Tuesday, May 05, 2020

The Agent Lens: Advice from an Author Turned Agent

By Joyce Sweeney

Part of The Writer’s Life Series 

JH: Seeing multiple sides of the publishing industry can give someone a different perspective on it. Joyce Sweeney shares thoughts on making the switch from author/editor to literary agent.

Joyce Sweeney is the author of fourteen novels for young adults and two chapbooks of poetry. Her books have won many awards and honors. Joyce has recently switched to writing adult fiction and is represented by Nicole Resciniti of the Seymour agency.

Joyce has also been a writing teacher and coach for 25 years and offers online classes. In 2019, she, Jamie Morris and Tia Levings released Plotting Your Novel with The Plot Clock (Giantess Press). At this writing, 64 of Joyce’s students have successfully obtained traditional publishing contracts.

Joyce lives in Coral Springs with her husband, Jay and caffeine-addicted cat, Nitro.

Take it away Joyce…

Funny thing happened to me during a lunch meeting with my agent. She offered me a job! No, not a book contract, although we’re still going for that, but my agent, Nicole Resciniti of the Seymour agency, offered me a job as a literary agent. First, I was stunned, then I was incredibly flattered, then I started to get super excited and that’s when I knew I would say yes.

It was a natural kind of fit. I have been coaching, teaching, mentoring writers to their dreams for more years than I care to count. I have my famous statistic of 64 (at this writing) mentees who have obtained traditional publishing contracts. And right away, I saw the possibilities. Now I can choose a client and walk them all the way to the finish line.

What I’d like to share here though is how the shift from writer-mentor to agent almost immediately shifted my perspective on a few things. Now that I see the business from the inside out, I see a whole new perspective that I think writers should understand.

1. I am now reading with an even more critical eye. 

Someone said to me, “oh, now you don’t have to read manuscripts as closely as before.” Are you kidding? I am making career-changing choices when I select or reject a prospective client. When I give R&R’s or notes to a writer, I am keeping in mind this has to be good enough to go out right now. With my endorsement on it. I was always a picky editor, but now…it’s scary.

2. I look for clients who can market themselves. 

Now, quickly, I need to say that I don’t care if you have a million Twitter followers. Your manuscript is more important than anything in the selection process. But so far, everyone I’ve chosen to represent shows me that they want to move their books and put themselves out in the world in some way. Some love to speak. Some are amazing volunteers. Some do love social media and thrive there. All of them promote and uplift other writers.

(Here's more on The Dating, er, Agent-Search Game)

3. I pay much more attention to concept and marketability of the project. 

That doesn’t mean I am looking for trends, since we all know that puts one behind the trends most of the time. But I am now aware of what is being bought and what is not, and what might never be. In several cases, I have bluntly said to prospective clients, “I love your work, but you need to write something else.”

4. Poise counts. 

Joyce Sweeney
Yes, I look at the whole person when I consider someone as a client. Just as I would expect them to be looking at me as a prospective representative. Communication styles need to match, and in general, if I cringe when I read what someone posts on social media, I’m sorry. It’s hard enough to sell someone who is totally charming. I have already seen that people I want for my clients tend to match me: talkative, optimistic, giving and generous to others, and willing to believe and dream big. It’s essential to a good working relationship that there is common ground and you don’t want me to rep you if we are so different, I can’t present you well.

5. “It doesn’t fit our list” is a thing! I know, right? 

We all thought that was one of the phrases on the dartboard when they were crafting rejections. But there is a list. I have a small client list already and if someone comes along who is exactly like one of my clients and would compete with them, I have to say no. Sending out manuscripts to editors is a complex matter. Everyone has to have a wide lane to drive in without bumping other cars. So I need a ‘balanced’ list, meaning a little of this, a little of that, etc. So I have rejected manuscripts I liked perfectly well, because it’s something I already have enough of.

6. If you have already published with a small traditional house all on your own, or if you have published in the past, but for whatever reason, your career went away for a while, you are welcome at my door.

I think this one will be reassuring to many. It was to me, as I realized it.  To me it shows the person had the enterprise to get something accomplished even without an agent. Some of us (myself included) feel weird about having time ‘out of action’ but I see now that at least for me as an agent, if you did it once, you can do it again and that adds to your value. 

7. One belief I have always had that has not changed. Craft is the most important factor. 

It is the primary thing editors care about and it is the primary thing I care about. Working on your craft is still the single most important thing you can do to advance to the agented level. When I see a manuscript I know has been polished and proofread and carefully considered from every angle, those are the ones I pay the closest attention to.

8. And the final thing, which has surprised and touched me. There is this thing I can only call ‘the love factor’. 

It comes right before I make the final decision to make an offer to someone. I have already vetted all the things above. I know the craft is there, the personality is good, there is a way to market and they ‘fit my list’. But that last thing that either kicks in or not, my heart has to light up. Yes, I know, that’s pretty woo woo. But it’s true. I think of prospective clients and when my heart lights up, I make the offer. 

So I don’t know about other agents, but if you are my to be my client, I have to love you. Because it really is like a marriage. We may go through rough things together. We have to stick together when things are confusing or bleak. We get to celebrate together when something great happens. You can only do that authentically with someone you love. 

When you are out there querying agents and it’s a no, I want you to remember, it’s probably not because your work is bad or you’re unworthy. So much goes into making decisions about this important relationship. And if an agent does choose you, now you know all the amazing things you did to make that happen. You know your agent loves you. Happy Hunting!

About Plotting Your Novel with The Plot Clock

Storytellers, novelists, and screenwriters all encounter the problems of plot and timing: when should the events in your story take place? What order should they be in and how do they impact a character's development? Linear plot methods can ignore important nuance or even the critical events of third act entirely! Plotting Your Novel with The Plot Clock explores plot structure as it goes around an actual timepiece, a round mechanism that maps events, suggests the best timing for twists and surprises, and adds layers of insight into a character's arc.

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  1. So there's hope. Thank you for that.

  2. Fascinating! So happy for you, Joyce! Can't wait till you're open for queries!

  3. Congratulations on your new position & thank you for the 'peek behind the curtain' on an agent's thought process. Writers in the query trenches are always on the lookout for insight into how agents operate. I'm super curious to see your MSWL once you're open for queries.

  4. Congrats on moving to be an agent, Joyce. It's so interesting to see your perspective as both an agent and author. And I enjoyed your interview on From the Mixed Up Files last week.

  5. I'm so thrilled for this new direction in your career. Congratulations. Miss seeing you in person so much. Maybe sometime soon when the world resumes its normal spin. LOL