April 25th to May 1st: “What’s the single most important thing your agent does for you?”

Join us for a thrilling discussion next week as ITW Members Karen Dionne, Carla Buckley and Chevy Stevens answer the question: “What’s the single most important thing your agent does for you?” It’s a thrilling, can’t-miss discussion and it’s all right here!

Detroit native Karen Dionne is the internationally published author of two environmental thrillers, Freezing Point and Boiling Point. She serves on the International Thriller Writers board of directors as Vice President, Technology, and is co-founder of the online writers community Backspace, where she organizes the Backspace Writers Conferences held every May in New York City. Karen is also a member of Sisters in Crime and the Mystery Writers of America.

Carla Buckley is the debut author of The Things That Keep Us Here. She has worked in a variety of jobs, including a stint as an assistant press secretary for a U.S. senator, an analyst with the Smithsonian Institution, and a technical writer for the Tomahawk Missile System. Named a Thurber House “New Voice in Fiction,” Carla chairs the International Thriller Writers Debut Program, and lives in Ohio with her husband, children, and two dogs. Bantam Dell will publish Carla’s next book, Invisible, in 2012.

Chevy Stevens grew up on a ranch on Vancouver Island and still calls the island home. For most of her adult life she worked in sales and then as a Realtor. At open houses, waiting between potential buyers, she spent hours scaring herself with thoughts of horrible things that could happen to her. Her most terrifying scenario, which began with being abducted, was the inspiration for STILL MISSING. When she’s not working on her next book, she’s hiking with her husband and dog in the local mountains.

  1. When I first saw this question on the list of upcoming Roundtable discussion topics, I jumped at the chance to sign up. I’ve been with my agent for a dozen years, and I’ll grab any opportunity to sing his praises. (http://sisters-in-crime-sinc.blogspot.com/2010/12/how-i-found-my-agent.html)

    But when it came time to actually answer the question, I realized it was going to be difficult to choose just one item as the most important thing my agent does for me, because it’s a VERY long list.

    However, I think it can be summed up in this: My agent has invested in my career.

    My agent acts as my first editor – not only for my novels, but for any writing I’d like him to take a look at: a short story, op-eds, a pitch letter to a magazine. He cheers my successes, comes to my book events when he’s able, offers writing and promo advice, and gives it to me straight when he thinks I’m going off course.

    Aside from me, no one other than my agent is more invested in seeing my writing career grow and prosper. I know a lot of writers question the need for an agent, particularly in regard to electronic self-publishing, but I know for a fact that I wouldn’t be where I am now without him.

  2. Of the many qualities that I most appreciate and admire in my agent, one rises to the top as the single most important quality to me. It’s something she showed from the very beginning, and continues to show today through every step of the writing process: she gives great feedback.

    Five million years ago, when I set out on my Great Agent Hunt, I bought all the books listing literary agents, asked writer friends for recommendations, and searched the acknowledgments pages of books by my favorite authors. I built a long list of possible names and sent out dozens of queries (Yes, by snail mail. I told you this was five million years ago.)

    I got rejections, acceptances, and a few “if you change thises.” Out of all of them, one agent stood out by explaining very clearly why she had to pass on the project I was submitting. The points she made resonated with my own concerns about that manuscript, and I decided to put that book aside and start another. It took two more completed manuscripts before I got The Call from her, and we’ve been working together ever since.

    My agent reads everything I produce, from concept to completion (no matter how many times I revise), and weighs in with thoughtful input that makes me work hard and dig deep, and that’s the kind of work I want to produce. She also sends me chocolate, but it’s her experienced and critical eye that I most appreciate.

    Don’t tell her, though. I do love chocolate.

  3. When I read that today’s roundtable’s topic was going to be on our agents, I thought it was going to be a breeze: I love my agent! But when I sat down to focus on the actual question, “What’s the single most important thing your agent does for you?” I realized it was going be a little harder to zero in on one particular category. Mainly because other than the actual specific tasks like securing a sale, negotiating contracts, protecting my rights, providing story input, brainstorming, and many more there’s the invaluable feeling of support that I get from working with my agent. I know he’s in my corner.

    In addition to being a great support system, I also view my agent as a mentor. He’s taught me so much about the industry, about patience (I don’t have any!), and frankly, he’s taught me a lot about life. When I’m panicking (frequently!) he’s the steady voice in the storm. He always gets back to me within the same day, usually within minutes, which is incredibly important to me. In the day to day craziness of publishing, knowing that I have someone I can count on—and trust— makes the rest of my life easier.

    1. Yes, that level of responsiveness is so important in a good agent-author relationship. I don’t know how my agent does it, because I know I’m not his only client, but he always makes me feel as though I am.

