Today is the first in a series of guest posts from our clients which we'll be adding on alternate Thursdays. Starting us off is JA Konrath, author of the Jack Daniels mystery series that includes WHISKEY SOUR, BLOODY MARY, and RUSTY NAIL. He also recently edited the anthology THESE GUNS FOR HIRE.
AGENTS: KNOWING THE GOOD FROM THE BAD
by JA Konrath
If you're writing poetry, short stories, newspaper articles, or a memoir about the 38 years you spent watching television, you probably don't need an agent. Pretty much every other writer does. But how can you tell the good agents from the bad ones, and how can you find one that's right for you?
Dystel & Goderich are my agents, and they are good ones. I chose them over five other agencies who offered me representation. D&G stuck with me through three unsold novels before landing me a big contract. They're savvy, professional, personable, and connected.
Unfortunately, not all agents are created equal.
There are people on the fringe of the publishing world who call themselves agents, but really aren’t. These folks prey on new writers by asking for money in the form of reading fees, representation fees, critique fees, book-doctoring, promotional fees, or editing services.
NEVER give an agent money. Agents should make their money by selling a client’s work, and that’s all. Standard commission is 15%, which is taken from the checks they mail you. You should never have to mail them a check for anything. D&G ask for copies of my manuscripts to send to publishers, so they don't even charge Xeroxing fees. This is how good agents do business.
If an agent wants to represent you, and their service requires any kind of up-front fee, walk away. Anyone can claim to be an agent. No license or special training is required. Research the agent before you send to them. Visit Writer Beware (http://www.sfwa.org/beware/agents.html) and Preditors and Editors (http://www.anotherealm.com/prededitors/pubagent.htm) for tips and lists of questionable agencies.
If you do get a legitimate agent interested in your book, be genuine. Be grateful. Be excited. This is awesome. You should be celebrating big-time.
But before you sign with them, think about what questions you want to ask the agent. There is a great list of questions to ask at the Association of Author’s Representatives website at http://www.aar-online.org. Here are a few:
- Who have you sold? Can you put me in touch with some of your authors?
- What do you think needs to be improved in the books? Revised? Tweaked? Edited?
- Do you have editors in mind for these books? What's your selling plan? Have you sold books similar to these?
- What can I expect, in terms of time frame to sell this?
- Will I get copies of my rejection letters? Will I be kept in the loop--who has the manuscript, when you expect to hear from them, etc?
- What can I do to make your job easier?
- What happens if you can't sell these books? Would you like to still retain me as a client, and see more work from me?
- Does your agency deal with subsidiary rights? What are they, exactly?
- What is it about my work that you like? That you don't like?
- Do you have an agency contract?
- Do you give a 1099 tax form at the end of the year?
The AAR also has a free service that lets you look up agents to check if they are an AAR member (the
The agent should also be able to give you a list recently published titles, happy clients, and be able to put you in touch with authors who can supply a reference.
It goes without saying that you shouldn't bug an agent with these questions until they've asked to take on your project. And it's perfectly acceptable to tell an offering agent, "This is a big decision, I need a few days to think about it." Which will give you time to check her references, and call other interested agents and let them know you have another offer... that should light a fire under their butts to read you quick.
Beggars can, and should, be choosers. A bad agent is worse than none at all (and I know this for a fact, because I had a bad agent before signing with Dystel & Goderich), so you owe it to yourself to find one you're compatible with.
In my opinion, here's the MINIMUM an agent should do:
1. Return your calls and emails within a few days.
2. Let you know which publishers have the manuscript.
3. Give you copies of rejection letters from publishers.
4. Submit manuscripts within a few weeks of accepting them (assuming they’re ready to be submitted).
5. Keep track of who owes you money, and get it to you promptly.
Good agents also:
1. Keep in touch with you on a regular basis.
2. Tell you what they like and don't like about your writing, and offer suggestions.
3. Have a plan on where to submit the book.
4. Actively take an interest in your career, what you're currently doing, what you plan on doing next, and offer advice.
5. Keep an ear to the ground and an eye on the market, knowing what publishers are looking for.
7. Explain the business to you.
Of course, relationships are a two-way street. Keep in mind that you also have to be a professional, and keep up your end of the deal. Here is a list of things that agents are looking for in their clients:
1. A book they can sell.
2. A writer who is easy to work with.
3. A writer who can accept advice and criticism.
4. A writer who understands the market.
5. A writer who can meet deadlines.
6. A writer who is in it for the long haul.
7. A writer who doesn't call and pester them constantly.
8. A writer who is grateful.
Like any good marriage, the agent/writer relationship is based on communication, similar values and goals, and the ability to compromise and get along.
And like any good marriage, you can pretty much assume the agent is always right. At least, mine is. :)