Agents and What I Know About Them (and how I got mine)

The debt has been called in. For more than three years, I’ve been saying that I would address the topic of agents, but I always found something else to write about, if I wrote at all.

Now the jig is up. I recently received an e-mail from a hard-working up-and-coming writer about just this subject, so what better time to answer it than now?

With this caveat: I got my first agent about twenty years ago. During that time, some things have changed radically. We’ll get into that when it comes up.

Given that, here’s what I know about agents, in a handy Q and A format.

Why do I need an agent?

Excellent question. Some authors, like Joseph Wambaugh, don’t have an agent, preferring to do all the sales and negotiation themselves (and Wambaugh is an ex-cop, so he might have a leg up on the negotiating thing).

Other authors want agents to use as a buffer between editors and themselves, putting the agent in the role of a go-between, bringing word of revisions wanted by editor to author, and conveying weeping and gnashing of teeth from the author to the editor.

Most of us fall in between somewhere. I would rather talk directly with an editor about creative matters and let the agent talk money. I think it makes for a more friendly working environment.

That said, I have an agent for the following reasons:

  1. I don’t want to worry about the money side of things. I let my agent handle that.
  2. My agent negotiates with publishers to keep rights that might come in handy later (e.g., film, foreign).
  3. My agent has sub-rights agents who market those retained rights to foreign countries and the movies. I don’t have the connections to do that myself.
  4. My agent thinks ahead on new industry developments like electronic rights.
  5. My agent has a line on what legal issues may befall an author and knows how to deal with or circumvent them.
  6. I occasionally get e-mails from folks wanting adaptation rights to my books. Some have money in their pockets, some are working on a wing and a prayer. My agent separates the wheat from the chaff.
  7. If I have a non-editorial problem with a publisher, I let my agent take care of it.

Other reasons: Some agents act as pre-editors since most editors are too busy to spend time on manuscripts and grooming authors like Maxwell Perkins once did.

Some reasons for not having an agent:

  1. Saving yourself between 10 and 25% of the money you get from the publisher

Is the percentage worth the services an agent provides? That’s for you to decide. If you’re an old horse trader from way back, you may not feel you need an agent. If you can’t even negotiate a curve, you may want to consider getting one.

Does an agent need to live in New York?

Back when I was looking for an agent, my answer was yes, or at least within easy driving distance. My logic was that part of my percentage was going to him to schmooze editors at lunch and be a physical presence in their offices.

Since then, I think the paradigm has shifted. Checking the Internet for literary agents, you’ll find that, thanks to e-mail, fax machines, cell phones, and frequent flier miles, they now live everywhere. There are agents in Tampa, Florida and Phoenix, Arizona.

Me, I’m still a little old school. I think I’d lean toward a New York agent. But if I found one whose vision matched mine and it turned out they lived in Walla Walla, I wouldn’t instantly write them off the way I once would have.

So how do I go about finding an agent?

Pretty much the same way you go about finding a publisher. Get a copy of Writer’s Market or Literary Marketplace on your desk. Then write the best query letter you can and make sure you have the best manuscript you can write to back it up.

As you start looking, you’ll see that there are a whole lot of agents out there. How to sort? Well, like publishing houses, you can quickly weed out agents who wouldn’t be interested in what you’ve written. Sending a manuscript titled Blood, Guts, and Thunder to an agent whose authors write titles like Love’s Unexpected Tickle is a mistake.

One thing to consider: who is an author that writes like I do and who is his/her agent?* Query them. If it’s a bigger agency, you might not get them, but you might get an assistant… and the power of the Big Name Agency.

Which prompts another question. Big agency or small? With a big one, you do have that name power. But you also have a large client list and risk getting lost in the shuffle. Smaller agency? No name, but a hungrier agent and more individualized attention.

On the other hand, if you get a new agent at a big agency, they can be hungry, too.

So how do you find an agent? The same way you find a publisher. Painstaking research, lots of postage stamps, and a thick skin.

Do I have to have sold a book first in order to get an agent?

That’s the great Catch-22 of the industry. You have to have a sale under your belt in order to get the attention of an agent, yet you can’t sell a book unless you have an agent.

Actually, I don’t think it’s as absolute as all of that. I know writers who sold a book first, and I know writers who got an agent first. There are still publishers out there who are friendly to unagented manuscripts, so a great piece of writing can still go in through the slush pile and make it into print. And there are agents who will take a look at unpublished writers.

