MUSINGS OF A STORY MERCHANT

Monday, April 13, 2009

BOOK WRITERS: WHAT’S A GOOD AGENT OR REPRESENTATIVE?

“What's a good agent?" is a difficult question to answer. Authors’ representatives work strictly on commission and are, as a result, mainly interested in highly commercial "properties." Authors’ representatives often help new writers, but most deal only with writers they regard as solid commercial prospects or extraordinary literary talents. Most representatives nowadays ask writers to query before sending the manuscript. This doesn't mean they won't read your work; it means they don't want to read subject matter that doesn’t fit in with their own marketing. Since they work on speculation and commission, they have to deal with several (or many) writers at a time, and are more inclined to devote their energies to promoting a potential best-seller. They're usually interested in working with an author who produces continuously. Someone who writes two short stories a year will not be worth taking on. Authors’ representatives may urge new writers to handle their own submissions of short stories, poetry, and children’s books. And authors’ representatives may or may not help you sell articles.

Some reputable agents now charge reading fees, deductible from future commission (AEI does not). Authors’ representatives receive a commission on everything they sell for you, ranging from 10 to 15 percent, and will nearly always negotiate a contract that will more than justify their commission.

A literary manager like AEI performs the same marketing functions as an agent, but also serves as a producer when your work is filmed.

Other tips about authors’ representatives:
  • Where the representative lives is not important. How often the representative goes to New York, and how many New York publishers the representative deals with, is important. It’s difficult to be an effective authors’ representative without regular personal contact with the New York publishing scene. Don’t be afraid to call the publishers direct for a reference to the representative you’re considering—or to ask a prospective rep to give you editing and publishing references you can call.
  • Independent representatives may be more open to new clients than large agencies or management companies, and may work harder for them.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask a representative for credentials and track record. The best criteria for choosing a representative are the representative’s previous sales. If a candidate won’t share his or her list of clients, don’t deal with that representative.
If you decide to let someone represent you, it's a good idea to trust your representative with the marketing for six months. Then ask how it's going. A representative's knowledge of market can be invaluable. But keep in mind that if you have a good book, getting a representative won't be difficult and you won't need a representative to work miracles. Calling your representative more than once a month will quickly put you on his or her “life is too short list.”

Although it’s not as true today as it once was, many new writers were published for the first time through their own marketing efforts, not through a representative's. Finding someone who believes in your work as much as you do-enough to go out there and sell it-is rare indeed.
Many writers swear by their reps. Many swear only at them.

Few agree about them. If you don't feel the need for someone to stand between you and the publisher, you don't need an agent or manager. If you decide to use an attorney, make sure the attorney has had direct experience with publishing contracts. A literary attorney can negotiate the contract for you as well as an agent or manager.

One way of getting a representative is to make the sale yourself, then call the manager or agent to represent you in the contract negotiation. Few reps will turn down this opportunity, even at a reduced commission, and you've automatically become "represented." Agents or literary managers are especially useful for working out package deals which include screenplays, TV
scripts, and foreign rights. Large publishers often prefer to deal through reps (though a few still deal directly with the authors), and most major U.S. publishers will deal only through reps. Jeff Herman’s The Writer’s Guide to Agents & Publishers [click here to order] offers extended discussion of authors’ representatives and rights.

[excerpt from A Writer’s Time, Chapter 6, “Publishing in Time”]

© Kenneth Atchity 1986, 1995, 1999

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