The Agent Who Knew Too Much

So first things first: we still have a hold on queries, I’m sorry to say. We are working through so many good ones and slowly catching up and requesting material, but we need some more time before we can open things up again.

And here’s a new post about age vs beauty, or, what an older agent knows that can hurt you.

As I have started out on my own, inevitably it has brought up memories of the last time I went out on my own. I was 26, and I was working for an agent who was reluctant to let me represent my own titles. Since like most twenty-somethings I was ambitious and impatient, I decided to go work for an agency which did not pay me a salary but let me have a desk and a computer in exchange for keeping a portion of the money I earned.

–I interrupt myself here to say that I am so grateful to everyone who helped me get to that point and beyond, people like Nina Graybill, Elaine English, Michael Cader, and Raphael Sagalyn—

I hate to admit it, but I really had very little clue of what I was doing. I did have a number of people who helped me, particularly Howard Yoon, another D.C. agent. And I learned as I went. But what I didn’t have in knowledge and experience I made up for with boundless enthusiasm, determination and really almost desperation, since I had a mortgage to pay and no other resources available. I worked my a** off. And here’s the other cool thing about those days, and really the whole point of this post: I had no idea what I couldn’t do. Short story collection? Sure, why not? And I did sell a few of them for clients that I still represent. Incredibly moving and very dark memoir about mental illness (in a time when memoirs were just impossible)? Absolutely. And again, I still represent that author. Self-help books by people with very few mainstream credentials? Hell, yeah. My first six-figure deal fell into that category. And it continues to sell very nicely.

So flash forward to right now. I have an extensive client list, lots of great contacts, and I have learned so much. My knowledge has absolutely made me a better agent. In fact, as I look back on my twenty-something self and how I negotiated, etc., I am really grateful to so many editors who didn’t make me feel like the idiot I so often was. (Interesting tidbit: most of the editors who were jerks to me back then are out of the business. And the ones who were nice are now giants: Jonathan Karp, Jordan Pavlin, Geoff Kloske, Laurie Chittenden to name just a few off the top of my head.)

But as I have gained, I have also lost. I feel just as enthusiastic as I ever did (I just remembered another shout-out: Hillel Black. Hillel was great to me back then and I will always admire Hillel for his boundless enthusiasm and joy for what we do in publishing. At this point Hillel has as many years in the business as anyone out there and he is still so excited by what he does every day.) but in some ways I know too much. I know what kinds of books are supposed to be successful and what aren’t. So in terms of what I choose to represent, I have to balance conventional wisdom with trusting my instincts and my passion. I have to be on guard that I don’t turn down a project that’s about, say, peaches, for the silly reason that I tried to sell a different book about peaches and couldn’t do it. Or because everyone is saying that books about peaches don’t work.

So I guess what I’m saying is that as a writer, when you’re searching for an agent, keep in mind that a younger agent may be more open-minded than the old folks. They’re certainly hungrier and often more energetic. And if they don’t know that they aren’t supposed to be able to sell your work, chances are that they probably will. Here I’ll do a shout out to Holly Root at Waxman and Victoria Horn at Liza Dawson who are two agents building their lists and who are as smart and savvy as any agent I know–much much smarter than I was at a similar stage in my career.

And as for me? I’m feeling inspired by that younger, clueless me. I’m keeping myself open to the possibilities and remembering the days when I had no idea what my limitations were.

P.S. Terry Bain, I’m assuming you will provide hyperlinks? I still don’t know how.

Jenny's posts

30 Responses to The Agent Who Knew Too Much

  1. terripatrick says:

    Delightfully honest post, and shows why you’ve got a stellar reputation as an agent. No worries about that boundless enthusiasm having been tempered with time, a little seasoning and a slow roast sometimes produces the best meal.

    I hope Terry helps with the hyperlinks. 🙂 I use WordPress for my blog and they are super easy!

  2. Robyn says:

    Great information here. And totally honest, too. I think younger agents have a lot of getty-up-and-go. That makes them invaluable to writers, especially, the pre-pubbed variety.Since they’re trying to build their client list! Cheers!

  3. Amie Stuart says:

    Lovely post! Holly is my agent and I can’t say enough good things about her. I ADORE her 😀

  4. Chiron says:

    Great post, and Jenny, there’s a handful of smart and savvy agents out there who actually seem genuinely nice. Holly Root is definitely one of the ‘good ones’. As are you!

    Thanks for giving me another great blog to follow!

