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Agents again

devilwrites said 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?

I'm not sure if I have or not.

I think I haven't, skimming past, and because in some ways I've attempted to keep information posts as general as possible, I probably haven't addressed this all that much. The question is not personal, in the standard sense of word personal, but I think the answer is personal in the sense that each writer will probably have a slightly different take on it.

When I first started, in the late '80s, I think it was less essential in some ways. I still think that it's possible to get published without an agent, although many houses will only look at agented submissions now. In regards to the terms you get for a first novel, an agent is unlikely to be able to do better than you can do yourself, if you've read up on this and you've done a little contract homework. In most cases, they can't get you more money or better royalties; they can better some terms -- reversion clauses and the like -- but beyond that, it's not clear to me that the effect is concrete.

Agents are almost like publishers when you're first starting out. All the attendant uncertainty, insecurity and hope that one feels when one sends out a novel is the same, regardless of whether it's going to an agent or a publisher. The desperate drive to be published is not unlike the desperate drive to find an agent. I understand both of these things because I've been there.

There are editors in this business it would kill me to work with; they're fine editors, but our personalities would cause small nuclear explosions whenever we connected. That's me. Other authors don't have the same difficulty. It's the same with agents, in a way, but it's worse -- because the agent is, in theory, supposed to work for you, and are therefore paid to get the best deal for you. (The editor works for the publisher, and it's her job to get the best deal for her employer.)

Do they? Well, yes and no. They work for you in the sense that they don't get paid unless you do; they get a cut of exactly nothing if they can't sell your work. Most agents in this day and age charge 15%; some also charge expenses on top of that. Foreign rights are usually at 20%, with 10% going to each agency (yours and the foreign one). Given the number of publishers who no longer consider unagented manuscripts, a lot of writers now feel as if they have to have an agent to break in at all.

This isn't entirely true. Publishers like Tor, DAW, Roc or Baen will look at unagented manuscripts. I believe that Del Rey and Bantam only look at agented submissions; I'm not entirely sure what HarperCollins/Eos does. Small presses don't require agents, for the most part.

However… if you can find the right agent for your novel, the agent can choose the first house that they submit to; they can begin to strategize early; they can offer advice based on what they know about each publishing house. If they're established agents, rather than agents who are just starting out, they'll have a client list and working relationships with editors in the genre.

For me? I don't think an agent, in my early years, was essential. Why?

Because I didn't have as much inherent confidence in my business sense, and because I had a far less certain sense of what I could actually accomplish. I knew I could finish a novel, yes. I knew I could finish novels, yes. But what kind, and in how long? That knowledge came later. Because I didn't realize how important it was to know what I could do, in concrete terms, much of my early output was sort of meandering. I focused on the writing; I ignored the realities, even when I understood them.

I think that working well with an agent requires two things: the ability to communicate well, and the ability to talk about the business on an almost equal footing. Having both of these things requires an author to be assertive. Having a sense of what you can do, versus what you think you can do is also essential -- and it's something gained by trial, error and experience. If I tell my agent, for instance, that I can meet a six month publication schedule (first book, second book, third book, in six month intervals), I should be able to do that (I can't, fwiw). Telling an agent that I can, when I can't, makes strategy harder for both of us. Having learned by trial and error that this is not something I can reliably do means that I know more or less what I can do, and we can plan accordingly. It's not that I'm terribly slow; I'm just not reliably fast, and that has to factor into the discussions.

I really do think that one of the essential things an agent can bring to the table -- the one that exists between author and agent -- is long-term planning. But the desire to plan for the long-term, and the focus to stick to a plan, is not something that every author wants or has at certain points in their career.

Knowing what you want from an agent requires you to have a sense of how the business works, because what you want should be realistic, and in proportion to what you can achieve. You have to be able to communicate this ability to your agent, so he knows what he has to work with before he then goes to the table that exists between an agent and a publisher (or editor) with the project in hand.

If you've written novels, and published novels, you become a known quantity. This isn't always a good thing, if the quantity is bad. But bad sales aren't a death knell; they aren't permanent. If you can learn from your mistakes, separating them from publisher mis-steps, you approach an agent with more experience.

This doesn't really answer the question. I know authors who are published and are doing well who don't have agents. So, no, even now an agent is not essential. If you're writing doorstops, you have a big strike against you in the foreign markets, especially translation markets -- and foreign sales are one thing that are very difficult to do on your own. It's one of the biggest reasons to have an agent, if you need one -- but the foreign markets are all regrouping at the moment, and it's harder than ever to break into them.

If you can read contracts, understand them, and have a reasonable sense for what you can achieve in negotiations on your own, you don't need an agent for a first book sale. You probably don't need an agent for a second book, either, because the numbers for the first book won't be in, and the leverage of numbers won't be in your court in either direction. But if the first couple of books do well enough, an agent then becomes more helpful, because at that point, the agent will probably have a better sense of what he or she can achieve in terms of bettering your contract.

Would I be without one? Not now, no. But there's been a sea change in my attitude over the last several years, and I think that I'm in a position now where an agent is both useful and necessary. For my first four novels? I had an agent, but I'm not certain that having one made any difference.

On the other hand, some houses prefer to deal with agents. Why? Because it means the editor and the agent can play the legal tango out from beginning to end, and you can stand aside. They can say things to each other about you that you don't have to -- and probably don't want to -- hear.

