This post (and Part 2, to be posted later this week, in which I talk about Godzilla) are adapted from parts of Write to be Published. And there's more detailed advice about how to approach agents in my ebook, Dear Agent, which is, happily, available silly-cheaply, on my online shop.
WHY HAVE AN AGENT?
Over the years of being published by different publishers in different genres, I have gleaned some knowledge about contracts and rights and how to fight for mine. Yet, if my agent decided to hang up her stilettos*, I’d throw myself at the feet of another. Why? Partly because I want to write, not fight for my rights. And because my agent, as all good agents will, does all the things listed below and does them so much better than I could. Since agents only earn a percentage of their clients’ incomes, they have a vested interest in maximizing that income. That seems to me not a bad thing.
WHAT A GOOD AGENT DOES
- Gives honest, expert feedback on your work, and makes you improve it if necessary – lessening the chance of rejection and egg on your face.
- Knows where to send your work – including individual editors and their preferences – and sends it for you, so you never have to worry about a submission again; discusses you with publishers who trust her judgment.
- Negotiates the best deal, including every aspect of the contract, having a finger on the pulse of what other agents are negotiating, especially in the changing arena of digital rights etc.
- Sells subsidiary rights – such as foreign, film and TV, and audio.
- Understands royalty statements and queries them if necessary – royalty statements are a minefield for writers. I tend to come over all faint when I see them.
- Has an eye for new opportunities – publishers, particularly in educational and children’s markets, will tell agents what they are looking for and your agent can pass this information to you.
- Manages your long-term career, guiding you in sensible directions.
- Deals with problems, niggles and disasters. These things will happen.
- Plays bad cop with your publisher, so that you can play the part of lovely, calm, reasonable author.
- Increases your earnings – authors with agents earn more than those without.
- Allows you to write.
- Create publicity for you – other than the obvious plugging of your name where possible.
- Organise your event programme.
- Edit your work – all agents should suggest important alterations and point out things they notice, but detailed editing is not their normal job, unless they actually say it is.
YOU DO NOT ACTUALLY NEED AN AGENT
Despite what I have just said, many writers manage well without an agent. If you don’t have an agent, either through choice or necessity, note the following:
- The Society of Authors provides very useful leaflets covering all aspects of contracts. You don't have to be a member to access most of the guides. The Writer’s Handbook and the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook also contain invaluable advice.
- Also, once you are offered a publishing contract, join the Society of Authors because they provide a free contract vetting service and have legal experts to do it.
- Consider joining other authors, through a writing group, to share knowledge and experiences. If you can’t find a group, set one up. But make sure you listen only to writers who actually know their stuff - so many published writers know surprisingly little about the contract side and about foreign rights etc.
- Get plugged in to such things as blogging and Twitter, because the more writers you know, the better armed you will be.
WHO CAN’T HAVE AN AGENT?
If your future earnings are likely to be very small and you are not focused on a long-term career, you will be unlikely to find an agent.
- You are a poet. It is nigh-on impossible to earn a living as a poet, except through performance, in which the agent is unlikely to share.
- You have a one-off book and no intention of writing more in the same genre. The agent is very unlikely to earn enough from one book to make it worth taking you on - it's much more work at first than later.
- You are an academic non-fiction writer. Many non-fiction writers do have agents but, again, you’d need to look as though this was going to be a career for you, and academic writing rarely pays well enough.
- You are...brace yourself...too old. Yes, I am sorry about this, but it’s the long-term career problem. However, there is no hard and fast rule about what is “too old” and it does, as ever, depend on the book. If your book is wonderful and looks as though it could sell in big numbers, you can still attract an agent. Also, the age at which it becomes harder to start a writing career is greater than for other careers. After all, if you are sixty and you’re good enough, you’ve still got enough years ahead of you to make a pretty good career.
- NB: there's still no reason why you wouldn't get a publisher, though. It's just that an agent may be more reluctant. And it's by no means certain, so if you have a great book, great style (writing style, I mean!) and a good chance of commercial success, go for it.