Stewarding Your Career and Your Agent

Good agents take the privilege of shepherding authors and projects very seriously. We’re hugely selective and typically only make a “yes” decision on a client if we love (not just like) their project, and then see them as a good potential relational fit.  Life is too short to work with people if they’re demanding or mean…no matter what the potential payoff.

But make no mistake, agents work FOR their authors, not the other way around. Yet with the lightning-fast changes in publishing still happening, nearly every agent I know is telling me, “It feels like I’m working harder than I ever have before, and still closing fewer—and smaller—deals.”

Welcome to the new normal in publishing.

What this means for the client/author is potentially less time interacting with their agent because the agent is trying to stay in business. What’s an author to do in this new normal to make sure their own projects still receive a high level of attention?

  1. Take more control of your career.  The path to finding readers has never been clearer—or more time-consuming. “Get involved with Facebook Fan Pages, blogging, tweeting, Google+, YouTube, Pinterest, and networking with other authors (such as this Water Cooler),” is the familiar mantra from publishers and agents alike.  In this new world where social media IS the most influential advertising resource,  if you’re not selling books and finding new readers, it’s no longer your publisher’s (or agent’s) fault.  If you don’t feel you can come to play in marketing your own creative blood, sweat and tears, don’t even ponder a career as a writer. Look in the mirror: You are your publisher’s best PR agent.
  2. Craft, craft, craft. I tell new novelists that I don’t want to see their manuscript until 5 to 10 “non friends and family” have read and critically appraised their work.  I’d rather authors take a full year to rewrite their manuscripts than almost anything else.  If you write nonfiction and you have a strong message and a good regional platform, then be relentless on making every paragraph zing. Don’ tell me “it picks up in chapter three.” It better engage me from paragraph one or you’ll be getting the dreaded “not for me” letter. If you’re a seasoned writer, be diligent in making your prose as professional and engaging as possible.   Constantly read books on writing craft; find a mentor or critique group. Be a lifelong learner on writing well and you’ll have a good chance at being a lifelong author.

Along with taking control of your own career and staying committed to the craft, here’s how to help your agent help you.

  1. Respect his or her time.  Since you want them to stay in business, bunch questions for a once-a-week email.  If possible, use clear bullet points with clear simple questions to make it easy for us to see and answer, rather than lots of loaded, dense text.  Mondays are good. If your questions are more complex, better to talk by phone than email.  But do set a phone appointment (by email) instead of calling with hope that we will answer.  The agent is there to serve you, very true, but time is the coin of the realm. Be judicious in how you spend their precious minutes and hours because ultimately you want us out there pitching your projects!
  2. Press the panic button. I spend a good portion of my week fighting fires for authors. Bad covers, wrong titles, heavy-handed editors, proposals that MUST be out the door this week, family or personal crisis…all of these and more are what I’m here for.  When you really need me to jump on something or lend an ear, this is absolutely what I want to do. Don’t hesitate to pick up the phone or send me a “call me ASAP” email.  You’re not “bothering me” (ever); I work for you and love (almost) every minute.
  3. Pray. It’s not trite, it’s essential. Really. If I’m distracted, off task, ill or in a personal crisis myself, what am I not doing? I’m not tending to the details of what I should be doing for you. The very thing I want to do most is often what the enemy doesn’t want me to accomplish. I need to stay spiritually sharp and steady for you to feel fully supported.  And I’m not bashful to say I need your help in doing it. I covet and appreciate your prayers for me, my work and family.  I also love to pray for you, so never hesitate to zip me a prayer request during a rough patch.
  4. Share the goodies!  I love hearing how your work has impacted others in the world, or a great opportunity that has come up for you to share your book.  Forward me one or two of your best notes from readers every month and any news that is exciting to you concerning the marketing of your project.  We love to hear how the end result, your book, is impacting the world.  It is why we do what we do.

What more can you do to serve your own career? How would you feel even more supported by your agent?

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24 thoughts on “Stewarding Your Career and Your Agent

  1. Thanks Greg. This is helpful. I like the suggestion of using bullets in an email. Will definitely try that.

  2. Very enlighting practical advise from a very respected Literary Agent. While Facebook, twitter are important marketing tools authors are better in writing than book selling. Do we want novelist to write novels or write blogs? As LA wants to wisely use their time to get contracts, authors’ time is too valuable not to use in writing. I believe a good book will find its way to the readers heart not by human design but by eternal divine.