    Chiron O’Keefe
    The Write Soul:

  5. I think this is a great reminder to those of us on our agent quest. Thank you!

  6. This is a wonderful post :). Thank you for giving us some insight into your world!

  7. Great post. I think of that often myself. I really wish sometimes that I had that blind enthusiasm and feeling that I could sell anything just because I loved it.

    –jessica faust

  8. Kat Harris says:

    This is the side of agents we don’t get a look at every day. Great post!

  9. Consider me a new favorite – I loved this post!

  10. Livia says:

    Very thoughtful post, and I bet the principles here have parallels in other fields as well. For example, in academia when advising graduate students about choosing an adviser, you can say similar things about young, energetic professors vs. well established professors with more experience.

  11. MaLanie says:

    Thank you for posting, I use referrals for just about everything in my life from car shops to hair dressers! I will save these names to my agent folder.

  12. Melanie K says:

    Great post–so many people don’t like to admit that there was a time when they were clueless. Thanks for the names of other agents–hopefully they won’t have to put a temporary hold on queries now, too. 😀

  13. Justine says:

    Thank you for posting, I’m going to save the names of these other agents and take a gander.

  14. SundaySoup says:

    To make a hyperlink:
    Just highlight the text you want to be a hyperlink and then up on the toolbar is the little button that looks like a chain (from left to right it goes tT B i T and then the link button). Click on it and a box will open for you to post the URL into and hit okay. That’s it. Nice post.


  15. Loved this post, Jenny. You are so right on about how in any field, it can help to be a little clueless. A friend told me the other day about when she was 21, she sent a poem to COSMO and they bought it. Her first submission. Her professor said, “Just know…that doesn’t usually happen.” I made the point that she didn’t KNOW it wasn’t supposed to happen!

    I’m always striving not to become that jaded, “been-there/done-that” type agent. I loved how this post beckons all of us back to keeping our vision open and optimistic. Kudos.
    And kudos on stepping out on your own!!
    Deidre Knight

  16. jennybent says:

    Deirde and Jessica, thanks so much for reading and commenting! It’s great to hear from you both.

  17. Hi Jenny,
    I’m new here (followed a tweet by Deidre K). I loved this–very deep. SO what I need is a nice young agent who hasn’t heard that chick lit is supposed to be dead 🙂

  18. Jennifer says:

    Wow Jenny; how cool to have created this little whirlpool of appreciative resonance with your honesty and precise observations. Like a kayaker in a swamp you are sensing the current of flow amongst the weeds and roots…useful modeling for us beginners splashing around and getting our oars stuck in the mud.

  19. Kay Cassidy says:

    Wonderful post, Jenny! That’s so true for authors too. When you don’t know you “can’t” do something, there’s nothing to keep you from shooting for the moon and the stars. And sometimes, that moon and those stars is just what it takes to break in. You have to believe.

    And seconding the shout-out to Holly. She definitely rocks! 🙂

  20. Sarah Bain says:

    Jenny, girl, you are what? 29 now? Still so young and lovely. A great post. And thanks again for giving me that whole idea of assignments via tweets. Now, if that man could just fix the drip on our refrigerator ice maker.

  21. Joni Rodgers says:

    Thanks for this, Jenny. It’s great to hear an optimistic voice in the current fog.

  22. MaureenKL says:

    Another shout-out for Holly. She rawks.

  23. Larrysmom says:

    Miss Bent,

    You are amazing and have inspired me beyond words! Thank you.

  24. Hope Tarr says:

    Fabulous post, Jenny, and again congratulations.

    I think there’s a parallel between agenting and writing here. As a write, you start out with not so much savvy but loads o’ bright-eyed enthusiasm and raw talent, emphasis on the “raw.” And while you want/try to hold onto that, at some point you start balancing your love of a potential story idea with an assessment of its marketability.

    Ah, the days of writing The Book of Your Heart and on spec, no less. 😉

  25. jennybent says:

    Hope, good comment and I have to say that sometimes I get frustrated when writers tell me they don’t want to write the whole book without an offer on the table, precisely because I do remember the good old days when that’s exactly what needed to happen!

  26. Great post, Jenny. I’m curious, now that you’re out on your own (and apparently very inundated!), what are some of the projects that caught your eye right away? What have been the highlights of this new phase so far?

  27. Agent Y says:

    When an agent goes out on their own, do they lose the books/authors they represented with the previous agency?

  28. Brad Jaeger says:

    You need to blog more often Jenny!