Monday 17 May 2010


I've decided to re-post a very very early post, as it's become hidden in the mists of time but is as relevant as ever. I do not date. I may, however, age.

Actually, the first question is whether you could be agented. This is not the same as asking whether your work is publishable.

Understand how agents earn: by taking a % of your earnings. (Usually 10-15% and possibly 20% for eg film/TV/foreign rights, because they often pay a sub-agent). So, if you realise that the average advance for a children's book is £1500, you'll see why many agents don't take children's authors, for example. You are also unlikely to find an agent if you a) are a poet b) only have one or two ideas in you c) don't appear to have a commitment to a long career or d) are really annoying. (Because really annoying authors tend to earn less. With the exception of Mr ... But no, I don't know you well enough to say more.) Non-fiction can be hard to get an agent for - unless, again, it's likely to be very commercial. Essentially, you have to have the ability to earn dosh. And ideally have a perfect personality. And never phone on Sundays.

But back to whether you want an agent. Well, put it this way, I'm not about to get rid of mine, despite the fact that I've had many books published happily with several publishers. Why do I hang on to her? For many reasons:
  1. I want to spend my time writing.
  2. She would mediate between me and my publishers if I were ever to be pissed off with them. It's hard to imagine, but stranger things have happened.
  3. She knows what all the other publishers are looking for and can tell me when she thinks I'd be interested.
  4. If I want to write something different or approach a new publisher, she's best placed to handle that and to know who to go to.
  5. She understands all the boring bits of my contracts and knows what everyone else's contracts say and what things publishers can be budged on.
  6. She regularly meets all the publishers and also other agents.
  7. She will fight for me to get the best deal.
  8. She has foreign sub-agents and TV/film agents and has regular meetings with them.
  9. She goes to the trade fairs and tells people about my work.
  10. I can run a new idea past her and she can tell me if it's rubbish, before I've embarrassed myself.
  11. She is an honest and expert second opinion when I've written something, and can tell me what to change before I give it to my editor. So my editor thinks I'm brilliant.
  12. She can nag my editor. So my editor thinks I'm calm.
  13. She accompanies me to all publisher meetings. And plays bad cop. So everyone thinks I'm lovely.
  14. She knows everything about the market, and tells me. So people think I'm clever.
And all that while I'm dossing around at home doing nothing. Er, I mean writing.

So, you work it out for yourself. If you want to do all that, then do it.

BUT. You need to know what you can expect from an agent. Not all agents do the same, so when you're looking for one, you must ask what that agent can and won't do. Some agents do PR work as well, but this is not usual, so do not expect it. Just ask exactly what services you can and can't expect. I would also say do make sure your agent is full-time and professional, not just doing it as a part-time hobby.

Openness and honesty are very important. It becomes much much more than a business relationship and it can be tricky to tread the line between professional respect and friendship. I think I've been very lucky and I know many other authors who feel the same way (but some who don't). The main thing to remember is that your agent wants you to have the most successful career possible - because your success is her/his success. And income.

There are some authors who choose to have no agent and who manage very well. They are exceptional - either exceptionally clever and strong or exceptionally foolish.

EDITED TO ADD: you must do due diligence on your prospective agent. I have heard the most shocking stories of people setting up as agents when they haven't a clue how it all works. I've even had a writer tell me that her "agent" signed her up with a vanity publisher. Yes, really. I know, my jaw hit the ground, too.

I have written a couple of posts to help you choose an agent and avoid a dud one. Here and here. Go find!


Anonymous said...

You're quite witty, and sometimes... I giggle. Glad to have found something on writing actually worth reading.

Stroppy Author said...

I'm not hugely pro-agent, but you've missed a couple of advantages:

Your agent will probably have a Christmas party and invite you - you may meet interesting other writers. When you realise you are the most successful/famous writer at the Christmas party, it's time to get a new agent [if you can be bothered...]

Your agent is someone you can have a meeting with at the London Book Fair or Bologna. Then you can issue the grand-sounding statement 'I can't meet you at 1, I'm having lunch with my agent'

If you write something that is total rubbish (it happens), your agent will save you from the embarrassment of sending it to people. (S)he will tell you it is rubbish and that you have to write something else.

