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Answering a question about agents

rowyn said:

I agree with you that editors and agents have interests that align pretty well. I'm curious about the utility of agents, though. Do you think they're providing a valuable service for publishers or writers, in the case of first-time authors? I can see the benefit of agents to established authors; I'm hazier on how they help unpublished ones, or what they do that the publishing house couldn't do cheaper with their own readers or interns.

I broke this out of comments because it's a two part question, and at least one part is something I'm often asked. For anyone who knows the answer, or who doesn't feel like reading mine, I've answered the question behind the cut. To your complete lack of surprise, it's not really a short answer.

In the current market, and if your publishing focus is confined to major publishers, the clearest valuable service agents provide for first-time authors is pretty simple: they get your books read and considered. There are still publishers that will look at slush; there aren't a lot of them. When I sent out my first book, I sent it to Del Rey on my own; at the time, they were still open to unsolicited manuscripts. They aren't, now. If I were a first-time novelist with a finished manuscript that I wanted considered for publication in the current market, and it did not, say, scream "this is a Baen book" at me, I would try to find an agent.

I'll go back to the question of how an agent is helpful for a first-time author in just a second, because I want to take a brief detour to answer the second part of the question.

I'm hazier on how they help unpublished ones, or what they do that the publishing house couldn't do cheaper with their own readers or interns.

I had a little bit of trouble parsing this one. I can only parse it as: Why are agents of first time novelists valuable to publishers, if publishers could more cheaply handle slush themselves? Because I can't see a role for a first time novelist in the discovery process, beyond the writing/submitting. (But if that wasn't the question, and rowyn wants to save me from my lack of comprehension, I'll give it another shot)

I can answer that question: Publishers can't handle slush more cheaply themselves.

Regardless of their policy on submissions, publishers are going to look at agented submissions, whether or not the novel being submitted by the agent is a first novel. The agent is still going to be doing the same work to find and build a stable of his or her own; the publisher is still trying to acquire new, good books. The writer is, for the purposes of either process, immaterial, but the two processes are not the same. (The writer, of course, is pivotal to the industry; I'm just focusing on this one element).

If the publishers leave the agents to do the discovery work, it saves them a lot of time and effort; the agents serve as a screening process. Since individual agents have different tastes and quirks, rather than a single over-riding sensibility, publishers are going to get a broad spectrum of what a much larger group of first-readers think is publishable than they would if they hired an intern, with the added benefit of the agents' personal experience, built over a roster of clients at a variety of different publishers.

(i.e. you couldn't hire interns that have that kind of experience to read through your slush. And you do not have to pay agents for any of this work. They do it, from a publisher perspective, on their own dime. It's free. It's not part of your overhead.)

The publisher therefore saves time and money, imho, by considering agented works. The agents are stuck with the process because that's how they build their early stables.

But...neither of these processes are done for the benefit of first-time novelists.

Publishing your book at all is not done for the benefit of the novelist. It's done because the publisher feels it can make money by doing so. It's not a charity, and it's not an act of kindness on their part.

Agenting you? Is, in fact, done for the benefit of the agent. It's done because the agent feels that over time, they will be able to make a living with you as part of their stable. It is also not an act of charity or an act of kindness.


It is an act of faith. People can confuse these two things. I don't think they should. Pretend I'm a first-time novelist, but with the ability to actually make sense of what older and wiser writers tell me (I will say up front that I had no such ability, sadly). I have absorbed what many novelists have said about agents and I actually believe it applies to me. As opposed to believing that I'm the exception, honest, everything will be different. Ahem. I digress.

Because I actually believe this, and because I have a book I think is ready for prime time I am now looking at whatever I can find about possible agents. I realize that it's the author-to-agent relationship that I build with the agent that will be enormously important to my future. I also realize that the best agent in the world for someone else might be the worst one in the world for me because even if he represents works I adore with all my heart and mind, he and I may not work well together. His (or her) personal style and mine may not only not mesh, they might be oil and gasoline.

The ability to trust your agent is partly based on how you work, and how they work. I know agents I couldn't work with who are beloved by their clients, and who work very well for those clients. So I am looking for someone who's work style meshes with my own, and oddly enough, that's going to be my top priority at the moment.

Unfortunately, it's also one of the hardest things to be able to figure out with no experience, which is what you end up having.

I narrow my choices down, for the moment, to agents that I have heard speaking, spoken to, or who blog extensively; or agents whose clients I personally know. The latter, not because I have some hope of getting a referral, but rather, because I can grill them for hours on how the agent actually interacts with them.

I am enormously up front. I am, in my natural habitat, enormously blunt. If I am hearing things that I consider grossly misrepresentative, I am likely to stop listening, usually by saying something tactful like well, that sounds like bullsh*t.

