by guest blogger Matteo L. Cerilli
I signed on with 5OL agent Ali McDonald when she was still at The Rights Factory, and I was seventeen. At the time, I had some pretty grand dreams about what an agent would do for me: I’d submit my book, she’d tell me how great it was and maybe fix a few spelling mistakes; she’d send it to the adoring editors who would all fight over the rights; we’d be published; I’d have book tours and adoring public and a blockbuster movie trilogy and then never have to write another series. In short, my agent would make me a breakout star.
With this mentality, I hard-passed on nearly every suggestion from Ali and my other editors, which meant the entire publishing industry hard-passed on my project. That was the wake-up call I really needed; I was not the wunderkind solo act I thought I was.
Most of my delusion can be chocked up to my non-existent pre-frontal cortex, but I still think this expectation holds true for many authors. They see getting an agent as a hop-skip-jump away from stardom, as if an agent is a checkbox. Online contests like #PitMad show the dogfight to grab an agent’s attention, and while I definitely agree that having an agent makes your life that much easier, and have spent a semester explaining why on the 5OL Instagram, we need to tear down the belief that an agent guarantees you publication. We’d love it to—no one gets paid unless it does—but that seems to ignore all the work that has to happen between signing on and signing away.
An agent is not your fairy godmother, and expecting as much is a great way to not only sell your own growth short, but take your agent for granted. Both author and agent should challenge each other towards a better book. You bring the art that can actually be sold, and your agent brings the knowledge on how to sell it. Most of my relationship with Ali is chucking manuscripts back and forth at each other, scrutinizing plot points and questioning the validity of some of my more eccentric choices. When we disagree (and we do disagree), it’s up to Ali to help suggest some alternatives besides “cut it entirely”, and up to me to put my ego aside and seriously consider these changes… even if I have to give myself an hour to vehemently disagree before I eventually come around, but I’m only human. The point is, this relationship is about give and take, and valuing the collaborative process. An author cannot be an island—books just don’t work that way.
This is why best-relations are so important: Ali and I are as much business partners as we are friends. For as often as we throw manuscripts back and forth, we grab lunch and gossip and discuss our personal lives. I think every author agrees that their own life affects how they write, so if we’re going to work collaboratively with someone, we’d better know what they’re bringing to the table too. Every strange personal fact I learn about the team helps me understand where they’re coming from, their expertise and biases and experience that they draw on, which makes for an even better meeting-of-minds. Surprisingly, agents are people too, and remembering this not only helps keep the empathy flowing, but can actually help authors maximize different perspectives. Every new editor, beta reader, and focus group brings even more angles, and authors should always be hungry for that.
At the end of your day, it’s important to remember that you book isn’t just your baby: you’re co-parenting. Us authors certainly know the story best, but without input from everyone else, we’re basically raising a bubble-wrapped kid who’s never gotten their knees scraped or had to deal with any adversity. My mistake at 17 was thinking that I alone knew what it took to be a bestseller, blockbuster star. Even Ali doesn’t quite know that, or even acquiring editors—the readership decides based on their own biases and backgrounds that we can’t even predict, so they also have some say in how this baby matures.
Your agent is much more than a steppingstone to publishing. They can be the difference between a page full of passes and a multi-house auction, but only if you’re willing to collaborate for the betterment of the child. Authors can’t be islands, and can’t be greedy, and can’t take these relationships for granted. Without partnership with agents and editors and readers, we’re in it by ourselves, and this business is far too competitive for that.
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