      1. A little more on this – One of my agent’s other clients just posted a link on Facebook to a clip from his interview on yesterday’s CBS Sunday morning – the same Sunday morning on which I sent my agent a link to a great review of my short story in ITW’s FIRST THRILLS anthology. His response was immediate and enthusiastic, and made me feel like mine was the biggest accomplishment in the world – even though he was probably watching his NYTimes bestselling cient’s major television interview at that exact time. That’s what I’m talking about!

  4. Exactly! It amazes me how fast he manages to answers all my questions. I never feel that I’m “just one of many.” And he has a great sense of humour. But I think you need that to deal with writers! It has made me realize, though, how responsiveness is something that I really value in life. I hate being kept in the dark! I’ve heard of other authors who struggle to get hold of their agents, or are left feeling like they are chasing them down.

    I know there is also a frequent debate from some authors as to whether you really need an agent. Everyone has to find their own path, and do what works for them, but I absolutely know that my debut year would have been a different story without my agent guiding me through. And maybe it’s because I come from a real estate background, but I know that agents, real estate and literary, are usually able to negotatiate a far stronger deal than you would have been able to secure on your own. And on the literary side of things, there’s the matter of foreign deals. I think it would be a nightmare without an agent handling the negotiations. People don’t realize how much paperwork is involved.

    But now that I know Carla’s agent sends chocolate, I might have to do a little negotiating with mine 🙂 Though, truth be told, I think I owe him a few boxes for the amount of emails the poor man has to weed through. Ofen along the lines of, ” Have you heard anything? No? What about now? No? Okay, how about NOW?”

  5. Funny, Chevy! I am willing to share. Do you prefer dark or milk chocolate?

    Both you and Karen raise an interesting point, about whether or not authors need agents. I’ve heard a few success stories of writers who broke through utterly on their own (including an amazing one from a friend of mine who successfully signed a two book contract without benefit of an agent) but the vast majority of writers I know have agents and wouldn’t consider going it alone.

  6. I like milk and white chocolate ): But send it all and I’ll let you know!

    I’m always happy when I hear that something worked for someone, but I’d never go it alone. That would mean that I’d have myself as a client. Eek!

  7. Great discussion! Hi Chevy! Hi Karen! Nice to meet you, Carla. 🙂 The more authors I get to know, the more I realize that while there are similarities between agents and agent/writer relationships, each one is slightly different.

    I’d like to chime in to add the “no agent is better than the wrong agent” line. I’ve heard this line quoted often with “bad” instead of “wrong” — and that’s true, too… but from personal experience, it’s possible to have a good agent who’s not right for you… Good in that they’ve sold lots of other authors’ books and their other clients are happy, but something isn’t quite clicking for you. That’s a hard position to be in.

    I’m on agent #2 and so far what I love most about my agent is how much he loves my work. I need a champion in my corner. Someone who feeds my dreams and not my fears or insecurities. I’m a master at feeding my fears on my own.

  8. Hi Maureen,

    Excellent point. I had another agent, too, before my current agent, and though my first agent’s intentions were always the best, she could never deliver on them. It was hard to let her go. How was the process for you?

    1. It was tough! I really liked her a lot which made it way more difficult. In the subjective and personal world of publishing, sometimes it’s hard to keep things all about business. (Well, impossible for me.)

  9. Hey Maureen–

    Thanks for coming by! I remember when you were trying to come to that decision, and I know it wasn’t an easy one. It’s interesting to me the relationships authors form, with their editors as well. It’s not unlike dating, really. Each has their own set of needs and hopefully they match, but sometimes, through no fault of either party, it’s just not there.

    And when you’re first starting out, just landing an agent can seem like such a daunting task ( and it is), the idea of letting one go to step out into the great unknown, is a truly terrifying prospect. But that was a great point you made, about feeling like your agent is your champion. It’s really important. For me, my agent was the first professional in the industry to tell me I had any talent. He also worked with me for a few months on revisions before we ever submitted to anyone. I trust his feedback, but he also trusts me as a writer.

  10. My agent’ (MIchelle Grajkowski of 3 Seas Literary) is all-business when she needs to be, but she’s spent her career growing and nurturing creative talent. And the number one piece of advice she gives me (besides, “Get back to work!”) is to write the story I want to write. Write what moves me. Write what I can’t NOT write.

    Since I’ve been a genre author and she’s been with me from before I published my first book, that’s a pretty bold statement. There are certain reader expectations to meet (whether my WIP is a romance, suspense, or fantasy). But she knows that if I’m not moved by what I’m writing, if it doesn’t consume my imagination and dying to know what happens next the way I need my readers to be, it doesn’t work.

