Agent Elana Roth from Caren Johnson humanized agents for me. She took the agent "ahhhh" in the sky with angels singing in the background and brought it back down to someone who is there to work for you and with you. She continually emphasized that you, the author, are the commodity, and the agent should never forget that without the author, there is no job.
That said, Elana went on to parallel the agent/author relationship with that of a marriage.
Stage 1: Dating
Just as in a relationship with a significant other, before you go on a date, you make sure you yourself are in the best state possible, the same follows for your mss. It should be in the best state possible--revised, edited, etc. before you put it out there.
She also advised to know what you're looking for and make sure you "woo" the right agent. Elana suggested making a list of first-round and second-round agents, so once you're through the first list, you have even more you can query.
Her final point was to make sure you talk to the agent and ask questions (have them prepared ahead of time) to make sure you and the agent have similar expectations (eg. response time, vision for your career, possible editors to submit to, how you like to communicate, level of editorial work the agent will do, etc.)
Stage 2: Marriage
This is when the legal and business terms come into play--the contract. Elana emphasized that you should read the contract and make sure your rights are protected. She referred us to aaronline.org's FAQ section for a handy resource.
In a marriage, one of the challenges is the balance of power; the same follows with an author/agent relationship. The Author provides the product. The Agent provides the guidance and facilitates movement in the marketplace. In this relationship, as with marriage, communication (2-way) is vital. Trust is also indispensible.
Stage 3: The Divorce
If the passion for your writing dies, the relationship won't always work out. Elana's suggestions for when you need to part ways included these bits of advice: A) Talk it through--be curteous B) Terminate the agreement before you look for a new one C) Find out the book's status with all editors before you terminate D) Contract should cover all details pertaining to money.
Bonus agent info: In a recent lecture by Nathan Bransford at the University of Tulsa, he
addressed a question about how common it is for great authors to be passed by numerous publishing houses before someone picks them up (citing J. K. Rowling as an example). Nathan said that it's not as common as it's made out to be, and more importantly, something like Harry Potter may not have been the phenomenon it was if it had been taken by the wrong agent. You want someone who LOVES your book. If those people who passed on it didn't have the passion
to make it what it is today, then you don't want an agent like that anyway.
Back to SCBWI, all-in-all, I really enjoyed Elana's humor and wit as she presented her topic. Considering she was up against a rough time slot (an hour after lunch), she did a great job engaging the crowd and informing us about the harsh and happy details of reality.
As the conference wrapped up, I finally got the guts to pull out my camera. I got a single shot of the panel, and I made sure to get a picture with Stacy Nyikos who is both an accomplished author and my seat neighbor for the bulk of the conference.