Alan Rinzler is a veteran editor of the traditional publishing industry. He’s also a keynoter chosen by the Writer’s League of Texas for this June’s Agents Conference. This is a meeting that used to be called the Agents and Editor’s Conference by the WLT, but that’s all gone now. Agents are the new editors, but somehow Rinzler is still in the mix. Last year he sat at a banquet table 8-top at the San Francisco Writers Conference while we talked to him about our prospective books.
Rinzler has a website which includes links to a weekly column he writes. This week there’s an interview up there he did with four agents out of this business that he’s known since the 1960s. It won’t surprise you to learn these agents still have a lot of faith in big-house book deals. After all, the alternative for most of them is littler-house deals (rare is the advance there, so the agent’s payday on those deals is far away.) One agent said her agency is supporting self-published writers now. This is what I mean when I say that agents are today’s editors. I don’t know how many self-published writers are being supported by that agency. As many as the agency needs to stay in business, I’m sure. Some agencies have a stable of editors on call, freelancers. And book designers. And marketing and distribution experts.
(What’s that, you don’t know any of these? You will if you self-publish. Yes, I edit books. You always need an outside editor, which is why I hired one for my novel Viral Times.)
Rinzler took comments on his article and like a good blogger, commented on those posted. One commenter said you want to be careful who you engage as an agent once you get turned down by the biggest names. Rinzler has good advice on how to proceed in these middling waters — a backwater, by the way, where you can still get a full year older while your book remains agented, but unsold.
I agree that a recommendation from another writer or the agent’s track record are the best ways to evaluate an agent’s legitimacy and potential for success. And whereas I haven’t come across very many charlatans or freaks, there are, as you say, less experienced agents. They may be just starting out or entering the profession as former editors, publicists, marketers, refugees from the music or film business or even lawyers with experience handling intellectual property. These individuals may actually have more time to spend, may be hungrier and eager to sell.
Ways to judge whether or not to take a chance with them: See if they’re easily accessible, and respond to email or phone calls. Meet in person or via Skype or on the phone, and give them a clear schedule of your expectations. Structure a deal that requires documentation that your book has been sent to acquisitions editors within 30 days. If you haven’t received any offers to publish within six months, part company and seek elsewhere.
The part of his advice I like the best is his guideline of six months to get an offer. (You have to add this to the 3-6 months it might take you to get read by an agent, then read in full with your complete book.) Hungry agents will be okay with “after six months you lose my book” terms. The big-house ones, who have established writers to continue to represent, won’t.