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Do You Tell A Potential Agent About That Other Project?

Thursday, August 12th, 2010

Last night on Twitter, there was a terrific discussion on YALITCHAT. (Think YA authors, readers, agents, editors and marketers all asking and answering questions on Twitter about a specific topic in the business of young adult literature. The fabulous Georgia McBride — a fellow Midwood High School alum, rah! — is the founder and president of YALITCHAT.) One of the cool things about YALITCHAT is that tons of people participate, which means tons of different opinions. Sometimes, having a conversation in 140 characters or less can be difficult, especially when trying to make a point. (I swear, concise Twitter writing is its own language.) So I decided to dust off my blog and write more about one particular comment that came up during last night’s YALITCHAT.

At one point, there was a comment about how you — aspiring published author you — may be into writing YA fiction now, but you may be thinking about nonfiction or a how-to book in the future…and that you should let a potential agent know. I completely and totally disagree.

[Public-Service Announcement: Before I get into the whys and wherefores, please understand that while I do strongly disagree (and I’m convinced I’m right, of course), mine isn’t the only point of view, and if you’re about to look for a literary agent, you should definitely get other opinions on this. Did I mention YALITCHAT?]

So yeah, I disagree. Strongly. If you’ve got an offer from an agent, and you’re having that all-important Conversation With A Potential Agent, the last thing you want to do is get into potential projects way down the line that are in a completely different market — potential projects that you may never write.

Here’s where people will chime in and say “You HAVE to have that conversation now, before you sign!” And again, I insist that you absolutely don’t. Why?

1. It goes off-brand. An author’s name becomes that author’s brand. That is, when people hear your name, you want them to automatically think of This Type Of Book. That’s branding. This means writing a particular style or genre of book, for a number of books. And that means staying focused on that particular type of writing, at least for the near future. After you’re established in one genre, you can branch out into another genre or market — and probably take a lot of those genre readers with you.

2. It goes off-project. Agents sell one project at a time. I’m not talking about sequels or series — most agents probably would be thrilled to hear that there are two more books you’re working on that are sequels to the book he or she passionately wants to represent. (But not in your query letter. That, however, is a different blog post.) An agent probably would be less excited to hear that the book he or she is over the moon about is only a for-now phase. Remember: branding. An agent wants his or her clients marketable.

3. It throws a wrench in the works. Let’s say you’re talking to Dream Agent, who’s in love with your Great American Novel and is itching to represent it. When Dream Agent asks you about future projects — because an agent is all about building your career — you reply that after doing YA novels, you really want to focus on nonfiction. Dream Agent hears that and loses interest, because she personally doesn’t rep nonfiction — and it doesn’t matter that in her agency, there are other agents who do. Now the Dream Agent isn’t on fire about you as a client. That’s not the best way to begin a partnership, especially when it’s your career on the line.

4. You can get a nonfiction agent down the line. This is something people may not be aware of, but it’s possible to have more than one agent represent your works — especially when one specializes in fiction and the other in nonfiction. It doesn’t have to be a one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to finding an agent. So after you’ve written a number of YA novels and your agent has sold them, let’s say you finally decide you want to sit down and write that nonfiction book that you’ve been dreaming about. Write that proposal — and do keep in mind that selling nonfiction books is a different process than selling novels — and discuss it with your agent. Even if your agent doesn’t represent nonfiction, she or he can point you in the right direction — possibly even to someone right there in the agency.

5. You may never write that down-the-road project. Once you have a few published books under your belt, you may discover that you really enjoy that particular genre and/or market, and that’s where you want to stay for the short and mid term. The road to that down-the-road project just got a little longer.

6. Your interests may change. When I first got serious about writing, if you would have told me that I’d write a young-adult novel, I would have thought you were crazy. My writing at that time was all about college seniors and people just out of college; I had no interest writing anything with teenage protagonists. I was focused on Big Fat Fantasy, albeit with contemporary protagonists. Just because today you think you may possibly write a particular book down the line, that doesn’t mean you’ll feel the same way down the line.

7. You may write that down-the-road project…with your agent’s support. I’d come up with the notion for Hunger about 10 years ago, but I didn’t write it. I’d convinced myself that I had to be a Big Name Author to write something that looked at eating disorders, because otherwise no one would want to read it. My agent was the one who convinced me to write it. I did, and she sold it. She’s also reviewed contracts for me on projects she didn’t represent, such as my two comic book scripts, because she is invested in my career and wants to make sure I’m not getting a raw deal.

So that’s why I’m firmly in the Don’t Tell Potential Agents About Potential Projects In Other Genres Or Markets camp.

I just went to AgentQuery (a terrific free online resource if you’re hunting for an agent) and selected “How-To” for a nonfiction topic and “Young Adult” for a fiction genre (even though YA is an audience and not a genre, but whatever). Want to know how many matches came up?


That being said, 1) that doesn’t mean at any one YA agent’s agency there isn’t someone who represents How-To, and 2) if you do a similar search for “Cookbooks” for nonfiction and “Young Adult” for fiction, you get 56 agents. No matter what, when you’re in the market for an agent you should do your homework. You may come up with a list of agents who represent every possible thing you think you may ever write. That doesn’t mean you should discuss those potential, down-the-line bright and shinies when you’re on the phone with an agent who wants to represent your first book. Why derail the track to agenthood by mentioning a potential project — one you’re years away from writing — that has nothing to do with the book that the agent is eager to represent?

Yes, it’s important to talk to an agent before accepting an offer. And yes, it’s just as important that during that conversation, you and the agent get a feel for each other and talk about career aspirations and possible directions. Just keep in mind that talking about a completely different project — nonfiction or how-to, for example — during that conversation could turn that agent hot to sell your current project into someone only lukewarm about it — and about you as a client.

That’s my two cents.