The Agent

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The agent is a key player in the publishing business. If there were no agents, publishing houses would have to hire more people to wade through their slush pile. There are some major publishing houses that won't even look at material if it isn't submitted through an agent. It's simply a question of economics. In fact, in just the past couple of years, that number has grown considerably. There are very few large publishing houses left that will look at unagented material.

The agent is the link between the author and the publishing world. This is most critical for new writers with no background in publishing. It is a jungle out there and your agent should be your guide. The agent should know who, where, what, how much, and when.


Most writers hate the quandary that searching for agents put them in. They see the Catch-22 of: I need an agent to get published but I can't get an agent unless I'm published.

That's not really true. Agents are constantly on the lookout for new writers; that's how they stay in business. There are several ways to find an agent:

1. You can do direct submission using those agents listed in books such as the Guide To Literary Agents. Just like publishers, agents list their wants and how to submit to them. There are hundreds listed.

2. Get a recommendation from a published author. Remember, though, that this works two ways—the author also should recommend you to the agent. I've had total strangers call me up and ask for the name of my agent and/or editor. Then a few proceed—without asking me—to use my name in a submission saying that I recommended them. Besides being impolite, it really doesn't help. Some people put so much effort (I know because I did.) into simply trying to get their work seen, that they tend to overlook the fact that even if it is seen, it might not be worth the look. As I've mentioned in other places, you only have one shot with each person you submit to on each piece of work. Make damn sure it's your best shot.

A thing to remember—it is just as likely that it is the author's fault for a bad relationship with an agent as the reverse. Often I hear authors complain bitterly about agents. I always take that with a grain of salt, because ultimately, the person who produces the product is the author, not the agent. If the product is not good, it does not matter how good the agent is. Very rarely will you find an author willing to admit that maybe his writing didn't measure up. Many authors automatically think that if they sold one novel, everything they write from there on out will sell, but actually the facts show the reverse is true.

3. A book editor that you made a direct submission to might recommend an agent. Remember above where I talked about the role of the agent? An editor who feels your work has some merit, but is not quite up to standard to offer a contract for, might suggest an agent so that you can work with the agent to improve the work. Contrary to popular myth, not all editors enjoy rejecting manuscripts and most of them actually do want to see writers succeed. I should know. I found my agent through an editor who gained nothing at all from the deal (he worked for a non-fiction publisher that in my desperation I had sent my fiction proposal to, which by the way violates the advice an agent just gave out last week at a conference I attended).

Also, many editors prefer negotiating contracts with an agent rather than a new author. They speak the same lingo and have experience. It saves time and aggravation all around. A good agent can negotiate a contract in a matter of minutes because they are familiar with a publisher's boilerplate and know what wiggle room there is.

4. Instructors at writing seminars can be a good source but like I mentioned above, it works both ways. You should have something that makes them think it's worth their agent's time.

5. Teachers in MFA programs usually have contacts. This is an old boy/girl network that does take care of its own. If that's the route you take, make the best of it.

6. I've just gotten on-line and I've noticed some agents advertising through web sites. On-line can be a relatively cheap way to network.

Like most publishers, most agents automatically reject unsolicited manuscripts. However, in a recent copy of Poets & Writers Magazine there was a survey that said 227 of 240 agents surveyed would read cold queries/submissions received through the mail. I do not recommend cold phone calls or faxing queries or e-mailing them. An important point to remember is that if you come off as an irritating person during your contact with the agent, it might not matter how good your manuscript is. The agent simply might not want to work with you. I heard a prominent agent tell of letting go of one of his authors because the author bypassed him and was very rude to some of the people at a publisher.

What about multiple submissions to agents? My key adjective for the publishing business is SLOW. I said earlier that agents respond quicker than publishers but you could still grow very old waiting. Most agents will only read your work if they have it exclusively. Here's my suggestion:

Do a query to the number one agent on the list you made up from the sources above. Wait a week, and then send to the number two agent. Week three, agent three. Don't tell them it's a multiple query. If an agent calls to ask for the manuscript they will ask you if anyone else has seen the manuscript. Answer honestly. Send the manuscript. Then hold on your submissions to other agents.

