As you may know, hell hath no fury like me when I see inexcusable ignorance. When people don't know something, that's fine: I am happy to elucidate. Even when people think they know everything but in fact only know a small proportion of everything, I can cope: acerbic elucidation is called for, and acerbic elucidation is my forte. But when someone thinks he/she knows enough about the writing world actually to call himself an AGENT, when that person knows less than mouse-droppings about it, then I get angry. My mouth begins to resemble a guppy's as I struggle to produce any lucid words.
See, I thought an agent was someone who knew about publishing. Like, even anything. Because the ones I know are incredibly knowledgeable about it. (As you'd, er, expect??) Mine, for example, knows exactly to whom anything should be sent and exactly what rights should and shouldn't be offered for exactly what dosh. I ask her a question and she tells me the truth. She knows the ins and outs and the ups and downs and can guide me through minefields and extract the best deal from the situation. It's what she's there for and why I'm delighted to hand over her percentage.
Yay for such agents! They are worth their weight in commission. Even if they are very large. Which mine isn't. (Despite the meal I gave her after the launch party, which included meringues and cream and cheese and voluminous sparkly wine. But I accidentally forgot to offer the chocolates round and so, sadly, must eat them all myself.)
But news has come to me of horrible things that worse-than-useless pseudo-agents can do. Thing is, anyone can be an agent. There's no exam or anything. In recent months, I've heard the occasional story of surprising lack of knowledge on the part of some people who call themselves agents. And I've chosen to ignore it.
Until now. Exercise your imagination for a moment. Suppose there was a vanity published author who was ignorant of every aspect of publishing; suppose that "author" then called himself an agent. To be clear, let's imagine that this is someone who doesn't realise that an author is supposed to be allowed to earn money from writing, who hasn't heard of rights and doesn't know the first thing about even the tiniest part of the publishing process, and who will swallow the line that books shouldn't be edited because "editing diminishes the creative and cathartic flow necessary to the transportation of the real writer" (my arse) - and he thinks he can agent someone else? And now imagine that this was not imaginary ...
Since such crappiness could happen, I need you to know how to choose a proper agent. Believe nothing if you don't believe this: a bad agent is worse than useless and certainly much worse than no agent. A bad agent will destroy your career before it has started and will leave you more stressed than you can imagine an unpublished writer can be. And, as you've probably already discovered, being unpublished is stressful enough.
So, before getting into bed with an agent (do I need to specify that I am not being literal?), ask some questions:
- what other authors does the agent represent?Investigate how well the books have done.
- what previous experience of publishing led to him becoming an agent?
- is this the agent's full-time / only job? If not, why not and how much time and energy will the agent have for you?
- how does the agent sell foreign rights? For example, they might use sub-agents or scouts - but there should be some clear answer to the question. Ask what countries any other clients have been sold into. (Similar question for TV/film rights.)
- what professional bodies is the agent a member of? Investigate them.
- can you see the contract that you would sign with the agent? Get it checked by someone who understands - perhaps another agented author, or the Society of Authors if you are a member, or any other body that you belong to.
- what would be the agent's plan for your career?
- is the agent asking for any money up front? NO! The agent should earn commission - ie a % of your writing income from any work which falls within the scope of the above contract. So, the agent doesn't earn from you before you earn yourself. An agent will not charge a reading fee.
And here are three questions to test the alleged agent's knowledge:
- can the agent explain in clear terms the difference between vanity publishing, self-publishing and mainstream publishing?
- can the agent answer the question: what trends do you see in publishers' attitudes towards this particular genre at the moment?
- how can an agent help an author exploit IPR?
If you happen to have a friend or acquaintance who is offering to be your agent in an amateur way, be very cautious. If I were you, I'd think barge-pole, frankly. This could be the end of a beautiful friendship and is unlikely to be the start of a glittering career. Being an agent is not a job for amateurs. Obviously, every agent must start somewhere and acquire a first client - but this can only work if that agent already has substantial experience of dealing with publishing rights in another professional capacity. For example, many agents were publishers / editors for years before they became agents - a very good way into the business.
So, please be very astute and cautious, walking onto an agent's list with eyes wide open. Do not be so desperate or flattered that you leap into a relationship immediately - a bad agent is worse than no agent and much more stressful.
I think I've been pretty calm about all this, in the circs. My first draft included phrases like cockroach vomit but I decided to leave that out, so as not to spoil your breakfast. Ever caring, that's me.