|Samples articles from the Romance Writers Report
All articles © Laura Resnick
AGENTS is a three-part series that discusses agents,
agent-hunting, and working with and without an agent.
Part I: The Money
Here’s the brief rundown of standard operating procedure, in case you don’t already know it: You give the agent a manuscript (MS). The agent markets the MS to publishers, and negotiates the deal when an offer is made. He should also consult you on various points of the contract, since you are the one who’ll sign it and be bound by it. The publisher pays your advance to the agent, who deducts his commission (15% is what's standard) before sending your 85% to you.
Most agents will also deduct certain previously-specified incidental expenses incurred in the marketing of your work. This may including photocopying your MS for multiple submissions and also certain extraordinary shipping expenses—on occasion, an agent has to send something FedEx on your behalf, for example, or ship something overseas. If you meet an agent who deducts more than these common items, you might want to seek feedback about it from some experienced professional writers. Some things are normal variations, some aren’t, and you’ll want to be sure of what you’re encountering. Item Three of the Canon of Ethics of the Association of Authors’ Representatives (AAR) gives examples “such as copyright fees, manuscript retyping, photocopies, [purchase of] copies of books for use in the sale of [subsidiary] rights, long distance calls, special messenger fees, etc. Such charges shall be made only if the client has agreed to reimburse such expenses.”
That covers the basics of how money matters function between the author and her agent.
Now, if you learn nothing else about agents for the rest of your life, please at least remember this one absolutely essential piece of information: A writer never sends money to an agent under any circumstances whatsoever.
What is the exception to this rule?
There isn’t one.
Agents make their money from commissions on clients’ book sales. Money always flows from the publisher to the writer via the agent. If the agent incurs legitimate incidental expenses in the process of marketing the author’s book, then the agent deducts those expenses (and clearly itemizes them) before forwarding payment to the author.
A responsible agent does not ask a client to send money in advance to cover these expenses. The agent, in incurring these expenses, gambles that his professional judgement is professional and that he has the expertise to sell a book in which he believes. You gamble your time and effort as the author in a similar fashion, investing weeks, months, or years of your life in a proposal or completed book which you write in the fervent hope and inherent belief that it will be saleable. The agent-author relationship is a partnership of mutual risk and mutual rewards, and it’s based on their mutual belief in the author’s talent and the agent’s expertise.
Of course, if there is no sale, no deal, and no payment, then, yes, the agent eats his incidental expenses... but only until he sells something else of yours. If a reputable, competent, professional agent can’t sell a given MS, he simply waits and deducts those expenses from the sale of your next MS, or from an acceptance check or royalty check he receives for a book of yours which he previously sold. This is standard operating procedure.
So if an agent asks you up front for “marketing” expenses, this means he (a) has no faith in his ability to sell the book in question, and (b) has no faith in his ability to ever sell anything else you write, either. Whatever he may say about you, and however emphatically he may express the “risk” he’s taking on you, the risk he’s asking you to take is far greater, because what he’s saying about himself is far more relevant: He has a very weak professional record, and he frequently takes on commitments which never result in income.
An agent with good judgement doesn’t have to eat incidental marketing expenses often enough for them to be a significant factor in his budget. A good agent is taking on a client’s career, not one sole piece of work, and he’s confident enough in his professional judgement and experience to believe that, over the long haul, he will indeed receive checks from which he can deduct his incidentals for that client.
Remember, the agent’s share of your money—his commission—is what he gets for his expertise: his shrewd assessment of your work; his knowledge of the current market; his understanding of contracts and subrights; his contacts in the business; his constantly-updated information about which editors at which houses are interested in what sort of books. If he doesn’t have this expertise and apply it effectively, then he’s not worth 15% of your income. Nor is he very likely to collect 15% of your income, precisely because he’s unlikely ever to generate income for you. In fact, in some cases, the majority of his income is based on the up-front “fees” he collects from people whose books he never sells.
What about other fees? “Reading” fees, for example.
Reputable agencies read their slushpiles in search of new talent whose work will make them rich, and they don’t charge you for the privilege of being a specimen in their treasure hunt.
In case you’ve forgotten: A writer never sends money to an agent under any circumstances whatsoever.
What’s the exception?
There isn’t one.
