Nathan Bransford, Author


Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Taking a Chance on a Young Agent

Back at the Pike's Peak Writer's Conference a few weeks ago, one of the best audience questions came during my panel with fellow Curtis Brown agent Ginger Clark. 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.

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??!!!

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! 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. 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?"

"No."

"Okay," I said, "You're hired!. . ."






93 comments:

Margaret Yang said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ink said...

Yes, but what was the first sale like? Less terrifying, I'm guessing.

Nathan Bransford said...

bryan-

Like victory.

Bane of Anubis said...

Great post - we'd all like the all-stars w/ proven credentials, but it's hypocritical not to take a chance on newbie agents (but excellent point about checking into their backgrounds; if they're the hungry types, they're likely to expend more energy on you than the agents with a full list of clients)...

serenity said...

I love that Nicholas Sparks story! I read it several times before I got an agent, just hoping and crossing my fingers and wasting valuable time I should have been actually writing or querying. Sparks' entire "Notebook" experience is proof that even though it doesn't really happen like that, every now and then it does.

Whirlochre said...

Taking a Chance on a Young Agent?It's a novel waiting to be written...

Kristi said...

I loved the link to Nicholas Sparks agent story. I've seen several articles recently about experienced editors who left their positions (voluntarily or otherwise)due to the economy, and began their own literary agencies. While they might be "new" agents, they would still have tremendous knowledge about the industry. I'm going to keep my list wide open and see what happens. :)

Rick Daley said...

Good point, Bane. The newbies are more likely to have extra time to devote to you.

And to second Nathan's comment on getting the deal, I think for any salesperson in any industry, that first sale is sweet victory. And so is the most recent one.

WORD VERIFICATION: inearown. A list of things on layaway.

Lupina said...

Well, all you young and hungry agents out there, I'm totally unbiased when it comes to newbieness. Just write me via these blog comments and I'll tell you where to send the contract. And I have a feeling there are enough writers who feel like I do that you will have no problem landing clients. ONE of us is bound to have something salable. Just remember, Lupina invited you first!

Jarucia said...

Loved this post! I love anything that allows me to feel more empathetically with those I may encounter in this business.

I'd love to connect with a young agent for the reasons you note.

Perhaps I'll start with them in my next round of queries.

Then my 110% can combine with theirs for 220%...that'll improve the odds :)

THX

Tracy said...

What a great post! Everybody has to start somewhere - even all-powerful agents :)

Yamile said...

Everyone needs a chance. How incredible it would be to find a new agent and have a long, productive career, growing together in the industry.

Bane of Anubis said...

I have to say, though, Sparks's query letter seems like it wouldn't fly today (he sells himself well, but the story description seems a bit lackluster).

http://www.nicholassparks.com/WritersCorner/Query.html

Nathan Bransford said...

BofA-

I definitely would have requested to see more after I read his first paragraph regardless of what came afterward.

I won't, however, tell you definitively that I would have anticipated that THE NOTEBOOK would have become THE NOTEBOOK.

nomadshan said...

I have a young agent, and he's great! As Nathan suggested, Chris has been very involved in my revisions, and his enthusiasm is buoying. His relative youth means he's in touch with new technology, and how it's changing publishing. And he's interested in authors' careers over the long term. As a new author who'd like to someday be an old author, that was important to me.

Bane of Anubis said...

Nathan,

He definitely sells his credentials well, but if he didn't have those, would you have requested something?

And, yeah, it's hard to know what might take off - another good reason to take a chance on a newbie agent - they'll more likely take a chance on something that might not seem to shine, but is that proverbial diamond in the rough.

Laura D said...

The thing is most writers looking for agents are new too-taking a chance then goes both ways and they're in the same boat.

M. K. Clarke said...

I'll take a young agent over a seasoned one any day: I'll have to trust them as they do me. And we'll both have to believe in each other.

Great post, Nathan! Thanks!

(Hey, I'm in the high teens/low 20s in comment posts! How 'bout dat?)

~MKC

Audrianna said...

I can totally see my reaction being similar to Nicholas Sparks. I'm always telling my parents that I'm querying this newer agent and blah, blah, blah. And they're always saying, "Well, be careful. New agents may not be the best route, etc."

In my opinion, you have to start somewhere. I mean, it's like a writer who queries for the first time. You've had no experience doing it before, but you may succeed. Then again, you may not. Corny, but life is full of taking a chance.

On a completely seperate side note (and I didn't see anything on this in the archives, though you may smack my hand if it is there and I missed it):
When you have a quote inside of a quote, do you use (")s or (')s. Okay, looking back at that, it may not make sense...but does anyone see what I'm sayin'? lol

Weronika said...