  3. What Christian writers have in common is our desire to write the words He wants us to write.

    #1 Prayer was certainly in the forefront when Barbara Scott started discussing the possibility of bringing me under the guidance of the WordServe wing.

    #2 Appreciated the words “I’d rather authors take a full year to rewrite their manuscripts [if necessary].” Granted we all want to produce our best work in a timely manor. But just knowing that the agency realizes that at times and for certain stories it might take a bit longer. . . is reassuring.

    #3 Found this a scary thought : Look in the mirror: You are your publisher’s best PR agent.

    Lord help us not to try to be someone other than who you want us to be. And help us to give our best for You. . . Amen

  4. Thank you for very much for the pointers in this post, very helpful.

    I agree that authors nowadays need to be in tune with social media, but there are just TOO MANY social media outlets out there. You named what, at least SIX different ones in your blog. I consider myself fairly smart (I hope), and being a bank RVP, highly organized, but even this sense of organization can’t keep up with the social hype.

    I need to write.

    And I agree we should have a presence online, but writing a book with a dynamite structure and story should be a writer’s focus, not writing dynamite blogs. True, authors are expected to play a hand in marketing their books, and when the time comes, they may need to shell out from their own pockets for publicists and marketers. Just for the record, I am subscribed to all the above social sites but feel they are more useful once a book is published.

    My two cents.

    • I really agree with this. I’m sorry if the post gave the thought you had to do ALL of the social media possibilities. One or two is likely the limit during the writing process. But when it’s time to promote, especially a first book, an author’s job really is to maximize their reach and build their tribes. Once a book has been accepted, you typically will have about 9 to 12 months before the book is published; plenty of time to build a solid presence and network yourself among other authors and potential fans. The key point is having a strong base to give an agent something to leverage as he/she is pitching your book.

  5. Great post, Greg. Love the idea of the two way prayer. I never thought to ask you to pray for me!

    • Well, I certainly don’t consider myself a prayer warrior by any stretch, but I seem to do a lot of it these days.

  6. When I attended a writers’ conference last August (Greater Philadelphia Christian Writers Conference), I signed up for an equal mix of marketing and craft workshops. I was attempting to enter a new world, and I knew I had much to learn. But first, I had to overcome my queasiness about marketing myself. It seemed contrary to Christian humility. It was very helpful to hear what agents and editors had to say about the importance of marketing in proclaiming the message God has given me, as you have just stated so well, Greg. Since then, I’ve been working hard on this—taking control of my career as I pray for the Lord to open the doors. He’s the one who takes all my efforts and uses them to produce the results he wants, both in my life and in the lives of the people I reach.

    First, I revised my manuscript from front to back before attempting my querying process again—I didn’t take an entire year, as you mentioned, but more than half the year. Craft, craft, craft. I hope I’ve hit the mark this time. Pushing my writing toward ever more excellence is the top priority. At the same time, I got my blog up and running and am posting on it at least once a week. I branched out and submitted to inspirational publications, rather than only focusing on fiction (I’ll be published by David C. Cook in “Power for Living” this September)—this broadens my market.

    I knew I needed help, so I also began working with a career mentor: Patricia Durgin of The Tip Tracy Academy (http://tiptracy.com/). Patricia is helping me to sort out “the purple thread” that runs through my entire life, so I can recognize what motivates, inspires, and drives everything I do in my ministry and in my writing. Her process helped me to hone in on why I do what I do, allowing me to focus my work like a laser beam. I can now discern which projects to accept and which to reject. Currently, I am aiming toward the purchase of a domain name. We’re working on my tagline, logo, graphics, etc.; so I can build a more professional site. I’m now writing the “About Me” and “Credentials” pages—all of that content that will need to be in place when the site goes up.

    I’m also connecting more with other writers through sites like this. Next, I’m tackling Twitter. I have a teenager, so that should help. 🙂 Recently, WordServe had a great posting that will help me navigate my way through that.