Now, unfortunately, I know from experience that some of you don’t believe me yet. You think I don’t know what I’m talking about, that things are different for an aspiring writer than they are for a published professional, or that things are different for aspiring writers now than they were back when I was one, and therefore what I’m writing here doesn’t apply to you.
If you don’t believe me, then you may at least want to consider believing the AAR, who declare in the final item in their Canon of Ethics: “…Members may not charge clients or potential clients for reading and evaluating literary works and may not benefit, directly or indirectly, from the charging for such services by any other person or entity. The term ‘charge’ in the previous sentence includes any request for payment other than to cover the actual cost of returning materials.”
And if you don’t believe the AAR, either, and you still think there are indeed exceptions—and experience has taught me that some of you will indeed think so—then I urge you to investigate the “Writer Beware!” section at www.sfwa.org, which is the website of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA). The “Writer Beware!” committee has spent many laborious years trying to educate aspiring writers and new writers about the facts of scam agents and scam publishers.
Yes, in some cases, an agency that asks you for money is not just a bad agency, but a genuinely dishonest one. Though they call themselves literary agents, they are, in reality, crooks. Con artists. Their profession is to promise you services which you desperately want (from “editing” your book, to selling it, to publishing it) in exchange for money—sometimes large quantities of money. Always remember, when an agent asks you to send him money, the best case scenario is that he’s just not very good at his job. Another possible scenario, unfortunately, is that he’s a crook.
If you don’t want to believe me or “Writer Beware!” about this, maybe you want to consider believing the Agent Research and Evaluation Newsletter (available for an annual subscription fee via www.agentresearch.com), a recent issue of which stated once again, “Such folks apparently live entirely off the money they collect from new and unsuspecting writers who can be convinced of their various plausible sounding but truly preposterous schemes.”
It’s essential to realize that there are virtually no requirements for becoming a literary agent. No test, no license, no standard training, nothing. Your next door neighbor could wake up tomorrow, decide she wants to become a literary agent, print up cards, hang out a shingle, and, voilà!, she’d be one. All it takes to call yourself a literary agent is precisely that—to call yourself one.
So how do good agents become good agents? In a variety of ways, but one of the most common is that they take an entry-level job in an extant agency and learn their profession from the ground up. It’s also not uncommon for editors to cross the street and become agents.
Needless to say, there’s a big difference between being represented by your next door neighbor and being represented by someone who learned his profession by rising up through the ranks at a respected agency.
So it’s important for the writer, when developing a list of agents to query, to collect as much information as possible about any given agent by researching the agent’s sales and business practices, speaking to writers who know the agent by reputation, and particularly, if possible, by speaking with professional writers who currently work with the agent.
However, if an agent charges a submission fee, a marketing fee, a reading fee, an editing fee, a registration fee, or any other kind of fee, you won’t need to ask other writers about his reputation, will you? Because you’ll know better than to send any of your work to that agent, let alone consider hiring him.
AGENTS is a three-part series that discusses agents,
agent-hunting, and working with and without an agent.
“Do I need an agent to get published?”
This is one of the questions that aspiring writers ask often. The true answer is frustratingly vague: That depends.
As you probably already know, breaking into publishing is often a Catch-22 situation: You can’t get an editor to read your manuscript (MS) if it isn’t represented by an agent, and you can’t get an agent to represent you if you’re unpublished.
Believe me, I understand about the “can’t get an agent” part. After I wrote two MSs as an aspiring writer, I queried twelve agents. Count them: twelve. The first eleven all rejected me. Most said I had no talent and couldn’t write; the rest said that the romance genre was dead and I should forget about my aspirations. The twelfth agent proved to be a sleazebag who tried to get me to sign an extremely egregious agency contract, and who then bludgeoned me with dire warnings when I declined and walked away.
Here’s the good part: I then sold both of those books on my own, within a year.
I sold them both to Silhouette Books, a division of Harlequin. Whether or not you should have an agent when dealing with Harlequin, the fact is that you don’t have to have one. Although your MS may languish for a long time in the slushpiles of eternity, Harlequin and Silhouette nonetheless deal with many unagented writers. They read all of the unagented MSs they receive, they buy a number of them every year, and they negotiate directly with the author if she is unagented. I negotiated ten of my eleven Silhouette sales. (Note of interest: The agent who negotiated my eleventh and final sale there did not get me a faster response time, better contractual terms, or a bigger raise on my advance than I’d gotten on my own for the previous ten sales.)
