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5 Myths You Shouldn't Believe About Agents

Author-turned-agent Jennifer Lawler gives you the inside scoop on what agents really do and how knowing the truth could endear you to one. by Jennifer Lawler

Becoming an agent didn’t just teach me a few lessons about being a writer. It also cleared up some common misconceptions about agenting.

No. 1. An agent’s main job is to pitch her clients’ work to editors and schedule auctions. (How hard can it really be?)
It turns out pitching to editors is actually one of the least time-consuming parts of an agent’s job. Working with clients—finding them, recruiting them, helping them polish their projects, answering their questions, keeping them updated—requires the bulk of their time and resources, far more than I ever realized.

No. 2. I shouldn’t bother my agent with my questions; she’s busy.
I’ve been the writer who thought this. I should have seen it for what it was: a huge red flag that the author-agent relationship in question wasn’t going to work. As an agent, I want my clients to feel they can come to me with their questions. In fact, I’d rather know what’s on their minds than not. It does take time, yes, so try not to be too neurotic. But you shouldn’t be sending questions to random agent blogs because you’re afraid to approach your own agent with them.

No. 3. No response from an agent means the answer is no.
I understand that a lot of agents state this as their policy in trying to cut down on busywork, but it’s a mistake for writers to take it at face value. Now that I’m an agent, I’m amazed at the number of times my e-mails have gone missing. That’s why I’d never assume no answer means no. Follow-up is crucial. I once requested a manuscript from a writer at three different e-mail addresses and he never received any of my responses; if he hadn’t followed up, I would have assumed he was no longer interested in pursuing my representation.

No. 4. Agents owe it to writers to explain why they’re rejecting manuscripts they’ve requested.
I agree that a form rejection after a partial or full manuscript has been requested can feel like a slap in the face; I’ve felt that slap myself. But while I don’t use form letters in my rejections of partials and fulls, I also don’t spend a lot of time explaining why I’m rejecting them. Here’s why: This business is subjective; what I think is wrong with your novel may be what the next agent thinks is right with it. I’ve been on the receiving end of enough rejections to know that writers invest way more energy in interpreting what agents and editors say than agents and editors invest in saying it.

If I believe a book could be improved by revision, I’ll make suggestions and ask the writer to resubmit, or I’ll offer representation conditional on certain revisions being made. If I’m not willing to put my money where my mouth is, then I don’t think I have any business telling you where I think you’ve gone wrong.

No. 5. Agents’ inboxes are full of crap, which makes it impossible to spot the real gems.
My problem isn’t how much bad writing crosses my desk. That’s easy to recognize and reject. The problem is how much good writing I see. I have to figure out which of these good projects is most likely to sell, and which of those good authors is going to be best to work with. If you can convince me that I can sell your project and you’ll be a pleasure to have as a client, you’re halfway there.

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