Tuesday 19 October 2010

How to speak publisher - A is for Agent

Health warning: this is not about how to find an agent. If you want to know how to find an agent, go elsewhere. You could do worse than start with the crabbit old bat's blog. If you want to know whether you should look for an agent, look here. This is about what an agent is, or should be, and how your relationship with your agent should work.

An agent is your representative in the publishing world. They will help you to sell your work for the best - or most appropriate - deal and will speak up for you and your work at opportune moments. At inopportune moments, they will stay discreetly silent.

Your agent is not your best friend and not your life-partner (usually). Your agent is neither your servant nor your boss, but your business partner. You and your agent should work in symbiosis. Yet many writers live in terror of their agent, fearing their agent will leave them, or will not give them the attention they need and deserve, will spend too long with other authors, will like other authors' work better, will go off them, will no longer love their work.... Remember, it is a one-to-one relationship for you, but a one-to-many relationship for your agent - just like your relationship with your doctor, hairdresser, child's teacher, or the mosquito that just bit you.

What the agent should bring to the relationship is a detailed knowledge of the market for the type of book you are writing or want to write. So if you want to write young adult fantasy, an agent who specialises in romance novels or non-fiction is not going to be much help. Your agent should know which editors are in the market for your type of book, which lists they are running at the moment, and what they are likely to be buying. Your agent should know if an editor has just signed a very public deal for a book too like yours for it to be worth approaching them with yours - and should know who will want a title to compete with that blockbuster. Having the wrong agent is worse than having no agent as they will send your book to inappropriate editors and give you a bad name while not actually getting you any money. Worse, they'll sell your book short, getting a poorer deal than another agent could have secured.

A good agent knows the publishing world and what can and can't be done in it. Your agent may handle foreign rights for you, or have an arrangement with another agency that will do this. Your agent will check your contracts and argue about anything that should be argued about. Your agent will invoice your publishers, and chase the publisher's accounts department when they don't pay the invoice. Your agent should promote you as and when appropriate, give editorial guidance on your work, and have an overview of your career and how to manage it. An agent will rarely be interested in representing someone they consider a one-book wonder, unless that book is truly wonderful and likely to make a lot of money.

An agent will give you honest advice: if your book is unsaleable, they will tell you. If the book is redeemable, they may be able to tell you how to fix it. If it's just a duff book, they should tell you that, too. If your agent thinks book after book is irredeemable, you might like to get a second opinion - maybe you have a duff agent, or maybe your style has changed and no longer suits your agent. Or maybe you just can't write and need to try a different career.

You should be able to trust your agent's judgment - their judgment of your book and its place in the market, their judgment of whether you are being offered a good and realistic deal and their judgment of what is best for your long-term career. But if you think your agent is wrong, you must speak out. Don't make assumptions that they don't value you, don't harbour resentments - ask them to explain what they are doing. And if you still don't like it, it's time to move on. You haven't committed to your agent for life, for better or worse, richer or poorer. There is a termination clause in your contract, remember? You can give notice - probably three months - that you no longer want them to represent you. The books they already represent are likely to stay with them, but it's up to you what you do with future books once you have terminated the contract. It's wise, though, to end your relationship amicably. Don't hurl abuse at them and list their shortcomings. Remember that agents talk to one another and if you abuse one, another is less likely to take you on.

Trust is a two-way street, and your agent needs to be able to trust you, too. You need to meet deadlines, deliver what you have promised and be honest. Don't let your agent line up lots of events or work for you when you know you won't be able to deliver. You need to tell your agent when you are too miserable to write, when you are bereaved, sick, injured, moving house, getting divorced or preoccupied with your day job. They know you are human and will respect your professionalism - but if you don't tell them, you will erode their trust and damage your working relationship.

Don't expect too much. Remember that your agent, though he or she loves books, is in the business to make a living, not because they have blind faith in you (though they should have faith in you) or is incensed that books like yours are not 'given a chance'. Your agent has other clients, other demands on their time and possibly cannot dedicate as much time to you as you would like. Don't be like a needy husband/wife who expects every waking moment of their partner's time - you're going to be disappointed.

Remember that your agent makes 15% of your income. If you can't live on your income from writing, your agent certainly can't. Think about it. If you make £50,000 before tax and expenses from writing, your agent makes £7,500 from you (if all your work goes through your agent). Your agent will need, say, eight or ten writers earning as much as you in order to survive. So that means you can have perhaps half a day of your agent's time each week. But then the agent also needs to read their slush pile, go to book fairs, read the trade press, meet publishers and other agents, go to launch parties, keep up with digital developments, read books.... and that has to be shared amongst everyone's time. You're down to a couple of hours a week. If your writing earns less than £7,500 for your agent, you're going to get proportionally less time. If your agent doesn't stick roughly to this pattern, they're going to go bust. They'll make an exception for something they think is a guaranteed bestseller, but that's a very rare beast, and of course they're looking at your long-term prospects so will make some investment in you, but being an agent is a business, it's not an act of benevolence.

What a real agent absolutely will not do is charge you any money to read your work, make editorial suggestions or meet with you. If an agent tries to do this, they're not an agent, they're a cowboy. Walk away. Don't hand over any money. An agent's income is the percentage of your earnings that they keep. Some agents say they will charge you for photocopying or buying copies of your books for promotional purposes, but these are out-of-pocket expenses connected with promoting you. This doesn't make them a cowboy. More often, there's a clause to this effect in the contract, but the agent never actually does charge you anything for photocopies or promotional copies.

There are big agents and small agents. Your agent may be one of many in a large agency, and this can be useful as they are likely to have expert departments to deal with things such as foreign rights, TV and film rights, and so on. They also have a lot of clout in the publishing world. The downside is that they will have much bigger fish than you in their pond and you might feel neglected. A small agent may be a one-(wo)man band, or one of two or three agents in a quaint, dusty, book-lined office in Soho (that's my agent's dusty Soho office in the photo). They may have less detailed knowledge, may not handle foreign rights themselves, and have fewer fingers to have in pies, but at the same time you'll be a larger fish in their pond and get more of their time and attention.

Having an agent is not absolutely compulsory and there are some types of writer who rarely have agents. Many poets don't have an agent, and most writers of children's non-fiction don't have agents, for instance. Academic writers don't usually have agents. These types of writing don't earn much per title and so an agent won't be interested in representing them. Nor should you be interested in giving away 15% of very little when an agent won't get you a better deal. Children's non-fiction is often written for a flat fee and, indeed, having an agent can put some editors off signing you - they don't want the aggro of dealing with someone who will try to argue about what is a standard deal; it's simpler just to employ another, unagented, writer.

For many other types of writer, though, an agent opens doors and secures better deals and is a great source of support and advice. But still the wrong agent is worse than no agent, so choose carefully. You must like them, as well as them liking you. Don't just sign up because you are pitifully grateful that anyone likes your work. If your work is genuinely good, someone else will like it, too.


  1. This is brilliant stuff and enormously useful and concise! But I would add one remark: an agent is not a lover or best buddy BUT I do think it is terribly important that she/he is a FAN of your work. It must be nigh on impossible to sell work that you yourself don't believe is marvellous....you'd have to be putting on an act of some kind. The agent's enthusiasm for their client is a huge part of the equation, I reckon. If I were an agent I'd find it very difficult to speak well of books I didn't much care for.

  2. You're absolutely right, Adele, they must love your work even if they don't love you! I thought I said this somewhere, but it obviously didn't make it to the final cut, so thank you for adding it.

  3. Actually, my agent does charge me for photocopying