Tuesday, September 18, 2007

When Do You Need an Agent?

Maven Jacqueline BarbourYesterday, Erica talked a little about what agents do and don't do. Today, I want to talk about when (or whether) you need an agent.

Now, here's where I dispel a myth that I certainly held dear for a long time. I always believed that the first step to getting published was to get an agent. And that virtually nobody on the planet ever got published without first having an agent.

So imagine my surprise when I went to a meeting of the San Diego RWA chapter several months ago and discovered that the majority of the published authors in the room were unagented. And not for lack of trying.

What? How could this be? I was dumbfounded.

It turns out that most of those authors were published by smaller, niche presses or epublishers. And those publishers, it turns out, just don't generate the kinds of sales that justify advances sufficient enough to be worth an agent's while.

As one of these authors told me, it costs the agent just as much to sell your book to a small press for a $1,000 advance as to sell it to an NYC publisher for a $20,000 advance. This means that even if the agent thinks your book is fabulous and exactly the sort of thing she'd love to read, if she doesn't think there's a market for it at one of the larger publishing houses, she's probably going to pass on it. Even if she's pretty sure she can sell it to a particular small press, 15% of your $1,000 advance plus another few hundred in royalties just isn't enough to justify the amount of time of and effort she's going to expend.

Since I already knew this when I started submitting Carnally Ever After to various epresses, I didn't even bother to try to find an agent for that piece. There's no advance at all for such a small ebook and the royalties add up to relatively low amounts. (I just got my first royalty statement from Cobblestone Press, and while I'm very pleased, 15% of it would hardly be much of a reward for an agent!) Moreover, realistically, there were few places I could have sold it that would have netted a significant enough payout to interest an agent.

But let's say you're shopping a project that you really want to sell to a big publishing house. If you're not willing to drop down to the next level and choose a small press instead, do you need an agent?

In two words, hells yeah!

See, in addition to selling your book by getting it in front of the right editors, your agent protects your interests as an author. More than once at the RWA National in conference, I heard editors say that if they like your work, they will gladly purchase it whether you have an agent or not. (There are many houses, including Avon and Kensington, that take unagented submissions, so it's not like you must have an agent to get in the door.) But if you don't have an agent (or you have a bad agent), they are also more than happy to take advantage of that and beat you down on the terms of your contract.

So, suppose the fabulous thing happens and, after months of shopping for an agent without success, an editor at a major house offers you a contract. What do you do then? Well, what you do is start querying agents all over again. You may already have an offer, but you still need an agent to look out for you. She understands all that legal-beagle stuff in the contract and that alone is worth the 15% you'll pay her, even if she turned up her nose at you six weeks ago. Just make sure the one you pick is reputable and well-respected, or you might just as well be unagented.

But what if you submit your book to every agent editor in creation and none of them wants to represent you? You still have the option of trying the smaller presses and epublishers. And your book may be perfect for one of those markets.

Just be careful! If at all possible, review the contract with an attorney to make sure there aren't any clinkers in it (like you have to pay the editor and cover artist out of pocket if your book doesn't sell a certain number of copies or some such). And don't sign on the dotted line until you're sure it's in your best interests.

YOUR TURN: What do you think is the most important thing an agent can do for you? Sell you or protect your interests? Or both?


Erica Ridley said...

In addition to selling your book by getting it in front of the right editors, your agent protects your interests as an author.

So true! Plus, the agent can serve as a go-between, so that once you are published, your relationship with your editor is a good/positive one (without you seeming like you're always whining/crying for More. *g)

Sable Grey said...

It seems the best time to shop for an agent is after you do the legwork and get a contract offer from a large print publisher. Once you have a contract offer, I think it makes it much easier to get the attention of the agent. LOL Of course, because that's set money for them. But then it'll make it much easier on you when you have that second manuscript ready to be sent out. No more legwork!

Hellie Sinclair said...

BOTH! But where do you learn which agents you should ask and which you should avoid?? Who do you believe? Some people will rave about a certain agent, but the same number of people will give instances of horror....

Bill Clark said...

if you don't have an agent (or you have a bad agent), they [the publishers] are also more than happy to take advantage of that and beat you down on the terms of your contract

I think this is one of the key reasons to have an agent. (The other reason is to help you find a publisher in the first place!) (Oh, and maybe if she's really good, help you to floss and polish your book like Erica's agent did.)

Contracts can be tricky, and if you get into the fancy stuff like film rights and foreign language rights and try to do it yourself, you can find yourself living under a bridge in Cleveland like the man who invented the Mr. Coffee machine and was bought out by a shark. (Sidebar: I once met the shark when I was head of the development office at Georgetown and he wanted to liquidate some closely-held stock by taking advantange of the university's 501c(3) status. He gave away $1 million and made $5 million for himself. I've rarely felt so dirty in my life, but I was under orders to go out there and get the stock. Yuk.)

But...does Bill have an agent? No, he doesn't, although he knows a few who don't mind taking his queries when a contract comes his way. Why is this? Because Bill has not yet encountered the abstruse areas that might put him under a bridge. Usually it's a matter of taking a cookie-cutter contract ("Oh, it's standard for all our local history authors") and eking out an extra percentage point or two. The thing to remember is that all contracts, including cookie-cutter ones, are negotiable.

But when the GAN (Great American Novel, of course) is finally ready, Bill will be pestering Diana and Erica and everyone else for agenting names and tips. After all, those Hollywood rights are what will pay for the yacht and private jet that have become so necessary if one is to keep up with the [Paul Tudor] Joneses around here!

Lady Leigh said...

I think an agent should make sure your book gets read by as many readers as possible. That means finding a great publisher and making sure that pub. acts like you are God's Gift to the Written Word. I would hope my (some day) agent would get my books on display on the pub. website and in bookstores etc...

Anonymous said...

But where do you learn which agents you should ask and which you should avoid?? Who do you believe?

Research -- it all comes down to research :) (agent, research, I've found, is a great way to procrastinate while still feeling like you've accomplished something!) For me, the first step is to make sure any agent is reputable (i.e. isn't a scam agent). Then I looked for agents blogs, read about them on Absolute Write (taking all forums with a grain of salt), looked at who represented my friends, who represented the books I thought were similar to mine, etc. I also subscribed to publishers marketplace and checked on each agents' sales.

After all of that, I had a list of my top agents that I'd heard good things about (through friends, through writers loops, etc). And I queried them. Even if I heard a bad thing or two about an agent, I queried them. I figured I'd wait until I got an offer from someone before REALLY getting into the deep research.

B.E. Sanderson said...

I'm looking for both. I figure I'll need someone to champion my books and also someone to cover my behind when it comes to contracts, etc. When I first started looking for an agent, it was with the simple idea that they would do all the heavy lifting in that realm, so I could have more time to write. =oD

Kendra said...

Kristen Nelson's blog pubrants.blogspot.com lists three places to check out agent reputations. Not to mention her blog has some of the best agenting advice I've seen. Karenafox.com lists romance deals. You can see which agents are actually selling and what they're gettng from the publisher.

Darcy Burke said...

Bill, you always slay me. Great story! (I hope that's making its way into the GAN...)

Carrie, your comment segues nicely into my post tomorrow!

lacey kaye said...

I really like the idea of an agent as a go-between, like Erica said. I shall pretend ignorance of the 10% extra she's requesting on my behalf... La la la, I just write the books!

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