Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Do You Need (Or Even Want) An Agent?

(More to the point, do I?)

Frances Garrood raised this question over on the MNW blog. Frances has two fine novels to her credit, and, of course, "two" is the magic number for the Macmillan New Writing imprint, the number beyond which you must move to another imprint within the Pan Macmillan family. On the other hand, if you make that move, it's expected that your editor will go along with you, so the net change may not be all that great.

Back in the golden age of publishing (back when all editors were Maxwell Perkins and all authors were Hemingways, Wolfes, Fitzgeralds, or similar cultural icons; back when 'advances' were just that--a way to keep a writer fed and out of the rain while they finished their latest opus), an author's primary relationship was typically with their editor, and there were many cases of author's moving with their editors, not only between imprints, but from one publishing house to another. Editors nurtured their writers, acting as guide, confessor, friend, drinking buddy, banker, and, I gather, sometimes even doing a spot of editing on the side.

That's the legend (and, like the Arthurian legends, it's more fun to enjoy it without looking too closely into the specifics). Certainly editors dominated the literary landscape and agents played only a minor role. For those of us who have worked with a good editor, this would seem to be the logical state of affairs; after all, if an editor is doing their job, the editor has the most intimate relationship with a novel of anyone excepting the writer.

So, if you're lucky enough to be published at a house where you have an ongoing relationship with a good editor, do you really need an agent?

I'd answer with a definitive maybe yes, maybe no.

When do I think an agent would be useful to someone who has a good editor? Under any of the following circumstances, an agent might be in order even if you're already happily published:

1. You wear many writerly masks. Editors have many jobs beyond gently pointing out our more egregious blunders. One of them, crass as it may sound, is to develop writers as saleable commodities for their publishing houses. Sure, Iain Banks may be able to maintain an identity in two unrelated genres, but I'd bet no editor encouraged him to "branch out" into a wholly new identity. (Ken Follett has said that be received stiff resistance from everyone in publishing when he decided to switch away from his thrillers and write his first historical novel. Hardly surprising.) An editor needs to convince a house to publish a book in the first place, and then needs to cultivate that writer’s success (if any) by building their brand. Encouraging a writer of, say, military fiction to try their hand at a Harlequin romance doesn’t really make much sense for the house, the editor’s career, or most probably for the writer’s career.

Now, to be fair, no agent is likely to greet a writer’s desire to adopt a second genre with cheers of encouragement—unless the writer’s career in their first genre is flagging. But the agent is more likely to be able to go along (perhaps quite grudgingly) with the writer’s mulish, wrong-headed determination, because the agent is in a position to select from all the possible houses and imprints in the wide world to place the book (possibly under a pseudonym); the editor has no such luxury.

So, if you’re foolish enough to have novels in more than one genre, you most likely will need to seek an agent.

2. You have a novel you believe in that has been rejected. If your editor has said no to a book, that doesn’t necessarily mean it shouldn’t be published. It might mean that the editor can’t convince the house of its commercial prospects; it might mean that it doesn’t fit with the way they hope to build you as an author; it might mean that the editor is simply wrong about the book. The why of it doesn’t matter. You have three options open to you: a) Forget about it; b) Get an agent to shop it elsewhere; or, c) Send it over the transom to another publisher.

Forgetting about a book you think deserves a chance is an uncomfortable decision to live with. Tossing it over the transom is fine, but there aren’t many publishers who are open to unagented submissions. If you believe in the book, getting an agent is probably the best course.

3. You need more guidance. The MNW crowd is lucky in that Will Atkins is a flexible, generous editor who is willing to kick around ideas and even offer advice about what you might try next, but he still has to view matters from the perspective of what is possible within the (admittedly large) Pan Mac empire. An agent can take a broader view of your career…if you are so lucky as to acquire an agent whose perspective harmonizes with your own. (Good luck on that.)

4. You just want someone else to talk to. Hey, it’s a lonely business.

5. You want to be able to drop the phrase, “I was talking to my agent the other day…” into conversations. In Southern California, this hints at a connection to the movies and makes you seem more glamorous. In other parts of the country, however, people will probably assume you are talking about your insurance agent.

Note that I prefaced this with “even if you're already happily published.” If you aren’t happy with your publisher, or you feel you could get a far better deal that you are receiving, then you probably need an agent--if nothing else, as a reality check..

In my case, if I wrote only thrillers, I’d be only too happy to avoid the process of seeking representation; so far I’m an instance of Case #1, above—though, living here in the Belly of the Beast as I do, #5 has some appeal.

I’m sure I’ve overlooked some perfectly good reasons. Feel free to supply them.


Tim Stretton said...

Good stuff, David. No2 perfectly encapsulates why I am now looking for an agent.

Alis said...

