If you’ve been paying attention to the literary agency world in the last month or so, you probably heard about the embezzlement conviction of Darin Webb, the accountant for the 49-year-old UK literary agency: Donadio & Olson. Webb’s total theft? $3.4 MILLION DOLLARS.
Then, this opinion piece came out on kriswrites.com and was passed around, warning of the dangers and lack of oversight for all agents. It may have left you wondering… with all the risks, why would I want a literary agent?
Well, at Balticon 52, I got to hear a variety of perspectives from published authors who’ve had every sort of agent possible. Here are the stories of Leah Cypess, Keith RA DeCandido, CS Friedman, Tee Morris, and their hunt for a quality agent.
How These Writers Got Their Current Agent
CS Friedman started off with just a publisher. They handled all her negotiations and used their standard, boilerplate contract. After book 2 was published, two agents contacted her.
THAT’S when she found out that the standard contract with agents has her share at 80% of foreign sales or tv deals and the standard one, when it’s just publishers, had her share at 50%. Not a scam, just the standard rates.
Keith DeCandido got his start as an editor and broke into writing with media tie-in work, where there’s not much room for negotiation. So? Once he started original pieces, he already had contacts and knew who he wanted to ask and had the track record to appeal.
Leah Cypess spent years sending her works to publishers… 20 years ago when the market was different. And eventually, began to get rejections saying, “Not this, but do you have anything else?” Once they accepted her book, they suggested she get an agent.
Not knowing any better, she asked for their suggestions. This wasn’t a great idea for several reasons:
- The agent felt compelled to say yes to maintain a good relationship with the publisher
- She felt compelled to accept their suggestion
- The agent wasn’t actually very familiar with her genre and market, and they were a mediocre match.
What Do Agents Do For You?
Other than the money, which a good contract lawyer might help with, what other reasons are there to get an agent?
- They are your biggest fan
- Many are editors and can make your story better
- Or hire someone to do it for them
- They take off the negotiation pressure
- It’s a lot harder and trickier to run a bidding war for yourself!
- They can yell at Editors FOR you so you can keep a good relationship with the editor
- They have relationships with the Editors already
- They know what books the publishers are looking for
- They can vouch that you will fix [whatever] and that your ego won’t get in the way
- It’s more convincing when someone else believes it
- They manage your IP [Intellectual Property]
- A good agent is neither a pushover nor belligerent
- They’ll do right by you without making the editor’s life hell
Once You Have An Offer In Hand
Once you have an offer from an agent, it’s considered professional to send a notice to the other agents sitting on your query, giving them 1-2 weeks to decide.
Do NOT lie to get agents to make them respond faster. Agents talk.
Two weeks is about the limit, maybe three if it’s summer or a holiday. Longer than that will make an agent feel like you’re using their offer to find a better deal. Don’t do it.
When Should You LEAVE An Agent?
You worked so hard to GET an agent, you thought this meant you’d made it.
But sometimes, it just doesn’t work out. Now, this is something you don’t usually hear writers talk about, but 3/4ths of professional writers have left an agent.
- No news is NOT good news.
- They should check in regularly and let you know what they’re doing for you (2-3 months is fine).
- They’re not submitting your work or following up with the publishers.
- 6-9 months is a reasonable wait with publishers, but your agent shouldn’t just be sitting on their thumbs.
- They’ve gone from no-contact to immediate deadlines with little warning.
- Your career has changed direction and they don’t know your new market.
- Your agent stopped fighting FOR you!
- Maybe you didn’t sell like they’d hoped
- Maybe they signed some fresher or bigger names
- Maybe life came up and they’re distracted
It doesn’t matter the reason, once they’ve stopped being your supporter, it’s time to move on.
Dealing With Leaving An Agent
No matter your personal relationship, an agent-writer partnership is a professional one. And once they’ve accepted you on as their client? Your agent is actually your employee.
You should write a VERY professional (and not personal) break-up letter.
Remember, they STILL get their percentage on all contracts they’d negotiated for you. Like a divorce, you’re sharing custody of the “kids”. And typically? Your money goes to their agency and they pay out your portion.
WHAT? It should be the other way around! — Well, maybe. But this way, you don’t have to pay taxes on THEIR portion of the money.
When Don’t You Need An Agent?
- Short story submissions. The money isn’t there and they typically don’t come into play.
- Note: A cover letter from an agent CAN help with the top markets, though
- If the publisher does ANYTHING to ask for stuff
- That turns your manuscript into ‘SOLICITED’!
- Note: Usually, waiting to hear back this way is even LONGER than with agents.
- If they’re shmoozing about how they can ‘see it as a movie’. Movies are a hard field to break into, and literary agents have about nill influence there.
A Few Notes About Publishers
- Publishers are ALWAYS looking for the “Next Big Thing”
- Small publishers are hungry
- But before you opt to go with them, pay attention to:
- their audience
- their resources
- their current market
- the quality of their products
- But before you opt to go with them, pay attention to:
- Traditional publishers have known names lined up and will bump new authors back if they’re worried about the market impact
- Their lead books get all the marketing money and the rest are ignored
- BUT! They get you into every bookstore in the nation, so their lack of marketing is still exponentially greater than most small publishers can hope to achieve.
- You typically get a smaller advance — for a wider distribution
Getting an agent is hard, but getting the RIGHT agent is harder. Here’s to hoping it’s a good match when you both swipe right.