The question that always comes up is: What if another agent I queried calls and wants to see the manuscript? My reply is: You should be so lucky. But, in the one in a thousand chance you are, tell them it is with the other agent and that you will contact them as soon as you hear back from agent #1. This doesn't necessarily hurt your chances with agent #2, because it actually confirms their interest. Don't try to leverage agent #1 with #2. Have patience, take some sedatives and wait.

How do I know if an agent is legitimate? I am often asked this. My first reply is to use common sense. It's like the person who offers to sell you the Brooklyn Bridge. If an agent promises you they will sell your work, I wouldn't believe them. No agent can make that promise unless they have some sort of kickback deal going with a vanity press.

A legitimate agent should be willing to tell you who some of their clients are and even refer you to one if they want to sign with you.

Remember, though, there is a pecking order to agents. As a new writer, you might not be able to get the number one guy or gal in town. You might hook up with someone who is starting out and has few clients and sales to her name. The bottom line there is to use common sense.

New York State just recently brought charges against an organization that was giving kickbacks to agents who referred clients to it for book doctoring. So there are sharks out there. Be careful. The next chapter is dedicated to this subject.

WHAT DOES AN AGENT DO? An agent knows the market both in terms of what's selling and who's buying. They also know which houses do which type stories and can direct your manuscript not only to the correct publishers, but also to the correct editors at those publishing houses. They are on top of the latest changes in the publishing industry and should know what the current needs are.

In most contracts, an agent will be the sole source for all literary properties produced by you except if he/she chooses not to take on a work, then it reverts back to you.

Most agents are ex-editors so they have an idea how to make a manuscript marketable. I was under the mistaken impression that my agent would go through my work with a fine tooth comb, looking over every page carefully. That simply doesn't happen. Again, remember it's a volume business. The same is true of editors to a certain extent. If your manuscript is not basically acceptable in its present form, you won't get a contract. On my first manuscript, my agent faxed me a one page list of suggestions. I made the suggested changes and we eventually sold the manuscript. Ever since then, with every agent I've worked with, they generally tell me in a letter or phone call what their suggestions/problems are with a manuscript and it's up to me to make the corrections.

The key to remember is that if your manuscript is right on the margin of being publishable, it is much more likely that an agent will work with you to make it marketable than an editor will. Editors work with authors under contract and they screen submissions. They very rarely work with something to bring it up to snuff to be offered a contract.

Agents negotiate sale or lease of rights to works, including translation. This includes sales to foreign markets. Normally they charge a higher percentage fee for foreign rights. Most agents have contacts with various foreign representatives and with a Hollywood agent for film rights.

An agent reviews and negotiates contracts. For a new writer who has no idea what the market is like, this is very important. Contracts vary from publisher to publisher and I've seen some terrible ones writers ended up signing. I'll often hear a writer say they'll get a lawyer to review a contract if it comes to that point, but unless they are an entertainment lawyer they won't understand the standards of the business;

and entertainment lawyers live in Hollywood and deal with movie people, not books.

Agents collect monies due and render share. This can be very frustrating for both the author and agent, but having the agent do it at least allows the author to maintain a semblance of cordiality with his or her publisher. My rule of thumb is that my agent takes care of all business contacts with my publisher. Once a contract is negotiated, I generally work directly with my editor on the written work unless there is a large difference of opinion.

Agents examine royalty statements (as if anyone could make sense of them to start with.) They are also supposed to check on the publisher's performance and how they handle your manuscript. Just because you are getting published doesn't necessarily mean you are going to make any money. The agent can help you track what the publisher plans on doing with your book, particularly in such important areas as selling the subrights.

Don't expect any paychecks in the mail quickly. Richard Curtis has a running bet with publishers that a writer can write a book faster than they can cut a check. You may laugh, but I have literally done that—written an entire manuscript while waiting for a contract to be drawn up and a check cut.

