Sunday, December 20, 2009

On Agents

I got an e-mail the other day from an author - an unpublished one - asking for advice about who took slush (unsolicited) subs besides Baen. His comment - "I don't want to send my manuscript to an agent - I earn little enough without paying them." showed me just what misinformation is still out there.

The first absolute and inviolate rule of publishing (and there are publishers, agents, distributors and retailers all keen to break it) is that money flows toward the author. That is the purpose of copyright. It's there to give rights to the author, so that the creative arts might flourish to society's benefit (when I was young, we 'ad dinosaurs, and also some politicians who took the long, wide view...) An agency charging a reading fee or recommending a book doctor is not a literary agency. They're scam artists preying on people's hopes and dreams, to be regarded with the same disgust as vanity publishers (which is not the same as self-publishing).

There are plenty of agents who have set out what they do and don't do. I'm sure Amanda can point you at some of the sites - I know she has in the past. They're useful to read. What, sadly, there isn't is an equally frank set out of what authors and publishers think good agents do and don't do. The problem is that publishers have gradually changed the job of agents, and made authors very dependent on them, which is in fact the inverse of their original role -- once upon a time agents took a very small percentage of the author's income to see the author could get on with it and write with the minimum hassle. You only got an agent when you were well established and at least potentially very high-earning. The agent did all those things that so many of us are really bad at, from negotiation to being a social secretary and psychologist. At a certain level of success (a very high one) this is still an agent's role. But there are few clients that can support this (call it level A). Most of us will never be... and somewhere down the line agents started taking in lesser names and noobs. It's fairly obvious that at this level the agent has one principal purpose: to sell your book and to hopefully raise you to the next level of desirability as a client. Mostly when you read agent XYZ rant about not being client's shrink or diaper-changer that is the level they refer to - which is where most of us are, and in reality will probably stay. As publishers have abrogated the task of filtering unsolicited subs the position of agents to noobs has become the inverse of agent's original client/author relationship - you need them, they don't need you. None-the-less it's not as unequal and dependent a relationship as some agents portray. It's quite common for authors to 'move up' to other more powerful agents. However - inevitably - this situation has led to a few agents behaving like abusive husbands, with 'wifey-author' trapped in a relationship that destroys them. Seriously, just like in those reationships, the best way is not get into them in the first place, and if you are in one, painful as it may be, get out with minimum damage if possible. There are some things as an author you need in your relationship with your agent and there are some mistakes not to make. Ask me. I've made most of them. Firstly you are a person of (potential) value. Your agent is not your shrink or social secretary. They will not necessarily sell a book quickly and easily - and being 'needy' and bugging them every 10 minutes is not helpful. But you are not their secretary either. If months pass and they never communicate, and do not reply to e-mails (which are not every 10 minute needys) then really, they're not interested.
Be VERY wary about being taken on by an agent at the commendation of a better-known author-friend. The agent needs to _like_ your work to sell it. I appreciate being turned down by Sarah's agent -- it improved my respect for her. Ideally your agent (if you are published) should have read and liked your work before you approach them. If they see you as a potential cash cow, but really like a different style of book, don't. They'll be bad at selling what you want to write, and be very likely to try and push you into stuff you don't want to do. And this is not a relationship of equals - agents are often wrong (so are authors), but don't try and tell them this. Just go elsewhere.

Finally, your agent - at this level - is essentially a salesman. Do not remind them of this fact (some of them are rather twitchy about their importance), but when you go through the list of their do's and don'ts that's really all that is left. Their primary job is to sell your work. It's not quick or easy, and you need to make it as easy as possible. That means there is one author responsibility that I have never seen any agent mention: you need to give them stuff to sell. Just as getting married is not the end point in a relationship... or to put it more bluntly - If you want have a baby just because you had sex once doesn't mean you're going to get pregnant. It might never happen, but it probably won't happen if after nine months nothing has occurred... and you'd better try again. you have to keep up new proposals and books, even if you really want to sell the older ones. And if nothing happens for say 4 years of mutual effort... well accept you're not fertile together and go elsewhere.


Rowena Cory Daniells said...

And there are so many agent blogs out there, the aspiring writer can look through the sites, read the blogs and get tips on how to approach an agent and what they are looking for.

So there is no excuse not to do your homework. :->

Dave Freer said...

Yes, Rowena, worth reading them. The relationship between writer and agent is an important one, and you have to feel secure about it. There are several agents whose integrity and love of their clients and work comes through in their writing. There are others... well after reading their blogs I wouldn't have them.

Amanda Green said...

Dave, awesome post and oh so true. With your permission, I'll post a list of links relating to this topic over the weekend, linking back to your post today. IIRC, one of the agents I respect a great deal -- not sure which one right now or on which blog -- wrote about the evolution of agents' responsibilities and how that changes who they take on now.

But I also know where your e-mailer is coming from to a degree. It is becoming an almost mantra these days that it is easier to find a publisher than it is an agent. And that is scary since the number of traditional publishers who take unsolicited and/or unagented queries is very, very small. Baen is one of the few.

There are more e-publishers out there who take unagented submissions. The trick there is doing your homework and finding an e-publisher who does exercise quality control and who has a track record. Hmmm, do I sense a blog idea there?

Dave Freer said...

Amanda go ahead - I've tried to be evenhanded about it. Yes, I also know where the noob is coming from, and deeply sympathise. But there are ethical and good agents out there. And yes, as you know I am very interested in e-pub and how it plays out.

Chris McMahon said...

I find the waiting game the hardest to play. Its like it takes you three years to load your shotgun (write the novel), then you shoot into the dark and wait to see if you hear anything drop. I guess I might get faster at reloading but life rarely cooperates on that score.

Kate said...

Agent blogs are certainly an effective way to learn about how the business works - and which agents you wouldn't touch with a ten foot barge pole no matter how glittery their client list is.

It seems to me that there are now too many intermediaries between author and reader. The chain has effectively become author > agent > publisher > distributor > bookstore > reader. Any time that happens, the assorted intermediaries tend to lose touch with who their actual customers are (so do some of the producers, for that matter). Those who have a decent fan base could possibly skip the intermediate steps without problems, but how does everyone else manage? Someone's got to do the filtering, but by the time the agents filter off the slush, the publishers filter off the slush and hte agent submissions, the distributors filter off anything that isn't going to pay them enough to push, and the bookstores filter off what they think won't sell, half the time what the reader gets to choose from is so homogenized and standardized there isn't much left.

Um. I'm rambling again, aren't I?

Two more days of work, then I can sleep in and recover from feral emergency releases.

Dave Freer said...

chris - so true, And isn't irritating and not a little straange that the original purpose of agent was to do away with that

Dave Freer said...

Kate I think that is one of the most perceptive comments i have read for years. Inevitably multiple filters do clog and take out a lot of goodness as well as dross. What we actually need and want as readers is a coarse filter and the visibility of all sorts of material

Rita de Heer said...

Well, Dave on filters, I guess you are talking about the great e-world ... a coarse filter indeed and visibility of everything out there.