The truth about agent caliber

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Time for some agent real talk--this is the stuff people don't really talk about.

Not all agents are created equal. Some agents are exponentially better than others and will garner you, as an author, more access and opportunities in publishing.

The best agents DO get "bumped to the front of the line" in an editor's reading queue. The best agents tend to get better offers and negotiate bigger deals.

The thing about "tippy top" agents is many have been in the industry for a long time, and have the benefit of time and experience to garner these results. They typically have very full client lists and lots of famous clients. Throw a few queries at these agents, because the worst that can happen is a query rejection. It's worth a shot! But don't ignore newer/up & coming good to great agents, focusing on tippy-top agents at the exclusion of all others.

Here's the thing: most authors won't get tippy-top agents. There are MANY wonderful agents inbetween bad and "the best" who do incredible work--the good ones have their own key relationships with editors and get great work bumped in the queue, too. They negotiate favorable deal terms and make excellent business partners. Your aim, as an author, should always be to sign with the best possible agent you can, and to NOT sign with a bad or shady agent. Bad/shady agents can damage your career and opportunities. A good but not tippy-top agent will rarely cause damage.

If you're choosing between a good-to-great agent and a tippy-top agent, the tippy-top may not always be the best choice. Refer to the chapter on agent fit and really think about what each agent can offer you, on the whole. What good is a massive book deal if you're not getting the communication or support you want/need from your agent? (Also, sometimes a crazy massive book deal is actually not in your best interest. You should always assess whether said agent is mostly looking out for their best interest, or yours. What is good for them is not always best for you.)

How do you know whether a newer agent might someday become one of those tippy-top agents? You can't ever truly know, but if you follow the tips provided in the previous sections, you can get a good sense of who is a good bet. Remember, look at professional experience, what agency they're with, and under whom they are mentoring.

Also important: an agent can be tippy-top or great in one genre, but not in another. So don't assume an agent who has a Big Deal for women's fiction, science fiction, non-fiction, etc. will be able to best place your work in, say, YA. Unfortunately for aspiring authors, this is yet another place where you must assess the information available to you and take a calculated risk. If you are their "guinea pig" client in a new genre, you may be their breakout client, or you may find yourself treading water after a year or two.

This is not to disparage those who sign with not-famous agents, but rather to stop the practice of gaslighting aspiring authors. This is one area where Real Talk is lacking.  I think most authors instinctively know this stratification of agents to be true, but are told over and over again that all agents (who are not bad agents) are created equal when it comes to submissions.

So this is me confirming it: it does matter who your agent is, but there are many many levels of nuance within the system. Certain top agents automatically get greater consideration (and deals) than others, but there's a large body of good to great agents who may not get bumped first in the queue, but who can serve you very very well. They have relationships that matter and can get you, the author, a very respectable and fair deal. (And never underestimate the power of an amazing hook--if your book has one, an editor may drop everything and read regardless of your agent. But better agents put together better pitch letters, and editors who know they can trust an agent's taste are more likely to prioritize their submissions.)

Your agent will have a "brand" which they bring to editors. An agent represents quality work. Some specialize in "highly commercial" or "beautiful and literary" or "future bestseller" or "fresh new voices." So when an editor sees a submission from an agent with a particular brand, that will impact how they go into the email and how they approach the submission. That's all it is. Tippy-top agents tend to have the best "brand promise" thus prompting fast reads and big deals, but many of those good-to-great agents also bring great promises to editors inboxes, and they make great deals, too. So when you're looking at agents, what brand do they bring to editors' inboxes? What kind of clients do they rep and sales do they have? If they're new, where do they work and who is their mentor?

The catch is that there are agents that you may assume to be good who aren't as good as they seem, and can't compete in the broader market. It can take years (and guinea pig clients) for a pattern of middling sales--or lack of sales--to emerge, making it difficult to know who is good to sign with vs. who isn't. I don't have any magic answers for you except to do your research and follow your gut.

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