?

Log in

Previous Entry | Next Entry

Agent rambling

Unreasonable things that authors expect from their agents:

1. Robert Jordan's advances

2. Robert Jordan's promotional budget.

3. Daily nurturing handholding.

4. Daily communication, period.

5. Big multi-house auctions

6. Exactly what their friends got, or more.

I could come up with unreasonable expectations to have of an agent until the cows that I don't own and never will come home. Whose cows, and whose home are another topic. I'm sure that any of you could add to this partial list as well. But it's only really there for balance and as an example of my attempts to point out that I do understand both halves of the difficulty that is the agent-author relationship.

Because I find far less frequently, and articulate with far less ease, strongly stated cases of the reverse:

Unreasonable things that agents expect from their authors.

I started to make a list, but it quickly became bogged down in unlist-like format, because each point required an example or ten. Many, many agents have written books about how an author should treat an agent and what an author should expect from one -- and much of it, imho, is often suspect; it's the rosy glow of what an agent should be to you. Sort of like the rosy glow of what a published book should be. They all tell you their there for you. But they get to define those terms. And they should only get to define half of them. Without you, they have no business.

But one of the drums that are often beaten in books like these (remember when I said I used to read every how-to book I could get my hands on? This would be of that legacy period in my intellectual life <wry g>) is that authors seem to forget that the agency is a business.

Okay. A business involves, in this case, a financial transaction. You, as an author, hand your agent either a full manuscript or a partial and a proposal, or even just a proposal. Or a napkin in one case. Your agent can reasonably be expected to take what you hand him or her and, using the contacts he or she has built up over the years, attempt to place it. As in sell it. The money that is paid to you is the money that pays you both. But it's your money, and in theory, you are rendering a percent of it -- usually 15 -- for the life of the book to the agent for their services in its placement.

If the agent hasn't placed the book -- if you have -- the agent has failed to earn his or her income; they can negotiate contracts for you, but face it, in 99.9% of the cases, they can't change much of the boilerplate that's useful to change if you're a new author. They will usually have a standard "agency" boilerplate, with little things taken out, and it's interesting because no two agencies have the exact same boilerplate to deal with. So perhaps, given the small advance, the time they've spent in refining that first-book boilerplate is worth the money you'll pay them.

I realize that I now sound down on agents. Let me say, for clarity, that I have a very good working relationship with my current agent. It is heated, and it is opinionated -- on both sides -- because we often struggle with the concept of whose career it actually is.

His point being that I have hired and retained him for his years of expertise, and if I have no faith in that expertise, it's professionally almost insulting; my point being that it's my career, and I have similar expertise, and a similar sense of possible insult. We have always come to an agreement of some sort -- and I think that having these discussions up front is very useful and very productive -- for me. I'm that kind of type A personality.

But while we have a good working relationship, that's what it is -- a working relationship. Even an excellent one. But it's business, and about business. Because publishing is a business.

Therefore, I've finally decided on a format that suits an agent discussion -- because each agent/author relationship, like each editor/author relationship, is unique. It's been compared to a marriage. I don't like the comparison. Because a marriage isn't a business relationship, and the type of partnership it is should not fundamentally be about money, and the making of; marriage is not fundamentally about selling, and buying.

Yes, folks, this is all about me <wry g>.

There are things I would never expect from my agent (the list above is many of them). There are things I would never accept from my agent. Or any agent that I was with.

I would not accept a submission that gathered mould and dust at a publisher's office for years. I don't care if he loved the editor to bits and pieces; I don't care if he thought the house was good and we should hold out or continue to do so in the hopes of a "yes". Years is too long.

I would not accept total silence or lack of communication. If I send him a proposal, and I wait a couple of months to hear back, that would be fine; if I'm waiting in dead, stone silence for six months or longer, that's not. If he failed to answer or return my phone calls or email, I would also consider this unacceptable behaviour. Again, a delay of a week or a few weeks is nothing -- but months is just too long. Common courtesy, if nothing else, requires some sort of response.

I would accept lack of enthusiasm for a project from him. He's been years in the business, and knows what he can sell, and he also knows that lackluster approach and lack of enthusiasm will kill all leverage and dampen any true negotiation. If he hates something I've sent him, I expect him to tell me why it sucks. If he doesn't think its appropriate for a market I've chosen or suggested, or even written for, I expect him to tell me why. I'm obviously behind the project -- I wrote it -- but he has to be behind the project as well. Anything less, and it won't fly; anything less, and he's hanging me out to dry; in effect, he's giving up. Does this mean I might have to surrender a project I love, or shelve it for the moment? Yes. Is it his fault? No. But if this happened with every project, it would also be a clear indication that we were mismatched.

As happens, what one agent can't sell, another can. And the difference is often enthusiasm.

