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Getting an Agent

A reader said to me recently, "I could never write professionally because I don't want an agent telling me what to write."

Um. Having an agent tell you what to write is like having a realtor tell you what kind of house to buy.

First of all, an agent works for you. You pay them. They receive (customarily) 15% of all your writing earnings. This is tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of dollars, over five or ten or fifteen or fifty years! You are hiring someone to represent you to whom you will pay possibly a hundred thousand dollars over the next twenty five years. They work for you, not the other way around.

An agent is a professional, like an attorney. Your attorney doesn't tell you whether or not to get a divorce or tell you who to leave your money to in your will. They represent your interests. You tell them that you want to create a trust fund for your grandchildren, and they figure out how to do it. They don't tell you that you shouldn't leave your grandchildren money -- or if they do, you need another attorney! Many authors have several agents over the course of their career, and that's ok.

You write the books that you want to write and your agent sells them. That's how it works. Now, sometimes they will legitimately tell you that they cannot sell them. For example, if you go to a realtor and tell them you want to buy a house in Dallas, unless you live in Dallas they're likely to say that they only sell properties locally and refer you to a realtor in Dallas. By that same token, if I went to my agent and said that I wanted to sell a children's picture book, she would quite legitimately tell me that she can't sell that -- she only represents adult fiction -- and would refer me to an agent who sells children's books. She would not tell me that I shouldn't write children's books, or that children's books are stupid, or that I was wasting my time writing children's books. That is not how a professional acts, and my agent is a consummate professional.

She is also honest. She has said in the past that she had tried a manuscript everywhere she could, and that she could go no further with it and I should consider epublishing. Which is entirely on the up and up. Once she has sent a manuscript out fifteen times to her best contacts, she can tell me she just can't sell this one. That's legit. What would not be legit would be telling me that I shouldn't write x or y or z because it's impossible to sell or it's worthless.

Everything that is of reasonable quality can sell -- somewhere. Maybe it's small press. Maybe it's a specialty press. Maybe it's epub. But unless it's simply unreadable in terms of quality, it can sell somewhere if you are persistent enough.

But do you need a professional agent? That's a matter of intense debate right now, at this moment, among professional writers. The publishing industry is in flux right now, and no one knows how it will look in twenty years.

My take -- and this is just my take -- is this: yes, you do need an agent if you want to submit to large, traditional publishers. If you don't, then no, you don't need one. It depends on your book. I have a good friend who is a very successful author of lesbian romance and erotica. He's sold twenty or so books without an agent. But lesbian romance is a specialty press, a niche market. It's not a big traditional publisher. If you are selling directly to an epublisher you probably don't need an agent. However, you still will be best served by one if you want to go to a big house in a crowded genre.

Keep in mind, however, that you are looking for an agent to represent you -- like a realtor or an attorney. An agent is not an impressario. They aren't that greasy guy in the modeling industry who promises "I'll make you a star!" Also, if your manuscript is good enough for one agent to want to represent you, it's good enough for another. It's like college admissions. If you can get into Princeton, that's not your only choice for where to go to school! You can shop. You can be choosy. Who are you going to hire at the rate of 15% of your income for the next decade? You are the client. So write the thing that you want to write and then find the right fit for it. That's my best advice.



Dec. 6th, 2011 08:19 pm (UTC)
Yes! Yes, yes, yes! :-) Now, ok, I do currently have an agent now who has strong opinions about what I should write, but I've been doing this for (omg) 25 years and I have even stronger opinions about what I intend to write. I actually hired him for his opinions, with both of us knowing that I would not necessarily follow his suggestions. He also does not handle everything I write, and we are both comfortable with that. Not every agent would be, which is fair, but this combination is something I find valuable at the moment.

And that may change. I have had three agents so far, in a 25-year career, and each one of them was extremely good at the thing I needed at the time. So my first agent was wonderful at getting publishers to look at, and take a chance on, unpublished writers. My second agent was fabulous at moving careers forward. My current agent is someone who excels at helping writers break into new fields. In five years, or three, or ten, I may need someone who specializes in something else, and I will move on.

Or I may go in entirely the other direction, and spend that 15% on editing/copyediting services and fabulous cover art for my own ebook imprint. But that's a whole nother story....
Dec. 6th, 2011 08:59 pm (UTC)
My agent does not handle everything I write either. For example, The Ravens of Falkenau was a small press sale and not handled through my agent.

And yes, who knows where this will go in terms of ebook or small imprints? It's truly changing so fast.
Dec. 6th, 2011 09:09 pm (UTC)
Back in the days when we walked barefoot and uphill through the snow both ways to make a sale, it was understood that unless you were already enormously successful it just wasn't worth your or your agent's while for your agent to handle short fiction. I think the same is becoming the case for small press/epress sales: there's just not enough money involved to make that 15% pay for either of you.

The other thing I've always wanted an agent for is to handle negotiations. It's very hard for me to play hardball over a contract and then turn around and work creatively with the same editor who's just - quite legitimately and properly - tried to beat me down on contract terms. It's been worth 15% to me to not have to shift gears like that.

Edited at 2011-12-06 09:10 pm (UTC)
Dec. 8th, 2011 12:21 pm (UTC)
I see that it's becoming the case with ebooks as well. Though the thing is that the money does add up! There are certainly people making more on ebook sales than many writers do through traditional publishers. Which is such a big difference. I was reading that the average advance from major publishers has dropped about $5,000 in the last three years, while ebooks are selling increasingly strongly. Sooner or later these numbers will converge.
Dec. 11th, 2011 07:36 pm (UTC)
If you're ever looking for editing/copyediting services, I imagine you know a person or two who would faint at the opportunity! ;)