Other tactics: some writers have sold a book, and before negotiating the contract, ask the editor for the name of a good agent and try to snag one that way, guaranteeing them at least one commissioned sale. On the other side of the coin, some agents look through magazines and other places where short stories congregate in the hopes of finding a new client and make the first approach. But you’re not reading this because you’re waiting to be discovered, are you? Good for you.

It helps to approach the agent with credentials. Where an editor might want to know what qualifies you to write the book in question (You’ve written The All-Carb Macrobiotic Diet and you’re… a plumber?), an agent may be more interested in your writing experience. What kind of writing have you done in the past that lets you think you can pull off this novel?

Huge Hint: If you’re a first-timer, don’t even bother with a proposal for a novel you haven’t written yet. Write the manuscript first. Crossing the finish line is a huge task, and gives you a leg up on Everyone In The World that has An Idea For A Great Book.

Anything else I should know about agents?

Well, in my search experience, I found that I was generally treated worse by agents than publishers. Yes, I followed everyone’s guidelines and presented my most professional package. But I must have had a string of agents who had bad days and felt the only way to deal with their stress was to send a little spleen and sarcasm my way. Editors, on the other hand, were always polite, even when sending form rejections.

I think this may be due to the fact that, while Editors need Writers, the Writers need Agents (and Agents need Editors, making this a nice Rock-Paper-Scissors triumvirate). Your position in the food chain determines the demeanor you see. I once walked away from selling my first novel to a certain editor because we had creative differences over how the book should begin. But she was always gracious and kind, and kept the door open to work with her in the future. A similar situation with an agent might result in a slammed door.

It could also be because editors can triage authors at the manuscript stage, whereas agents have to deal a little more directly with personalities. If you don’t believe me, take a look at some of the horror stories shared by Miss Snark, literary agent. In one memorable post, she explains why agents are so humorless in their responses: “More than half the time, you aren’t joking.”

What about other media like comic books? Would it be better if I had a creative team in place?

You’re getting into an area I’m rather vague on, even though I’ve done it, I loved doing it, and would do it again at the drop of a hat.

What I do know is that the comics industry is a lot like acting, screenwriting, and working as a DJ at a radio station: unless you’re a superstar (Frank Miller, Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman), if you get a little big for your britches, there’s always someone waiting in the wings who would do the job for free just for a shot at the big time. So no matter what you do, you must tread lightly.

As far as going into a comics project with a creative team in place, I really can’t say. I do know that there are agents who work the comics industry, and some book agents who cross over or are interested in crossing over. I suppose this would make you much more selective during the sorting process.

As for me, I lucked out. If I want to get back into comics again, my agent is interested in working in the field, so I wouldn’t have to start a search. But he may be more exception than rule. Sorry I’m not of more help here.

So okay, how did you get your agent?

All right. You’ve cornered me. At long last, here’s the story.

I published a book first. But I tried – I really tried – to get an agent without them knowing that I had published a book.

Here’s how it happened.

After selling A Death of Honor to Del Rey, I wrote a novel about small town police work called The Mushroom Shift and got it into the slush pile circuit, whereupon I started The Company Man. Some time went by and a publisher was dragging their feet on getting back to me on Mushroom, so I decided that maybe I should get an agent to move things along. After all, I knew I could sell SF books, but maybe mainstream was a different animal.

As a subscriber to Writer’s Digest, I occasionally got mailings from the Scott Meredith Literary Agency. They were pushing their critique service, but I went around that and queried them about Mushroom. I can’t recall exactly what I said, other than the fact that a publisher was looking at it, but I remember not playing up the fact that I’d sold a novel to Del Rey. My thinking was that I wanted them to take Mushroom on it’s own merits (I should note here that I was still in my twenties and still had some vestiges of creative idealism).

But fate being the funny thing it is, here’s what happened. A Death of Honor came out. The Del Rey staff loved it, and whenever someone came into their offices, they pushed a copy into their hands. One of these hands belonged to Bill Haas, who at the time was a Foreign Rights Agent for Scott Meredith. He read the book and loved it.

Then one day Bill went into the office of a colleague. He looked down and saw a manuscript on the desk. He looked at the cover page and said to the agent, “Do we represent this guy?”

The agent said, “No. It just landed on my desk. I’m supposed to take a look at it.”

