What Do Agents Do, Exactly?
The thing that your agent gets paid for is selling your book to a North American publisher, in return for which she gets about 15% of the money you're paid for writing the book. But there's a lot that goes on before, during, and after the book sale that the agent isn't directly paid for (much like all the things a good real estate agent has to do to set up a sale, speaking as someone who once wrote a book on selling real estate).
Your agent acts as a sort of pre-editor, working with you to make your book more commercial, and anticipating problems editors may have with it ahead of time, before the book gets submitted and rejected because of those problems. She knows the quirks of the various editors in whatever genre you're writing in, and also what kinds of books they're looking for right now, and if your book can be positioned as one of them.
Your agent acts as a liaison between writer and editor when necessary. Mostly you deal directly with your editor, but there are times when you need to vent, or complain about slow payment, or raise a problem, and your agent can do those things without hurting your working relationship with your editor. Likewise, when your editor has a problem with something that you're doing, he can go to your agent, who will in theory know how to deal with it tactfully.
Your agent tracks royalties, issues you statements and 1099s for tax purposes, and takes care of hounding your publisher when they neglect to pay you on time (which happens a lot). Since agents don't get paid until the publisher pays, they tend to be really good at this aspect of the job.
Your agent may broker your book to international markets, assuming your publisher hasn't kept foreign rights. (I'll talk more about that in the contracts episode.) There's usually an additional fee involved for the foreign agents and other costs (typically 20%), but a foreign sale can still be a nice bonus, especially on a book that has run its course in this country, financially at least. Besides, it's cool to see a Serbo-Croatian version of your work.
Perhaps most important, your agent helps keep you sane and productive, knowing when to prod and when to back off. Because writing books can take years to pay off and most writers have other full-time jobs, it's extremely helpful to have an agent who gives you deadlines and keeps you focused on the writing side of your career goals.
What Don't Agents Do?
Your agent is not your mom, or your babysitter, and she's not going to lie to a publisher on your behalf. (remember that she's probably got other writers at that publisher, too, and won't jeopordize her relationship with an editor without a really good reason.) While your agent is an advocate for your work, it's also part of her job to tactfully tell you when you need to grow up and finish writing the new book already. Remember that if you're too high maintenance, your agent can drop you as a client.
Literary agents generally won't represent you for short story sales, since they don't generate enough commission to be worth the trouble.
They also generally won't handle all aspects of film sales - there are separate agents who handle this, although your film agent and literary agent will work together (and might be part of the same agency if you're at one of the bigger agencies like William Morris).
Why Do You Need an Agent?
Once upon a time, you didn't, although it was still a good idea. I mentioned in an earlier episode that Isaac Asimov never had an agent, which certainly didn't hurt his productivity (more than 500 books), but did hurt him in other ways (some questionable book deals, accidentally selling the same rights to two different publishers). The theoretical advantage of agents is that they take on the business side of the writing profession, leaving you free to pursue the creative side. But the more practical reason is that these days, fewer and fewer publishers will even look at unagented books. And even for publishers that do accept unsolicited material, your agent's personal connections to the editors allow your work to be sent directly to the editor, rather than going into the slush pile.
What to Look for in an Agent
As an aspiring writer, it can be very hard to turn down a potential agent, but working for an agent who's a bad fit for you will do nothing for your career. Assuming you've done your homework to make sure a prospective agent is legitimate (and read the "avoiding publishing scams" chapter in this series and some of the links there), here are some things to keep in mind:
How high-maintenance are you as a writer? How much contact do you need with your agent? Some writers just like to be left alone to churn out a book every six months, while others want to chat with their agents frequently. Either one of those things is fine, but if you and your agent aren't on the same wavelength, you'll drive each other nuts, and the partnership will not end well. If you're a high-maintenance writer (and um... I am) you need to have an agent who's comfortable with that.
