In Dreams Begin Responsibilities

I’ve stumbled across a few blog posts and tweets recently that have been both flattering and troubling. The posts come from writers who are either querying agents or preparing to query agents, and have very nicely named me as their “dream agent.” When I say “a few” posts I mean just that. I’m not implying I have legions of fans or anything. But a few posts – and really even if it was just one post – are too many. Here’s why.

Resting all of your hopes and dreams on one person is dangerous. This is true for life in general, but let’s stick with talking about publishing. If you’re a writer and you’re querying agents, you should have a healthy list of agents (say 10-20) whom you deem the best fit for your work. If they all say no, find 20 more. And if they all say no, OK well maybe you need to revise. The point is, there is never just one agent to query. The number of websites devoted to curating lists of literary agents is staggering, so no one with Internet access has an excuse for not doing research.

Here’s the thing: most manuscripts get rejected. On an average month, I receive roughly 400 queries. Of those 400, I request maybe 5-10 manuscripts. I won’t tell you how many of those requests turn into offers of representation because I don’t want to depress you too much. Let’s just say the odds aren’t exactly in your favor if for no other reason than I can’t read 400 manuscripts a month. That’s the beautiful thing about there being other qualified literary agents! What I don’t request, someone else might, and your chances of getting an agent increase. Building up one person out of many to pick your needle out of their haystack is absurd. What happens when your dream agent says “no thanks, this isn’t for me?” Do you give up because the dream is dead? Of course not. Saying “OK, on to the next one” – and not taking personal offense – should be your only logical course of action. 

What’s more troubling about the “dream agent” is that when I see writers use this phrase, whether about me or someone else, I worry it may be for more personal reasons than professional. The Internet has eliminated the great divide between Writer and Gatekeeper. Agents aren’t just mysterious figures in their New York City Ivory Towers who crush the dreams of writers at will. Now writers can see that we’re just regular people who love books and happen to have the right connections to get their books published by major publishers. This has been great for publishing for several reasons: Stronger relationships, built-in marketing networks, and being able to directly tell writers what I like and am looking for has made my slush pile a much more pleasant place to spend time. But, sometimes I worry the personal connections writers feel to certain agents can overshadow the real task at hand – selling books. Liking me on a personal level is great, but please research me on a professional level.

The agent-author relationship is first and foremost a business partnership. If you’re querying agents, writing is probably more than just a hobby for you. This is your career. It’s not something to take lightly or “pass off to a friend.” You should want a professional who will know exactly how to sell your work. Being liked is a nice feeling, and it lets me know the advice I give to the writing community on Twitter hasn’t gone unnoticed. But if you’re a writer seeking an agent, I hope you’re not just querying me because we both watch Doctor Who or because one time I made a joke you found funny. I have a good personal relationship with all of my clients, which I think enhances any business relationship, but that part of our relationship is a fun added bonus. I didn’t only love their books or think they were cool people – even though I did, and they are – I also knew I could help them get their work published.

Before querying, ask yourself the following questions:
– Is this agent taking on new clients?
– Does this agent represent my genre?
– Has this agent ever stated whether they specifically are or aren’t considering certain sub-genres?
– What type of success has this agent had with my genre specifically?
– What type of sales does this agent have overall? Will they have good connections even if my genre is new to them?
– What agency does this agent work for? Are they legit? What’s their reputation like in the industry?
– Does this agent share the same vision for my work that I have? If they don’t, why not?
– Will I get along with this agent on a personal level? Will this be an enjoyable relationship, as well as a successful business partnership?

You won’t know who your dream agent is until you receive that offer of representation and realize that someone saw something brilliant in your manuscript. If your pre-determined dream agent turns you down, then they weren’t the best fit to begin with. The person you need to work with is the person who needs to work with you. Don’t pretend this person exists before you even query them. Writing is hard enough, let alone querying. Take one solace where you can and know that your dream agent is out there, but it’s not up to you to decide who that is until he or she reads your work. They will come to you.