Unfortunately, when it comes to other publishers, the story is not necessarily as simple. As you probably know, some houses now have a policy whereby they simply refuse to look at any unagented material. This is because their slushpiles have grown too enormous for them to manage, and their solution is to shift the slush-reading load to agencies by refusing to read unagented work. And one can understand this position to some extent. One of my former editors, a very busy woman, used to receive a pile of mail each week that was eight feet high. Many editorial divisions don’t have enough staff to deal efficiently with their extant workload even without responding to thousands of queries every year.
So, by refusing to read unagented work, publishers significantly reduce their submission piles, and they also (the theory goes) weed out a lot of stuff that would just waste their time if they had to read it (such as books written by hand on the reverse side of grocery bags, or books mailed to the editor one page at a time to “whet her appetite”—yes, people really do things like this).
However, while understandable in some cases, this “no unagented submissions” policy has nonetheless encouraged the growth of numerous scam agencies that take advantage of aspiring writers who have failed to educate themselves about the business and who are seduced by skilled con artists into making expensive—even disastrous—mistakes.
Of course, after reading Part I of this series, “The Money,” you know better than to deal with any agent who asks you for money. (Indeed, if you ever encounter an agent who does so, please go to www.sfwa.org, link to their “Writer Beware!” section, and report the agent to them.) Unfortunately, though, knowing how to identify charlatans, crooks, or incompetents is only part of the challenge of choosing the right agent.
Among legitimate agents, there are generally three kinds: the good, the bad, and the mediocre. A good agent is one who actively helps your career, doing more for you than you could do for yourself. A bad agent actively hurts your career, whether through ineptitude, carelessness, ignorance, or bad advice. A mediocre agent’s handling of your career is competent but unremarkable.
A good agent is a wonderful thing to have. A mediocre agent is probably better than no agent, at least in most cases. But I am a firm believer that it’s better to have no agent than a bad agent.
If you get a bad agent, you will waste a lot of time in your career. First, you’ll waste the time you spend as that bad agent’s client. Next, after firing him, you’ll have to waste more time hauling your career out of whatever sewer he put it in.
Here’s an example of what I mean by that. True story: A writer whom I’ll call “Lydia,” out of respect for her privacy, sold two books on her own. Then Lydia hired an agent (one who is no longer in the business, so you needn’t worry about inadvertently hiring the same agent). The agent took months to respond to any new proposals Lydia sent; publishers, in turn, took eons to respond to the agent’s submissions. After submitting Lydia’s proposals to one or two houses without making a sale, the agent would give up on the work, without any cogent discussion with the author about why the proposals weren’t selling. Lydia—who, remember, had sold two books on her own—never got a contract during the lengthy period she was represented by this agent. Eventually, Lydia fired the agent, but the damage to her career was severe.
Finally, after more time passed, Lydia became the client of a good agent. He got her under contract almost immediately—with a book which the bad agent had previously failed to sell. Within months, the new agent also got her under contract to a second house. She has been selling books non-stop ever since, working hard to meet deadline after deadline—whereas several years ago she sometimes despaired of ever even selling another novel. This prolific and talented writer lost years of her career as a result of working with a bad agent (not to mention the emotional stress she endured, as well as the loss of income). This is a prime example of why I always say it’s better to have no agent than a bad one.
So, for your own sake, don’t hire a bad agent. Work without one if you can’t get a good one. Educate yourself to competently handle your own career until such time as you’re able to acquire a good agent. Buy a book about fiction contracts and teach yourself about option clauses, subrights, and reversion clauses. Force yourself to study those dense articles in back issues of the Romance Writers Report (RWR) about contracts; they’re written by literary lawyer Bob Stein and well worth absorbing. Teach yourself to write sparkling query letters, and write them often. Pay attention to which editors are looking for what kind of material. Hunt up the backlog of excellent articles which bestselling novelist Raymond Feist wrote for the SFWA Bulletin about literary contracts. Buy Richard Curtis’ book on being your own literary agent, read Don Maass’ The Career Novelist, and keep an eye on publications and websites run by reputable professional organizations like the Romance Writers of America, the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America, the Authors Guild, and Novelists, Inc.
