Saturday, June 29, 2013

Do You Need an Agent?

Do you need an agent? The answer could be both yes, and no. Today, with a lot of writers heading into self-publishing, over half the books published go to market without an agent’s help. Even if you work with a traditional publishing house, you can place your book without an agent.

While it’s true that every writer gains some prestige by having an agent, having one doesn’t make you any better a writer. If you don’t produce quality writing, having an agent won’t help you. Agents save editors time and money. Editors know that agents, if they’re competent, weed out the bad material, so basically an agent vets the material for the editor, so whatever an agent sends in is usually given preference in being read earlier than material that comes in “cold." But in no way does it guarantee that the work will get published.

A good agent knows which publishing houses are in the market for what sort of book or project. He or she knows which publisher will release which rights and what the probable bottom line on other negotiations will be. And agents like to deal with certain editors.

A good agent should also be a good friend who can also be objective. He or she will be part salesman, part lawyer, part literary critic, and part father/mother-confessor.  Agents get calls from writers who can't pay their bills, from writers who are drunk or who have been arrested for one thing or another, and from writers who just want to hear a reassuring voice.

Of course, once you place your book or book proposal in an agent’s hands, you may hear nothing for a long time. Busy agents are in constant touch with those who buy ideas, books, movies, scripts for TV miniseries, book excerpts, and subsidiary rights, as well as with their clients. And remember, you won’t be the agent’s only client.

What agents are good for is negotiating through the maze of book contracts and subsidiary rights, both foreign and domestic. These include sales to book clubs, special sales, film and T.V. options, syndication and reprint rights, and so on. Depending on the arrangement you make, your agent may handle all of your works, only your books, or only certain kinds of books. Some agents will tell you at the beginning what they’ll handle and what they won't. If they don't, ask.

You may want to give an agent only certain kinds of writing and sell the rest yourself. Some writers feel the advantage of a large literary agency lies in the specialists who negotiate film or T.V. rights which can be lucrative. But most good agents who have been in the business any length of time will have some sort of representation in this highly specialized area. It's rare  these days for agents to handle magazine articles or short stories. If they do, it’s usually because you’ve made money for them through your books and have gained some notoriety.

Agents also help negotiate solutions to conflicts between you and your publisher. They push for timely payment of advances and royalties. They keep accurate records of your sales. Some agents are also lawyers, or have lawyers in their company, and can review alleged abuses by a publisher, alert a writer to possible problems stemming from something he is about to publish, and act as a knowledgeable go-between for the writer. Some agents act as middleman by finding the right author to write a book on an idea an editor or publisher has.

Should you attempt to publish your book with a traditional book publisher? Even if you manage to get an editor’s okay, you may want to consider getting an agent to handle the contract. Book contracts can be sticky business. In fact, some publishers have been known to send outrageous contracts to beginning writers, who don’t know any better. Book contracts can be 30 pages or more with lots of fine print—important fine print that if not read correctly and dealt with could end up costing you a lot of money in lost subsidiary rights and even fees. A good example is requiring you to create an index for a non-fiction book—something you’ll end up paying for out of your advance.

And while it’s possible to sell a book on your own, you may end up spending a large part of your time doing so—time you could have spent actually writing. It’s for this reason that an agent’s 10 percent is often worth it.

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