Thursday, 12 September 2013

What you need to know about agents - Part 2

This follows on from my advice in my last post, about what agents can do for us. Again, adapted from an extract of Write to be Published. And there's more detailed advice about how to approach agents in my ebook, Dear Agent, available on my online shop or in the usual places.


I know that if Godzilla, egged on by a Dalek, lumbered into your garden and offered to be your agent, get you published and make you a millionaire, you’d agree. You’d even ignore the millionaire bit. You’d certainly ignore the mad look in his eyes and the fact that he’s never sold a book in his life. You'd just be thrilled that you'd been offered a deal and you'd now be dreaming of your lunch party at Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons.

Thing is, anyone can be an agent. There’s no exam. And I have heard terrible stories: Godzilla is cuddly by comparison. Since a great deal of awfulness could happen if you get this wrong, I need you to know how to choose a proper agent. A bad agent is much worse than no agent, destroying your career before it has started and leaving you more stressed than you can imagine an unpublished writer could be. As if being unpublished weren’t stressful enough.

(Let me point out that agents who have a list of published clients with reputable publishing companies are not where you will find crappy agents. If they have published clients with reputable publishing companies they are not, by definition, crappy. However, they may still not be right for you.)

Let's first look at how to avoid genuinely crappy ones, people who really don't know what they are doing. 

Once an agent has expressed a desire to represent you, before you get into bed with him – I am not being literal – you need to exercise due diligence. Here are some questions to separate the rancid cream from the yogurt; some you must ask directly, while others you may find out through asking around:
  • What other authors does the agent represent? (Check that these authors are properly published and have some success.) 
  • What previous experience of publishing led to his becoming an agent? (If there is no previous proper experience, run.) 
  • Is this the agent’s only job? (If not, how serious is he and how much time and energy will the agent have for you?) 
  • How does the agent sell foreign rights? For example, he might use sub-agents or scouts, but there should be some clear answer to the question. (Similar question for TV/ film rights, and merchandising rights if you write for young children. But avoid sounding as though you think your book merits TV/film/merchandising opportunities.) 
  • Is the agent a member of the Association of Authors’ Agents? (NOTE: It’s NOT essential to be a member, and smaller independent agents often aren’t, but you should ask if the agent at least adheres to its code of practice, a code which you can read on the AAA website.) In Scotland there’s also the Association of Scottish Literary Agents.  
  • Can you see the contract that you would sign? Get it checked by someone who understands: perhaps another agented author, or the Society of Authors if you are a member. 
  • Is the agent asking for money up front? If so, run a mile. An agent should not charge a reading fee, though they are quite entitled to charge for things like photo-copying. Such extras should be specified in the contract. 
  • Is this agent offering to represent only one book or your future ones, too? I've occasionally heard, particularly recently, of agents offering to represent just one book. This seems odd, to be honest, and I'd wonder why the agent doesn't have faith in your future writing 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 for years before they became agents and that is a good way into the business.

In short, be astute and cautious. Think Godzilla.

It’s also important that you actually like the agent. A perfectly brilliant agent simply might not be right for you and it’s important to allow instinct to come into play. So, meet your agent if possible. At the very least, have some phone conversations and remain sober during them. Check that there's a chemistry, and ask about the things I mentioned in the previous post, to make sure know what this agent will do.

And then, if all seems good, sign up and crack open the fizz! On the other hand, remember that getting an agent is only the first step. Now the agent has to sell your book and that is by no means certain.

I recommend chocolate to keep you going.

If you have any questions, do comment below. I could answer them in my Dear Crabbit slot if they lead to a long answer.


Elizabeth Dunn said...

Thrilled you're back. I have so many questions you'll be sorry you ever asked!

Sue Hyams said...

Excellent advice, although I wonder whether Godzilla could secure a contract with absolutely any publishing house through sheer intimidation? Mind you, he may not be so handy with the more delicate contractual negotiations!