Monday, March 29, 2010

Why do you need an agent?

by Jane

So back to that age-old question again, and an experience I had last week that provides the response.

I received a call from a man who had already sold his book to a publisher (he had not submitted it to multiple publishers, and so really had no idea what it was worth) for a modest sum and had located and “hired” a movie agent through the internet. He had found an attorney (I am not sure how) who had “reviewed” his contract for him.

When he called me, he wasn’t sure why--he had just been told by his editor and publisher that he should have an agent.

I agreed that I would be interested in helping him, and he instructed his attorney to send me a copy of the contract and to talk with the movie agent to tell him that I would be on board.

But then I looked at the contract and I was stunned. There was a huge problem on the very first page; knowing that we didn’t have a signed agency agreement, I didn’t read further but I am absolutely certain that there are other major problems in that contract that will lead to problems down the road.

Ultimately, this writer told me that he had decided not to use an agent, after all. He thought there was no need as the publishing contract was already signed. I wished him well, but thought to myself that he had made a very big mistake at the beginning and hoped that he doesn’t rue the day he made this decision and that the movie agent is successful in helping the book become a film.

Vetting contracts, of course, is not all we agents do. And, as you’ve gathered from our posts on this blog, the sale of a book is just the beginning of our work with our clients. But, this is a good example of why it’s important to have an agent in your corner.

I am curious what you think about this experience and look forward to hearing.


  1. The way I see it. In order to have a successful writing career I will need to:

    -- Write a string of entertaining stories that people want to pay their hard earned money to read.

    -- Edit and revise those stories until they're readable.

    -- Handle a large portion of marketing and getting the word about my book releases out to the public at large.

    -- And balance all of those things while still trying to keep the "real" people in my life from feeling overshadowed by the make-believe ones.

    Having someone I can trust to go to bat for me and make sure I get the best deal possible for all my hard work, handle the ever changing front of the publishing industry (see e-books), make sure my advances & royalties are being received in a timely manner, and still be there to tell me the rough draft I need to turn into an editor before I'm really comfortable doing so isn't as craptastic as I'm likely to think it is ... frankly, I don't understand why anyone wouldn't want an agent.

  2. oh,geez. Sounds like a scam.

  3. I've heard my share of people relay that 15% of their profit is just too much to share, leading to the question of what an agent *really* does. The above example reminds us once again that 15% of nothing is nothing. Assuming that one can negotiate a contract successfully or navigate an industry with which one was previously unfamiliar is a bigger gamble. Thinking that all contracts are good contracts is dangerous. Oh well.

  4. I would love to have an agent in my corner. I think 99.9% of the people who read this blog would love to have an agent in their corner. But I think for a lot of writers, it's less about choosing the agent and more about hoping some agent chooses us. Some people may get frustrated or just be ignorant and decide to forgo the agent. That seems about as wise as going to court without a lawyer, and I hope I never get there. But if the choices are: a) go it alone (without an agent) or b) don't go it at all (because you can't get one)...well, that's a choice that requires some thought, doesn't it?

  5. I have no intention of submitting to publishers without an agent. An agent knows all the ins and outs of contract negotiation and they have knowledge regarding specific houses/editors that I don't. If I feel confident that my agent has my back, I'm free to concentrate on writing and marketing. The story you highlighted here is just one reason I'm taking my time with the process -- I'm hoping to avoid as many newbie mistakes as possible. :)

  6. Oh, boy. I feel bad for this guy. Anything you get into, writing or otherwise, you need to do your research and at least know that you're not the expert. I'm incredibly, incredibly grateful to have someone vastly more experienced than me looking out for me and my work!

  7. When I first started thinking about being published, I sent letters out to publishers who were accepting unsolicited queries and manuscripts. I got polite rejection letters back every time, and was terribly disappointed, but looking back on it now, I'm so happy it worked that way. Much as I admire and respect editors and publishers, I understand that they're looking out for their own interests. I've realized just how important an agent is, and how much I'd love one to be in my corner.

