Monday, August 15, 2011

too many agents, not enough gin: the truth about multiple offer situations

In the past month, INTERN had the pleasure of supporting not one but two editing clients-turned-writer friends through the strangely harrowing process of choosing between multiple offers of representation.

"Multiple offers of representation?" you say. "How delightful! Surely these writer-friends did not require much in the way of emotional support."

Multiple offers of rep are the bizarro version of rejection letters. Instead of dashing your hopes, they suddenly make them seem possible. Instead of limiting your choices, they present you with a dazzling array. For the first time, you're the Rejector. You become *responsible* for your fate—capable of making the wrong decision (whereas if you have only one offer, it is always going to seem like the right decision).

As far as INTERN can tell, multiple offer situations are not particularly rare. Before it happens to you, please be advised of the following myths surrounding the multiple offer situation, and the hard truths that lurk behind them.

Myth #1: You will be ecstatic.

Have you ever seen one of those ads for antidepressants or heartburn medication, with the happy people twirling around in a field of daisies 'cause they feel so dang GREAT, when you know in reality they're barely hanging on by their fingernails?

There's this idea among yet-to-be-published writers that getting multiple offers of representation will look something like one of those ads: beautiful, well-groomed you will dance through the nearest meadow in an ecstasy of spiritual and intellectual fulfillment.

In fact, you will experience the mangiest week of your entire life. You will sit by your computer, hollow-cheeked and stringy-haired, reading your potential agents' Publishers Marketplace profiles, blog posts, and interviews until you can recite their stats in your sleep. You will be unable to sleep or eat. You will leap out of bed to Google "one last detail" until your significant other exiles you to the couch.

In short, you will be miserable and you will make everyone around you miserable.

Myth #2: You will ask useful questions during your Agent Phone Calls.

The internet is full of lists of Essential Questions to Ask Potential Agents. You will dutifully copy these lists down. You might even make a chart with which to organize and compare the various agents' answers.

When you're on the phone with the first of the agents, you will look down at your list, only to realize that the colors in the gently used children's birthday party napkin on which you copied the list in the name of eco-friendliness have begun to bleed in such a way that you can no longer make out a single word.

In a vain attempt to remember those Essential Questions, you will ask your potential agent such penetrating queries as "Who will photocopy—it—if it needs to be—um." And: "When can I expect the delivery?"

Myth #3: You will weigh the pros and cons.

It is astonishingly hard to find downsides to any of the agents who are offering you representation. After all, you queried them for a reason—if they had freaking DOWNSIDES, you wouldn't have queried them in the first place!

Instead, you will be overwhelmed by the upsides. And, oh, how many upsides there are:

Big Corporate Agency: "We have offices in New York, Paris, and the MOON!"

Wee Boutique Agency: "We only take on three new extra-special clients per year!"

Up-and-Coming Agent: "I've only made two deals so far, but they were major three-book extravaganzas!"

Established Agent: "I've made two hundred deals in my day! Stick with me, young whippersnapper!"

Uber-Agent: "Never mind the background noise, I'm calling from my private Lear jet en route to NYC to negotiate a major deal for a very special client of mine who just wrote a—oops, can you hang on for a second, Princess Diana's on the other line."

Friendly Agent: "Why don't you come over for apple crumble and we'll talk about your manuscript in person?"

Shady Agent: "I've already got Dreamworks on the line. All you have to do is fill out this money order as a small retainer"

Gangster Agent: "Welcome to da family. HarperCollins don't buy it, we bust some kneecaps, know what I mean?"

Myth #4: You will go with your gut.

When all the (botched) questioning and (impossible) pro-versus-con weighing and (increasingly incoherent) one-sided "discussions" with your friends and family are done, it will be time to make a decision. When that moment arrives, all you have to do is go with your gut.

But can you really trust your gut? What if your gut's a greedy little stinker? Should you go with Uber-Agent because she makes the biggest deals, even if all evidence suggests she's not only incompatible with you but downright insane? Should you go with Friendly Agent because you got along so well on the phone, even though you don't recognize any of the authors on her list?

This is your career, after all! Your career! Are you really supposed to trust your career to a friggin' INTESTINE?

You weep and fret and writhe until you're a shadow of your former self.

Then you sit down at the computer and start typing four rejection e-mails, and one acceptance...


Have you ever dealt with multiple offers of rep? How did you make your final decision? INTERN wants to know!


  1. Well, I definitely wouldn't go with an agent who thought he had the late Princess Diana on the other line...

    I've never had multiple offers. I had one, once. The agent was ecstatic about my novel, would be honoured to represent me, was going to buy me lunch...then, six and a half days later she changed her mind.

    Luckily, I'd only told fifteen people.

  2. I found their clients, then PM'd (for those who frequent AbsoluteWrite and know me by my screen name there) and DM'd (on Twitter) and emailed (the others) to ask said clients confidential opinions of their agents.

    I asked if they were hands on / hands off, how long it usually takes to hear back from them via email and other questions that now evade my memory.

    I talked to all of the potential agents on the phone and then used all of the above to make a decision.

    One agent I had "met" months earlier via a contest. Three were invitations to submit from something they'd read on my blog (and AW). My now agent I knew through her blog (and that of the agent she used to intern for); I knew there was a fair amount of compatibility assured as she used something of mine for a crit. example on her blog and the comments said as much, plus the woman who she was an intern for suggested I query her from something I'd sent to her blog, too.

    Now I haz awesome agent and book deal. YAY!