Thank you for a great post, Nathan! I have read Nicholas Sparks' story before and I'm pretty sure my jaw dropped.

I will be sure, however, to keep in mind that young agents need a chance. I hope to be one myself in the next few years. :)

Cheers!

Sarah said...

Thank you very much for this. Really.

Bane of Anubis said...

Audrianna, "'use one quote'"

Shaun Hutchinson said...

I totally agree with this post. It's a risk, but one well worth taking. I signed with a new agent. It was his passion and drive that got me on board. There have been some learning curves, but all-in-all, I wouldn't change a thing.

My agent (Chris Richman) worked his butt off for me, he continues to, even when I'm doing my panicky author dance.

Audrianna said...

Bane of Anubis - Thanks so much. I've been OCD-ing over it for the last three days.

Laura Martone said...

Thanks, Nathan, for this post - it's inspiring to think that an unpublished author like me might still have a chance with a newbie agent. I'm passionate about my novel - and 125% devoted to the marketing aspect - and I'd like to think that a hungry, well-connected agent could be, too.

But I do have a question. While I realize that the author-agent relationship is essentially a business one - and therefore, an author is entitled to feel comfortable before signing on the dotted line, I can't help but wonder... How responsive are most agents to an author's questions about their background and experience? If an agent isn't responsive, is that necessarily a red flag?

Scott said...

If I like them and feel they "get me", that's all I need to know.

Good stuff, Nathan.

no_bull_steve said...

I interrupt this comment section for a WELL-EARNED CONGRATULATIONS!!!

WRITER'S DIGEST
101 Best SitesBest websites for 2008:

Agent Nathan Bransford's Blog
nathanbransford.blogspot.com
San Francisco agent Nathan Bransford dishes the dirt on being an agent. Also, his series called “The Essentials (Please Read Before You Query)” is, well, an essential read.


I'd only add that this site is easily in the TOP TEN of websites for writers!!!

jimnduncan said...

Wish there was a nice one-stop shop to find the new agents. Though, I hate to think what that would do to their inboxes.

Vacuum Queen said...

I would think that a new agent would definitely be a hard worker and willing to go the extra mile. BUT, would they have the connections of a seasoned agent? And really...if an agent called me tomorrow (which won't happen because on my email queries, I included ZERO phone numbers assuming they'd email back. I now hate myself and want to hide in a hole), what questions would I ask of them? I'd like a list of 10 must ask questions. Perhaps you have that. I'll check your past posts.

PurpleClover said...

I think my only concern is that you can take someone new and that is fine and dandy (trust me I won't complain). But how do you really know they are legit? I mean if they are fairly new is it rude to ask for references? Or past employer info?

I think that is what scares me. Is it safe to assume that if they are listed on Agentquery and Publisher's Marketplace they are legit and no references are needed?

Joy D. Wilson said...

What was your first rejection like? Did it make you feel all powerful or slightly scared that you might be passing up on something.

PurpleClover said...

Sorry that should have been once sentence.

Mira said...
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Nett Robbens said...

Great post Nathan. A wonderful confirmation that we were all newbies at something, at some point in our lives.

Nett

Audrianna said...

Woohoo! Congrats on the Writer's Digest, Nathan!!!

PurpleClover said...

Wow, just read the link to Sparks. HILARIOUS! I love it. A match made in a heaven.

Although I have to admit I don't know that I would have had the patience to wait on the other agents. lol. I just hope if it ever happens I can hold out.

Laura Martone said...

B of A -

I have to agree with you (again! - sheesh)... I don't think I would've been blown away by Sparks' query letter either. His credentials were impressive - and the story sounded sweet and poignant - but the query seemed to ramble a bit.

Let's face it - even if you follow all the "rules" - this query business is such a crap shoot. You just have to spell everything correctly, do your best to pitch your story and express your voice, and hope that you're hitting an agent at the right moment. Perhaps a newbie will just be less jaded - and more open - than those that have been around a while and heard it all before.

Anonymous said...

I'd be happy to have any agent interested in taking me on. I wouldn't care if they just started yesterday! ;) Thanks for the blog. Guess who's googling new agents?

Laurel said...

A lot of the questions about whether it's okay to ask for references and what to look out for are at this site:

writer bewareThey say the same thing Nathan does; new agents are fine as long as they have experience in the publishing industry and they should be happy to provide references.

Another good site is:

Guide To Literary Agentsand they even have a new agent listed at the top of the page! It's a good resource. I did see a list of questions you would want to ask an agent before signing somewhere but I can't remember where.

Bija Andrew Wright said...

I wonder, though, if Sparks's story as he tells it is really the best example. When the agent answers "About six months" and 'No," I think she missed the opportunity to say, "About six months--but before that, I was assistant to Jane Doe, so I have more experience with...." or "Not yet, but I've been making new connections with editors at...."