16 thoughts on “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities

  1. A second reason to not have a “dream agent” – say your dream agent is Jane Doe. You post on Twitter/Facebook/blogs that you really want to work with Jane Doe. But then Jane Doe turns you down, so you buck up and keep looking. Mary Smith loves your work, and is interested in offering representation, so she does some Googling – and finds out how much you really would rather have been working with Jane Doe instead. Now, it would be nice to say agents all get along and this wouldn't make a difference, but if Mary Smith thinks Jane Doe is rude/idiotic/unprofessional and you've talked a ton about how you'd work well with Jane Doe, do you think that will make Mary Smith more likely to offer to represent your work? I'm guessing not.


  2. Love this post, Sarah! I thought my agent was my “dream agent.” In fact, I called her, “AA” for Awesome Agent. When things didn't work out, I realized there is no such thing as a dream agent. It's a fantasy like “the perfect soul mate.” From that experience I learned two things: my work is “good enough” to get past the gatekeepers (which every writer seeking an agent wonders about), and finding an agent is similar to finding your “significant other.” Both parties need to be patient,accept each others' flaws, do what they say, and give their best effort.


  3. Highly enjoyable (and realistic) post. However, I want to say that it's your grip on reality combined with your professionalism that likely makes a few writers claim you as their “dream agent.”

    I read a LOT of agent and/or publishing blogs. Yours is refreshing because it's pragmatic without being jaded (believe me, as an ex-New Yorker, I KNOW jaded), and doesn't lose the magic of what it's all about -art- even though that art has to wear a wrapper called “business” at some point. Please keep that outlook! It will serve you well!

    Meanwhile, we writers will try to keep the paralell qualities…


  4. Okay, let me add my comment. You aren't my dream agent and it's a silly term for authors who never met you and never worked with you to think so. But I read your blog here and there for about a year now, and I found your posts about how to write YA fiction to be very useful. Your posts helped me to improve my two YA novels. I also follow your tweets, when I happen to be on twitter and see them, but they aren't useful as your posts because of shortage of space. I read your tweet that you were trying to write your own novel, and encouraged you to finish it. But it seems that you put it aside. There is nothing personal here, because for me the role of an agent is to monetize the client's novel as much as she can for the benefit of both. But following your posts how to write YA fiction I know that your many comments what and how to improve YA novels put you in a group of about thirty YA agents who will be good for my novel. But there is nothing dreamy about it, just a good fit for a partnership of an agent and her client. Being realistic, I don't expect you to be my agent but I thank you for your posts about how to write. Best wishes in everything.


  5. As I read this post I thought about my single friends who have created a 'Mr. Right' no every day guy can compete with–he's too young, too poor, too… The fact is you have to be open to opportunity in whatever suit he's wearing. Thank you for this post. I've shared it with my social network.


  6. As much as I enjoy reading the excerpts you post, I enjoy these types of entries even more. It's nice to get an inside view on things. Thanks for the insight!


  7. Well done – particularly your take on the end of a past publishing era: no more gatekeepers. When I got my first lit agent in NYC back in the early 80s it truly did feel like I'd attained my ivory tower of heaven. But as they say, “scratch an author and you'll find an agent story…” There's no such thing as a dream agent: I totally agree. There's perseverance, luck, and perhaps talent. Now it's up to readers more than gatekeepers to determine who's worth reading. Thank goodness for independent publishing!


  8. I'd never thought of the “stalkery” quality of the term “dream agent”, but now I do. I think some queriers use it because they see the term used a lot, and maybe even think it's required. But after what happened to agent Pam Van Hylckama Vlieg–being attacked by a rejected writer who thought she “owed” him in some way–things have changed a bit. I'll suggest to my readers that “dream agent” is a term that should be retired.


  9. Don't worry, Austin. You can be the inspiration behind my next post, “How to Successfully Stalk a Literary Agent Without Getting Arrested.” Actually, that's not a bad idea for a post…


  10. Gulp. I hope I didn't inspire this post. Of the four agents I queried two weeks ago, you just happened to be in my city. So I snuck in to see you like the creeper I apparently am. And now here I am lurking on your blog. Excellent.

    Anyway, a good post and sound advice. Multiple baskets for your eggs and all that.


  11. I'm pretty certain I've never heard of the people I will end up working with one day. That's just how life works. (“Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans.”) Good post.


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