Like any other business, you have to stay on top of your agent. You are the ultimate protector of your interests. A good agent will advise you, but it should always be your decision as to what actions to take regarding you and your property.

The agent is the business link between you and the publishers. Also remember, though, that the agent ultimately works for himself, not you. Remember, too that the publishers cut the checks, which go to the agent, who takes his/her share and then renders the author his share. So if things start getting sticky between you and your publisher, your agent might not put his or her neck totally on the line to protect your interests simply because they have other authors that work with that same publisher and the agent wants to maintain his relationship with the publisher, perhaps to the detriment of your relationship, but this would be a rare case. Ultimately, agents' loyalty lies with their writers rather than the publishers. Also, of course, remember that the reverse is true—your agent holds some power with the editor because the agent might or might not steer future good work toward that publisher depending on the relationship.

Some agents require contracts that stipulate what the roles are and what he/she will do and what you are required to do. Without getting in to too much detail, my main point is that you should work with an agent on a case-by-case basis. What I mean by that is that your agent should have the first chance to look at what you produce. She then should let you know whether she wants to work with you on the manuscript or not. If she doesn't, you are free to do whatever you like with it. This is important because you don't want someone representing you simply because you have a contract— especially if she isn't enthusiastic about a particular manuscript.

TO PAY OR NOT TO PAY? In many listings, agents are broken down into two categories: those who charge a reading fee and those who don't. You can get varying opinions as to the pros and cons of going to one that charges a reading fee. Take the opinion out and look at the reality of what you want: do you want to get published or do you want feedback on your work? If you want to get published, go to those that don't charge a fee.

I have had no experience with a fee-charging agent so everything I say here is supposition. All I can say about that is that some make their money reviewing manuscripts—not selling them to publishers and getting 15% of what you make. My opinion is don't do it. Try quite a few submissions first. Then if they all come back negative and you get no decent feedback, it's your money. In many cases, it's not necessary to get all 400 pages of your manuscript reviewed. When I look at manuscripts, I can usually tell what problems there are within the first couple of chapters. If you are paying by the page, send a submission (cover letter, one page synopsis, and the first couple of chapters) and see what they say about that, before sending the whole thing. Make sure you get feedback not only on your manuscript, but also on the synopsis and cover letter.

I would suggest going to writers' conferences and asking around. Sooner or later you will run into someone who has submitted to a fee charging agent and you will get some feedback as to not only the whole process, but about specific agents.

Here is a good example of taking the other person's perspective (which as writers you must be able to do.). How would I operate if I ran an agency that charged a fee for reading submissions? The advantage to me would be I could hire extra people to go through a larger volume of submissions in more detail, searching for those that are deemed publishable (that is also an advantage to you, the writer). Another advantage would be that I might be able to work with someone who is marginal (given that they're paying me some bucks, that is), whereas I wouldn't be able to if my time was my money. Now both are those are true if I was totally honest.

The disadvantage would be that I would tend to focus a lot more energy on making money out of volume of submissions received and be spending a lot of time on un-publishable material (a disadvantage to you the writer). I would also appear to put a lot of time and effort into each submission but in reality I would work off a computer boiler-plate of common mistakes (much like the how-to-write section of this book) and simply go through, make a few changes in the boilerplate, and send you back thirty pages of apparently in-depth review, which is actually the same as buying a writing book off the shelf at your bookstore except be a lot more expensive. Now these last two are not dishonest but simply a fact of business. I'm not saying that all fee charging agents do either the good or bad. Again, the bottom line is: it's your money.

When is it time to switch agents?

This is an issue almost every published writer runs into sooner or later. I think there are several times: 1. You are going nowhere with the agent you have. No sales.

2. The agent tells you to go elsewhere.

3. You feel like your work is improving but your current agent keeps trying to market it at the same level you've been at. It is an up or out business so this doesn't do you much good.

