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  1. #1

    To Agent or Not to Agent: that is the question

    I have been lurking over the Getting Published thread, seeing the topic lightly touched on, and I wanted to get a discussion going solely on the subject.

    I spoke to my cousin who has been an author for 20+ years, writing non-fiction historical books about the mid-west (mainly used for higher education and hobby reading).

    His advice was, "if you can get a fiction published without an agent, do so. If by chance your sales pass the medium to best selling mark, than consider it". His reasoning behind this is because he has only made a partial income over the years from his historical books, his best being just over 18k, while maintaining full time work. Allowing a agent to cut an 8-12% out of it would just be too much. However, I explained to him (his works aside) that an agent serves a promotional role of said work, thus creating a potential for greater sales. Now there have been several well known authors that have published unagented in their humble beginnings, S. King being one that comes to mind, while others have chosen an agent.

    What are your thoughts?

  2. #2
    Edited for submission Holbrook's Avatar
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    Things have changed over the last few years, many of the big publishers no longer run a slush pile for unsolicited manuscripts. So the only way to get your work under their noses is through a good agent.

    Also from a personal point of view I have found having an agent gives me someone who works at selling my writing, leaving me to write. Preparing and submitting manuscripts takes a lot of time an energy. He also supports me in many other ways, encouraging me, and hitting me over the head when I need it.

  3. #3
    KMTolan kmtolan's Avatar
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    What I've heard from most NY authors I've talked to is that an agent these days is a must if you want to break into the traditional market.

    If you set your sites on the Indies (we're talking e-book/POD publishers - not vanities) then you don't need an agent at all in most cases.

    Kerry

  4. #4
    Shadow's Lure (June 2011)
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    Holbrook and kmtolan gave great advice. I would only add the greed factor:

    Fifteen percent of zero is still zero. You aren't going to make any money as a writer until you sell to a paying market, and more-and-more these days that means having an agent.

    And a good agent will out-earn her percentage in additional sales, winning valuable rights for you, and sage advice about your career.

  5. #5
    Palinodic Moderator KatG's Avatar
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    Your cousin writes for the educational market where terms are pretty much set, while most fiction is published in the trade market, and terms vary widely. However, literary agents take 15%, not 8-12%, and may take 20% on film sales and foreign rights sales because the commission is split with the film or foreign rights sub-agent.

    If you are in the U.S., Canada or U.K., there are numerous reasons why lit agents can be useful things:

    1) Having one gives you a larger pool of publishing possibilities.

    2) Gets you a response from many publishers faster.

    3) Gets you more chances of being read because even if an editor is lukewarm about seeing your novel, he may do so because the agent may have other interesting clients.

    4) Can do multiple submissions to publishers and hold a book auction for your work if there is sufficient interest

    5) Can get you better terms such as escalating royalties and decent option clauses.

    6) Can get you certain contract terms because the agent has precedent for them with the publisher for another client.

    7) Protects your legal interests in doing a contract with the publisher and throughout publication.

    8) Is able, through the leverage of a stable of authors, to put more pressure on publishers to honor their commitments for promoting your book.

    9) Runs interference when there are problems with your publisher so that you and your editor can concentrate on the book (i.e. plays the bad guy.)

    10) Can retain various subsidiary rights -- film, audio, foreign translation -- for the author and then sell those rights, directly or through sub-agents, and you don't have to then split that money with your domestic book publisher. Many authors these days make more money off of foreign sales than they do their domestic one.

    11) Manages your money and makes sure that you are paid. (Literary agents essentially also act as business managers.)

    12) Depending on the agent, provide editorial advice, and also career strategizing. The agent can explain publishing terminology, procedures and contract issues to you.

    And so on and so forth.

    King was publishing in the 1970's, and very few agents were doing horror then. But he got an agent as fast as his little feet could carry him as soon as he could. He was with his main agent Kirby McCauley for a very long time.

    If you can get an agent, it helps you and most agents work their butts off. But if you want to go it alone, that's still okay too in fiction in many places. But you're not just getting a pitchman when you get one.

  6. #6
    LaerCarroll.com
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    Trying to go it alone as a pro fiction writer without an agent is one of the stupidest things you can do.

