Should Your Literary Agent Make You Cry?

Together with her husband Bill Martin, Beverly Swerling Martin, runs Agent Research & Evaluation, Inc. ( a service that helps writers locate the agents most likely to be a good 'fit' She explains the importance of taking time to research the right agent. Her next book, City of God will be out in November from Simon & Schuster.

Some years ago I was with my second agent. Unlike the first, he had sold four of my historical novels, but every time we spoke I wound up fighting off tears of anger and frustration. He just did not seem to understand who I was as a writer or where I wanted to go. "I can make you cry for free," my husband said. "Why pay someone ten percent of your income to do it?" (I did say this was some years ago.)

I told him he had no idea what was involved, that as a writer I had to have an agent, that they were very hard to get, and that writers were at the end of the information chain in publishing. Even if I found someone new, what reason was there to think he or she would be an improvement on the first two?

"I’ll do some checking," Bill said.

He did, and the result changed our lives.

First, after some weeks of digging through newspapers and trade journals Bill presented me with dossiers on seven agents he believed were particularly effective. He had hard facts and figures about their deals, what they sold to whom, and in many cases even the amount of the advance. It was eye-opening stuff.

Cutting to the chase, all but one of the agents offered me representation and I chose Henry Morrison—gulping at being told he was charging 15% commission, one of the first in New York to do so back then in the 80s. Henry is my agent to this day, and I’ve lost count of the many books we’ve done together. What matters to this story is that the very first sale he made for me was to the same publisher who had been buying my earlier books as paperback originals and paying a $25,000 advance for each one—under the old dispensation that had seemed set in stone. Henry got six times that amount by going to the top person at the house, saying she could have my next book only if there was a commitment to doing it in hard cover, and that the negotiations had to open at a minimum six figures. As if that were not enough, within a week his office made the first of a dozen translation rights deals.

Wow! So it’s not just having an agent that matters, it’s having the right agent.

In 1996 Bill parlayed that insight into a business called Agent Research & Evaluation. By then he had information on virtually every agent in the US, the UK and Canada; floods of stuff, all hard facts from reliable sources. We writers were no longer no longer required to put our careers in the hands of people about whom the only thing we could say was that they told great stories over lunch.

Incidentally, back then agents fought against saying who they represented or what books they had sold. Andrew Lownie, however, was among the first to understand what Bill was doing. He never found the idea of information about himself and his authors threatening, and even in those pretty much pre-Internet days, Andrew recognized that it was in everyone’s best interest to be forthright.

Next the worldwide web took off and changed all our lives as profoundly as had the electric light bulb or the combustion engine. AR&E had one of the first e-commerce web sites, and a short time later was able to take credit card payments over the net.

Soon the dramatic growth of the web meant we were no longer the only place writers could go for data. Agents began putting up their own sites (not all as informative as this one, but a huge advance on the silence that preceded them), and there were writers‛ watchdog sites, online writing communities, and even a site such as Publishers‛ Marketplace where many agents submit details about their deals.

But the proliferation of data, we learned, did not always mean more useful information. For some years we’d been offering what we call the Customized Fingerprint alongside our individual reports on agents; now it has become our most popular service. Thanks to the combination of my author’s viewpoint and Bill’s research, we can provide a highly nuanced match-up between the writer’s voice and style, and seven or eight of the agents most likely to ‛get‛ what the writer is doing. Whether that writer is looking for a first agent or a fourth, after some back and forth e-mailing we’re able to say that of all the many possibilities out there, here’s who you should approach—and maybe why you want to avoid X and Y—and here’s how to do it.

We’re definitely not a silver bullet, but we’ve had a lot of success. That’s hugely gratifying, never more so than when a writer reports one of those same aha! moments I had all those years ago. Your agent should not make you want to cry, and having the right one is absolutely critical to your economic and artistic success.