4. You are changing genres and your current agent doesn't like your new genre.

5. You want to move up. There are levels to agents just as there are levels to editors. Certain agents can place a manuscript at a certain level in a publishing house. Others can go right to the top.

6. Your agents main concern is selling your next book rather than establishing your long term career. The two are not necessarily synonymous.

Ultimately, though, I think it is the same as doing a rewrite on your manuscript. You should feel good after talking to your agent, not bad. You should feel like the agent is representing you in the best possible and realistic light. You should feel that your agent views your career as an upward ride.

The bottom line for more writers though is, is to be happy if you can get an agent to represent you at all. Remember that agents are business people are not there to hold your hand or keep you together psychologically while you write (unless of course you write bestsellers.). Also remember that you are not the only client an agent has.


Because writing involves a lot of emotion, naturally there are those that prey on others in the business. The first area of concern involves agents. I've seen several articles discussing how to figure out if an agency is for real. Here are some of the warning signs:

-Agency has a PO Box for an address.

-Solicits by direct mail. Very few agents send out mailings hoping to find a client.

-Advertises in writer's magazines. I know a legitimate agent who allowed his agency to be listed in a prominent writer's magazine—he regretted it greatly. He received thousands of queries from which he found not one client.

-Won't give you a client list or at least a referral to a client.

-The agency owns its own 'publishing' house.

-Charges an up front fee. Some legitimate agencies that are not fee charging will charge you for some fees such as copying manuscripts, postage, etc. This can be a tricky area as there are some fee-charging agencies that are getting slicker and are trying to hide their fee in such normally legitimate expenses. This is where common sense should help you.

-Commission rate should not exceed 15% for US rights.

-Guarantees to get you published. No legitimate agent can do that. I've seen this in print from some agencies and the best I can figure is that they have a deal with a self-

publishing house and thus if you're willing to pay, well the guarantee wasn't a lie.

-Has no sales he or she can refer to with legitimate publishers.

-If it sounds too good to be true—it is. There are sites on the net where you can find listings of agencies that are suspicious or have done shady practices. You have to do your homework.

-Refers you to a book doctor. The latter is a scam that has been going on for a while. Edit Ink was recently caught in an interesting scam involving this. They even set up bogus agencies, which referred every single query to Edit Ink for book doctoring. Regardless of the quality of the query, these agencies (and other agencies that Edit Ink gave a kickback to) would send you a form letter saying that your manuscript was close to being publishable but needed some work before, etc. etc. They would then recommend you work with Edit Ink and get back to them.

Which leads us to the issue of book doctors. Many new writers find themselves in a Catch-22. Since there is no real apprenticeship system as I noted earlier in this book, they desperately want some help with their book. More importantly to most, they want some feedback, an idea of how good their work really is.

There are some legitimate people out there who edit manuscripts for a fee. My recommendation is this: I can tell what is wrong with your manuscript by looking at a cover letter, synopsis and thirty or so pages—i.e. by looking at a submission. I don't really need to see all 400 pages. Neither does a book doctor. So if you have to pay, only do a part of the manuscript, which might save you money.

Another thing, though, to remember is getting honest feedback can be painful. If you just want a pat on the back, you're looking in the wrong direction. There are some schools out there that do this. First there are MFA programs—Masters of Fine Arts in creative writing. These schools usually focus on the creative side, the artistic side of writing. There are some excellent programs, such as the University of Iowa's, out there. While most view this as a rather large investment of time and money, the issue is the one I raised early on in this book: writing is a serious business and no matter which path you take, you will have to invest considerable time, effort and money. An MFA program is a good focus for a writer. Another advantage of MFA programs is that once you get your degree you have an inside track at teaching at other MFA programs.

There are other schools such as Writers Digest. I've taught for it and it's a worthwhile course if you're willing to learn. Unfortunately most people who sign up for it seem to want a stamp of approval of their work and then move on to immediately getting and agent and being published. The positive thing about Writer's Digest is that the instructors are published authors, so they understand the business side of writing. You get as much out of it as you put in.