Indeed, you should do all of this in any case. There’s no excuse for willful ignorance. No one will ever care as much about your career as you do, not even a brilliant and loyal literary agent. Not educating yourself thoroughly about the profession you’ve entered (or hope to enter) is like blindfolding yourself and then running outside to play in traffic on a six-lane highway.
Additional tip: Write articles about contracts and self-representation for your local RWA chapter newsletter, for the RWR, and for other publications. This will force you to research the subject in detail, and it will give you a convenient excuse to contact experts and pepper them with questions. This is why, back when I was unagented, I created and edited “The Agent’s Corner” and “The Editor’s Corner” in the RWR for a year (1991), and also why I wrote an article called “Contracts: Top Ten Things To Negotiate, and What’s Not Worth Your Time” for Nink (the journal of Novelists, Inc.).
Also, talk to professionals. Most professional writers well remember what it was like to be a beginner, and most of us are pretty nice about sharing information or insight when asked nicely and in appropriate circumstances. If you have even a modest command of social skills, then you don’t need me to explain “nicely and in appropriate circumstances” to you; you know what the phrase means. If, however, you’re the sort of person who, upon seeing from someone’s nametag at a conference that she’s a professional writer, corners her in a public bathroom and demands that she (a) read your MS, (b) introduce you to her agent, (c) introduce you to her editor, or (d) tell you how much money she makes, then nothing I can say here will teach you common courtesy. Just stay away from me.
Anyhow, the word often gets out about bad agents, so if you poll a dozen professional writers about a particular agent, you’re likely to find out if he’s worth avoiding. (However, sometimes you have to listen hard. If people don’t know you and are discreet with strangers, a mere lack of giddy enthusiasm may be the closest they’re willing to come to warning you away from a known problem-agent. Also be aware that people are often more honest on this subject in person than by e-mail, since e-mail leaves a trail of proof that they’ve spoken negatively about someone.)
Naturally, the whole submission process goes much better at a publishing house if a good agent is representing your work. The point I want to drive home, though, is that there are plenty of instances when, even if you feel you need an agent, it’s better to chug along on your own until the right agent is available to you. Because it’s never true that any agent is better than none at all.
In addition, particularly in the romance genre, there are still a number of editors at a number of houses reading unagented submissions. You don’t need an agent to get an MS under these editors’ noses. Yes, it can be a very long wait, I know; but a bad agent is very unlikely to make it shorter—so why bother hiring him? As for houses that don’t accept unagented material, there is a way around this stricture. Take steps to meet the editor (at a conference, for example) and ask her if you can send her your material; if she says yes, then you can send it without an agent—but be sure to write something like “REQUESTED MATERIAL” on the envelope.
If you’re submitting without an agent and then get an offer, a number of options are open to you. You might negotiate the deal yourself, or you might hire a literary lawyer to negotiate it for you. Or you might tell the editor you’re going to find an agent now that you have an offer, and you’ll get back to her as quickly as possible. It is usually easier to get a good agent once you’ve got an offer on the table, so keep a shortlist handy of agents whom you’d like to contact in that case.
Of course, you’re probably wondering how you identify good agents to query when the time is right. Good question—and a complicated enough question that it’ll take another whole article to address adequately, so come back for Part III of this series when we consider what qualities make an agent good (or, at least, good for you).
AGENTS is a three-part series that discusses agents,
agent-hunting, and working with and without an agent.
Part III: Finding Mr./Ms. Right
What makes an agent good, or at least good for you?
There’s no simple answer. To be honest, after more than fifteen years in this business, I’m still pondering this one, and still learning.
In general, a good agent, as we’ve discussed in the previous two articles in this series, is an expert in the business of selling books and negotiating book deals. Publishing is such a large and complex business in this day and age that most individual agents specialize; often even entire agencies specialize, to one degree or another. For example, as an sf/f writer, there are many agencies to which I couldn’t take my career, no matter how much I might respect the agency, because they know nothing about the sf/f market and have no contacts in it. Similarly, if you’re a romance writer, there are agencies which would be a poor choice for you, even if they’d be willing to take you on, because they handle little or no romance and know nothing about the romance market.
