I have to admit that I was rather surprised by the number of comments Jessica received in her “Well Played” post from writers who felt she should have offered representation on a proposal she liked but for which she didn’t feel she was the best agent.
A lot was said about the writer’s point of view, but few seemed to consider the agent’s perspective.
Why would an agent ever want to go into a new partnership with an author feeling at a disadvantage? The publishing industry is tough enough as it is. When I take on a new project, I want to feel supremely confident in my ability to sell it. Time spent worrying over a project I’m not sure I was the right advocate for could be used finding another perfect fit. And there’s a ton of perfect fit manuscripts out there for me, just as there are a lot of agents out there that could be your perfect fit — if not with this project, then your next.
Agenting is a business like any other. I’m looking for the best chance of return on the risks that I take. I think that writers often get caught up in thinking that means agents don’t like risks, period. Every book I take on is a risk. There’s no “sure thing.” Even the author that comes to me with a deal in hand isn’t necessarily going to turn into a lucrative partnership over time. There’s a huge difference between taking a risk on a book that’s not an “easy sell” and taking a risk on a book that I don’t think I’m the best agent to represent. I’ve taken on plenty of authors that I loved but knew I had an uphill battle in front of me. Early in my agenting career I read a manuscript that just knocked me off my feet. There was no question I was going to offer on it. The voice just spoke to me in a way that was really special. At the same time, I recognized that it was a quirky book in a lot of ways. It was a really satisfying commercial read, yet dealing with a lot of issues that weren’t popular in the mainstream. I was right. The book was rejected just about everywhere. After many, many disappointments, I got the book into just the right hands (the perfect editorial advocate is just as important as the perfect agent) and Elizabeth Arnold’s PIECES OF MY SISTER’S LIFE went on to be a USA Today bestseller. I believed in the book and my ability to sell it, or I wouldn’t have taken the risk. But when I think my odds of selling something aren’t as good as another agent’s, those aren’t good odds. It’s just bad business sense.