Ultimately, I believe that if you are a good reader, you should be a good editor.


Why do you need to understand the business end of novel writing? Because being an author is being self-employed in the world of publishing. The more you know about the business, the more success you will have.

I can already see legions of literature graduate students holding up their collected works of Faulkner to blind me with and sharpening the binding of their Shakespeare Collections to drive through my paltry and rancid genre writing heart, but hey, Faulkner meandered out to Hollywood in 1932 to make a buck and Shakespeare didn't let them do his plays for free. If Faulkner had never been paid for what he wrote, he might have spent the rest of his days in the post office in Oxford.

I feel it is critical that authors understand the perspective of all the other players in the business: editors, agents, publishers, bookbuyers, bookstore owners, reviewers, anyone who has anything to do with the life of a book (including as mentioned earlier, the reader.). Too often authors get on a high horse and decry all those other players in the business, but in doing so they tend to cut their own throats. Some authors feel that without writers, there would be no book industry. (Watch THE PLAYER and see the scene where they discuss how great the movie business would be if they could only do away with the writers.)

It is true that without writers there would be no publishers, but without any of those other people in the business there wouldn't be any books. None of those people may have your interests as author number one on their priority list but they also don't have screwing you—the author—on their priority list either. For many, making money is a priority, but for most agents, editors, publishers, bookbuyers, etc. they do it because they love books. Like me, they could make a better living doing something else, but they are in the business because they want to work around books.

I've had people in the business make moves and do things that were not advantageous to me, but if I were in their shoes I probably would have done the same things they did because it was advantageous to them. If you understand that, you will have more control of your destiny—or at the very least, not as many stomach problems.

Also, most of the other people in the business actually enjoy getting manuscripts published, even though it might not seem that way to you as the rejection slips pile up. Why else would they be doing what they are doing? As an author there are few things I would enjoy more than being able to recommend a manuscript to my agent or editor. Editors and agents feel the same way. They love to find that rare diamond that they can publish but they have to sift through at least 99 submissions to find one worthy of just taking a look at.

I feel the business end is extremely important but I issue one caveat here: just as I recommend not getting so caught up in the actual writing world that you ignore the business end, don't do the opposite. Knowing everything there is to know about the business end of publishing won't get you published if you don't have a well-written and well thought out manuscript based on an excellent idea. I've run into some people who are so concerned about getting to know this person and that person in the business and getting their manuscript looked at, or going to conferences and getting interviews, that they forget to take an honest look at the manuscript and realize it is poorly written or that the original idea of their story is simply not that innovative or appealing.

There is a very thin line between aggressively marketing yourself and your work and being obnoxious. To me a person falls on the obnoxious side when the manuscript is not worthy of publication. They fall on the aggressive side when it is. Of course, that doesn't help you much. My suggestion is to watch the reactions of those you deal with. If five consecutive people, whether they be agents, editors, other authors, etc. shy away from you after taking a look at what you have, take the hint and take a harder look at what you have rather than trying to hunt down more people to look at it.

I have learned to be more truthful about synopsis and proposals that people give to me to look at. I feel not being honest would be misleading. And that brings me to another point; more often than not I receive a synopsis that isn't a synopsis and single-spaced chapters, etc. etc. etc. If someone doesn't take the time to buy (or at least get out of the library) a basic book about how to do a submission, then that immediately turns me off and makes me not as enthusiastic to look at what they sent. Editors and agents feel that way a hundred-fold.

Never, never, (oops, that's right, I should never say never) act out of emotion when dealing with anyone in the business. When you find out your publisher is going to delay releasing your book for another six months, don't grab the phone and scream at your agent and editor. That method is not likely to change anything other than get people you need to work with upset with you. Act professionally even though you might not be treated in the same manner in return. Always take your time and carefully understand a situation before acting. Look out for your interests in every interaction—no one else truly will.

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