Consequently, the first thing you need to consider when looking for an agent is: Who handles the kind of fiction you write? Resources such as the Romance Writers of America and the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America are good places to start whittling down the vast sea of literary agents to a list of those who specifically handle the kind of fiction you write. Moreover, the more specifically you can narrow down your list of names, the better. For example, if you write historical romances set in the Regency period, it would probably be a good idea to look for an agent who already handles a few clients who write historical romances set in the Regency period.
There are a number of ways to do this. Sometimes agents simply say what they represent when you read interviews with them in publishing trade journals or see them giving talks at conferences. Some online or printed resources list agents’ clients, or at least the recently published novels which the agency has sold. AgentResearch.com is a business devoted to researching literary agents; their website cogently explains what kind of information they can offer, and their price list details their specific services and resources. Some writers mention their agents in the “author acknowledgments” sections of their novels. Others mention their agents on their websites. Finally, whenever you read an author whose work you love and which you feel is in some way similar to yours, make it a point to find out who represented it. If necessary, contact either the author or the publisher and ask.
If you’re an aspiring writer, also keep an eye on who’s representing aspiring writers in your genre or subgenre and (this is important!) selling them. You don’t want the agent who has a list of 85% unpublished clients; you want the agent who has made a number of first, second, and third sales for his clients. In most circumstances, this sort of agent is likely to be your best bet as an aspiring writer.
I would, however, like to point out that even high-profile, well-established, and extremely successful literary agents do still take on aspiring writers. However, they take them on very selectively. For example, Perry Knowlton, when he was the head of the Curtis Brown Agency, took on an aspiring writer who’d just completed her first novel; the author was Diana Gabaldon and the book was Outlander. It landed an impressive sale for a first novel, and Gabaldon made the New York Times list by her third book. Russell Galen, a top sf/f agent, pulled aspiring novelist Terry Goodkind out of a slushpile and sold his first-ever novel, Wizard’s First Rule, in a six-figure hardcover deal. Goodkind made the NYT list with his fourth book.
So prominent agents do indeed take on totally unknown writers; but, as you can see in these two examples, they usually choose to take on writers whose submissions show significant commercial promise. An aspiring writer with a clearly midlist book is less likely to get this kind of attention, particularly if it’s someone whose craftsmanship needs some experience and honing to become very commercial.
However, this doesn’t mean that a green writer with midlist material should settle for a bad agent. (Never settle for a bad agent.) It just means that the good agents most likely to be interested in you are those who, like you, are also in the early stages of their careers. What you’re probably looking for, therefore, is someone with talent, potential, and drive who has not yet achieved the sort of stature which you yourself have also not yet achieved. There are numerous instances of writers who signed with such agents at the start of their careers and remained with them while both author and agent climbed to heights of success over the years.
Yes, ideally, the author-agent relationship should last years. In truth, though, many of them don’t. It’s a highly individual relationship which doesn’t always work out. Your mutual needs may change. Your mutual goals may change. Your mutual preconceptions might be mistaken, or your mutual expectations might end in disappointment. In one survey I saw among career novelists, the average writer had gone through three agents. In another survey, it was six. Although I know a few people who, years later, are still on their first, this is an ideal which you shouldn’t be upset about not achieving if the day comes when you or your agent are ready to end your association.
I’ve heard many people argue about whether or not an agent ought to be in New York. There’s no “right” answer to that, and I frankly wouldn’t let it bother me nearly as much as a more important question: How did my agent learn to be an agent? An established agent in the “provinces” with fifteen years of experience and numerous multi-published clients is clearly a better expert than an editorial assistant in Manhattan who gets laid off and decides to open his own literary agency in his girlfriend’s spare bedroom. On the other hand, someone who started as a receptionist at a respected New York literary agency and has recently worked his way up to agent status, well-supervised by the company, is a much more promising career prospect than someone who woke up one day in Cincinnati twenty years ago, suddenly decided to be a literary agent, and has made one or two small sales per year since then. Personally, I do prefer an agency in New York; but it’s not a consideration which would definitively prevent me from hiring an agent I respected who was located elsewhere. There are respected out-of-town agents who learned their profession at agencies in New York before leaving the city behind them; and this is certainly preferable to an agent in New York who has not learned his profession even after years of practicing it.
