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 The publisher praises my work until they figure out that the rest of the book is crap and outdated.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.
Tim Heagarty, John Hedtke and David Karlins for their permission to republish this collective work.