Friday, March 15, 2013

Do You Need an Agent?

I was reading an article on Sterling Lord's Lord of Publishing: A Memoir. Lord, of course is that Sterling Lord. The legendary literary agent. Lord was discussing how the industry has changed and how literary representation has changed. He was...not scathing exactly, but when he started out in publishing, it wasn't the numbers-driven industry it is now. So obviously there has been a shift or two since the old days, and agenting is one of the things that has shifted the most. There just isn't a more endangered animal in publishing than the literary agent. But it's still too early to say how this is all going to shake out. Agents seem to be reinventing themselves, some of them taking on roles of managers and publicists and editors. Evolution, I guess.

Anyway, there’s been a fair bit of discussion in our genre lately on this topic. So I thought, as someone who has done it both ways (er, that would be publishing) I’d offer my ten cents on the question.

Do you need an agent? Short answer? If you’re writing m/m fiction, probably not. Not just yet, anyway.

Long answer? See below.

Basically you need an agent for two reasons that remain unchanging. To open doors that are otherwise closed to you. And to negotiate better, smarter deals than you could get on your own.

Actually, you can add a third very good reason for partnering up with an agent: The agent sees the big picture and has a plan for how to help you reach your career goals. I don't think Sterling Lord and his ilk did a lot of career planning back in the day, so that's a newer development.

Reasons NOT to get an agent: the agent is opening her own publishing house and/or you think having an agent gives you credibility and clout.

 An agent starting up her own publishing business is an agent who sees the writing on the wall. Most money in publishing is not made by authors – nor, especially now – agents. On one level it makes sense for an agent to open a publishing house. Heck, everyone else is doing it, and at least plenty of agents have worked in publishing houses and have practical ideas of how publishing operates. Also, often agents can see the commercial possibilities of a work that they just can’t sell to a publishing house. So the agent will publish the promising but unsaleable book and both author and agent will profit.

I’m not saying this is always a bad plan, I’m saying there is a potential and dangerous conflict of interest, which may or may not come into play.

As for the clout and credibility… Even seven years ago, that was still true. Now? Now it depends on the particular agent – and the particular doors he can open for you. You do not need an agent who can get you a contract with Dreamspinner Press. An agent who can sell your male-male romance to HQN. Yeah. That’s probably the agent you want.

So let’s consider good reasons to get an agent even if you are just planning to write male- male romance for the rest of your career.

Opening doors that are otherwise closed to you. Let’s say that hithertofore you’ve been publishing with Schnooky-Nooky Press and you’re hoping, for starters, to break into one of the bigger epubs. You figure if your submission is agented, you’ll get a closer read. Maybe even a priority read. This is quite possible. Having an agent means someone besides you is willing to invest in your career, and that does count for something. Plus, your agent may have already done a lot of the ground work by asking for revisions and edits on your manuscript before she ever agreed to take it on. That could be very helpful to you, again, depending on the agent.

Or this scenario. You’re hoping to move up the publishing food chain and maybe place your work with a major player publisher. Unless we’re talking Harlequin and a few other romance publishers, yes, you absolutely need an agent. No question. The catch here is that agents operate – as so much of publishing does – based on relationships. Access to HarperCollins does not occur simply by virtue of being an agent.  You really want to look at who your prospective agent represents -- and where he’s selling their work.

To negotiate better, smarter deals than you could get on your own. Lest it sound like I am anti-agent, I am grateful at least once a month for the negotiating my own agent did on my behalf with legacy publishers. Thanks to my agent (and only to my agent -- because none of this would have occurred to me at that time) I still own my audio rights and – more importantly – my work is not being held forever by a publisher who has successfully argued in other cases that, even though ebooks barely existed at the time I signed contracts, putting a book into POD or digital form = still in print.

Thank you, Agent Lady, wherever you are. You saved me from making costly and painful mistakes. Not that I would have had the opportunity to make those mistakes since I wouldn’t have got my foot in those doors without your help. So thank you again.

That said, it’s hard to go too wrong in epublishing provided you exert a little commonsense. Oh, and watch and listen to what’s going on with authors around you. If you’ve got long range writing career plans, you need to educate yourself in your field, and that includes having a basic grasp of the rights you should not blithely hand over.

And even if you do sign a not-so-favorable contract (as I have done a couple of times since I swanned out on my own) the ramifications don’t tend to be lasting. It’s an ill wind that blows no good, and I can say that (in this particular genre) even contracts that I regretted, have almost always, in the end, worked in my favor. Or at least not done me any serious and lasting harm.

Could an agent keep you from signing a bad contract? Yes. Absolutely. So could a lawyer. You could always consider joining the Author’s Guild, which provides free legal advice for members.

Can an agent get you a better deal when most of the epubs and indies we deal with are working from boiler plate contracts? Maybe. Probably? It depends on how you define (and price) “better.” Are more author copies or shaving a year off a lengthy contract worth $23,000. to you?  It’s not a rhetorical question. If you’re earning 100K+ thanks to the efforts of your agent, yes, I would think that was worth it to you. 