    This site has been very helpful. Great ideas are shared every day. I’m throwing all of my energies at learning to market myself and my ministry of writing and speaking. At first it was daunting and confusing; but I feel like I’m less clueless now. I think I’m beginning to learn the ropes.

  7. Thanks for the great advice, Greg! You confirmed the importance social networking—sometimes I worry that I spend too much time there. You also clarified some expectations for me, as a nonfiction writer, to “have a strong message and a good regional platform, then be relentless on making every paragraph zing.”

    “I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Phil. 1:3-6 TNIV).

  8. I enjoyed your post, Greg! Some great ways to maximize ourselves and our books. Thanks!

    I think these are exciting times for Christian authors and agents. Christians authors who have Christian agents are especially blessed because they have God’s leading on all sides.

    May God’s favor continue to lift you and cover WordServe Literary and its great representatives!

  9. “If you don’t feel you can come to play in marketing your own creative blood, sweat and tears, don’t even ponder a career as a writer.” This was something I definitely had to come to terms with last year as I talked with a publisher about my debut novel. Like many writers, I’m the quiet type that prefers to keep to myself. But as I prayed through it, and continue to pray through the marketing journey, God faithfully shows the next step on the path.

    Thanks for the great post reiterating some things I’ve learned in other places and giving me an agent’s view of what they need.

    • Thanks for saying that, Carrie. I’m not as far along as you, and this year I’m grappling with the whys and hows of marketing (as my lengthy “little” post above shows). Those are good words. I do a lot of crying, praying, and falling on my face. There are days I have to retreat to my cave and have Jesus put me back together.

  10. Greg, Good points and well-made. It’s really a partnership, even though some authors (myself included) sometimes wonder who’s working for whom. The fact of the matter is that we’re all working–in our own way–for God. And that’s what counts.
    I appreciate your sharing.

  11. “I tell new novelists that I don’t want to see their manuscript until 5 to 10 “non friends and family” have read and critically appraised their work. ”

    I don’t know, maybe I’ve just had bad luck, but I’ve never had beta readers follow through with their commitments. Almost never, not even when it’s a reciprocal arrangement with a fellow author and I read their book and give detailed comments. I’m quite bummed out about it.

    My current completed novel is a good example. Last October I solicited beta readers via e-mail and Facebook, and asked for comments in a month (for an 87,000 word contemporary novel). I proposed this deadline because of prior awful responses from beta readers. Fourteen people responded saying they would love to read the book and provide comments. Exactly three have responded at all (a nephew, a cousin, and a high school/college buddy). Two of those three gave comments on the full novel, one on the first part only. 3 our of 14—or rather 2.5 our of 14. And according to your comment, none of them actually count toward the 5 to 10 you want. One writer I know only through the Internet gave me some general “love it” type comments, perhaps regarding the first third of the novel, but I don’t imagine that counts either.

    I guess I won’t be submitting anything to this agency any time soon.

    How are people finding non friend and family to read their books, and having them follow through without harranging them? Don’t say a writing group. I’m in one of those, and it will take three years to get through it.

      • Rashad:

        I’ve written one New Testament-era novel, and have some other lined up on ancient church history, but don’t anticipate working on those for a couple of years. I have other fiction recently completed and soon to begin, and a number of non-fiction works to complete before stepping back in time.

        Ma’assalamah,
        Daoud Al Fred

    • I feel for you David, have similar dilemma with a writers group. Most writers live in their world. Pray just for one partner.

      Blessings,

      Ed Shafik

    • This is no doubt a pretty good size dilemma. I think offering people more choices might be the way to go. “I’m looking for folks to read the first 75 page as a well as a few to read the whole novel.” This might be a better idea. More doable on the front end. They can always keep reading if they want. But if they don’t want, there’s your clue. Reading a page turning novel is not a problem. Reading a novel that may feel like you’re slogging through it or it’s uninteresting may be the real dilemma. If people don’t finish a novel, there’s a reason (perhaps).

  12. “If you don’t feel you can come to play in marketing your own creative blood, sweat and tears, don’t even ponder a career as a writer.”

    The fact that writing is an art can muddy the waters when it comes to business, but at least our marketing efforts employ our creativity.

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