Thursday, April 18, 2013

What Agents Do

Elizabeth Zelvin

With more and more aspiring writers skipping the lengthy and discouraging quest for an agent to deal directly with small presses that permit it or self-publish e-books and sometimes print on demand paperbacks as well, I thought it might be useful to review the many things that agents do in addition to placing manuscripts with the Big Six (or is it Big Five now?) traditional publishers. I’m not saying that every agent accomplishes or even offers all of these. But I suspect that many authors who think finding an agent is more trouble than it’s worth don’t realize quite how much they’re missing.

An agent is an expert on publishable writing who believes in you and your work. We all know about the periodic self-doubt that assails even the most successful authors. Praise from your mother and your three best friends is no substitute for an agent who loves your manuscript.

Many agents will work with you to make sure your mansucript is publishable—as good as it can possibly be—to give you the best possible chance with the editors to whom they’ll submit it.

An agent negotiates the contract so you don’t have to. Even if you’ve found your publisher without an agent, you may want one to make sure the contract doesn’t give away rights to your characters, get a bigger advance, maybe include more free author copies than originally offered, better percentages on sales, a shorter contract term, a clear mechanism for reversion of rights to you, and protect subsidiary rights.

Assuming you haven’t given away all the subsidiary rights, including e-books, trade and mass market paperbacks, audio books, foreign editions, and movie and television options, an agent can help you exercise them advantageously. Without an agent, you may have no idea how to market any of these or not even think about these opportunities to make more money from your work, except for formatting your book as an e-book and putting it on Amazon. An experienced agent knows whom to approach and how to dicker with them.

An agent acts as a buffer in the business relationship between you and your publisher. Ideally, your relationship with your editor is all about what you’ve written and how the editor can help you make it better. You may have some disagreements along the way—say, a plot twist or character that the editor wants you to change or delete. Those are the battles you want to devote your energy to. In the meantime, your agent may be working on getting you more visibility in the publisher’s promotions, finding out why your statement and royalty check haven’t arrived, or, if necessary, prodding the contracts department to disgorge that crucial reversion of rights letter.

Agents know a lot that authors don’t. It’s a full time job for them to keep their fingers on the pulse of the publishing market. In a time when things are changing constantly and everybody—publishers, authors, booksellers, marketers, libraries, agents, and the reading public—is guessing, sometimes wildly, about what’s going to happen next and how to stay in the game, it’s no small thing to have an agent in your corner.


Sandra Parshall said...

Some agents will do all that for established authors, but it's getting harder to find agents who will take on unknown writers and work with them for months, or years, before making any money. Like publishers, they're looking more and more to the self-published e-book "slush pile" for writers who have been successful on their own and already have a following.

I would urge any writer to be careful what they agree to when signing with an agent. You might end up paying royalties forever on rights the agent didn't sell, even if you're not with the agency anymore. I speak from experience.

Sandra Parshall said...

I meant agency commissions, not royalties. Those agency commissions are taken out of the writer's royalties.

Steven M. Moore said...

Hi Elizabeth,
I violently agree with Sandra...and beyond. Joe Konrath calls agents "gatekeepers." As the months pass, it's more true that today's agents limit themselves to giving the Big Four (I think it's four now) only what the publisher will consider "that sure thing," meaning, in particular, "No newbies, please."
I've heard the litany of benefits agents can provide authors, but I never experienced any of these benefits. When I started in this business, I believed in the traditional model. After over 1000 rejections on half a dozen books (beating Joe by a factor of two, I believe), and some agents who sat more than six months on a MS without doing anything and telling me finally, "Sorry...just not for me," I went POD and am now exclusively an eBook author. I guarantee you I would never have achieved my creative output within the traditional paradigm...and I'm having great fun doing it.
I suppose people will still ask, "Yes, but is what you write any good?" That's a subjective question, of course. But I'm also a reviewer. I've seen low quality and formulaic books published by those Big Four, and they charge plenty for their eBooks (that's changing now, due to indie competition).
Most agents seem to be nice people. I don't think the problem is with them. Their hands are tied by the traditional publishers. I wish them (the agents) the best...really. They are going to have to adapt sooner or later.

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