The agent sees the big picture and has a plan for how to help you get to your career goals. Now and again I hear authors saying things like why should an agent get 15% of my hard work? The theory is an agent is worth every penny of her commission because you’re earning more than you would earn without her. That’s the idea. The idea is that the agent brings opportunity and possibility to the table. But opportunity and possibility aren’t solely about the editors she has lunch with. An agent’s success also has to do with how educated and knowledgeable she is about the industry in general – and her understanding of the best way to apply that know-how to your particular situation.  Agents stay relevant and indispensable in the new publishing climate when they are as invested in your success as you are. You don’t want an agent who is essentially running an author mill and relying on volume to stay afloat. You want someone helping you make the right decisions. Both in the short term and for the long term.  You want someone with an eye on the future – maybe even with a theory of what the future is going to look like for both of you.

So…do you need an agent? The answer to that question is dependent on two things. Where you are in your career right now, and where you want to be in five years. You have to be honest in your assessment. As far as where you are right now—usually the answer is not where I want to be. As for what you want in the future? Do you want complete artistic control of your work? You don’t need an agent. Do you want to earn a lot of money from publishing your stories? Again, you don’t need an agent. Do you want access to mainstream publishers as they slowly, creakily open the doors to male-male romance? If you hope to take your career mainstream, then yes, you probably will need an agent.
Just remember that “writing mainstream” is about more than having an agent represent you to big publishers. Nor does writing mainstream guarantee success – depending on how you define “success.” A definition you need to give thought to.

That, however, is a topic for another day.









  1. So basically, you have to educate yourself about the agent's CV as much as she has to educate herself about you. What good would it do me to get an agent who has contacts at (totally randomly picking these) Penguin, St. Martin's and IDK who else, unless I know beforehand that these publishers are likely to be interested in M/M at any point in the near future?

    Or, I guess the agent herself would know you were the right fit for her/her publishers? This is all intriguing, because I've never given it serious consideration. Right now, I can't even keep up with the career I've managed to carve out for myself. LOL

  2. This is why authors really, seriously, need to give some thought to what they want -- where they see themselves in five, ten, twenty years.

    I am astounded at the number of authors who "just start writing" and then are forever fretting and fuming about the way their career does or doesn't turn out! :-D

    An agent can be a great help to a writing career -- provided the writer is interested in -- or needs -- the deals a particular agent can make on their behalf.

    The first step before *ever* contacting an agent is having a clear idea of what you want from that agent.

  3. Very interesting column, Mr. Lanyon.

    Finding the agent who believes in your work, hopefully, reads and enjoys it, plus has the right contacts is crucial. Funny thing, though, I've seen a few people who truly do lack writing skills whine and moan because they can't find and agent who "appreciates" them.

    Frankly, I would hope that any agent worth his/her salt, would be honest with the writer and tell him/her to go home, re-write, re-write, re-write, and come back later. Though sometimes agents (and editors) just do not see the value of a work because they see only the bottom line. A great example is my friend James Lee Burke who holds the record for publisher turn downs. Lay Down My Sword & Shield was rejected by 113 publishers before he convinces LSU Press to publish. It was nominated for a Pulitzer.

    As an ol' retired librarian (+ English major), I find I am becoming less and less encouraged by what's out there these days.

    I've done some editing (non-fiction, which I know is a whole different ball game), but I despair of the lack of editing by some of the major mainstream book houses.

    I love mystery and suspense, which led me to your work. I also read "all over the place," and I have come to believe that too many publishers are using spell check as their primary editing resource.

    In addition, it seems many budding writers have little understanding of language or meaning of words. For example, why do so many not know the difference between the words "floor" and "ground?" So often, in describing a fight scene, the writer will say "He was knocked to the ground" when the fight is occurring inside a building. No, "He was knocked to the FLOOR."

    Silly? Neurotic on my part? I suppose so, but it just seems to me that if an author or publisher is paying an editor, he/she should call those types of errors to the author's attention.

    Forgive the rant, but I would love for you to address the editing business in a future column, if you haven't already. I've not read all of your columns, but I'm working on it.

    Keep rockin',


  4. Thank you, Penelope.

    I think a good agent, an agent of integrity and experience, will be honest with an author who isn't ready for prime time.

    Of course, there are more and more agencies that operate as author mills (a product of our digital age) wherein the agent signs a slew of mediocre authors and gets them the exact same ebook deals they could have gotten on their own. :-) The agency survives, maybe even thrives, on their percentage from a quantity of low grade deals. The mediocre authors feel validated by the fact they have "an agent."

    Is that a win-win? Maybe so. I'm all for people making a living, and I don't think it's doing any one -- or publishing in general -- any harm.

    Editing. Ah yes.

    Judging by the reviews I've been reading over the last nine months in Publisher's Weekly...this is more and more an issue. Not simply copyediting, but content editing.

    Still...the publishers that cut corners are pretty much the usual suspects.

  5. Touche. Outstanding arguments. Keep up the great work.