So I am looking for an agent who will somehow not instantly want to fire me to be rid of me. I am looking for an agent who will also be blunt and up front as much as possible, regardless of the news. I'm also looking for an agent that actually listens to me, and understands that I do have some understanding of how parts of the industry work.

I find one. I am going to use 'he' and 'his' here, because my agent is male; I can think of a number of female agents I would be thrilled to have as an agent were I not very happy with mine (whether or not they would want me is an entirely different question, which I will leave alone).

What can he do for me for a first novel? The most important thing: Get it read. Send it to the editors he knows and deals with who might be interested in this particular kind of book. If no one reads or is willing to read your book, you can't sell it.

If and when the book is read, and an editor makes an offer to publish it, what can he do? Well, he can't suddenly get me a huge, huge advance. It happens, sometimes -- but the odds are vastly against it, and I would like to be realistic, here. He can get a small raise in the advance that I would otherwise be offered. That will cover his cut. He can hold on to a bunch of rights, which we may or may not be able to sell elsewhere. He can get some boilerplate changes made, pretty much automatically, because various agencies are offered different "agency" boilerplates, which is a step up from the regular contract.

If you look at this only as a money proposition, he will earn his money on the first book. If he can sell foreign rights, he will instantly have done more for you than you could reasonably do on your own.

These are all money questions, however.

What he can do that I could never do is ask for all of these things, in whatever his style is, without interfering in the author-editor relationship. He can be as greedy and mendacious as he likes on my behalf, and again, that doesn't interfere with my relationship with my editor. I want, when I talk to the editor, to talk about the writing. If I've just had an hour long scream about money, it gets in the way of that goal. And if I am asking for something outrageous, it lingers there, like a shadow. Editors expect agents to be greedy. They do not, rightly or wrongly, expect me to be as greedy. I think it's one of the most important things about having an agent.

He cannot make me J.K. Rowlings. Or Nora Roberts. Or Stephen King. He cannot guarantee me a book tour, an interview on Oprah, or NYTimes interviews and interest. He cannot stay on the phone with me for hours at a time, holding my hand while I'm having a meltdown. He cannot force the publisher's sales reps to push the hell out of my book.

These are all things that an agent can do for a previously unpublished author. But. I think it's a hard question because while what I've said here is what an agent can do for a first-time novelist, there are other things that should be taken into consideration.

What the agent gets from that first book sale? Is not, imho, worth their time. I did say it was not an act of charity, and I did mean it; the act of faith part now comes in.

Placing a first book takes a lot of time, effort, gentle nagging; it takes a lot more editing time, prep time for submission. It takes more time because the client is both excited and nervous, and writers with nerves have to handled with care. And for 95% of these books (or more), you will get a standard first book offer, not more, not less. You will, for your time, usually get much less than you would for your established clients, for whom you will have to do less hour-by-hour work because they have working relationships with various editors already in place.

But you do this because you are hoping to grow an author's career; you are hoping that with each first book, you're going to build something that lasts and grows. You take on the first novelist because you love their book or think you can sell it (hopefully both), and doing so is an investment in the future.

No agent is looking for a one-shot. And no author should be looking for an agent as a one-shot, either.


( 10 comments — Leave a comment )
Apr. 24th, 2009 08:37 am (UTC)
This is a great post. It's not something I've ever thought about before, as my relationship to books is really just READING them, but the point you made about the author/editor relationship and about how greed would get in the way without an agent there to protect them from it... well, that was wonderful.

Makes perfect sense when put in that light.
Apr. 24th, 2009 12:21 pm (UTC)
The agent/author relationship is therefore an investment for both parties. It's like putting money away in an RRSP: sure, there are other places that money/time/energy could go right now, but the eventual payoff of interest plus the original capital at a later date is worth it.

This was a terrific post. Thanks.
Apr. 24th, 2009 01:00 pm (UTC)
This is a very thorough answer, and I'm glad to see an author tackling this question rather than an agent, because I think sometimes it's easier to swallow advice and suggestions from someone who is (in a manner of speaking) on your side of the equation.

Do you mind if I ask another question?

Keeping all these things in mind that you have said, are there things that a first time, unpublished novelist looking for an agent should be doing to help themselves out in the search for an agent?

Meaning: are there mistakes the first timers make that hold them back from being able to make a deal with an agent? Are there things they should be doing that they aren't?
Apr. 24th, 2009 05:18 pm (UTC)
As a writer with a book coming out in five(!) months, I would only add one thing: When my editor sends me a note about something that I don't quite understand or asks me to do something I hadn't heard about before, I can quickly contact my agent and ask her: "Is this a big deal or standard operating procedure?" "Should I buy a ticket and go to this thing they're inviting me to?"

She's great at getting back to me quickly, letting me know that yeah, it's kind of a big deal but in line with what they promised when they acquired the book, and that I might feel uncomfortable among crowds but it's a great opportunity and has done well for her other clients.