    The best way not to burn out your career, whatever your audience–Write what moves you. And when you’re done with that book, write the next story that your mind won’t let go of until you get it down on paper…

  11. I have a theory about authors and agents that goes like this:

    Authors write passionately on the subjects they care about most. Their writing also reflects their personality. Tender and romantic, sly and witty, acerbic and cynical, who they are, what they believe, and their approach to life all come through in their work.

    When an agent asks to represent an author, ostensibly, it’s because they’ve fallen in love with the author’s story. But I maintain that because the author’s work is so intrinsically a part of them, in a literary sense, the agent has actually fallen in love with the author.

    It’s no coincidence that the agent-author relationship is often likened to a marriage. When two people love each other, they understand each other. Trust each other. Work well together. Agree 99% of the time. I know many authors who say they love their agent. I most certainly adore mine.

  12. All this is great, but come on, tell us: Where do your agents take you for dinner? 🙂

    1. Ha – the last time I was in New York, my agent *did* take me to dinner at a nice steak house (my choice of restaurant; for most of my married life we’ve been financially strapped, and I never learned how to cook a good steak since I couldn’t afford to buy one and possibly ruin it). As we were being seated, he told the hostess, “This is the world-famous author, Karen Dionne.” Not a shred of truth to that, of course, but it was great fun to pretend with him for just that moment that I was!

      So I guess to the list of things my agent does for me you could add that occasionally, he strokes my ego. 🙂

      1. Great story, Karen. Based on your story below, I’d say you worked hard enough to EARN that steak AND the ego stroke! 🙂

  13. And while we’re on the subject of agents, I thought it might be fun to share our “how I got my agent” stories. Here’s mine:

    My “How I Found My Agent” story is one of those rare cases in which the author does everything wrong, but things still turn out right.

    The things I did wrong:

    Mistake #1. I was querying agents with my first draft.

    Mistake #2. I didn’t check agents’ reputations at sites like Writer Beware (www.writerbeware.com) and Preditors and Editors (http://pred-ed.com/), and thus queried agents I later learned were scammers.

    Mistake #3. I waited six months for an agency to make a decision on representation before querying other agents.

    Despite those mistakes — any one of which could have been enough to ruin my chances (and should have, in the case of Mistake #1) — after querying 53 agents, I signed with Jeff Kleinman (then of Graybill & English, now one of the principals of Folio Literary Management). How did this come about?

    After the agency mentioned in Mistake #3 finally passed, in February 2009, I decided to give these new-fangled “e-queries” a try and emailed 19 agents on an optimistic Thursday morning. Within the hour, I had two requests for the full. One agent’s email began, “Dear Ms. Dionne: I would be pleased to consider your novel.” The email from Jeff began, “Dear Ms. Dionne: Your novel sounds wonderful!”

    At the time, I didn’t know anything about Jeff (see Mistake #2), but I loved Jeff’s enthusiastic response. I printed the manuscript per his instructions and sent it off. The following Monday evening, I received an email. Mr. Kleinman had begun reading the manuscript as soon as it arrived, but the manuscript was running into some snags. (See Mistake #1.) Would I call him the next day at my convenience?

    I fretted all night. Is a snag bigger than a problem? I wondered. He said “snags” plural. Does that mean there’s more than one? If you’re a writer, you know the drill.

    I called the next morning at 9:00. Jeff assured me he loved my novel’s premise, and thought my writing was strong. The plotting, however, was a mess. As he explained where I’d gone wrong, it quickly became apparent that he was being charitable when he called the problems “snags.” However, I knew immediately that he was right. So when Jeff said he wanted to take me on as a client if I was willing to rewrite the book in line with our discussion, I immediately said yes.

    It was a bittersweet moment. I’d gone from having a book but no agent to having an agent but no book. However, I now knew what I needed to do and couldn’t wait to dive in.

    But it was early days for me. I still had to learn how to write a novel. Jeff has a marvelous editorial eye but, even with his help, it took me three and a half years and three rewrites to finish.

    Ultimately, that novel didn’t sell. But eight years later (yes, you read that right — eight years!) the next novel did and, lucky me, so did the next. Boiling Point, my second environmental thriller — about an erupting volcano, a missing researcher and a radical scheme to end global warming — was published by Berkley on December 28.

    And, yes, I’m still with Jeff!

  14. This is a fantastic discussion! Thanks for the great sharing!

    Regarding “Mistake #1. I was querying agents with my first draft.” How do you know when your manuscript is ready for the light of day? Is this a “when it feels right” kind of thing? Or do you hire your own editor and incorporate their suggestions first?


    P.S. Hullo Maureen!!! Hullo Chevy!!!

  15. Hi Ken.

    I think everyone has their own take on that, but I believe it’s always a good idea to get some feedback, whether that be a critique group or partner, or a freelance editor.


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