The Why & How of Working with a Literary Agent: Part One

If you're just entering the think-I'll-write-for-a-living game, don't be surprised if you feel like a doofus. You should. Even if (maybe especially if) you have prior business experience, you're going to find the business of writing runs counter to every scrap intuition a rational person might be blessed with. Publishing's a very old business with its own traditions, and woe unto you if you don't take the time to learn the rules of the game. Since the acquisition of a literary agent is often the first stop on the Publishing Facts of Life Tour, I'll be spending some time this week sharing what I've learned over the course of a dozen years, thirteen novel sales, and associations with four different reputable agents. Feel free to chime in on the comments section with your own observations or questions.

Not every author works with an agent. Some make the choice not to share 15% of their earnings (and 20% of foreign sales, typically) due to the belief that an agent could do no better than they in negotiating their publishing contracts. This is often cited as a reason for going agent-less by authors of juvenile fiction as well as those who sell to Harlequin and Silhouette's "category" romance lines or to smaller presses. (A portion of these authors feel it's worth it to pay the agent so he/she can chase down missing contracts or payments, field questions, and/or schmooze their editor to their benefit.) Some authors, however, don't have agents because they secured a publishing contract before they were able to attract an offer of representation from an agent. This happens, though generally not with the better-paying publishers, who often refuse to consider (or don't seriously consider) unagented work. (They like the agents to separate the wheat from the chaff to lighten their huuuge workloads.)

Agents take on clients they believe have the potential to be moneymakers, if not stars. They will often pass on writers they believe to be publishable at less-profitable levels (or those writing books with niche appeal), just as they pass on published authors with modest earnings potential. If agents didn't make such choices, they couldn't stay in business. Though it's tempting, try not to take it personally.

If you decide to go it alone, I highly recommend that you purchase, read, and take lots of notes on the most recent edition of Richard Curtis's How to be Your Own Literary Agent. It teaches you the basics of literary contracts (which bear little resemblance to other kinds of contracts you may have encountered). Even if you do pursue representation, I think this book is extremely worthwhile. I bought and dissected it after getting my first agent so I could talk about business matters and set priorities on my publishing contract wishlist without coming off as a total moron.

Another book that will help you fully understand the big picture is
The Career Novelist, by agent Donald Maass. I learned a ton about business strategies in publishing from this book and highly recommend it.

Next Up: When, where, and how to look for a reputable agent


Joni Rodgers said…
Thanks for doing this, Colleen. I learned most of what I know about publishing through trial and error (I made lots of errors, and it was very trying) and that includes some major blunders in the agent area.

I resisted getting an agent at first because I didn't want to hand over what felt like total control to someone who had no real stake in my success. After all, the agent can have as many clients as she wants, but the author can only have one agent. If I get back-burnered by my agent, there's not a damn thing I can do about it. I hated how vulnerable that made me feel, and I still do. For me, trust is by far the most difficult aspect of the author-agent relationship.

I placed my first two books with small presses unagented. When the guy who edited my first novel turned down my third book, a memoir about my chemo, he said, "I'm passing on this project for two reasons: First, if you publish this book, you'll be stuck talking about cancer for the rest of your career. And second, this book could and should come from a bigger publisher. If you're serious about a writing career, get yourself an agent."

He was right on both counts.
Jolie Mathis said…
Great recommendations, Colleen! I'm looking forward to this discussion!

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