Every once in a while, I come across posts on-line that say agents are passe. Agents are a ripoff. If you can read a contract, you don’t need an agent.
Let’s look at what an agent does for a writer–or rather, at what my agent does for me. You can infer that most of it applies to the entire publishing field.
THE STANDARD STUFF
–She negotiates contracts for me. This includes removing clauses that could get me into trouble down the road. Over the last 15 years, I’ve acquired a good eye for contract-ese, but my agent picks eensie-weensie nits that I would have no hope of catching. In a recent contract, she changed a single word that ultimately freed me from a mess of legal obligations. The publisher crosses out the contract’s original language and puts my agent’s changes in the margin, which means I always get to see the nitty-gritty negotiations she goes through, and there’s no way I’d catch all that stuff.
She has restricted or removed options clauses. (Options clauses give the publisher the right to make an offer on and haggle over my next book.) She has changed contract language to ensure I won’t be financially liable if the publisher is sued. She has eased requirements for future work so that I only need to submit a synopsis instead of a synopsis and three sample chapters. She has increased the number of author copies I get. She has shortened the duration when the book is considered “in print,” thereby hurrying the time when the rights revert back to me. And more, more, more. Most of this stuff is material I wouldn’t think to ask about, and I’ve been doing this for 15 years.
Besides that, I don’t like negotiating. I really don’t. So much easier to hide behind my agent and let her be the bad gal.
–She gets me more money. My agent haggles and harps, getting the publisher to raise an advance and/or increase the royalty rate. She ensures that the different books in a series are accounted separately, so that if Book I doesn’t earn out, it doesn’t count against Book II’s advance.
–She holds onto and exploits sub-rights. Publishers invariably send a laundry list of sub-rights they expect to keep (usually for free). They want movie, TV, ebook, audio, video game, and foreign rights, and they usually put them into the contract to see if the writer will sign them away. If Hollywood comes a knockin’, the author gets nothing. Publishers also rarely exploit foreign language rights, but they always try to hold onto them. My agent’s overseas partner does exploit them, thank you, and it’s lovely getting a check from Italy, France, or Germany because my delightful agent arranges for them.
THE LESS OBVIOUS STUFF
–She tracks down checks. Although publishers are cracking down on publishers who miss deadlines, they continue to be remiss in meeting their own, and checks come late nine times out of ten. My agent makes gradually more and more irate phone calls about late money, since her income is on the line, too, meaning I don’t have to yell at people who are editing my words.
–She gets me extra work. I’ve written half a dozen media books over the years, and all but one of them came because someone called my agent and said, “We need someone to write __________. Do you know of anyone?” And my agent replied, “I believe I do. Let me call Steven.” I wouldn’t have had those contracts without her.
THE SOCIAL STUFF
–She introduces me around. When I go to conventions or other writer-type events, my agent takes me by the arm and shoves me at editors. “Steven, meet Joanna Redpen,” she says. “She edits the Fabulous Imprint at Wonderful House, and she just adopted a little girl from South America, just like you adopted children from Ukraine. You two should talk,” or “Steven, this is Bobby Bigwig. He’s starting up a new science fiction line at Powerhouse Publishing. His dog was hit by a car yesterday and he needs a friend. I told him you were new in town and don’t have anyone to hang out with.” When an editor can attach a face and personality to a writer, it’s easier to buy his book. How is my agent able to accomplish these introductions? Well . . .
–She keeps track of everyone. My agent keeps an ear to the ground and learns the latest gossip about who’s doing what, where they’re moving to, who’s buying, who’s selling, who has a new boyfriend, who got a new puppy, who likes what kind of scotch, and more. Her cell phone and Rolodex are the envy of Homeland Security.
–She plots strategy with me about my future career. What I should be writing. For what publisher. What style. What weaknesses I should improve. What strengths I can exploit. What market trends we can take advantage of. And so on.
There’s certainly more, but you get the idea. Agents passe? Hardly.
Chime in, folks. What does your agent do?
–Steven Harper Piziks
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