WRITING NOWADAYS: WHAT AN AGENT DOES

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.

Sure.

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
http://spiziks.livejournal.com

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WRITING NOWADAYS: WHAT AN AGENT DOES — 19 Comments

  1. Thank you so much for sharing such great details about what your agent does. I can’t imagine anyone thinking that they could to do this alone and be successful. It sounds like agents have a plateful of jobs and are an invaluable resource to an aspiring author. Thanks again!

  2. Unfortunately, anybody can roll out of bed one morning and decide to set up as a literary agent. If you are ISO of representation, make sure that the person you are consider actually has done the things Steven mentions!

  3. Steven,
    This is fantastic information. I’m sending this link to a few people who think agents don’t do much. They do a LOT. The good ones do. Like yours.

    I had a wonderful agent back in the 1990s who sold my books and did the negotiations, the check chasing, and the introductions, all pre-internet, so it was really people-skills intensive. Now am looking for a new agent and I have a completed manuscript.

    Care to share her name? Thanks!
    Eve Paludan

    evepaludan at yahoo.com

  4. I wrote and sold my first five books without an agent. Then I switched genres, and sold my first SF/F book to Tor. Thing is, I was working at Tor at the time. So what I wanted an agent for, in particular, was to be a firewall between me as employee/writer and Tor as employer/publisher. It worked well for a long time. Alas, as I haven’t worked at Tor for well over a decade, my needs are different, and I’m looking for a new agent, and one who has a broader knowledge of the (apparently exploding) small press market.

    A good agent has to be good at things I am spectacularly ungood at–notably, as Steven says, negotiating. I can do it, but I persist in believing that my time is better spent writing. Besides, I do enough negotiating with my teenager and the dog.

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  6. People who are looking for an agent (or a publisher) should not hesitate to consult Preditors and Editors — you can google it. Due to legal issues, they cannot list all the crummy agents and sleazebag publishers there are in the world. But if you email the manager, she will be happy to tell you if the agent or publisher you are in discussions with is on her Bad list or not.

  7. You forgot that your agent gives you somebody to scream bloody murder at when your editor wants you to make a change that you would have great difficulty discussing without using every word George Carlin couldn’t say on television, and then some. Or any of the million other minor things that you don’t want poisoning your relationship with your editor and publisher, but you need to get off your chest.

  8. Excellent short summary and one I’ll pass on regularly to my book doctoring clients.

    Most of the “agents don’t do anything” stuff I see comes from two populations:

    1. People who have drunk the “self publishing” Kool-Aid. “Self publishing” because it’s usually not legitimate self-publishing, it’s vanity publishing where the company pitch is “You are self-publishing just like Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot except of course that you are sending us a lot of money to do everything for you.”

    2. People who have fallen into scammer pay-workshops, where the standard line (for the few members who ever do send anything out) is that the universal rejection of their work outside the workshop proves that they don’t need any big bad agents or editors.

    You’re apt to shake both groups up a bit, and that’s always to the good.

    So, nice job in providing a reality check with a solid balance behind it!

  9. I think a lot of the time agents appear not to be doing very much because they have educated themselves and done the groundwork so they can appear to just take a mss, throw a couple of suggestions at the writer, send it off to a couple of editors, and hey presto, sale. All the years building up a reputation, learning to recognise a saleable mss, and building relationships so they _can_ send it to the editor who will buy it remain invisible.

  10. Steven, you’re lucky to have such an effective agent. Sadly, they are not all so wonderful.

    I’ve had less happy experience with agents, and I’ve found that I prefer to work with a literary attorney who does the important job of negotiating my contracts, but who is not so hands-on in other aspects of my career. This works for me, and I mention it because it is an example of another model. There’s more than one way to run a writing career.

    For the record, I have drunk no “self publishing Kool-Aid,” nor do I attend “scammer pay-workshops.”

  11. That’s another way to do it, though you still have an agent, after a fashion. It’s someone who does his/her best to keep you out of trouble!

    Eve, my agent is Lucienne Diver with The Knight Agency. Their web page is at http://www.knightagency.net/ , which includes submission information. She rarely takes new clients these days–her stable is nearly bursting–but the other agents at TKA may be reading submissions, too.

  12. I have an advocate, not an agent. People associate a specific kind of interaction with the word “agent,” so I think it’s best to differentiate.

    I firmly believe every professional writer should have an advocate. An agent is one kind of advocate.

  13. I don’t have an agent yet, but boy do I want one. Particularly because I have an editor interested in my ms but wanting some revisions, and I would love the professional insight and guidance of an agent. So I’m querying some more, while also trying to muddle through this process with the help of friends (some of whom have been published) and family, as well as my own instincts.

    I’m with you, though: whenever I see people saying agents are old school and unnecessary middlemen, I just think, ARE YOU CRAZY? Then I think, Fine then, more agents for me! ;P

  14. All great points. I’ll add this one. I was going for a ghostwriting job and getting on well with the publisher. She was offering all the buying signals and was really keen to work with me. She started to mention terms and I said ‘I leave that to my agent, you can talk directly to her’.
    The publisher looked like she’d swallowed an onion. ‘You have an agent?’
    ‘Yes I do,’ I said sweetly. ‘What was that you were saying about characters?’
    ‘Are you sure you have an agent?’
    ‘Certainly have. Here’s her number.’
    I never heard from the publisher again. I wonder what rip-off deal she had in mind?
    In that instance my agent didn’t have to do a thing, and I could have lied, I suppose. Although my bluff would have been called when they’d tried to phone her. And anyway, I’m hopeless at playing games. That’s what I have an agent for.

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