Hi David. How about Reason No 6 - because you want to expand your writing repertoire and don't know how to go about it yourself. I'd be quite happy to undertake a lot of different writing projects if it kept the money coming in whilst I wrote the next novel but I wouldn't really know how to go about getting the gigs. It's something I ponder...

David Isaak said...

Hi, Tim--

I suspect #2 will become an issue for many unagented writers over time. It strikes me as unlikely that an imprint will be fired up about every single book an author produces.

Good luck with the agent search!

David Isaak said...

Hi, Alis--

Aha! I knew someone would have another good reason, and that's an excellent one.

One thing agents can be counted on to do is to try to maximize the old cashflow, and that often might mean finding more work.

The only danger is that you might find yourself writing the next set of Star Wars novels...

Frances Garrood said...

I think one of the reasons I'd like an agent is your reason no.4, David. So often there's something I need to discuss which seems too small to bother Will with, and an agent would be lovely for that. Also, someone to sort out the money side now I'm out of the MNW stable. I haven't made my decision yet, but I think I probably will go with the agent. Although now I actually come to it, it seems a very big step...

David Isaak said...

Hi, Frances--

I can well understand the desire to have someone to brainstorm your future with.

On most contracts with agents, it's pretty easy for either party to dissove the relationship (though the agent will still get their percentage of royalties for anything they sold). So don't hesitate as if you're getting married. It's more like dating.

In my case, all that happened was I wrote my agent an e-mail and told her I thought I'd prefer to proceed on my own. She wrote back and wished me luck. No big deal.

Jen said...

Hi David! I'm firmly in the camp of reason No. 2 (still) but I'd be open to not finding an agent and just finding a darn publisher, already. The self pub experiment was kind of fun but I haven't even broken even yet and my setup costs were, uh, not that bad.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Jen--

Yeah, the self-publishing route has always looked to me like a whole lot of work relative to the likely benefit. I'm self-employed and self-obsessed, which is enough self in my life.

For those wishing to grab a copy of Jen's opus, you can buy the ebook from Lulu for a mere $4.

I'm the proud owner of a copy, though it still sits in my virtual to-read stack--not for lack of desire, but because I seem to have overcommited my time lately...

Tim Stretton said...

David, I've found self-publication almost without downside as long as you're realistic about what you're trying to achieve.

Given that you've probably exhausted all commercial avenues by the time you get to self-pub, what have you got to lose? The set-up costs of print-on-demand are minimal, and you've already written the book. Even if you only sell 20 copies, it's 20 more people than would have read it if you leave it languishing on your hard disk.

Just don't expect to make any money from it...

David Isaak said...

Hi, Tim--

You make a good point. I guess the folks I've known who tried self-pubbing had a more ambitious agenda, and actually tried to drive the marketing of their books.

Certainly Lulu seems like the way to go. It isn't a site I visit to browse for books...but, then, I guess I don't really browse Amazon, either.

Jen said...

Thanks for the pluggity plug! I think I'll have the paperback out here in another week or so (which I've been saying for a month but it still could happen) - a few glitches in the system and trying to get the price under $10. To be continued...

David Isaak said...

Hi, Jen--

Hard copy? Very cool.

Much as I try to be a cyber sort of guy, nothing beats actual pages...

Emma Darwin said...

A couple of other reasons:

Editors move on, or out, and faster than ever these days. Your agent is in it for the long term. And divorce is easier, in a sense, than it is with a publisher who's not doing their stuff on your book.

If you do want to change publisher, even when you're published you're liable to hit the problem that the majority of mainstream houses won't consider un-agented adult fiction manuscripts.

Your interests and your publisher's interests are not identical, but, you're right, to work well with an editor you need to get on. If it comes to holding out for a title, or arguing with a cover, it can be enormously helpful if your agent can be bad guy, so you can stay friends with your editor. Or if you are in the negotations, then knowing you have an agent at your back is immensely empowering. On the other hand, your agent may be best placed to explain why it needs to be how your editor wants it to be, in a way which means you can bear it.

Your agent knows much, much more than you do about what your publisher must do for you, what they should do for you, and what they might do for you if you can persuade them it'll pay off. When it comes to sales, marketing and publicity, you're in competition with all the other authors at your publishers for a lot of their time and money. Your agent is probably better than you are at persuading them why it should be steered towards your work.

If you have an agent you're not dependent on your publisher for selling your subsidiary rights. Not only may your agent get better deals, but the money from the deals your agent does comes straight to them and you. The money for the deals your publisher does goes into the pot to pay off your advance. Cashflow problems for writers are awful: sub rights sprinkled through the year can really help.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Emma--

Thanks for those additional--and very cogent--points. I think these are important enough that I'm going to drop them in a post over on the MNW group blog so that everyone can read them!