    This applies even if you are interested in working with indie publishers. There are many, and they come and go. They also change, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. They also change their focus. A particular indie might be doing good business despite the current economic climate and be considering branching out into a new area.

    Also consider that agents come in many varieties. They are not only good/mediocre/bad but also especially strong and weak in different areas. Some may focus on major publishers, others may consider indies a terrific arena for their stable of writers. A particular agent may or may not match your needs. A terrific agent for another writer may be wrong for you.

    Getting an agent, much less the right agent for you, is a lot of work. Perhaps when you are still spending much of your time fine-tuning your craft you can do without. Once you are past that stage you need an agent.

    And if you don't get one, good. That means you are less competition for me! Dumb ass.

  7. #7
    Great advice for the aspiring; most of you...

    Quote Originally Posted by kmtolan View Post
    What I've heard from most NY authors I've talked to is that an agent these days is a must if you want to break into the traditional market.

    If you set your sites on the Indies (we're talking e-book/POD publishers - not vanities) then you don't need an agent at all in most cases.

    Kerry
    But remember KM, not all indies fit this profile. I refer to another writing thread where KatG named off some very successful indies who are not e-book/POD. But none the less, great advice.

  8. #8
    Quote Originally Posted by Laer Carroll View Post
    Trying to go it alone as a pro fiction writer without an agent is one of the stupidest things you can do.

    And if you don't get one, good. That means you are less competition for me! Dumb ass.
    In all serious Laer, how old are you (and that can apply to a mental capacity as well)?

    This thread was started to help people who are aspiring to be authors, not for you to bash them for the decision they have made or are choosing to make. And KatG pointed out that King eventually did get an agent, but the fact remains, as I stated, he started unagented. Plus, there are several successful fiction authors today who start out unagented, and you're going to sit here and call them a "dumbass". How are you book sales compared to these people?

    My advice is: if you do not like what someone has written, respond in a manner that shows you are an intelligent author, and not someone who does OpEds for Mad Magazine.

  9. #9
    Palinodic Moderator KatG's Avatar
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    Alright, alright, settle down everybody. Don't make me go all moderator on your collective asses.

    Seriously, JT, you can't take a look at publishing from forty years ago and say that's how trade authors should do it today. The distribution systems, publishing programs, and business factors were quite different. Having an agent working for you is about more than simple monetary gain, as well.

    I don't object to people trying to go without an agent. Many of them have to do so, and in dealing with smaller presses who can't pay advances or do much in terms of contract terms, using a literary rights lawyer for the contract may be sufficient. But being without an agent does leave authors vulnerable in some ways. And if your big concern is that an agent will take a cut of monies, then you don't understand what a literary agent does, in my opinion. That said, you still have to watch your literary agent to get the most out of one.

    If you have any other questions related to this topic, go ahead and I'll do my best to field them.

  10. #10
    Quote Originally Posted by KatG View Post
    Alright, alright, settle down everybody. Don't make me go all moderator on your collective asses.

    Seriously, JT, you can't take a look at publishing from forty years ago and say that's how trade authors should do it today. The distribution systems, publishing programs, and business factors were quite different. Having an agent working for you is about more than simple monetary gain, as well.

    I don't object to people trying to go without an agent. Many of them have to do so, and in dealing with smaller presses who can't pay advances or do much in terms of contract terms, using a literary rights lawyer for the contract may be sufficient. But being without an agent does leave authors vulnerable in some ways. And if your big concern is that an agent will take a cut of monies, then you don't understand what a literary agent does, in my opinion. That said, you still have to watch your literary agent to get the most out of one.

    If you have any other questions related to this topic, go ahead and I'll do my best to field them.
    Thanks KatG. In my regards, I am using an agent. The thread is simply a topic to weigh the balances between to two, in order to help those who are coming to that decision...

  11. #11
    LaerCarroll.com
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    Quote Originally Posted by Laer Carroll View Post
    if you don't get [an agent], good. That means you are less competition for me! Dumb ass.
    Darn. I thought my remark was funny, not contemptuous. Obviously I don't have a career as a comedian!

    The point remains however. Someone who has no agent (or one not a good partner for them) is at a disadvantage against a writer who does have a good agent.

