But sometimes, even today, I ask myself: should I have seen the warning signs with the first agent before I committed to her? Could I have acted differently and not wasted three or four months of my writing life? Could I have bypassed an ineffective agent and found my current agent more quickly?
I don't know.
The problem with bad agents--by which I mean ineffective agents, not unscrupulous ones, because I don't believe my first agent was unscrupulous--is that they don't advertise their badness up front. Their ineffectiveness might not be apparent until after you sign with them. In fact, there are agents who aren't "bad" in the general sense but who, for whatever reason, just don't work out with a particular writer.
This problem, I think, is particularly acute for debut authors. We're just so darn excited to have an agent make an offer, it can be especially difficult to sort out the bad from the good.
So for what it's worth, here are the things I wish I'd thought about last year, before I signed. I offer this list in addition to all the other information that's out there about choosing an agent (e.g., make sure the agent has a record of recent sales in your genre, etc.). This list grows out of my own experience as a debut. And it's not all about the agent; it's at least half (maybe more than half) about me. My hope is that it'll be helpful to someone else.
1. Enthusiasm is great, but let's be realistic.
In our very first conversation, before she'd even read the full manuscript, BA (Bad Agent) was raving about my book, asking if it was part of a series, talking about movie rights. That might have meant she was genuinely blown away by the book. But it might also have meant she was desperate, naive, inexperienced, or deranged. As a debut, it's easy to get your head turned, so I'd be cautious about agents who come on too strong.
2. Agents had better be good readers.
In a later conversation, I found it puzzling when BA had trouble remembering the names of characters in my book, but I didn't make a big deal of it. I said to myself, "Well, she reads a lot, there are a lot of unfamiliar names in this futuristic novel, so it's not surprising she can't instantly call them to mind." In retrospect, I think that was a mistake on my part; I think her fuzziness about details meant she hadn't read the book closely enough, and that should have been a warning sign.
3. Listen to others.
Being a good boy, I dutifully contacted the clients to whom BA connected me. But oddly enough, when those clients offered only lukewarm praise, I ignored them. I rationalized, read between the lines, tried to come up with excuses that would quell the nagging doubts in my mind. None of them had said she was bad; they just hadn't praised her to the skies. I should have asked them point-blank why they hadn't. And if BA herself couldn't come up with anyone who would praise her to the skies, I should have asked her point-blank for an explanation too.
4. Fear breeds bad decisions.
I see now that one of the main reasons I accepted BA's offer is that I was afraid: afraid that if she didn't represent me, no one else would. This being the first offer I'd received, I told myself it was the only offer I would receive; even though I had another agent interested in looking at the book, I turned her down and went with BA. This, of course, represented flawed thinking on my part; I should have realized that if the book wasn't good enough to attract another agent, chances are it wasn't good enough to be sold. It's very hard, especially for a debut, to turn down an offer. But sometimes, that's the best thing to do.
5. First drafts aren't best drafts.
This, I think, is the hardest lesson. Every writer knows that the first thing you produce isn't likely to be your best. Early drafts need lots of work before they're ready for submission, much less publication. But what if the same is true of agents? What if the first offer should be subjected to particular scrutiny, because it's the first? Had someone told me this a year ago, I probably would have dismissed it: to me, and I suspect to many debut authors, the first offer is uniquely special, the act that confirms one's legitimacy as a writer. To question it is tantamount to questioning oneself. But maybe, for that very reason, one should question it. In my case, I should have grilled BA. I should have been a hard-ass. I should have made sure she passed every test I threw at her, and then I should have thrown three more tests at her just for good measure. If, at the end of that process, I wasn't satisfied, I should have declined representation and continued my search.
The common thread in the above remarks is that insecurity and inexperience--the two factors every debut author faces--need to be countered by reason and willpower. Don't believe every glowing word an agent says. Don't be reluctant to challenge an agent if s/he commits strange gaffes concerning your book. Don't accept anything less than the best from the agent or anyone else associated with him/her. Don't tell yourself s/he's the only agent in the world for you. Don't confuse first with best.
In the end, though there are certainly agents who suck, it's the author's responsibility to find one who doesn't.