What is a book agent supposed to do for me as an author?
It's one of the most common questions that I hear as a writer, and just about every group of writers endlessly debates the topic: what's the purpose of an agent? Different agents have different views of what they do, and certainly authors vary in their ability to work with an agent or agency, but fundamentally, it can be a tricky business to pin down exactly how an agent should be helping a writer succeed.
This debate came up again on a popular writer's mailing list and with the permission of all parties involved, I am reproducing the original question and the thoughtful and informative answers. The discussion took place on a list sponsored by an agency, but I believe that these are candid answers and comments, not influenced by the sponsor in any way. I have also deliberately not associated individual authors with their comments to protect their views.
The original message to the list...
I want to put this question to the writers on this list that use agents. And, I suppose, to the ones that do not for their opinion as well. I'm really pissed right now but as I cool off I don't know if I should be or not. I'm new at this level of writing for money and really trust your opinions and experiences.
An agent sent out a list of topics in early 2005 (maybe even on this list, I'm not sure). I had experience in one of them, so I contacted the agent, signed their representation contract, and the agent put me in touch with the publisher. He and I fiddled with the thing for most of 2005 but my schedule kept getting in the way and I couldn't do it.
I hear nothing from the agent for most of 2006 until another author of this agent's calls me and tells me the agent is looking for someone with my experience. Mind you that I am signed to this agent but have to hear from someone else that the gig with my specialty involved is available. I contact the agent, they make a couple of calls and I'm on another gig with NO advance as I'm batting cleanup for a book that's been in the works for two years. The publisher praises my work until they figure out that the rest of the book is crap and outdated. Then all of a sudden my stuff is unacceptable and I get nothing for months of work. The agent tries to get payment but the publisher said no and that was the end of that.
Ok, finally, my point, and my question.
The agent sends a new list of topics, I'm qualified for one again, we talk, it's the guy from 2005. I do that gig and get paid for it! Woo Hoo first writing money! The publisher and I, during the course of this gig, work on several ideas for new work that the agent has nothing to do with. The agent hasn't had any involvement with me since the latest gig started. Now the agency wants 15% of stuff that they had nothing to do with! Is this normal? I don't mind paying for service, that's the way the world works. I don't like to pay someone to do nothing. The agency says that's the way it is and they're not budging.
I'm sure all the agents think I'm full of it, maybe the authors do too. If so, I'll sit down, shut up and go back to work. I've pretty much convinced myself that 85% of something is better than 100% of nothing. The agency will likely give the publisher dirty looks if they do business with me if I cancel the contract. I also feel that if I leave the contract in force every conversation with the agent is going to be strained and no way to have a business relationship.
The resultant feedback from more experienced authors offers great insight into the world of professional writing and their varied experiences with agents. This entire situation also reminds us why it's so darn important to read contracts very, very closely before you sign them! I know from experience that you can have an agent represent you just on specific projects -- rather than for all works you do -- but you must negotiate that before they start representing you with any projects.
Many authors responded to this heartfelt plea and here's a sprinkling of some of the best messages...
Typically if you sign with an agency they handle all your books. Agencies don't so much make money off of a single deal with an author, it's over time that it becomes worth their while.
You made the contact. That's often the case. Make them earn their bit by handing them the contract to deal with. It's their job. ;)
I feel very lucky to have an agent who will negotiate my contracts and deal with editors for 15% of not very much. OK, hardly anything.
The fact that a handful of agents who represent us writers have been able to evolve, diversify, survive, and continue to handle our book contracts is impressive. I wish there was enough in the pot for them to be able to grow, focus more on elements of publishing like online distribution, and video / podcasting. But at this point, I'm sincerely grateful to have an agent playing the traditional role of book publisher go-between.
An agent refers work to you when it's available and appropriate for your experience level as an author, so it's possible that the long layoff between referrals was due to a lack of projects in your expertise or that they felt were appropriate for a relatively author. My first few projects were chapters for books in my area of expertise but that I would have been hard-pressed to coordinate, let alone write, by myself. It's not unusual for authors to contact other authors with offers of work.
As for agents taking 15% of projects they're "not involved in", remember that the agent put you in contact with the publisher for whom you developed other ideas. There's also the matter of your contract with the agent, which should spell out that the agent represents all of your books (and probably all work except for magazine articles you get on your own) in the technical field, especially projects resulting from a contact set up by the agent.
After a publisher agrees to take on one of your projects, your agent negotiates terms on your behalf, handles payments, and provides an intermediary if problems crop up. I value those services very highly, both because I'm not a terrific negotiator and because having a third party involved reduces tensions between two or more parties who are working like mad to get a project done, under stress, and probably short on patience.
My agency gets 15% of my royalties and I believe it's money very well spent.
Typically, when you sign with an agency, they get their 15% of any follow on work with a publisher they hook you up with - at least for a period of time after the last gig they got for you. (Say six months so they don't get a cut if you work with the publisher five years after you've been agentless.) As others have said, the agent should be negotiating contracts and better fees for you to earn the 15% on these follow on ideas. Plus, none of those ideas would have been talked about without the first contact.
A few other people mentioned that agent contracts say that they represent all your books and work. That's not true. In my experience, the agent represents the work they get and additional work from a publisher they hooked you up with. For example, I write books, I've written for Microsoft, and I've done corporate work that came through my agency and the agency earned 15% on that. But my agency doesn't get 15% of the tech writing I do for clients I line up on my own, the magazine articles I get on my own, and so on. In addition, if I were to write a book on a topic that's not within the agency's domain (for example a tawdry novel), I could work with someone else.
I'm very happy with my agent and I too think the 15% is well-deserved. However, I'd also recommend that you be more proactive about the relationship. Keep in touch with the agent and send updated info about your background. Let the agent know whether you're in the market at the moment or need time. Help the agent understand the type of work you want. Then, as you do more, you can tell the agent what you expect if things aren't going as you hoped.
[Agency X] is my second agency. I found my first agent to be a little short on delivering information and results and we parted ways fairly quickly. Before I signed with Agency X (and it took two years of deciding on my part), I identified that my goals for having an agent were that they make me more money, even with the agency fee, than I would've made without them and that they provide me with career direction and advice periodically that would help me be a better, more prosperous writer. In addition, they should do the legwork to deal with the publishers when there were problems or questions that I needed help with. They came through for me on in short order.
While I am very happy with them as my agency, I also think that those goals are things that anyone should be able to apply to their agents, regardless of who they are. If you're not getting that, then you should look really carefully to see if this is the agent for you.
My thanks to professional writers Bonnie Biafore, Dee-Ann LeBlanc, Curt Frye, Tim Heagarty, John Hedtke and David Karlins for their permission to republish this collective work.
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