Last month when I was soliciting possible blog topics from my Facebook and Twitter followers, one question that came up was: What makes someone an ideal client? The short answer is: the same qualities you’d look for in any relationship, personal or professional. Here’s the long answer:
By this I mean someone who is open to the agent’s feedback and advice. I always tell my clients they don’t need to take every suggestion I give them, they just need to address the underlying issue I’m pointing out. For example, if I feel like a passage is too wordy, I’ll often suggest an alternative way to phrase it (if I can think of one). If the author doesn’t like the way I reworded it, they’re free to reword it any way they want, so long as it makes it less wordy. Or on a more macro level, I might give someone the feedback that a certain chapter feels slow, and offer possible ways to make it read faster. They can either take these suggestions, or come up with a different way to make it read more quickly. I always feel the editing process should be collaborative, and for that to happen the author needs to be open to seeing their book in a different way.
In a similar vein, there needs to be a line of open communication between the author and agent. The agent should communicate her thoughts directly and conscientiously, and the author should do the same.
Early in my career, I had a very broken line of communication with one author in particular. I would give her feedback on her manuscript, and instead of telling me why she disagreed with my feedback via email or over the phone, she would passive-aggressively argue with me in the manuscript itself. Like I would say to her, “I feel like you need to further develop the concept of X here.” And she would write in the manuscript, “Some people may want more information on X, but I feel that I covered it thoroughly here and in chapter 5.” I was very young and very new to agenting, so while I continued to give her feedback, I didn’t confront her about this passive-aggressiveness. (I was perhaps just as bad at communicating as she was.) I complained about her to my coworkers, and they laughed, saying that’s why they’d pawned her off on me, so they wouldn’t have to work with her. The way our agency operated was that the president decided which books she wanted to work on, and then one of us would work closely with the author to get the book ready to send out. And I, being young and eager to prove myself, was happy to spearhead any projects thrown my way. And because of this, I didn’t tell my boss how much my communication with the author had broken down, or if I did, I didn’t put my foot down and say that I wouldn’t work with this author anymore. (I was bad at communicating with my boss too!) Ultimately, after repeating this passive-aggressive dance with the author over several drafts, we decided that the book was ready to go, and we sent it out. Surprisingly, it didn’t sell.
Now when I see an author who seems cagey about what changes she’s open to making, my spidey sense flares up that I might have communication issues with this author, and I become wary about working together. It’s not so much about an author disagreeing with me over edits, it’s about an author disagreeing with me and not telling me directly. And that’s a dance I don’t want to do again.
Respect for the Agent’s Time
This just means your manuscript is clean and professional (it doesn’t have weird spacing issues or need to be reformatted), and you made the changes the agent asked for (or made clear which changes you didn’t agree with and the two of you reached a compromise). And it should go both ways; the agent should be just as respectful of your time. Meaning that she shouldn’t ask you to postpone a family vacation to work on a revision (assuming there’s no deadline you need to meet), and she shouldn’t give you frivolous changes to make, etc.
At my old agency we had a client who would send us a draft of his book to read, and while we were partway through it, he’d send us a new draft. And he did this over and over again. That’s what I call having no respect for someone else’s time. Don’t be that guy.
This is probably the least obvious trait that makes an ideal client, but it’s just as important as the others. Getting published is a process, and sometimes it takes a long time to get there. I’ve worked on edits with authors for up to a year before I’ve sent out their books (though typically it’s more like 4-6 months). And even once you have a fully polished manuscript, it may take a while to get a sale. Earlier this year I sold a book that I’d been sending out for four and a half years. I know an agent who said the longest it’s ever taken her to sell a book is ten years. And even if your agent tries to sell your first book for several years, it’s possible you won’t get a sale until your third or fourth book. So be prepared for the long haul.
This ties in with openness and having good communication. A lot of what agents do (writing pitch letters, meeting with editors, submitting your book) goes on behind the scenes, and so you have to trust that your agent knows what she’s doing and has your best interests at heart. If you don’t, you should get a new agent.