Friday, September 4, 2009

Secret Agent Man (or woman)

By Russel D McLean


What are they good for?

Some people will tell you, like war, that the answer is “absolutely nothing”. Those people, I have found are generally rather self-deluded eejits who talk constantly about John Grisham selling his first novels from a wheelbarrow and complain about “someone else” getting a percentage of their deal, of their “work”. A good agent, you don’t mind paying that percentage. You don’t mind it at all.

I would encourage every would-be writer to find a good agent. And not just because most of the big boys are only accepting unsolicited queries (I got my deal with a UK indy press through my agent) but because a good agent earns their keep.

A good agent is many things to a writer. They are an initial sounding board, a first editor, an advisor and above all a salesperson. Without my agent, I’d still be making some huge mistakes in my manuscripts and probably being ignored by publishers big and small alike. Agents are the people who take you by the hand and help you negotiate the insanity that is the publishing industry.

I believe in agents, not as “Gatekeepers” (as they are described in this Bookseller article about MacMillan New Writing) so much as intermediaries between writers and publishers. As a writer, I am concerned with one thing: writing the best damn book I can. My agent allows me to do that by ensuring that everything else in the process works. He cuts the deals, finds the editors, explains the bits of the contract I don’t understand (and there’s usually a lot in the contract I don’t understand) and generally frees me up to concentrate on the business of working with an editor *on the book* rather than on the less sexy business side of the deal. He also helps me to understand the market and what editors are looking for as well as providing that all important first look at my precious manuscripts. And, yes, he tells me when I’m screwing it up. Pretty brutally, too. But that’s what I need, that’s what I ask for. An agent doesn’t have to be your friend, but they do have to have your respect.

Now, agents aren’t for everyone, I admit. I believe that the very fine transplanted Dundonian author Carol Anne Davis works without an agent. And I know that such schemes as MacMillan New Writing (which has produced some very fine writers, such as Ireland’s Patrick McGilloway) allows writers to bypass that part of the process and there are pros and cons to both sides of the argument about how that works. And then there are tales of the good old days where a genius like (The Artist Formerly Known As Colin) Bateman could submit his novel to the slush pile and be picked up for a nice deal. But the times they are a-changing and for someone like me, really, I just wanna write the book. I don’t have a business brain. I don’t want to think about negotiating royalties, advances, rights, all that stuff. I want someone I know can do that for me and do it right. Someone who’s not going to screw me over. Someone I’m happy paying that percentage to.

But how do you find a good agent?

That’s the question that people ask me a lot and the honest answer is I still don’t know. Basically, you just have to put yourself out there. Do research online or through books like The Writer’s Handbook (still a must-purchase for me, just to see what’s going on). Read the submission guidelines. Respect the agent as a person and a reader. And accept that not all of them will see the worth in your work. Deal with them professionally. Do not send them books that are not appropriate to their list. Do not send pre-bound manuscripts with glittery covers. Or cakes (well maybe in some cases the cakes will be eaten, but it won’t influence their opinion of your manuscript).

I think getting an agent is a bit like getting a good date. You have to just keep trying and accept that sometimes there is simply no chemistry no matter how good a prospect someone seems on paper. And sometimes, as I found, you might have to go through several agents before you find the right one for you. And, yes, some of them will be awful (but generally your initial homework should have steered you away from them) and some of them will think you awful (once the honeymoon period wanes) and some of them – no matter how well suited you seem – will just be unable to sell your work. But when you find a good agent, you’ll be thankful for them.


Jay Stringer said...

Great article.

It can be a long process for some, while others get taken on by the first person they show a scribble to. But it's a great feeling having an agent.

The key is that it needs to be the right person, someone who understands what you're trying to say. And someone who can tell you when you're failing to say it.

I'm of a simmilar mind, I don't have a head for the business side of things. Or the way the market works, or what the submissions process is. I just want to write. And to have someone patient enough for my random emails and stupid ideas.

An agent gets you name out there, too. And as your cabbage loving agent says, it's 'not who you know, but who knows you.'

Now if only I could find someone to come make me a cup of tea....

Debra Lynn Shelton said...

Love this post. I'm deep in the agent-acquiring process right now with seven (brilliant, insightful, visionary) agents currently reviewing my work. I'm on the roller-coaster ride in a big way. One day I get a request, and the next day a pass. It's tough keeping spirits high. Thankfully, my current wip is keeping me from going crazy. Did you go through that when looking for an agent?

BTW: If you ever decide you want to add a feminine voice to this awesome blog, let me know. I'd be honored to play with the big boys.;-)

Dave White said...

I know your agent.... Kiss up. :-)

Seriously though, great article. My agent has helped me immensely, not only with business, but also the writing part as well.

Russel said...


My cabbage loving (and we mean that in a purely platonic sense) agent has a lot of good sayings. And a lot of slightly insane ones, too. But you're right, it has to be the right person. After my first experiences with an agent (not the cabbage lover), I sincerely believe that.


Its a long and painful process, or it was for me. So many close calls, but in the end, sheer persistence is what paid off. Don't know if that's of use or not true enough :-)

And yes, we are quite testosteroney around here. Even with Jay and Dave...


I am fearful to do anything but kiss up to the cabbage lover...

And yes, he is grand at the old "helping improve the writing" business, too. But we'd better be careful. We don't want him getting a swelled ego...

Steve Weddle said...

The business aspect and contract-handling/explaining is what most folks think the agent is for, I think. Once the book is done, the agent takes over the business of the book, as you said, shopping it around and chatting with editors about the book. But I think most folks don't understand, as you mentioned, the work that an agent does, that a good agent can do, in helping you find your best book, not just your best deal.