Bill Haas said, “Look real hard. I just finished reading this guy’s first novel and it’s terrific.”

The manuscript he saw was, of course, The Mushroom Shift. The agent’s name was Kurt Busiek (yes, Kurt Busiek the comics writer and creator of Astrocity – this was during a period when he tried to get out of comics and into publishing).

And so I ended up with an agent, not in spite of A Death of Honor but because of it. Had I been older and smarter, I would have bludgeoned them with ADOH, but hey, it worked out.

When Kurt went back to the comics (taking me with him for my brief stint writing for Marvel’s ill-fated Open Space series), I was handled for a year by Carmen Ficarra. When Carmen left for Penthouse magazine (and tried to take me with him – saying I could write any fiction I wanted, as long as it had a sex scene in it – I politely declined), an agent named Joshua Bilmes asked to represent me.

Joshua became a Vice President when Scott Meredith died, and a year later when the Scott Meredith Agency itself died, Joshua called me and asked if I wanted to come along to his new one-man shop – JABberwocky, A Literary Agency. I did.

Thus, I’ve had experience with big shops and small, without ever actually looking for another agent.

So that’s my look at agents, fragmented as it is. I hope this helps. And if I have been so badly out-of-touch that a lot of this information is sour, then, well… that’s what the comments sections is for.

Listening:
I know I’ll never make it on the cross
Spent my days looking for what my daddy lost
He was too proud to have a boss
Sold himself out then he couldn’t afford the cost

(via iPod Shuffle)

*If you’re one of these “but nobody writes like I do, my novels are unique unto themselves, I’m a real American Original” types, then you’d better re-up your subscription to Writer’s Digest for another year and keep working at thinking commercial. After all, I can say that only I can write Joe Clifford Faust novels, but I also work at making them salable. Say it along with me: We are in this business to have fun and make money… and there is no sin in making money.

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4 responses to “Agents and What I Know About Them (and how I got mine)

  1. Hey, Joe! Long time no speak.I figured I’d correct you on a couple of matters. First, I wasn’t trying to get out of comics during my career as an agent — comics had decided they were going to get out of me, as it were, so I needed a day job. During that time, I still wrote comics, and got back into the field full-time once I was able.Second, and I may be wrong on this, but I’m not sure I was the agent who had THE MUSHROOM SHIFT land on his desk. If nothing else, Bill Haas rarely came into my office. My guess would be that Russ Galen was the agent in that conversation, and I was simply the guy you were handed to thereafter.But as a very new agent, it was a delight to be working with a writer who was (a) new enough so that I could actually be involved in things (I mean, it’s nice to be handed a new Harry Kemelman manuscript and told to read it, but it’s not like there was any doubt where it was going to wind up), and (b) a strong, confident, capable writer right from the get-go.There were other new or newish writers on my list for whom I had to explain things like “Captain Kirk was not a happy camper” was not a good opening sentence, “The world situation is getting crunchy” was not a specific-enough description of a future setting, and in one case, a novelist whose novel fell apart halfway through, and the editor interested in buying it and I talked him through revisions that felt like Zeno’s Paradox — after the first, it fell apart 3/4 of the way through, after the second it fell apart 7/8’s of the way through, and we finally surrendered and the book came out only falling apart in the final chapter. [This last writer has gone on to win some major awards, so who knows, maybe the editor and I were just wrong…]So it was a pleasure to be able to work with someone who knew their craft from the start. I doubt I helped your career much, but I don’t think I hurt it badly either, and I’m still grateful for the crash space during our cross-country trip.kdb

  2. Wow! I’m following THE Kurt Busiek!Now that I’ve got that out of my system…For those interested in writing comics- From what I have managed to piece together, many of the publishers that are taking submissions ask for a few (generally 3 to 5) finished pages.So if all you’ve got is a good idea and a script- look for an artist that understands the medium.Also, maybe I was looking in all the wrong places but it seemed like precious few comics publishers were even accepting submissions.

  3. Joe, I can ensure major, major money if you write Love’s Unexpected Tickle. Major money. Think about it. ;)

  4. I’ll do it, Dave! I’ll write Love’s Unexpected Tickle for you! By fortuitous circumstance, I just happen to have a ms. that would fit that title perfectly. (Or Blood, Guts and Thunder for that matter.) I didn’t sound too eager, did I?

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