The ability to communicate comfortably with an agent is an important factor in your choice, since the relationship relies heavily on trust and communication. Mutual esteem is essential, too; the agent needs to believe in your writing, and you need to believe in the agent’s judgement. Relationships where communication or esteem falter are agent-author relationships that are destined to end.
Shared goals are another major component of a potentially good author-agent relationship. If an agent seems to share your goals and your vision for your career, that’s very promising. Note: This means that upon searching for an agent, you need to have already thought about your goals and your vision. It’s important to discuss these up front, and to occasionally re-open the subject as time passes. If you see yourself writing international thrillers and your agent only envisions you writing traditional "cozies," for example, your goals conflict and there will be trouble.
However, it’s important to listen. What some writers interpret as an agent belittling or limiting them is really just an agent trying to give them sensible career advice. If an agent advises against writing Regency romances because the market is bad, or advises against pursuing a second subgenre before you’ve firmly established yourself in your first subgenre, this isn’t necessarily a conflicting goal—it really may just be good business advice based on experience and expertise.
And that point, actually, is one of the reasons it’s harder to define a good agent than a bad one. The truth is, even a very good agent isn’t always right. Agenting isn’t a science, and every situation contains surprises and elements of risk. Time and time again, you’ll hear stories of authors who went against their agents’ advice and succeeded brilliantly in their goals. The confusing thing is that this doesn’t necessarily mean their agents were wrong for them; sometimes, on the other hand, it means their agents were incredibly wrong for them. Sometimes agents and authors part after an incident like this without ever even knowing if they were wrong for each other; they only know that they had an experience which shook up their mutual goals and mutual trust enough that the relationship was no longer tenable.
Similarly, there are many instances where a client followed an agent’s advice... and ended up in a career catastrophe. The confusing thing is, sometimes it really was good advice, and the bad results were unforeseeable. Other times, it was genuinely bad advice for that particular writer, even if the same advice had previously worked well for other clients.
There are so many individual circumstances that it becomes very hard to determine a standard yardstick for a good agent—and sometimes even hard to determine a specific standard for measuring who’s a good agent for you.
However, some of the factors we’ve discussed here are nonetheless reliable guidelines: shared goals, good communication, specialization in your particular areas of interest, and (if you’re a novice) a track record of recent sales by novices. Various books, websites, and articles provide handy lists of questions you might consider asking when you interview agents. I myself also recommend talking to some of their current clients and (if possible) perhaps some of their former clients, too. Approach writers whose professional intelligence you respect, too, and see what they say about the agents you’re interested in.
Finally, the author-agent relationship is a highly individual one, so in addition to relying on self-education as you enter the process of agent-hunting, you should also be sure to listen to your gut instinct about the people you encounter. There are cases where your instinct will be the only available deciding factor between options which otherwise seem equal.
In early 2007, after having had four agents over a period of about fifteen years, I made a decision to go back to handling my own career.
The decision I made certainly isn't right for all writers; and it wouldn't have been right for me a decade earlier. However, it happens to be the best choice for me these days, and I will continue this way for as long as it remains the best choice. Each writer is different, each career is different—and even various phases of any particular writer's career are different.
I came to this decision after I did a thorough assessment of my career and realized how many of my books I've sold myself, or at least found the market for myself, even while I was agented, as well as how many books I've sold myself that had been rejected or dismissed by every agent who had seen those projects.
Also, whereas some writers hate the business end of writing, I like handling my own business. I also have many experienced colleagues and contacts I can call on for help or advice when I need it. And for legal matters, such as contract negotiations, I have a literary lawyer. (And if you're working without an agent, I definitely advise getting a literary lawyer for contract negotiations. Their role is limited and specific, but extremely useful.)
(For more information about my decision, see a short piece I wrote about it as a guest blogger in November 2009: The Author-Agent Paradigm.)
Obviously, whether or not working without an agent is the best decision for a writer depends on individual circumstances. And my own decision about working without an agent may change over time, since careers keep evolving, as does the industry itself.
Meanwhile, for any writer who has not found a suitable agent, or who is once again between-agents, I do want to point out that self-representation is not a last possible resort, but rather one of the valid choices worth considering as you make decisions about the best ways to manage your writing career. It is not only now that I find being unagented is right for me. I was also unagented for the first four years and ten book sales of my career, and it was the right choice for me at that time, too.