A few years back I was on a panel at a writer’s conference, and one of the best audience questions came during my panel with literary agent Ginger Clark, who was my colleague at Curtis Brown at the time.
Eden Lane asked us what it was like taking on our first client compared to what it was like taking on clients now. Ginger and I looked at each other for a moment and confessed that taking on our first clients was kind of petrifying.
What it’s like to be a young literary agent
When I took on my first clients as a literary agent I wasn’t nervous because because I didn’t know what I was doing — I had been in training as an assistant for years. Sort of like Rocky running up the steps, only with manuscripts and Pub Lunch e-mails.
I was nervous because I couldn’t answer the questions “Who are your other clients?” and “What have you sold?” Umm… I…. Have I mentioned how much I LOVE your book and think you’re a literary genius??!!!
How a young agent can help
Here’s the thing to remember: Every agent starts out with zero sales. They need someone to take a chance on them and place their faith in them, and quite honestly, a young agent can really do wonders for your career.
They’re hungry, they’re going to give you 110%, they tend to be more willing to go the extra mile working with you on revisions and polishing diamonds in the rough, and everyone starts somewhere.
If you hear from an interested young agent without any sales or a limited track record… don’t hang up on them!
Double-check their credentials
However, it’s extremely important to find out what kind of experience they’ve had in the industry. Make sure that they’ve had at least a couple of years of experience working with a reputable agency or publishing house. There’s really no replacement for that kind of experience.
I was an assistant at a very reputable agency for two years before I took on a single client. I had sold audio book rights, worked on reprints, knew which editors liked what kind of books, and had incredible mentors I could turn to at any moment if I had a question or problem. I was ready.
Get a sense of their experience and knowledge, and then use your best judgment.
And if you’re ever in doubt, remember the best story I’ve seen about taking a chance on a young agent, courtesy of Nicholas Sparks. (Needless to say it all turned out just fine.) He recounts his first conversation thusly:
“Well. . . how long have you been a literary agent?”
“About six months.”
My heart sank and I swallowed.
“Well, have you ever sold a novel before?”
“Okay,” I said, “You’re hired!. . .”
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Art: Der Gelehrte mit seinem Schüler by Anonymous
Loved this! I clicked on the story as well as the query…just phenomenal. Thanks NB!
You are such a wicked resource! Thanks so much. I just looked to see how old my GUIDE TO LITERARY AGENTS book was (dusty since I haven’t used it in years) and it was from 2002. Um…can we say UPDATE?? Yikes!
I don’t know…if it’s multigenerational I’m thinking you need to add another 100k and break it up into three books. Sounds like a Godfather saga or something?? Just a thought…
Now back to my fruit loops and vino.
Last Word Veri: Burpey
I was sitting in the front row when you were asked that question…I wish I had a photo showing the looks on your faces! It was great that you were both so honest with your answers. And believe me, many aspiring authors would turn to a newbie agent. Anybody got a list of newbies?!
WORD VERIFICATION: angent (combo of “angel” and “agent”)
I have to say that this blog has gone above and beyond being informative. Since I discovered it two days ago I’ve been devouring all of the FAQ postings. As a writer who is still in the “fetus” stage of writing their first novel, this blog is a blessing. Thank you so much for the time that you put into it.
Great post, Nathan!
I agree with many of the other posters, I would love working with a new agent.
If any new agents are reading this and want to work with someone who has been called ‘The Next Stephen King’ they can feel free to contact me.
(Of course, I’m the one who has been calling myself that, but it still counts, right???)
Lady Glamis says
A great post, Nathan. I would be willing to take a chance on a new agent if he/she had a bit of experience, as you say. When I read your title I thought you were going to be talking about the age of agents, which I suppose, usually correlates with experience.
Haste yee back ;-) says
Feel free to contradict anytime. Wife does it constantly and adds a few lashes with a Cat O’Nine Tails.
No inside joke, except on me, as you are right.
Well now, that’s 134,589,765 times I’ve been wrong in my life.
Haste yee back 😉
Laura Martone says
Hey, Haste Yee Back!
I’ve been way more wrong than that… I just felt the need to redefine “entitle” out of self-defense. After all, I’ve used “entitled” in all of my queries (and not in the way you indicated), so I had a minor panic attack earlier when I thought I’d made a major faux pas. One quick check of my American Heritage dictionary, and a huge sigh issued forth. Ahhhh…
P.S. I noticed you submitted a Dickens line to “Book: The Sequel” – what fun, eh?
If the agent is a person I feel I can form a life long friendship with, like the relationship SE Hinton said she had with her agent, I would not care if the agent is new. I would have no problem growing together.
Nathan, I noticed in the query for The Notebook, it said it was only 52,000 words. I did not read the book, was it published at that word count?
In my mind, a new agent is a lot like a veteran agent in terms of trust. It maybe easier to tell if a seasoned agent is legit, but it still takes a bit of time to see if you and said agent jive and if you feel like you can trust that they’re the right agent for you.
TERI REES WANG says
Personality always kicks into gear, and over rides experience. However, experience is the starter, let’s make no mistake about it.
I would think a lot depends on the contacts the young agent has. Does he know influential people etc. and is he likeable. Is he someone i would like to have as my representative.
