Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Newbie Questions #11 & 12

11. How do I know which agent is best for me?

12. How much should I expect to pay an agent to represent my book?

Last one first: NOTHING.

Remember the rule that money always flows to the author. A literary agent works the same way a real estate agent does, which is to say that you should pay nothing until the book sells. Then, you can expect to pay a percentage of that sale. When I was agent hunting in the late Cretaceous that percentage was 15%, now-a-days it could be slightly more, but not significantly so. (The exception is foreign sales -- since your agent has to pay sub-agents – but that’s nothing to worry about until a foreign sale happens.)

If your perspective agent charges a reading fee, I say that agent isn’t for you. There may be legitimate reasons why an otherwise reputable agent might charge reading fees, but to me it’s a big red flag that says “run away, run away fast.”

Keep repeating the mantra: money always flows to the author.

As for finding a good agent that fits you, that will be a more personal decision. In the end, you should consider the fact that your agent is your face in the professional arena. After that, it becomes a matter of taste.

For myself, I don’t like agents that edit. Even though my first agent was also a consulting editor, he never asked me to do editorial changes before submitting my work to publishing houses. I like that. It’s my personal feeling that if someone wants me to significantly rewrite a novel, I want to be paid to do so (remember the mantra!)

I also don’t need my agent to be my friend. In fact, I prefer a shark. Someone who I know will go for the best deal possible, even if it means not being terribly nice.

On that note, I do want an agent who is excited about my work. When I was in the process of finding a second agent (the first changed career to be a full-time editor,) I talked to a lot of agents. I had one offer to represent me. It became clear, however, that this agent hadn’t really read my work. Even though it meant being agentless for longer than I would have liked, I told him I wasn’t comfortable having an agent who wasn’t 100% into me. Your agent has to be your go-to guy/gal, your advocate, your nag… someone who e-mails you to say, “what have you got!?” If you’re not on their radar, then it’s easy to be forgotten… and this is your career on the line. You need someone who is going to be with you through good times and bad… because there’s always some bad in this business, I’m sorry to say.

Speaking of being “on the radar,” I think a case can be made for having an agent in New York. I also think that a case can be made that it doesn’t matter one wit. Perhaps the bigger issue is the size of the agency. We all want to have the Big Name Agent (you know the one who wrote the book on writing a bestseller) represent us because just throwing around his name is impressive as hell. However, I’ve had friends get lost among the various cogs in that particular machine. My experience has been that it’s much better to be part of a smallish stable. Ideally, you can end up where I am, which is to have a big name agent in New York who has a relatively smallish, but impressive client list… or at least who never makes me feel less than an A-lister (even if I’m really a C- or D-list writer. And, no, that’s not false modesty. I have no delusions that I’m anything other than a solidly mid-list author.)

You should also find an agent with a track record. It might be great to be someone’s start up client (and I actually know people who have had that work out great for them,) but it’s a safer bet to go with someone established in the business. Because this is a business where it helps to know people who know people… and a completely new agent is less likely to have those connections.

But this is really a matter of taste. There’s nothing wrong with trying to land the biggest name agent (in fact, I always tell students to start at the top and work your way down.) There’s also nothing wrong with having an agent who edits all your work, holds your hand every step of the way, and has an office in Peoria. As long as you are comfortable with the relationship you have and your agent is finding you work, I say do what you will.

My last note is this: don’t hesitate to say no and be picky. It’s tempting to go with the first offer, but you’ve got to believe in yourself. Believe that what you’re doing is worth being paid for, and that this is an important job that not anyone can do. Don’t sell yourself short.

1 comment:

Robbie Knutson said...

can't tell you how helpful these newbie segments have been.