consider the reasons for feeling unqualified that were offered by the past applicants’, and then revise their product to better suit the tastes and skill levels of the available pool of applicants.
  3. Or, the writer might choose to return to the research and development stage and create an entirely new product. Then, with a new product in hand, they may return to the want ad stage.

Often agents who felt unqualified to represent one particular product may feel better qualified to represent another product produced by that same potential employer — perhaps using refined production techniques, or a with more inventive overall design concept. Statistical evidence has proven this last option has the highest probability of success.*

Bottom line: no reason to be angsty while trying to find the right agent. As clearly demonstrated by this analogy, we writers are in charge. 😉

Okay, I’m not that deluded, but maybe if writers thought of it more this way — trying to find the right person for the job — it might relieve some of the angst?

Who am I kidding? We’re an angsty lot.

* You want a reference for the statistical study? Sorry. Umm… It’s confidential. Yeah, confidential.

Maureen McGowan is a two-time Golden Heart finalist. Her Young Adult Sci-fi Thriller, DEVIANTS, Book One of The Dust Chronicles, will be released in hardcover and e-book formats on October 30, 2012, by Amazon Children’s Publishing. Sleeping Beauty: Vampire Slayer and Cinderella: Ninja Warrior are available now.