In this case, if you get an offer, you can find an agent who will take you on at that point. The only difficulty with this strategy for finding the agent of your choice is that the agent might not have confidence in your work; he knows it will sell, because it has, but the sale wasn't made by him; it was made by you, and by the book you wrote. If you can get an agent before any offer is made, this is a good thing -- provided that the agent is a good agent. The fact that a good agent will take you on does give you a bit of a leg up, but in the end, the book is what counts.

As for finding agents? I'm not sure what resources I would turn to. I know that the SFWA guide does list authors by their agencies, which is useful if you have some sense of the market; you can take a look at clients that have been successful, and you can, if you think your work is similar to their list, approach that agent, or those agencies. I found my first agent by going to Worldcons and sitting through panels on agents. I found my second agent because I knew enough writers by that point that I could evaluate their careers and see the similarities between those and my own; I approached my current agent on that basis. He has done some things for me that I would have found much harder to do on my own. I've done some things that he would prefer I didn't do. There's a balance and compromise there that I couldn't have achieved in my early years; in some sense, I don't think I was ready for it at that time, because I was much more nervous about what I was doing, and about how it would all turn out.


( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
Sep. 12th, 2004 07:21 am (UTC)
A small addendum: you do not ever need an agent for short work.

I know that wasn't specifically asked, but in my Creative Writing classes it's always a standard question from beginning writers: "Should I get an agent for my short stories?" I can't imagine an agent even considering representing short work except for a top-selling name because the economics are terrible. 15% of a $300 sale just isn't worth the effort. And having an agent send in your short story isn't going to up your acceptance rate, anyway.

Agents are for novels. Period.
Sep. 12th, 2004 09:29 am (UTC)
A small addendum: you do not ever need an agent for short work.

Good addendum; I was, as usual, being somewhat ego-centric -- I was thinking about novels. None of my short fiction sales were agented. There was one agency that insisted on it, because they wanted the rights to the short stories (that would be Scott Meredith), but it's gone now, isn't it?
Sep. 12th, 2004 08:22 am (UTC)
Hmmm...this is all very informative, thank you. :) It's nice to have this stewing around, and I *really* like what you said about having a plan, knowing your long-term limits. How easy would it be to finish a novel and go get it published without having a sense of what you can do in the long term? I would've never thought about that before, and thanks to you, I have. :)

I'm gonna save this in my memories and may come back later with questions. Thanks again!!
Sep. 12th, 2004 08:25 am (UTC)
From my perspective, without an agent I probably would not have made it into print, let alone made a living at it from the first. The first sale was via intense networking and insider trading, which I had zero access to and no knowledge of. I was in academia, not retail--so basic street smarts were not there. The agent got me read and noticed by people I had no access to on my own--I knew nothing of the con circuit, knew about SFWA but only through its Nebula anthologies.

No Internet for the masses then. We're talking 1981. I typed my first ms. on the latest and spiffiest Smith-Corona typewriter.

Both of my agents have been strong on career-building and project development. It's very much a collaborative effort for me, though my actual novels are totally solo, I don't workshop or share them until they're finished. (Personal quirk.)

The observation that bad sales figures are not fatal or permanent should be strongly qualified. Yes, they drop off the computers after a decade or so, but ask yourself how many meh-to-shitty-deal "rising stars of fantasy" from, say, 1993 are still publishing novels, and how many of them died the death of shrinking sales figures. Computerization of the system means that your agent can no longer fudge the figures. Anybody can look and see just how sucky they are--and decline to purchase your next project no matter how much they personally may love it. You might not get driven out of the business--but you might have to start over under a pseudonym.

Yes, bad sales figures are a bad thing, and yes, they will affect your ability to sell subsequent projects. Consider that book sales are currently judged by performance in the first eight weeks, and ordering systems order the same number of new books as they sold of the previous book. Since sell-through or sales before returns runs around 40% on a good day, that means your first order can be for 100, but the next order may be for 40, and the order after that could conceivably be for 16. As long as your name is in the system with X number beside it, that's your number. It seldom goes up, but often goes down. And each time it goes down, it's pretty much guaranteed to drop further. This is lethal for series writers, especially if you add in Stupid Publisher Tricks such as taking volume one out of print shortly before the publication of volume three--you may only see two or three volumes before the publisher declines to purchase more.

Bestsellers are feeling this, too, by the way. Figures are down even for top authors. An editor told me recently that authors who used to sell a million at 40% are now selling half or a third that, still at 40%. The system seems to be designed to implode.
Sep. 12th, 2004 11:12 pm (UTC)
On the other hand, some houses prefer to deal with agents. Why? Because it means the editor and the agent can play the legal tango out from beginning to end, and you can stand aside. They can say things to each other about you that you don't have to -- and probably don't want to -- hear.

I was told by more than one editor to get an agent because an editor simply CANNOT release foreign and other subsidiary rights to a writer who is un-agented. The sub-rights department figures you can't market them, so they will fight like blue blazes to keep them. In this one thing, an agent may earn her/his advance on a first novel.

Also--an agent will protect you from very sneaky turns of phrase that might turn into indentured servant status somewhere down the line... I think it was Tanith Lee who was tied into such a horrible clause at ********* (insert publisher here) that she stopped writing fantasy/SF for adults and turned to British TV and YA work? Does that story sound familiar? SFWA tried to help her, but she'd signed the contract....
Sep. 13th, 2004 08:30 am (UTC)
Now that's interesting.

( 6 comments — Leave a comment )