    The fact that some successful writers began their careers without an agent is not a recommendation for going agentless. Stephen King did suggest in an 1986 article in Writer Magazine that you contact publishers directly when you begin your career. But the industry has changed much in the 24 years since.

    In the same article he said that he'd learned from "bitter experience" that "You don't need one until you're making enough for someone to steal..."

    Some novice writers repeat the mantra that submitting to indie publishers will rescue one from getting an agent. If anything, the indie route is more perilous and you need an experienced guide even more. They are a very mixed field, some competent and some not, some honest and some not. Some are so shaky that you may sell a property to them, then they go out of business and tie up your rights for years on end.

    And there are other problems with dealing with indies, too many to go into. Wishful thinking will not make them go away.

  12. #12
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    I'd like to add that if you do get an offer from a publisher and you have no agent, this is a time to consider contacting a good one. They can vet the contract for you and help you retain rights that will later be valuable.

    However: be sure the agent you're considering is one who actively pursues foreign sales, audio sales, etc. if you retain those rights. My current agent was with a large agency which--though it had a foreign rights person--did diddly for me in that regard. Once my agent left that agency (and I went with him) he was able to develop his own stable of foreign sub-agents, and my foreign income shot upward.

    Some writers are very vocal about not needing an agent, and thinking most agents aren't that good. At least one of them makes way more than I do--but that's unusual. Most writers who are making a living at this game--or doing well just below that--have an agent and find that even with the agent's cut, they're making more with one than without one.

  13. #13
    LaerCarroll.com
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    Quote Originally Posted by E_Moon View Post
    Some writers are very vocal about not needing an agent, and thinking most agents aren't that good.
    This may be a realistic appraisal. Agents like any other professionals come in good, bad, and indifferent. And one that is perfect for someone else may be a poor match for you and your specific needs.

    Even if the appraisal is overly pessimistic, it is smart to be cautious about a relationship which may affect our lives as profoundly as a marriage.

    Relevant to that is this point from Nzingha Stewart's film-writing blog. She posts a quote from an interview with famed film teacher Robert McKee.

    "...literary agents ... may or may not have taste, [but] they all have careers. Selling scripts is how they put gas in their BMWs. What's more, like everybody else, they want their gas money today. So they have little or no patience for spending months or even years submitting your work, one submission at a time, to dozens of production companies, and then waiting forever to hear back. They want to read work they can sell and sell fast."
    Last edited by Laer Carroll; February 19th, 2010 at 02:25 PM.

  14. #14
    Palinodic Moderator KatG's Avatar
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    Hmm, I don't know why McKee would call them literary agents, since that's only used for books. Agents who represent screenplays are known as film agents or talent agents. Or just agents.

  15. #15
    LaerCarroll.com
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    McKee is one the better known screen-writing gurus. (Others include Syd Field, Linda Seger, Blake Snyder, and my favorite Gene Vail.) He considers screenplays literature.

    I suppose the best of them have a spare beauty reminiscent of a haiku. It has to be spare since a reading (as opposed to a shooting) script contains ONLY dialog and very brief scene and action description. I try for beauty as well as expressiveness, but then I began writing with poetry.
    ________________________________
    INT. STARSHIP - DAY

    The planet Saturn hangs luminous in the starship viewscreen. Its rings are seen near edge on. Green Chinese-like script scrolls downward to one side of the 'screen.

    ROBOT PILOT
    (V.O. The speech is obviously mechanical but oddly sweet and expressive.)
    Captain. Arrived.

    WONDER WOMAN's beautiful face is seen close up. She open's the penetrating grey eyes of an Athena. Centuries of experience look out. She has seen empires rise and fall. Saved and killed millions. And raised twins.

    WONDER WOMAN
    (V.O. Her lips do not move. She is speaking over a neural interface.)
    Understood. You have performed efficiently. Will launch in ... 37 seconds.
    ________________________________
    The standard READING (or spec) script format can be found at the Oscar organization site.

    web.archive.org/web/20080822084909/http://www.oscars.org/nicholl/format.html
    Last edited by Laer Carroll; February 22nd, 2010 at 12:57 PM.

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