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Losing Out on a Hot Commodity

Wonderful agent Kristin Nelson took on an interesting topic a few months ago on her blog. She talked about feeling like some of her recent offers of representation have felt more like entries into a bidding war. I’ve felt the same way, as I mentioned in a post last week. The last six months, when I’ve offered rep, the author almost always already had other interest or got other interest after my offer. (I read very quickly when I’m interested and tend to be the first to offer. This is sometimes a good thing, sometimes a bad thing.) Most of the contests I’ve been involved in have been me and two, three, sometimes even five or six other agents. All fighting for the same happy-but-overwhelmed author.

Sounds like a dream scenario, right? Well, not for the agent, obviously, but not for the author, either. They’re stuck making a very important business decision between people who all love their book, who are all good at their jobs, and who are all trying to be persuasive. It’s stressful (I say that having been on the writer end of this situation myself in the past, with six offers blurring on the table in front of me).

I’ve been in this situation a handful times in the last six months or so. I recently saw two of the books I’d offered on announced as sales in Publisher’s Marketplace, under other agents’ names. I was happy for the authors and I love the books, obviously, but gosh darn, I sure wish I could’ve been the happy agent listing those deals. I’m not whining about losing out on these manuscripts at all, and it’s not sour grapes. The author went with the best fit for them and that, at the end of the day, is the best possible thing for everyone involved. The clients I get and the books I sell all happen for a reason. And I do genuinely mean it when I tell the authors who go elsewhere that I look forward to reading about a huge sale in PM.

But for me, there are other issues at play here, other than, “Gee, I wish I’d gotten that one!” Being the first to offer (usually) and being myself and losing makes me wonder what types of things the other agents are saying that tip the scales in their favor. The last thing I want to do is to disparage any of my brilliant and hard-working agent colleagues, at my agency and outside of it. But there are different agenting styles, and I wonder if my particular agenting style isn’t serving me in this regard. Follow my train of thought a moment…

I pride myself on being a very realistic person. In my line of work, I do a lot of “managing expectations” and I practice a lot of cautious optimism. Lots of writers think they have the next HARRY POTTER meets TWILIGHT on their hard drives. Runaway bestsellers like that are very rare, and they can’t be manufactured. Of course I want all of my clients to do well and to make a living at their writing. And I’d love a runaway bestseller (who wouldn’t!). But I’m also realistic (some might say skeptical).

When I offer representation, I don’t make big promises. Of course I love the book. And of course I think I can sell it to a great editor. And of course I’m an editorial agent with ideas for how the manuscript could be even stronger. Otherwise, I would have no business offering representation. It isn’t my job to gush over a book or tell the author how brilliant they are (though I often do). It’s my job to sell that book. So if I think I can do my job, I offer representation. But I also caution the writer that there are no guarantees. And that agents aren’t a magic bullet. Besides, I offer for the long term. I’d love to sell the first book but, if it doesn’t happen to sell, I know there will be another manuscript, or another, to try with. I’m a very longview type of person, which plays into my agenting style.

What I don’t do is offer the author any sure bets, tantalizing dreams of big sales or tasty foreign rights possibilities. “This’ll be a movie, dahling, starring Robert Pattison. I’m already casting it in my head!” is a very LA way to go about the whole agent stereotype (sorry, LA!), and it’s really not my style. I obviously want all of that and more for my clients but I wouldn’t talk big and promise even bigger. I’m much less “wining and dining” and much more “let’s work together to create something irresistible to editors.”

There’s also, of course, the issue of track record. I’m a newer agent. I have six sales listed on Publisher’s Marketplace. Though that’s not a comprehensive view of my sales, that’s the only thing writers can check. The first books I sold won’t be out for another nine months or so. I don’t have years of track record or bestseller clients to woo with… yet. And I’m very conscious that in a “beauty contest” (as we call these competitive situations), these things really do weigh in. (See my pro’s and con’s of newer vs. more established agents post for more on this.)

What’s the reason for this recent trend of multiple offers, then? Or for those times when it didn’t go my way? (Luckily, I’ve offered and won many, many more times than this, and I’m thrilled for the clients I do have.) I don’t know. But I’m really curious. As the comments on Kristin’s post mention, it could be an issue of agents hopping on the bandwagon when they hear about an offer. I have to admit, when someone comes to me and says they have an offer of representation, my interest is definitely piqued and I read fast to see if I want to throw my hat into the ring. I want a chance at the fantastic manuscript, too! But it seems like every offer has competition these days. I wonder why that is and, I have to admit, I’d love to be a fly on the wall and see how other agents are offering representation.

What would you all prefer in your offer of representation (other than, you know, getting that offer in the first place)? Big, exciting promises or my preferred brand of “cautious optimism”? Is the offer phone call the time to really rip out all the stops and get the writer hyped up or is it a frank chat about the business, the market, and how this manuscript will into the big picture?

This whole issue is fascinating! I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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