Cec Murphey stops in
August 20, 2009 | Written by admin
Chip says I'm the only active writer who's been around since the invention of the printing press. (True.) That means I've watched immense changes, especially since the advent of the personal computer. I bought my first computer in 1983, when most writers asked, "Why would I want to get rid of my typewriter?"
In 1984, I jumped into full-time writing and have made a living at the craft. In 1989, I was one of the first Christian writers to sign with a literary agent. For the next five years most editors said, "We'll never work with agents." (What a change since then.)
In respect of my advanced wisdom (or was it my advanced age? I forget.) Chip asked me to guest blog and tell you how a full-time writer sees the agent-writer business.
1. At a conference, I plan to talk to two different agents. What should I do to prepare for the 15-minute appointment?
Go to their site and read their guidelines. See what kind of books they represent. Who are their clients? If the agent represents people who write in the same general category you do, you may be a fit. Don't say to the agent, "I know you don't usually represent science-fiction picture books, but I thought . . ." If you write in a genre that the agent doesn't represent, don't waste that appointment. Let someone else have your time slot. Agents have prejudices toward and against certain types of books. Say within their zone of interest.
2. At my appointment, what should I show the agent?
Not much. I recommend a simple, direct approach. You hand the agent what we call a one-page and keep it simple. Have a full proposal ready, but don't show it unless the agent asks. You have 15 minutes and you don't want the agent reading the entire time. Always try to make it easy for the agent and if s/he wants to see more, I assure you, that person will ask. Even Chip gets excited about good prospects.
The first paragraph of your one-sheet contains your concept. Don't get cute, tease, or throw in silly questions such as "Will Hilda find true love in Bulgaria?" A brief statement of the plot and genre is enough. If it's nonfiction, what's the thrust of your book and who are your readers?
A second paragraph is about you, your background, and your interests. Provide it in no more than five sentences. Use bullets if you can. Think of it this way: You can leave the single sheet with the agent to read again. Spend most of the time with a focus on the interaction between you.
3. Besides offering the one page, what should I say?
Why not let the agent respond to your one-page? Be prepared to listen and to answer questions for clarification. Resist the urge to tell the agent the entire storyline. (It's usually boring to anyone else.) Don't argue, justify, or try to convince the agent that s/he must take you.
Don't try to hit with a big sales pitch. Your manuscript is the pitch. The more natural you are, the more the agent will have the opportunity to assess who you are. The chemistry between agents and writers is highly significant. Your response says a great deal about you.
4. If the agent wants to see my manuscript, what do I do?
Ask a simple question, "Do you want me to sen
d you the proposal, the complete manuscript, or both?" (You will have written your proposal, right?) Don't waste an agent's time by saying, "I want to write a book about. . . " Unless you're highly published, the agent has no way to know the quality of your work.
If the agent shows interest in your project, you follow up with, "May I send it as an attachment or would you prefer hard copy?" If you send it by email, on the subject line type: Requested Material, Philadelphia Conference. If it's hard copy, on the outside on the package, bottom left, say the same thing. This reminds the agent that you had permission to send material.
5. What else should I ask?
"How long may I expect to wait until I hear from you?" That's a reasonable question and it indicates your level of professionalism. They may have that answer in their on-line guidelines, but I suggest you ask anyway. Sometimes the guidelines say something such as, "within three weeks," but five weeks may be more realistic.
6. The agent accepted me as a client. Now what?
Read the contract. I've seen three ways that agents accept clients. (1) They represent only the one proposal you show them. They don't commit to anything beyond that. I've seen this mostly with what I call the iffy books—the agent likes the manuscript but isn't sure it will sell. (2) A time-contract on the book. The agent may represent your book for a year, 18 months, or possibly two years, and if it hasn't sold, the agent no longer represents you. If it sells, you may move into an ongoing contractual relationship. (3) You're signed as a client and remain one for every book you write until you or the agent terminates the agreement.
7. Before you sign, ask yourself: What do I want from an agent?
(a) Do you want an agent who emails or phones every day? That’s not reasonable, and most writers won’t find such a person, unless the writer gets mega-buck advances. Even then, I wouldn't count on daily contacts.
(b) Do you want someone to whom you can send ideas before you write anything? Ask the agent before you sign. Most agents will agree and tell you how to proceed.
(c) Do I need an agent who will help me plan my writing career? A few agents don't do long-term talking with their clients, and you need to be aware of that. I would sign only with an agent who wants to talk long-term goals and offers to help me focus. When I made my living as a ghostwriter and changed agents, one of the first questions my new agent, Deidre Knight, asked was, "Where do you want to go as a writer?"
(d) Do I like the agent? In your initial contact, you size up the agent as much as the agent assesses you. If you don't like that person in the beginning, don't assume it will morph into a good relationship. Trust your instincts. I did in 1997, and still like my agent. She's encouraged me during some dark moments. I also wanted an agent who gets along well with editors. Some bad-tempered agents represent big-name clients. Those agents may sell, but they're not liked.
(e) Does the agent's personality match mine? I'm straightforward and that's the kind of person with whom I relate the best. I spoke with several agents before I signed with Deidre Knight. But after we met, I knew within five minutes that she fitted my personality.
Because I've been around so long, I can't stop now. I'll add a few more things in the next edition.
Cecil "Cec" Murphey has written or co-written 113 books including 90 Minutes in Heaven for Don Piper. His two most recent books are When Someone You Love Has Cancer and When God Turned off the Lights.