  3. Haven't gotten to that step yet, but in preparation, can you provide me a list of gangster agents? 'Cause that would be seriously awesome.

  4. Thanks for posting. As close to the reality of it as I've seen. Good on you.

  5. I second Lexi. I don't want any delusional agents. l0l. I'm not sure I'd want a "gansta" agent, though, Melissa. You have to work with these editors eventually! Ha!

  6. I was in this situation in May with 7 offers of rep, and here's a few things I learned. It is NOT fun to reject an agent. Telling someone who is enthusiastic about your ms that you didn't choose them really sucks, and when they email you back with their congrats, you'll feel even more guilty.

    And if you discuss your "success" you'll become a target for other frustrated writers. After all, you "don't deserve your success." Of course, you might wind up with the world's most awesome nickname - so it all evens out.

    It's a pretty lonely experience, because you don't want to sound ungrateful but inside you are overwhelmed and on edge.

    But this post pretty much nails it.

  7. Myth #4: You will go with your gut.

    Actually, I think this is more Truth than Myth. Eventually, you have to do what's right for you, and that often comes down to what you feel is right, what connection you feel you made/did not make with an agent.

    -- Tom

  8. Tom: you're right, of course :) But sometimes it can be hard to weed out what your gut is REALLY telling you.

  9. Trusting my gut was not an option, seeing as how I had diarrhea for two weeks straight from the stress, and my gut was *not* in any condition to offer any advice. (TMI? hope not) I did ask a lot of questions, and called up lots of other clients, and read over agreements with a fine tooth comb (And of course, blogged my questions and everythign else here . And Gennifer is so right about rejection letters. They suck to write. Granted, you'd think you wouldn't care so much since they reject people all the time, but I still felt like a horrible person.

  10. As someone who is just beginning the process of researching the right agent, this was a humorous and insightful post to read. Thanks, everyone, for the comments you've added as well.

  11. Honestly, I pretty much lived your blog in the week I had to decide. That is, if you add "Assistant of Super Mega Agent emailing to beg for more reading time and assuring you she'll love it." And "Trying to decide how rude it would be to put off all other offering agents on the off chance that Super Mega Agent might offer."

    Yeah, and when I whined about how hard it was to decide, I got the "First World Problems" stare. I probably deserved it.

  12. Too true, Intern. This happened to me twice (two distinct genres = two gut-wrenching agent searches).

    First time: Non-fiction. I chose the agent whose advice I already knew I was going to take when I revised the proposal before it would be submitted. It only seemed fair to choose the person who had already been the most helpful.

    Second time: fiction. Same thing! Mind you, the field was not widely crowded. But after three very different phone calls I knew what I had to do. O

    Coda: after many months passed, and the novel sold, the agent who I'd felt the worst about rejecting emailed me to say congratulations on my sale. Isn't that classy? I will always be happy that our paths (nearly) crossed.

  13. dude, where was this post a week ago, when i wasn't sleeping and my stomach was churning 24/7 as a result of my very own miserable/amazing choice between two equally awesome lady agents?

    it's awful, truly truly awful, to have to turn down a person who encourages you as a writer and thrills at the project on which you've spent 2 years toiling in isolation. urgh.

    but i still agree with hwpetty: first world problems. doesn't mean they don't suck, but it does mean you can't really complain TOO much!

  14. PS my gut was totally useless. my head wanted one agent, my heart wanted another, and my gut was a silent fence-sitter. jerk.

    luckily, my boyfriend spent a couple of hours going through it with me and helped me finally decide.

  15. So. True. And nobody warns you!!!

    It was like getting hit BY the emotional rollercoaster. I don't think I slept or ate until I pulled the trigger, though I though several times about pulling it against my proverbial head.

    Rejecting agents made me feel like a bad person.

  16. Thanks for the straight talk on this, and for everyone's stories.

    I once read in Musician how an alternative band had two agents offering representation, so they had both agents show up at a bar and battle it out on a kung fu video game.

  17. Thanks for telling it like it is.

    In reading how many people have said that rejecting agents makes them feel like a bad person, I'm struck by the thought of how bad it must be for agents who have to reject authors EVERY SINGLE DAY.

  18. OMG. That was the WORST WEEK EVER. I was in utter agony, because they all were wonderful, and yet so different, and I'm one of those people who absolutely HATE making someone feel bad and all of them seemed like acquiring not only my book but me as a client would make them so terribly happy.

    Best piece of advice I got was from a person who has done lots of job hires (because, in the end, you are dealing with BUSINESS here). When she had two great, equally-awesome but different candidates, she drafted each one an acceptance letter and a rejection letter. By the time she finished, she always knew which one to go with. I followed her advice and it really helped.

    But it still sucked.

  19. Oh God, YES. This is so true! Every word of it.
    Having recently gone through this, I can say it's pretty far from twirling in a field of daisies. We authors are so used to rejection that we're conditioned to leap on any glimmer of hope...which means we are totally unprepared to suddenly have the table turned and be the one "rejecting" agents. It is HARD, because Intern is absolutely right...they are all talented and successful, but in different ways. And then there's that swarm of guilt issues that you're daring to *grumble* about having to pick between "too many agents." :)

    In the end I chose the agent I thought was most enthusiastic about my book, because I thought he could make editors feel the same way. And he absolutely did!

  20. Quite the detailed rundown, Miss Intern, thank you. I hope if it's ever my turn to go through this cycle that I can remember your advice. :)