  8. Wow, he managed to sell his book without an agent? Even if he gets ripped off I'm still envious. I gather most debut novels don't earn out there advance, so he's only losing a few thousand after taxes, since most debut advances seem to be $5000ish.

    And if he's Ernest Hemingway he's got a lot more ahead of him, including subtle humiliation of anyone who ripped him off along the way.

    Am I crazy enough to be an eccentric author or what?

  9. Why would I try to fly a plane if I have never flown one, and there's a seasoned pilot sitting right next to me?

    I get it.

  10. I know I need an agent. I would love to find one who wants to represent me...

  11. I keep hearing that I should find an editor first and an agent to negotiate the contract second. That is, it's easier to find an agent if you have something that someone else wants to buy. I don't know. Is there any truth in this mumble-jumble?

  12. Anon 1:00 AM: It is generally easier to get an agent if you already have an editor at a big house making an offer. BUT (and this is a big one) it's generally much easier to get an agent than it is to get an editor at a big house to offer on an unsolicited work.

    I personally think it's a much better idea to try to get an agent first, not only because it's easier (not easy, mind, but easier) than getting an editor, but also because with agents, if you keep getting rejections and go on to revise and change your manuscript, you can have a second chance at representation. Whereas (in my experience at least) if an editor rejects something in its early stage, they are very unlikely to want to give it a second look, even if it comes through an agent the second time.

    Of course, any editors are welcome to correct me if I'm wrong.


  13. I think my experience is pretty on point, though it deals with The Wrong Agent rather than no agent, though I would argue the two are just about the same.

    I sold a book via The Wrong Agent. She proposed NO changes to the contract. So I called her up and asked some specific questions about the terms of the contract, and she gave me what I now know to be BS answers. I specifically asked about the meaning of a clause that in my reading, seemed to give ownership of my characters to the publisher. She informed me I was misreading the clause. I also asked about the option, which was essentially, my next novel, submitted on the basis of a FULL manuscript with a year to pass. She said there was nothing to be done about that. Those are just two things that stand out in my mind.

    My editor wanted to see my next book but I told her I wasn't done and that I had to send her the whole thing. (My agent was MIA by the way: wouldn't return calls or emails or reply to correspondence.) My editor said to just send her what I had. I did, we talked, she offered to buy that book, too.

    Time passes ... I part ways with The Wrong Agent (who got 15% of a sale in which she had NO involvement)

    I have a new agent and a new sale with the same publisher. My new agent sends me a HEAVILY changed contract. I was stunned by all the changes in my favor, including things I just would never have thought of (and didn't). Absolutely floored by all the things The Wrong Agent had not done for me. No ownership of my characters (yes, my reading of that clause was correct), a narrow option clause for a proposal and 3 chapters and 6 weeks to pass; changes too many to list here.

    I learned as well that publishers keep copies of the preferred contract terms of agencies they deal with, and those contract versions are sent for those clients.

    I'm no longer with that publisher, and I'm still paying for what The Wrong Agent did not do on my behalf. It's cost me money, rights and future projects.

    Anyone writer thinks they don't need an agent is either friends with a literary rights attorney or is just plain misinformed. The right agent's 15% is worth every penny.

    Before you sign with an agent, ask around. Ask other writers what they've heard. Talk to current and, if you can, former clients. And then LISTEN to what you're being told. If you're good enough to get an offer of publication, then you're good enough to make sure you have the right agent.

  14. Oh how I wish I had started out with an agent! Anyone hear heard of books like "New Moon" or "Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist"? I thought so. But have you heard of MY book, which appeared with both of those books on two prestigious lists of recommended reading for teens? I doubt it...because my publisher is small, and has little money for promotion. I like to think that an agent could have shopped my book around, and a bigger publisher could have really done something with it. But I was naive, and didn't understand the role of an agent back then. For another take, see this blog post by author Jo Treggiari .

  15. oops - can't believe I spelled "here" incorrectly above....sorry folks - I DO know better!