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.