So, she also functions as coach/advisor, occasionally whispering "You should be really excited about this," in my ear.
Apr. 26th, 2009 02:04 am (UTC)
When my editor sends me a note about something that I don't quite understand or asks me to do something I hadn't heard about before, I can quickly contact my agent and ask her: "Is this a big deal or standard operating procedure?" "Should I buy a ticket and go to this thing they're inviting me to?"

This is a good point, and one I hadn't considered, for two reasons. I spent so long working in bookstores in one capacity or another, it wasn't one of the things that would have occurred to me to ask, and if I was going to ask, I'd actually phone my editor and say "Ummm, is this a big thing and do I have to go?"

The only things I really don't talk to my editor(s) about involve money.

But just as none of us write the same way, probably none of us work exactly the same way, either, which is to say, just because it would never have occurred to me (demonstrably) doesn't mean that it shouldn't occur to others -- and I think it would be very useful.
Apr. 24th, 2009 11:01 pm (UTC)
Hi there. I hope you don't mind me popping by. A friend recommended your post and I enjoyed what you had to say here.

And wanted to add a small thing you touched on. Besides the reasons you outlined on the benefit of an agent for a first time writer (both very valid points), the agent also plays a pivotal role in protecting first time writers. When signing a first book agreement, a new author may not understand why they want higher royalties, how their next option may work, why they need approval, etc. An agent, if they do their job, serves as a guide and reference on how to get the best possible agreement in the Author's best interest. Each party, publisher and writer, want the best agreement in THEIR interest and those don't always coincide. An agent serves here to go to bat for the Author, especially a first time one, and make sure the agreement is in their best interest and most beneficial for their career.

The job of the agent is to sell their client and make sure they have the best deal possible. For a first time author, this can be invaluable.

Thanks for the post!
Apr. 26th, 2009 02:09 am (UTC)
An agent, if they do their job, serves as a guide and reference on how to get the best possible agreement in the Author's best interest. Each party, publisher and writer, want the best agreement in THEIR interest and those don't always coincide. An agent serves here to go to bat for the Author, especially a first time one, and make sure the agreement is in their best interest and most beneficial for their career.

These are, of course, very good points -- I sort of folded them in because for the most part, and in the genre I write in, I have seen zero movement for things like royalty rates in first novels, either boilerplate or agented.

Also? I understood these things before I sold a book or went looking for an agent because I did read a lot about them in an attempt to make sense of what was going to govern the career I hoped to have. Once, a long time ago, I posted the actual contract, clause by clause, for my first novel, so that people in similar situations would be able to read it and see what it meant.

But my agent didn't explain any of it to me; I asked him what he could better (mostly: advance & holding on to rights) when I had the contract in hand, and he assumed that I understood what the contract actually said, fwiw.

Edited at 2009-04-26 02:10 am (UTC)
Apr. 27th, 2009 05:05 pm (UTC)
I, too, tried to learn as much as I could about publishing while I was trying to write the book but I missed some things I shouldn't have. When my editor told me they were going to distribute 500 galleys of my book, I had the impression from the tone of the email that it was a large number. It was because of my agent that I knew to respond with a "Wow!" instead of "Really? Great. Thanks for the note." or even worse: "Can't I have 600?"

But it's interesting to hear the different ways writers and agents interact. I let my agent know pretty early on that I wanted to have a relationship with my editor pretty similar to yours: I wanted to be able to ask for what I wanted myself, and I wanted her to feel free to contact me about whatever.

Still, though, there are times when she wants to be the one doing the talking, and I accept her expertise and back off.

And I remember those contract clauses. In fact, that's one of the major reasons I started exploring LiveJournal. So thank you. :)
Apr. 25th, 2009 09:25 pm (UTC)
You answered my question! In more detail than I'd thought to ask, even. I apologize for the unclear wording. The assumption I was working around is "Agents must be useful to one or both of the following: publishers and authors". If agents weren't useful to either of those parties, then it wouldn't make sense for them to be in the equation. It's not that I assume they're a charity or anything of the sort, but I expect them to be providing a service that's "worth the cost" to someone, and I don't think publishers are so naive as to think that the time and money agents spend screening authors is actually free to them just because the publishers aren't writing payroll checks for them. >:)

But your answer makes sense, both in why publishers would rather require an agent than hire their own slush-pile readers, and even with some bonus reasons for how an as-yet-unpublished author benefits from an agent beyond "you need one to get a publisher to read your manuscript".

Anyway, thank you for taking the time to answer!
May. 4th, 2009 06:39 pm (UTC)
Hi. Someone recommended this to me as a good post, and she was correct. Thank you! I like your clear thinking.

Nice LJ style, too! Feels just like coming home. :)
( 10 comments — Leave a comment )