And of course, is he handsome and funny and cute.
(No, Jil. bad girl!)
Seriously though, I would want someone with good manners, well spoken and nicely dressed. And who didn’t leave my manuscripts drenched in cigarette smells.
Minnette Meador says
Makes me wonder a bit about what the climate is like right now for new agents. Are the tried and true surviving better these days or are the new kids on the block bringing some refreshing energy to the table? Given the economy, what’s your take, Nathan? Should we be going after these nubile “kids” or staying the course with the experienced? I’m getting ready to shop, so I’d be very interested in your opinion…:)
Nathan Bransford says
I think it varies from agent to agent, but the agents and agencies with blockbuster clients seem to be weathering the storm better than the ones without. At the same time, everyone is hungry for the projects that will do well, and there seem to be more agents than ever.
Nathan, thank you for this. I’m not quite to the querying stage yet with my novel, but you make a good point and I’ll keep it in mind when I get there. You know, just in case you turn me down. 🙂
book agents r literally unheard in my country. if we want to publish a book, we just need to call up the publisher or even self publish. publishing own books r unheard to begin with. people here have a thinking that only ‘some’ people can publish…
nicholas spark’s encounter of his first agent is very inspiring.
Actually, addressing this topic seriously, what I would really look for in an agent is someone who is upfront, honest and fair.
Also someone who believed in what they were doing and was able to express and sell that belief.
As an extra, it would be nice if they were helpful in terms of the writing feedback, as well.
All the rest is gravy. Contacts and experience can be gained.
Tanks for this Nathan. It’s good to know we were all young and terrified once.
I guess getting an agent is rather like picking up someone in a bar – they catch your eye, you hope to hell you’ve caught theirs, go up, make some smalltalk, see if it kind of feels right, and then eventually ask about their background.
(And no, I’m not consciously comparing highly experienced agents to pickled old barflys – well, not much… *ducks and hides*)
Hey csmith – love the bar analogy – that sounds about right =)
Laura Martone says
Yup. I’m gonna have to agree with csmith and allegory.
Except I don’t remember having to write queries when I was bar-hopping… course, that was, like, a decade ago.
Maya / מיה says
It would be great if someone would compile a list of new, hungry agents (but with past experience at agencies, like Nathan when he made his first sale). Does anyone know if this exists?
Hi Allegory and Laura Martone – glad to know you feel some connection with that description. It makes me giggle, because as per that analogy, I’m the looney on the pavement outside panhandling for coinage so I can get up the guts to enter the bar!
There are some new agents who are going to be getting a lot of queries soon, I think. Poor guys. I hope they weren’t looking forward to an easy summer.
If you all are really intrigued with the idea google the agencies. Lots of times there are releases or announcements of promotions and new hires and these usually include background like,
“Blockbuster Agency is pleased to announce the promotion of Susie Cupcake to Agent Extroidinaire. Susie comes from XYZ position where she worked for 3 years on paper cut management.”
Justus M. Bowman says
I’m willing to take a chance on a young agent, because, as you said, they’re hungry, and I’m always hungry. Why not dine together? Oh, analogies.
Corey Schwartz says
So, who’s going to put together a list of young, hungry agents for us? 🙂
Sucks to be new, whether it’s agent or author. Of course, at least the author has a manuscript to show.
I wonder if being a first time agent would make me more picky, or less. I dunno.
As a young, wannabe agent, this post was WONDERFUL. Thanks, Nathan.
Thanks for this post, Nathan. It’s good to be reminded that, at some point, everyone is new to something.
Memoirs of a Bulimic Black Boy says
the pairing or mentoring of a new and hungry agent/lawyer/doctor/teacher by an older and wiser agent/lawyer/doctor/teacher-seems to produce the best results
A-HA! I found it!
Questions To Ask An Agent
Amy Tate says
I love this post. One of these days I’m going to have my Jerry McGuire moment…until, I keep dreaming about it.
David Jace says
I don’t mind taking a chance on a young agent, but how do I get an agent to take a chance on ME!? 😉
Wanda B. Ontheshelves says
I have the same question!
I think it’s definitely worth taking a chance. Smaller agencies and publishers are hungry for success. Their very existence depends on their authors’ books doing well so they are generally willing to go that extra mile (not that those in big agencies aren’t *cough*).
At a time when the big players are taking on fewer and fewer unknowns, a small company may be a new writer’s best option. That’s what I’ve found, which is why my second novel is being published by a small publishing company.
K.M. Cruz says
I'd love to try for a new agent. I don't care if you sold zero books or 1,000. I care that you're willing to sell mine. But new agent's are so hard to find.
Lauren R. - Freelance Editor @ Pure Text says
I feel the same chance should be taken on young freelance editors. They charge less because they don't have the decades of experience to charge more, but they're also eager to show that they know what they're doing and to please any clients that are willing to put their trust in them.
I've had a few clients take me on for just those reasons, and both parties were happy. 🙂
Great post on giving the young/new a go.
I'd be willing to take a chance on a new agent, If only they'd take a chance on me as a new author. I trudge onwards, forever onwards.
TP Keane says
I'd be willing to take a chance on a new agent, if only they'd take a chance on me as a new author. I trudge onwards, forever onwards.