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Agents Tell All in DC: Paige Wheeler, Shannon O'Neill and Suzie Townsend

This weekend, I spoke at the American Independent Writers Conference in Washington, DC. The conference was a great, intense one-day event focused a lot on the business part of writing. One session I attended was the Fiction Agents Roundtable.

This weekend, I spoke at the American Independent Writers Conference in Washington, DC. The conference was a great, intense one-day event focused a lot on the business part of writing. One session I attended was the Fiction Agents Roundtable, featuring three literary agents: Paige Wheeler of Folio Literary Management, Shannon O’Neill of the Sagalyn Literary Agency, and Suzie Townsend of FinePrint Literary Management [now called New Leaf Literary]. Here are some of their tips and Q&A.

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Once you’ve decided to offer a writer representation, what is the process of how that works?

Shannon: There is no formulaic step-by-step process.

Suzie: Just because you get an offer from an agent doesn’t mean it’s the right match. Big question to ask the agent is: Are you editorially inclined and what edits did you have in mind? What is the vision? Same thing with an editor offering a deal—is the writer comfortable with vision for final product? Should you wait for a different deal?

How effective are conferences for finding agents?

Paige: You can use meeting us here as an “in” for your query. Concerning individual pitch sessions, she recognizes that writers can be nervous during pitches, so she is liberal in what she requests. Also, when your book is sold later, you need to start looking for blurbs. So network now (beforehand)! Befriend published authors at conferences. Come here to meet other writers to form a critique group.

Shannon: Business-related conferences are a great place to be. Craft conferences are a different beast—they are an investment of time and money.

If an agent requests pages from you at a conference, how soon should you send it?

Paige: Just don’t submit it and say “WAAAIT. Here is a better second version.”

Suzie: If stuff is requested, you do not have to respond right away—take several days, but do not wait months.

How can a writer improve the business relationship between himself and his agent?

Shannon: Ask questions. Make sure you’re on the same page. Be responsive—let your agent know if you are going away, or if work life is crazy right now, or if someone dies, so the agent knows you will be busy.

Paige: Be communicative, but not too communicative. She doesn’t want e-mails every week checking in.

Do agents counsel authors with promotional techniques such as using social media?

Suzie: Yes. But none of the agents at FinePrint are publicists. That is the responsibility of the author. The average professional publicist has 40 books and spends time on lead titles. Author must develop presence online and make connections and network and do their own things. Most authors do the bulk of publicity themselves.

Shannon: An author being eager to be a self-promoter is key. The key is energy, not necessarily savvy. If they’re engaged, enthusiastic, out there promoting through channels that they know about or will learn about—that’s what’s important. Be engaged; build a platform.

How many clients are full-time writers vs. day-job authors?

Paige: The number of female authors outweighs men in fiction, and, to guess, 75% of hers are full-time writers

Suzie: Yes: 75%.

Shannon: She handles a lot of men who do nonfiction, and those authors tend not to be stay-at-home, full-time writers.

What percentage of projects that you take on eventually sell?

Paige: Probably 7 of 10.

How do you pitch stories when face to face with agent?

Suzie: Start with introducing yourself. Try to be confident and not nervous because we’re just people. Passion and excitement is contagious. You are giving your pitch paragraph o the agent, not a chapter-by-chapter play-by-play. Who is the main character? What is tough choice they face? Don’t get into the side story? What are the consequences of the choice they make?

When interests and needs have changed, how do you break up with an agent?

Paige: Most often with this scenario, the author's and agent's interest depart. Author decides to go off in new direction and agent doesn’t rep that area. Sometimes, if their career isn’t going well, writers blame agents and editors. A proper step to take is to address that there are problems and perhaps the issues can first be discussed. Start with an e-mail and follow up with a phone call. How the relationship will be dissolved is in the agency retainer. But at the same time, agents talks, so if you approach Agent 2 to sign you, they may contact Agent 1 to inquire about about you.

Suzie: A lot of us know each other, so writers should be careful about how they conduct themselves.

With YA becoming popular, is there room in mainstream adult fiction for coming of age from the POV of a child?

Paige: It’s about the subject matter. Who would read the book? What is the language like?

Suzie: “Looking back” to adolescence usually fits more into adult. Don’t worry about the classification; worst case scenario: send it to both YA and adult and let the agents decide.

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