I think this would be a better sign, because then when editors asked, "The book sounds interesting, but has this guy ever published a novel before?" the agent could be trusted to give an upbeat answer.

Of course, things turned out okay for Nicholas Sparks anyway.

Laura Martone said...

Thanks, Laurel, for the links.

Very helpful indeed.

Anonymous said...

I like this post! I'm always hearing about checking sales, asking questions (those lists!) and "you want an experienced agent." But they always seem to leave out the FACT that there are new agents who need to be new to be old.

Consider the scenario (mine) where the only agent offering is the newbie. There were questions (those lists!) that would have been ridiculous to ask. It is a leap of faith. And it's a leap of faith with more experienced agents, too. You can't really know how a person is, will be, unless, until, you are working with them.

Laurel said...

Sure, Laura.

Everything we need to know is out there somewhere, it just takes some time to hunt it down. Since I would rather do that than edit, I hunt.

I have concluded that the soul crushing drudgery of editing is the yang to the thrill of writing yin. It's not just boring; it's when you realize that stuff you really liked kind of sucks.

Dawn Maria said...

Great post! I've been looking at a couple newer agents to query next and this confirms what my gut was telling me- one of these folks might be the one.

Litgirl01 said...

I would say that things really did work out well for Nicholas Sparks! I've read through the Writer's Corner section of his website numerous times. He has some great advice there.

I would be happy to sign a new agent who worked for a reputable agency. We could be new together! LOL

Deb said...

It only seems fair if the new writer takes a chance on the newbie agent, as long as the agent knows how to lead when dancing.

Laura Martone said...

Laurel, I know exactly what you mean. I LOVED writing my novel - but at 212,000 words, it is NOT in fact ready for its agency close-up. And I'm finding it incredibly painful to strip half of it away... I begin wondering if my debut novel should've been a simple coming-of-age tale as I'd originally intended - and not the complicated, multi-generational story that I pursued instead.

Ah, Hindsight, you fickle wench. ;)

Haste yee back ;-) said...

I think, considering all the query hoopla today, writing an agent saying... this in my new book "entitled" would be automatic Pasadenaed!

A book has a title, but is not entitled to be published...

Oh well, water under the culvert!

Haste yee back ;-)

Nikki Hootman said...

Just want to emphasize the CHECKING THE CREDENTIALS bit.

I thought my "newbie" agent would be great - she was totally excited about my book - until six months went by and I started to realize the "experience" she said she had was mostly by implication, and those sales she said she was about to make never happened. A lot of authors wasted a lot of time and hope on her before she closed up shop.

Make sure you get good, hard, concrete facts about newbie agent's experience before you sign.

Laura Martone said...

Hey, Haste yee back!

I hate to contradict you, but "entitle" has multiple meanings, including "to call by a particular title or name"...

Am I missing an inside joke? That's possible. ;-)

Jason Crawford said...

Great post Nathan...man, I tell you, the thing we writers love to hear are the success stories like the one you mentioned. Very inspiring.

Having said that, I'd rather take my chances with an experienced agent, but hey, beggars can't be choosers. :)

Anonymous said...

Loved this! I clicked on the story as well as the query…just phenomenal. Thanks NB!

Anonymous said...

Loved this! I clicked on the story as well as the query…just phenomenal. Thanks NB!

PurpleClover said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
PurpleClover said...

Laurel -

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!

Laura -

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

Anita said...

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")

Anonymous said...

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.

evilphilip said...

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 said...

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 ;-) said...

Laura,
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 said...

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...

--Laura

P.S. I noticed you submitted a Dickens line to "Book: The Sequel" - what fun, eh?

Malanie said...

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?

allegory19 said...

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 said...

Personality always kicks into gear, and over rides experience. However, experience is the starter, let's make no mistake about it.

Mira said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jil said...

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 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Minnette Meador said...

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 said...

minnette-

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.

Karen said...

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. :-)

renaye said...

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.

Mira said...

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.

csmith said...

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*)

allegory19 said...

Hey csmith - love the bar analogy - that sounds about right =)

Laura Martone said...

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 said...

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?

csmith said...

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!

Laurel said...

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 said...

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 said...

So, who's going to put together a list of young, hungry agents for us? :)

Lunatic said...

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.

Fred

AJM said...

As a young, wannabe agent, this post was WONDERFUL. Thanks, Nathan.

Genny said...

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 said...

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

Laurel said...

A-HA! I found it!

Questions To Ask An Agent

Amy Tate said...

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 said...

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 said...

David Jace,

I have the same question!

Kia said...

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 said...

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 said...

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.

Anonymous said...

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 said...

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.

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