Thomas Taylor said...

Here's another advantage: when (if) things get messy, large agencies in particular have copyright lawyers and other legal beasts to defend you.

Creepy Query Girl said...

I'm still looking and hoping, and praying, and dreaming...of finding my fairy god agent;)- for all the reasons you've listed above.

Mary@GigglesandGuns said...

Great post and bears repeating.
Thank you for the humor (simply because I remember better that way).
Giggles and Guns

Jo Treggiari said...

Invaluable as always, Nicola!
I've done it both ways.
Erm. You know what I mean.
Summing up: bad experience without agent.
good experience with agent.
And incidentally he got me 10x as much money so giving up 15% seemed more than fair.

Nicola Morgan said...

Stroppy - you're quite right, in theory, though my agent, lovely as she is, hasn't had a Christmas party, or at least one to which she's invited her authors, possibly largely because she lives in the country and would have to house us all overnight! Your third point is the most important, imo.

Jo - hole in one. (In the golfing sense.)

Elizabeth Bramwell said...

I think it is worth considering tht some publishers / genres /etc don't necessarily benefit from the inclusion of an agent? Mills & Boon, for example, have (I believe) a standard contract and set business practice, with their own foreign publishing deals, etc, so there is little that an agent could do. Same goes for the likes of Black Library (Games Workshop tie in) - although several of their writer do have agents, the relative value of them is not that great. A lot fo the non-fic writers I know do not have agents, but they tend to have quite specialised fields of interest.

I do, however, think that an agent is invaluable if you are going down the more commercial, literary or general publishing route. The examples I have used do relate to very specific areas, but if they are the ones you are looking at writing for, then it is worth knowing that an agent is not always the path you need to go down.

(that said, I'd rather have one than not, for the wider career implications!)

catdownunder said...

I wish I actually needed an agent...oh, one of these days - by which time I will be too ancient to even put a paw print on the contract!

Rebecca Gomez said...

"I want to spend my time writing."

This is my number one reason for wanting an agent.

DJ Kirkby said...

What a great post and you made me laugh a few times too. You, age? Never! I'd like an agent so I'm going to come back after work and follow the links in this post to learn more. Much as I'd love to be able to spend my days writing, at the moment I still need to work full time and end up writing in the hours I should spend sleeping.

Elizabeth West said...

Great post, Nicola, and since I'm querying, timely also. I agree totally with DJ Kirkby; I have the same problem of needing to actually pay the bills. Pesky things!

rodgriff said...

I'm 65, so my writing career is unlikely to be more than about 15 - 20 years, does that mean an agent won't look at me?
Given that a lot of publishers say that they won't look at stuff that is not from agents it feels like a closed shop.

Nicola Morgan said...

Gemma - two points from that: first, I believe an agent can always add value, because it's not just about the details of a particular contract but the bigger picture. But you are quite right that some types of book / author will be unlikely to acquire an agent, and authors can, if they are astute and canny, manage perfectly well without out, and indeed sometimes have to.

rod - this is a common concern and has some justification but do not despair. First of all, the quality of the book is paramount and a good enough book will find a publisher regardless of the author's age. However, it is true that it becomes harder to begin a writing career as one becomes older (as for other careers). Regarding an agent's attitude, again the quality of your writing is the agent's first concern; but if the agent knows you age, you will have to shine much more brightly in order to get them to take you on. And, yes, many publishers say they will only look at agented authors, but many do not, so do bear that in mind. Publishing is only a closed shop in the sense that writers who can't write a saleable book are excluded, but it's true to say that as you get older the doorway becomes smaller...

Don't give up, though: focus on writing a wonderful book that perfectly fits the market. (Which is what i say to anyone of any age.)

Katherine Langrish said...

I love my agent, and always remember editors come and go (frequently) but you agent is with you for the long haul. Plus, and it's a big plus, s/he will be there to offer you advice/be a shoulder to cry on/encourage yo, even when you are between books and therefore not earning you (or her) any money.

Nishant said...

Great post and bears repeating.
Thank you for the humor (simply because I remember better that way).
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