You are perfectly reasonable if you expect that your agent will tell you these things in as politic and business-like a manner as possible. I personally prefer to hear "This sucks", because it wastes less time -- but I realize that this is me, and my agent realizes that this is me; like all agents, he's flexible enough to approach different clients differently.

If my agent expected instant success, this would be unacceptable. I know what the market is like. I've seen the overnight success that required 12 years of slave labour to achieve several times in my bookstore life; I know that one bad book or one bad set of sales numbers is not the end of the line, all doomsaying and gloom aside. If he's fired up about the possibility of my long-term career, this is good -- and I require it. If he's dead set against a particular book or a particular approach or publisher, he can be all of that without losing confidence in my long-term career.

But if he failed to sell one book, or if he only attempted to place it at one or two houses and subsequently suddenly stopped returning my calls or my emails because of the failure of that one book in the current market, or if he sold the first and it failed to become Robert Jordan and he suddenly stopped returning my calls or my emails -- this would be unacceptable. I'm a writer -- I can muster up insecurity and doubt on my own; I certainly don't need to pay anyone else to do it for me.

If, every time we had a discussion, we disagreed -- and in the end, I was proved right -- I would expect that his approach to my suggestions would then change accordingly with experience. I'd therefore fail to accept constant, pointless opposition.

I have seen authors accept all of the things I wouldn't from their agents over the years. I've heard of far, far worse. And again, I understand that every agent/author relationship is a unique creature. But my lack of acceptance is a universal lack of acceptance because it's based on my sense of personal and professional business ethics. If an agent wants to earn their long-term commission, and your long-term business, they have to work for it.

This doesn't mean that I expect instant success in his hands, either. If a project won't sell, it won't. It doesn't matter who the agent is -- if it's the wrong project, or it's bad timing, it's what it is. A good agent can't sell an unmarketable book. But again, if all of my books are unmarketable in the hands of one particular agent, it's time to take stock.

Some people stick with an agent who is not working for them. I don't understand why. If I hire a contractor, and he sucks, I'm not asking him back. If he hasn't done his job, he should understand why. If he fails to understand, it doesn't make it better; I do. And that's your part in this: understanding as much as you can about the business.

I know of very few people who remain all their life with one agent. Sometimes it doesn't work out. It happens; agents expect it to happen. Are they happy about it? No. But if you're leaving your agent, you're not either. I know of people who have gone through three, four or five before finally settling on the one with whom they work best. I know people who have given up on their agents for the wrong reasons (see list above), only to find that the fault was not the agents -- so I do understand temerity or caution. But it's a matter of degree. In the same way that an agent should not lose faith in you after one book, you shouldn't lose faith in him after one book. But there is a point beyond which you've spent enough good faith.

So: good communication and demonstrable faith in your ability in the long haul are the two things I think are essential to a long-term excellent working relationship.

And if either of these things are missing, it might be time to move on.

Comments

( 14 comments — Leave a comment )
janni
Sep. 10th, 2004 11:19 pm (UTC)
It's especially hard to leave one's first agent, I think.

It's also harder to leave when you and your agent honestly have different visions of your career--or how to build careers in general--but both of you are nonetheless acting honorably and professionally and not at all like idiots.

Not that I'm speaking from experience, or anything. (g)
msagara
Sep. 11th, 2004 11:10 pm (UTC)
It's especially hard to leave one's first agent, I think.

It's also harder to leave when you and your agent honestly have different visions of your career--or how to build careers in general--but both of you are nonetheless acting honorably and professionally and not at all like idiots.


You have that exactly right, on both points -- it's much harder to make that first jump, even when you've become certain it's the right jump to make. It's also harder when things are civil and professional; I think it's much easier when things have broken down to a point where there's very little communication and things feel more like a passive-aggressive sink.

But because the whole career thing has to be a cooperative effort, if you're speaking different languages for the whole of your discourse, it falls -- for me -- under the pointless opposition category.

In cases where I've made choices that my agent(s) wouldn't have, I take the hit when things turn out less wonderfully than I'd hoped; I don't blame the agents for that. But in cases where I've tried to accomodate and discovered that I was congenitally incapable of that, I expect not to take much of a respect hit either. It's an on-going process. There are times when I wish I'd listened, and times when I'm happy I didn't.

And if every single discussion was a conflict, even if it was handled with civiility all round, I think I'd find it hard, but I'd start to look elsewhere.
(Deleted comment)
1crowdedhour
Sep. 11th, 2004 08:28 am (UTC)
Exactly!
I had a similar experience.

Communication (frequency as well as style) turned out to be key.

Caroline
msagara
Sep. 11th, 2004 11:12 pm (UTC)
I left my first agent because of lack of communication. I had a lot of sympathy with her personal problems, but in the end I need someone who will return my emails and not keep my money sitting on her desk for months instead of sending it to me.

What Caroline said.