Are you more comfortable with a small agency or a large one? The publishing field has a mix of both, and since they're more-or-less equally effective, you need to weigh what your needs are and which kind of agency can fill those needs better. Larger agencies have more resources, but at smaller shops one person can answer all of your questions. (Larger is not always more impersonal in publishing, although some agencies are friendly and some standoffish, some great about returning calls and some terrible, etc. And no, I'm not naming names... I have to work with all of these people. The traditional way to get this information is to ply editors or writers with alcohol at conventions.)
How well do you fit on your agent's client list? Ideally, you want to be a close genre match, but not indistinguishable from your agent's other clients. It's no fun to be the third-string vampire writer, or the one who only gets hired if your agent's better-established clients are booked up. On the other hand, you don't want to be the only romance writer in a stable full of fantasy writers: Your agent will be spending 90% of her time talking with fantasy editors, and your name will never come up in those conversations.
What are your agent's strengths and weaknesses, and do they fit your needs? I know one agent who, on the face of it, has none of the qualities most writers would look for. He has scary teeth, a gratingly nasal voice, and when talking with women (and about 80% of the editors are female) his eyes never leave their chests. On the other hand, he's great with contracts - he spots potential problems long before they occur so they can be defused without any hard feelings, and he's extremely vigilant on money issues. I wouldn't particularly want him as my agent, but I've worked with him on several books that I've edited, and he's been very easy to work with - though mostly through email. He represents a lot of estates, and he's ideal for the work: dead people don't much care about his people skills, and attention to contractual detail is more important than ferreting out new markets for people who, after all, aren't exactly writing new books.
In some ways, agents are a lot like baseball managers. (Hey, it's only my second baseball metaphor of the series, which isn't bad for someone who wrote three books on the Red Sox.) Every agent has specific strengths and weaknesses, that ideally will allow you to succeed. By the same token, you may not stick with one agent for your whole career: In the same way that the manager who's great with a young, up-and-coming team may not be able to get the same performance out of a veteran team filled with high-priced players, your needs as a writer may evolve. Keep that in mind while negotiating the terms of any agency agreement you sign. Watch out for irrevocable agreements, or ones that don't give you a way out if the match is a terrible fit. (That kind of agreements is rare among legitimate agencies, although the old Scott Meredith Literary Agency, before Scott Meredith died and most of the agents left to form other agencies, was notorious for them. I'm not sure about the current incarnation of SMLA. Many agents still work on handshake deals, at least if you're an established writer, or a one-page letter of agreement outlining your relationship.)
Finding an Agent
The single best way to get an agent is to be recommended by another client of that agent, or by an editor or other publishing pro who that agent knows and respects. Going to conventions, getting to know writers and agents, and getting a reputation for behaving like a professional will go a long way toward accomplishing this, as well as giving you a sense of what individual agents' strengths and weaknesses are.
Don't just talk to writers - listen as well. Who's really happy with their agents? If people are complaining about their agents, why are they doing so? (When I switched agents a few years ago, it was to the agent that a couple of close friends of mine had just left. She's a great agent for what I need, but was no longer clicking with where they were emotionally as writers.) Which agents are actively looking for writers, and which have full stables?
If that's not an option, think about the contemporary writers whose work most resonates with yours. Look on the acknowledgments pages of their books to find out who their agents are. Go to those agents' websites and look at their client lists and submissions guidelines (which will be similar to the process outlined in the "submitting a manuscript" chapter. Even if that particular agent is full, one of the newer associates at her agency may have an opening, if you fit well with what they've good at selling.
The Rest of the "How Publishing Works" Series
The series so far:
Part 1 - Why bad things happen to good books.
Part 2 - Avoiding publishing scams.
Part 3 - Literary conventions (with an emphasis on SF Conventions).
Part 4 - Book packagers.
Part 5 - Submitting a manuscript.
Part 6 - Publishing lists.
Part 7 - Literary agents.
Part 8 - Copyediting.
Part 9 - Marketing and publicity.
Part 10 - Outlining.
Part 11 - Editing.
Note: I'll be off hiking for a week or so following the Lamont-Lieberman primary tomorrow, so the next episode will probably not be until late next week. I'm thinking of writing about copyediting and proofreading next, possibly followed by marketing, but as always let me know what you want to read next.
Comments are closed on this story.