Writers Workshop:

NOT-SO-SECRET AGENT BASICS
(Original version published by Writers.com)

WHO is an agent?

A literary agent markets your books and negotiates contracts in exchange for a commission. Agents take a commission (usually 15% on domestic sales and 20-25% on foreign sales) from what you earn on your book.

WHEN do I need one?

You do not need an agent until after you have written a novel and polished it through every possible means into well-written, salable work. And, even if you have accomplished that now-rare feat of selling your first novel yourself, you need an agent before signing a contract.

WHERE do I find a good agent?

Finding an agent is not too difficult; finding a GOOD one may be. First and foremost, remember this: Reputable agents do not ask for any sort of fee in advance before selling your book. "Reading" or "marketing" fees are not acceptable practice. If you are asked for any money up front at all -- run away. (Eventual reimbursement for reasonable, billable expenses such as photocopying and postage is fine IF you agree to it in advance.)

The Science Fiction-Fantasy Writers of America has gathered information on over 200 agents who prey on inexperienced writers by charging fees, promoting so-called editing services, or engaging in kickback referral schemes with freelance book doctors and subsidy publishers. SFWA's Writer Beware section has an excellent resource on literary agents.

The professional trade group, the Association of Authors' Representatives (whose Code of Ethics prohibits such practices) has less than 300 members. It is a fairly good assumption that there are as many, if not more, agents with questionable business practices as there are reputable ones.

One of the best ways -- especially for a genre writer -- to find out who the best agents for their books are is to check publications that list sales. Locus (the print version, not the online one) is a great source for sf/f/h sales. Publishers Weekly (both online and print) has information on sales and deals. Publishers Lunch offers an email "Deal Lunch" each week..

There are Web sites with listings of agents. Sometimes such information is legitimate or at least well-intentioned. However, many such listings are compiled by individuals with little knowledge of publishing, or are simply databases where anyone can enter information. More and more agencies and agents have sites. These are often legitimate, but sometimes they aren't.

Annual printed directories like LITERARY MARKET PLACE or the WRITER'S GUIDE TO BOOK EDITORS, PUBLISHERS, AND LITERARY AGENTS by Jeff Herman (avoid the WRITER'S DIGEST GUIDE TO LITERARY AGENTS) are a more comprehensive source. But, again, a listing in such books does not guarantee legitimacy

Publications (and some of the Web sites) listing agents also list agents' specific submission guidelines and marketing areas -- an important factor in choosing an agent to approach. You will want an agent who is knowledgeable in the market you are trying to sell to and who has some previous experience in that area. Some agents simply don't care for some types of material or feel they do not represent it well.

Writers conferences and professional genre conferences offer an opportunity to meet agents and other writers who might make agent recommendations. Joining professional writers organizations can also be helpful for such networking . Such organizations often publicize shady agenting to their members as well.

If you courteously and politely ask an established writer to recommend an agent, s/he may decline to do so. There are many reasons for this, so don't pursue or pester the author further. If a writer does give you the name of his/her agent, don't contact the agent with the claim that the writer is personally recommending or endorsing you (unless, of course, s/he is.) When you contact the agent, just mention that "So-and-So gave me your name and address..."

There are no legal or licensing standards for agents, but membership in the Association of Author's Representatives (USA) or the Association of Authors' Agents (UK), or a statement that s/he adheres to these organizations' codes of ethics, which specifically exclude reading fees and other abuses, is some indication of acceptability.

WHAT do I do after I've found some possibilities?

Once you've found an agent or, more likely, a list of agents you think might be interested in your work, write to them and ask if they might be interested in reading your book and representing you. Yes, you can approach a number of agents simultaneously. In fact, usually you must do so get results. Write (do not phone, fax or email) a brief letter describing your work and listing your prior publications (if any). Include a stamped self-addressed envelope for reply. Unless an agent listing specifies another procedure, do not submit material until an agent asks you to do so.

Expect rejections. Expect many inquiries to be ignored completely and others to get nothing in response but a "no thank you." If, however, an agent expresses interest in your material, send them what they request (it may be the entire manuscript, it may not) in standard manuscript format and unbound. If you want the manuscript returned, make sure to include a self-addressed mailer with correct postage. And, of course, ALWAYS retain a copy of your manuscript.

If you receive any sort of response that includes an agent referring you to an outside "editing service" or "book doctor" for which you have to pay -- run away. Often a kickback arrangement is involved. The same is true for subsidy or joint-venture publishing companies, which often pay finder's fees to agents who persuade writers to accept expensive pay-to-publish contracts. Nor should an agent own an editing service, or own or have a financial interest in a subsidy publishing company.

HOW do I know this is a good agent for me?

Once you have found an agent who wants to represent you, the Association of Authors' Representatives suggests you discuss the following. Bear in mind that most agents are NOT going to be willing to spend the time answering these questions unless they have already read your material and wish to represent you. Also, the key word here is "discuss." These aren't yes-or-no questions and perfectly good agents will have different practices. You are looking for a reasonable response.

  • Are you a member of the Association of Authors' Representatives? If not, do you adhere to their standards?
  • How long have you been in business as an agent?
  • Do you have specialists at your agency who handle movie and television rights? Foreign rights?
  • Do you have subagents or corresponding agents in Hollywood and overseas?
  • Who in your agency will actually be handling my work? Will the other staff members be familiar with my work and the status of my business at your agency? Will you oversee or at least keep me apprised of the work that your agency is doing on my behalf?
  • Do you issue an agent-author agreement? May I review the language of the agency clause that appears in contracts you negotiate for your clients?
  • How do you keep your clients informed of your activities on their behalf?
  • Do you consult with your clients on any and all offers?
  • What are your commission rates? What are your procedures and time-frames for processing and disbursing client funds?
  • Do you keep different bank accounts separating author funds from agency revenue? What are your policies about charging clients for expenses incurred by your agency?
  • When you issue 1099 tax forms at the end of each year, do you also furnish clients upon request with a detailed account of their financial activity, such as gross income, commissions and other deductions, and net income, for the past year?
  • In the event of your death or disability, what provisions exist for my continued representation?
  • If we should part company, what is your policy about handling any unsold subsidiary rights in my work?

Other, perhaps simpler, questions that authors have suggested you ask include:

  • Who are some of your clients? May I contact them?
  • What is your experience in selling books of the type I have written?
  • Do you charge any extraneous fees for photocopying, postage or similar office expenses?
  • Other tips:

    • This may be obvious, but a literary professional should be able to correspond in good English, free of grammatical errors and typos.
    • Agents who solicit you or claim to "specialize in new writers" may be looking for inexperienced beginners to prey upon.
    • Although some literary agents are managing to operate outside of New York, it is still the center of the publishing business and most editors are still in New York, therefore most active agents are in or near NYC.
    • Web sites that promise to bring you to the attention of agents, editors, or publishers by displaying a sample or your work and/or other information may be sincere, but they are ineffective. Editors, publishers, and legitimate agents are NOT looking for material or clients on the Web. If a fee is required for inclusion, it is definitely to be avoided. There is one exception to this rule -- Publishers Marketplace. I'm not endorsing it, but I do know that connections have been made through it.

    -- Paula Guran


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    Copyright © 2002 by Paula Guran All Rights Reserved.