One of the hardest things about searching for an agent is that you don’t exactly know what kind of an agent you’re going to get. Even though you may know the agent by reputation, even though you may ask them every question beforehand, there’s a certain leap of faith you take as you sign on with an agent. (I was of course wildly fortunate with my own agent.)
As you’re searching, one thing I would advise is to try as best you can to sniff out a spaghetti agent.
What’s a spaghetti agent? Well, it’s a term I made up. Basically, you know that phrase throwing spaghetti against the wall to see what sticks?
That’s a spaghetti agent. They sign up a bunch of writers even when they’re unsure about a project, they throw the manuscripts at publishers, and they see what sticks.
On the one hand, this isn’t actually the worst strategy in the world. As much as people would like to think that agents are clairvoyant, at the end of the day you never really know what’s going to resonate with publishers. So spaghetti agents are acknowledging that fact and are spreading their odds across a lot of different projects.
The problem for writers is that since spaghetti agents will send out projects even when they might be on the fence, they may be sending out projects that aren’t quite ready. And in a competitive publishing landscape, it pays for a project to be as ready as humanly possible. Spaghetti agents may also have a shaky reputation with editors because they send out so much stuff and it’s not always of the highest quality.
Back when I was an agent, I can’t tell you how many times I would find a manuscript that was close-but-not-quite-ready and wanted to work with the writer on an unagented revision, only to be undercut by a spaghetti agent. I would offer to revise, the author would say they had an offer of representation on the table, and then I’d be in a bind. I couldn’t really say that I’d take on a project no matter what after a revision, and I couldn’t very well advise an author to give up the bird in the hand when they had someone enthusiastic about their work either. So I’d stand aside and let the author go. Sometimes this worked out for the author, quite a few times it didn’t.
What can you do as an author?
When you’re offered representation, ask good questions. Ask how long they’re willing to keep your work on submission. Are they just going to try with the big publishers or are they willing to go down to small presses? It’s an important question, because one hallmark of a spaghetti agent is the submit and dash. They’ll send a project out to a few editors, gauge the response and then bolt if it’s not working quickly. Not every good agent is willing to keep something on submission endlessly so don’t put too much stock in this question, but make sure you’re comfortable with the answer.
And if you’re getting multiple responses of “I like this but don’t know if it’s quite ready” from some agents but then one wants to go out with it immediately… take a long pause and really really think it through. I’m not necessarily advising giving up the bird in the hand, and don’t be paranoid, because this may just be the one agent who really gets your work and they might be completely right that it doesn’t need work. But as always, just really, really think it through and make sure it’s the right choice.
Having the wrong agent can be worse than having no agent. After working so long on your novel and wanting so badly to go out on submission, it’s tempting to want to leap into the arms of the first agent who will have you. But be sure and take your time, do your research, and make sure it’s the right fit before proceeding.
Otherwise, your manuscript could get thrown against the publishing wall before it’s ready, and you only get one chance to see if it sticks.