Let’s face it. Most of you who have never worked with a literary agent probably think that the 15% agency commission is sort of …well…unfair. A kind of baksheesh paid to the middleman in the literary souk who can use his connections to get you access to the celebrity editor at Knopf. Most published writers will tell you otherwise. Check out the acknowledgements page at the back of any book. Authors love their agents, and recognize that the agent’s work goes far beyond dickering over deal points.
I’d like to address the subject of the misconceptions about agents that seem to be going around in writers’ circles.
1) It’s better to be represented by a New York agent. Obviously I’m annoyed by this surprisingly widely held belief, since I live and work in the San Francisco Bay Area. A lot of writers seem to think that getting published is all about the agent’s physical proximity to editors and the number of times per month they have lunch with them. The famous “publisher’s lunch” is from another era. And it is unclear that this was an important ritual in the acquisition process even then. All of the editors I talk to will tell you that the key consideration of an acquisition decision is whether the book has commercial potential. Publishers are under incredible pressure from their multimedia conglomerate parent corporations to make money on every book they publish. If your book is a bad business proposition, no amount of martinis at lunch is going to convince the publisher otherwise. I talk to a lot of book editors even though I work in California. They tell me that the most important thing you can provide them with is a convincing book proposal. You don’t have to be in New York to do that.
2) It’s better to be represented by a big (prestigious) New York agency. There are no good or bad agencies. There are just good or bad agents. That said, there are some advantages to having one of these big agencies on your side, but not the advantages that you might think. At the end of the day a celebrity agent isn’t going to give you an edge, and can’t deliver a contract for a project that would not otherwise get published. If you have a big book with lots of subsidiary rights opportunities (movie deals, foreign markets, merchandise tie-ins), it would be nice to have a big agency that could seamlessly handle all these deal elements. But even there, most good independent agents can serve you well.
And there is a downside to working with these big agencies as well. They are extremely selective in the projects they take on. A lot of these agencies are not looking for new writers. If you aren’t a literary superstar, you might be better served by a newer agent who is building a list and is willing to take some chances by seeking out new talent. And always, always, you are better served by an agent who has the time and the imagination to help you shape your ideas and the passion to believe in your talent. You want an agent who will not just flip a contract but who will work with you to develop your career as a writer. There are some very good agents at the big New York agencies who will do this and other agents who are just too busy. The same is true of independent agents.
3) The agent’s 15% commission is a rip off. It’s nothing more than payola to help you get your foot in the door. Actually, sometimes that’s true. I’ve heard a lot of stories about agents who have done very little other than send your proposal around (usually to the same ten editors they like to work with) and then either drop you or flip a contract and disappear. That’s a bad agent. If you are going to give an agent a 15% commission, you might as well make sure that they are earning it. The work of an agent is a lot more than sending out your project and dickering over deal points. A good agent will help you refine your idea in a way that will make it easier to sell, will lead you through the book proposal process, may even provide detailed edits on your novel or memoir, will negotiate the contract, will be your advocate during the publishing process, will help you exploit all the subsidiary rights opportunities for the material in the book, and will advise you on promotion when the book comes out. A good agent will earn that 15%. So try to find one of those.
I’ll talk about some more misconceptions on my next blog post.