Does size matter?

Dearly beloved:

Today, I am resuming my series of posts on agencies with a discussion on the merits of big ones vs. small ones. I am certainly not the first to write on this topic, nor, I suspect, the last. Writers’ periodicals seem to have an especial fondness for the issue, so much so that I sometimes wonder if a visiting alien picking up a writers’ magazine would not automatically assume that every writer in America chooses representation based upon size alone.

It’s a big country, the alien might reason. They like EVERYTHING big.

However, a big agency is not necessarily the right choice for everybody. As the client of a large agency, you do enjoy many benefits: the prestige of signing with a recognized name, more support staff to answer your questions (or not), and often more collective experience upon which you can draw. Just as with a well-known agent, you are working with a known quantity, with verifiable connections.

With a new agency or new agent, it can be hard to assess connection claims until a track record of sales has been established. Sometimes, the hungry can be excellent gambles — if your book sells quickly and/or well, you can be the favorite steed in the shiny, new stable. Before that (and often after), a hungry agent often offers services that a bigger agency or a busier agent might not provide. Extensive free editing, for instance. (If you missed yesterday’s post on fee-charging agents, read it before you discount the value of such an offer.) Intensive coaching through rewrites. Bolstering the always-tenuous authorial ego. If you are a writer who wants a lot of personal attention from an agent, the less busy agent might well be the way to go.

Remember the question I asked a few posts ago: what do you want from your agent? Consider very, very carefully how important personal contact is to you, because if this relationship works out, you will be living with your decision for a very long time. Will you go nuts if a month goes by silently while an editor has your manuscript? Would you be happy with the occasional e-mail to answer your questions or keep you updated, or would you prefer telephone calls. Do you want to hear the feedback of editors who have rejected your work, so you can revise accordingly, or would you rather get through as many submissions as quickly as possible? All of these are very much dependent upon how busy the agent is, and what kind of demands the agency places upon her time.

Generally speaking, the bigger the agency, the busier the agent, which can seem a bit counter-intuitive. Big agencies have greater resources for support staff, whereas in a small agency (or with a stand-alone agent) the agents may be doing support work as well; it would make sense if the small agency agents were busier. However, nowhere is the old adage “tasks expand in direct proportion to the time available to perform them more evident than in the publishing industry: as an agent becomes more important, he takes on more clients. Big equals powerful here.

There are exceptions to this rule, of course. A few “boutique agencies” that deliberately keep themselves small in order to occupy a very specific niche, but it is rare. There’s no missing these agencies — they ALWAYS identify themselves as boutique in their blurbs, lest anyone mistakenly think that they were small because they were unsuccessful. Often, they sharply limit the proportion of unpublished writers that they will represent, or do not represent the unpublished at all. They do, however, tend to lavish attention upon the few they select.

As do, admittedly, some agents at major agencies, but do bear in mind that no matter who represents you, no matter how much your agent loves your work, you will be only ONE of the authors on the agent’s list. Time is not infinitely flexible, despite anyone’s best intentions. Before you commit to a big agency or a major agent, ask yourself: do I really want to be someone’s 101rst client?

This sounds like a flippant question, but actually, it is a very practical one, and one that speaks very directly to your personal level of security about your work. Big agencies and important agents have made their names, generally speaking, on high-ticket clients; often, that high-recognition client is why aspiring writers covet their representation skills. However, it takes time to cater to a bigwig client: I once had a lovely chat with a past president of AAR who handled one of the biggest mystery writers in the biz; apart from handling her book negotiations, he told me, he also spent a week a year with her in a mountain retreat — not skiing, but micro-editing her next work to make its market appeal as broad as possible.

Before you float off into fantasies about being successful enough to command your own personal slave editor and/or mountain lodge, stop and think about the implications of being one of this agent’s OTHER clients. That’s a week a year when he is not available to pay even the vaguest attention to the needs of Clients 2 – 143. So who do you think ends up handling those other clients’ concerns? That’s right: not the bigwig agent at all, but his I’m-working-my-way-up-the-ladder assistant. Who, I have it on reliable authority, is somewhat overworked.

Which raises an interesting question: if a writer is actually dealing most of the time with the agent’s assistant, rather than the agent, with whom is the long-term, mutually beneficial interaction occurring?

Still, you cannot deny the appeal of the contacts and oomph of a big agency, even if you are not represented by the most important agent in it. Personally, I am represented by a big agency, one that handles more than 300 clients (and very well, too, in my opinion). How much of a difference does it make, on a practical level? Well, do you remember last month, when I was talking about how ALL nonfiction book proposals are presented to agents and editors in conservative dark blue or black folders, because a unique presentation is generally regarded as an indicator of a lack of professionalism?

My agency is influential enough to present its clients’ proposals in GRAY folders.

Yes, yes, I am very lucky, and people in the industry recognize that. When I was deciding between agents, I attended a small writers’ conference in Montana, one of those gloriously intimate ones where perhaps only one agent attends, but you can talk with her for an hour. Since I already had several irons on the fire, I did not approach the agent du jour, except to introduce a writer who I thought would interest her (I’m notorious for doing this; writers are often too shy to introduce themselves). By the end of the conference, the agent had heard that I’d won the PNWA award, and her curiosity piqued, she sought me out to see if I had signed with anyone yet. A couple of minutes into her pitch, I mentioned who I was deciding between, and the agent instantly deflated. “Oh,” she said. “We’re talking THAT league.”

As I said, I have been very lucky: winning the PNWA contest got me a hearing with many agents in THAT league. (In the unlikely event that I am being too subtle here: ENTER THE CONTEST!) I have also been lucky in that while I enjoy the benefits of a large agency, my agent has the time to answer my questions and talk with me about my future and current writing: whether our quite-frequent contact is primarily the result of our respectively scintillating personalities or the roller-coaster ride my memoir has been taking on the way to publication, I leave you to speculate. I suspect that I am taking up disproportionate amounts of her time, amongst her many clients, and am writing furiously on my next book to make it worth her while.

Which brings me back to a point I made a few postings ago: it honestly is a good idea to try to get some sense of who your agent is, beyond the cold statistics of her clients’ sales, before you sign. You don’t have to attend very many conferences before you meet your first hungry new agent, willing to promise the moon, nor to meet your first 100-client bigwig. There are a lot of alternatives in between, but the only way you are going to find your best fit is to give some hard thought to what you want and ask good questions until you figure out if the agent who wants you is in fact the best choice for you and your work.

In my next post, I shall talk about how to decide which agents to approach, beyond simply opening up a standard agent guide at random, sticking a pin in a page, and querying the agency with a hole in its description. Like most parts of the long endurance test that leads to publication, there are a few shortcuts I think you should know.

In the meantime, have a lovely weekend, and as always, keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

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