But added to it: My first agent is a wonderful person; I left in the end because our communication styles were just so radically different things never gelled into a comfortable level of equality at the bargaining table. I didn't have the problem of unreturned emails or unreturned phone calls, and even now when I call, my former agent is friendly and responsive.

And that's one thing that I keep forgetting to say (so this isn't directed at you, but at the comment thread in general <g>) -- many authors who have otherwise been desperately unhappy dislike speaking about their former agents and their experiences with them in open forums because they will still have to deal with said agents when it comes to royalty cheques, etc.
haikujaguar
Sep. 11th, 2004 06:41 am (UTC)
This is a very useful, if very scary post. Getting the first agent was hard enough! I am trying not to chew my claws off thinking of having to find a new one... and I've only had her a couple of months. :)
msagara
Sep. 11th, 2004 11:05 pm (UTC)
This is a very useful, if very scary post. Getting the first agent was hard enough! I am trying not to chew my claws off thinking of having to find a new one... and I've only had her a couple of months. :)

You're far from the stage of having to worry <g>. At this point, if I were you, I'd just worry about the writing.

I tended to keep an eye on what everyone else was doing as a way of keeping options open. Reading LOCUS, which usually reports sales and the agents responsible for them, is one way of doing that.
sleigh
Sep. 11th, 2004 07:32 am (UTC)
I think of the agent/writer relationship as a limited marriage. The agent who works for me may not work for you. I've had one divorce in my writing career -- because my first agent's enthusiasm seemed to have waned and she wasn't answering calls and letters. I'm on my second marriage now, and we've been together for a long time at this point; unless things change drastically, I probably won't leave. One quality I do have is loyalty... and it's also a quality I look for in an agent.
msagara
Sep. 11th, 2004 11:03 pm (UTC)
One quality I do have is loyalty... and it's also a quality I look for in an agent

I think that's what I meant by faith or confidence, fwiw, and I do agree that agent-hopping at the first sign of difficulty is a sign of frenetic poor planning, or an attempt to find fault with anyone who isn't you. But given the many writers of my acquaintance, I find that it's far, far more common that an author will stay with an agent who has long since ceased to have practical loyalty to the author than it is that an author will bolt at the first chance.

Your experiences may differ, though; we've a number of mutual acquaintances, but in general, our circles aren't the same.
msagara
Sep. 12th, 2004 09:02 pm (UTC)
Just a quick question -- how many of your writing students come to your class expecting to get an earful about the publishing business, and how many come looking for guidance in craft?
sleigh
Sep. 13th, 2004 04:02 am (UTC)
From what students have told me, I suspect that it's rare in college writing classes that the students in Creative Writing classes get anything but 'craft' advice, because by and large the instructors are not 'working writers.' In fact, I had to 'unconvince' several students in a novel-writing class who firmly believed that self-publishing was the first route they should choose because a previous (self-published only) instructor had told them that.

I always try to spend a class or two each semester on marketing and publishing their work, and I've invariably been told by students that they consider it some of the most valuable information I give them. As I tell them in class, if writing is a form of communication, then the act of getting it down on paper is just one aspect of the job; the other is obtaining an audience.

The students may not come to the class expecting to hear anything about publishing, but those who are truly interested in their writing (as opposed to those taking the class 'because they have to') need to hear it, and are invariably grateful for and interested in the subject.
msagara
Sep. 13th, 2004 09:31 am (UTC)
I always try to spend a class or two each semester on marketing and publishing their work, and I've invariably been told by students that they consider it some of the most valuable information I give them. As I tell them in class, if writing is a form of communication, then the act of getting it down on paper is just one aspect of the job; the other is obtaining an audience.

Yes! Exactly. I may have to borrow these words <g>.
alfreda89
Sep. 11th, 2004 07:52 am (UTC)
I think these are all good points--I wrote an article for Writer's Digest once talking about the same thing--but I am not a great judge about these things right now. Ill health slowed my production, and I haven't seem to hit on just the right project for the current market--editors love **portions** of the story, like the magic system, or the characters--but not the story itself.

It's not my agent's fault. He hasn't dumped me, which could have happened. But he did tell me he thought I'd make a lot less money as a YA writer, and leaned toward adult fantasy and SF. Well, if you hit big, that may be true--but I am no longer so sure about that, and begin to wonder if I should open up that discussion again.

I can see where slight tweaking might make some of these ideas I pitched very marketable in the current market--so it's time to tweak synopses and try again...

Would I be better off if I'd stayed with my first agent? I don't think so, but I'll never know.
devilwrites
Sep. 11th, 2004 07:54 am (UTC)
You may have posted something about this long before I started reading, so if so, you can just link me to it or whatever, but how essential in the fantasy/sci-fi writing business, IS IT to have an agent? And where is a good resource (Writers Market?) to find agents that are suited to the genre which you're writing for?
( 14 comments — Leave a comment )