...about literary agents
A brief explanation: The original version of this page was written for the HWA website in 1995, updated a couple of times, and then left alone since 1996. They did eventually take it down, but I wanted to keep my own version here -- for one thing, I might want to update it occasionally. (I have, in fact, made some very minor adjustments, but do not claim it's up to date.)
- Do I need an agent?
- What does an agent do?
- I only write short stories; should I have an agent?
- I write nonfiction; should I have an agent?
- I write novels; should I have an agent?
- Isn't any agent better than none?
- How can I tell whether an agent's any good?
- When should I find myself an agent?
- How should I choose an agent?
- What if an agent comes to me and asks if I'd like to sign with him?
- Where do I find an agent?
- What terms should I agree to when I sign with an agent?
- What's the AAR and what can it do for me?
- Are there other resources I should know about?
- 1. Do I need an agent?
- The short answer is, "No." Plenty of successful writers have managed just fine without them. Isaac Asimov's last agent left the business in 1953, which didn't prevent Asimov from selling hundreds of books and thousands of articles over the next forty years. Bruce Coville, one of the most successful children's writers alive, has no agent.
But if we rephrase the question as, "Should I have an agent?" it gets much trickier, and the answer becomes, "It depends on your exact circumstances -- who you are, what you write, and what you want."
Some writers will do better with an agent, some will do better without. To quote writer and critic Gregory Feeley: "Writers who market their own work do it energetically and diligently, and know what's up with their submissions' status. If they are incompetent at it, they shall have to learn; it isn't too hard. A professional and professional-looking submission will look a lot better than a submission from an agent that the editor knows to be hopelessly small potatoes."
So we'll have to look at other questions to decide whether you need an agent.
- 2. What does an agent do?
- Agents are very useful; I've had an agent for most of my career, and don't intend to go without any time soon. Beginning writers, however, often misunderstand just what it is an agent does. They hear about agents selling first novels for huge sums of money, and assume that with the right agent, they could do just as well.
That isn't the case. An agent cannot sell a story that the author would never be able to sell. What an agent can do is sell it faster, and get better terms for it.
If an editor would reject a story when the author submitted it, that editor will still reject it when an agent submits it. Agents aren't magic; they can't make an editor buy anything. No agent has so much clout that he can force an editor to publish a bad story.
What an agent can do is find the right market. A good agent will know the tastes of all the editors in the business, and will know where to send a story to give it the best chance and get the most money for it. A writer wouldn't know that Editor A has an obsession with stories about moths, while Editor B hates the fluttery little things, but an agent might, and when a client sends him a novel about giant telepathic moths he'll know to skip Editor B and send it to Editor A.
But he can't make Editor B buy it, any more than the author could.
So if you have an agent, one of the things you're paying your 10% or 15% for is expertise, for knowing what can sell where, for finding markets you'd never have thought of.
If you know the markets as well as your agent does, or even better -- it's possible -- then you aren't getting your money's worth in this department, and you don't need an agent for this.
But if you don't have any idea where to send a story about an alternate history where vampires won World War II, then it might be worth finding an agent.
The second major function of a literary agent is getting the best possible deal for his client. This isn't just a matter of getting the highest advance (though that sure helps); it's also negotiating royalty rates, subsidiary rights, and so on. A book contract is a fairly complex thing; if you have trouble with tax forms, if you're in the habit of signing things without reading the fine print, you'd be better off with an agent.
On the other hand, if you're a Hollywood accountant in your day job, your main problem with a book contract might be that it's so simple you keep looking for more booby-traps than are actually there, and you probably don't need an agent.
Or if you're selling to markets where nothing's negotiable, every contract is take-it-or-leave-it -- as is the case with many magazines, most anthologies, and several licensed, work-for-hire deals -- an agent can't do much for you.
(In a standard book deal, as Isaac Asimov once said, everything is negotiable, including your name and the date.)
Those are the two primary purposes of an agent -- knowing the market and making the deal. Everything else is secondary.
Probably the most important of the secondary functions is selling those subsidiary rights that the agent talked the publisher out of -- foreign rights, movie rights, and so on. Bestselling author Raymond Feist points out, "...foreign sales are nearly impossible without a good agent."
If you can reasonably expect these to be profitable for you (and most writers who think they've written something Hollywood will snap up are just plain wrong), then you do want an agent. I take in an average of three or four thousand dollars a year from foreign sales, and I don't think I'd have any of that without an agent!
As Mr. Feist says, "Good agents develop careers, not just make sales, and while the first commission may not be much, the view should be long term."
I'd note that some agents do this better than others. Some can guide a writer to stardom, while others have ruined clients with great potential. Yes, it's something agents do, but be careful, they don't necessarily do it well.
Some agents provide editorial services. I, and other established writers, tend to be very wary of this. Sometimes it's legitimate; more often it's a scam. The top agents do not rewrite stories or refer their clients to "book doctors." If an agent offers editorial services, approach with extreme caution, especially if any up-front fees are involved. This is not something you should expect an agent to do; you should find a collaborator, or a good workshop, or some other way to handle technical problems in your work.
One thing that makes an agent worthwhile that isn't exactly something an agent does so much as what he is. Having an agent can speed things up and smooth them out. A good agent, one editors respect, can send a manuscript to an editor and get it read relatively quickly, bypassing the slushpiles and first readers; also, agents can nag editors to make decisions, where many writers are too timid, too afraid they'll just annoy the editor into rejecting the work. The agent provides a buffer between author and editor, and keeps them from aggravating one another. Sometimes, especially if either the editor or author is short-tempered or socially inept (and let's face it, many writers are not exactly slick), this is important.
And that's really about it; some agents might provide other special services, but that's the major ones. If you think you could use these services, then you could probably use an agent... but see below.
- 3. I only write short stories; should I have an agent?
- Probably not. Most short fiction markets have a non-negotiable contract as far as payment goes; some magazines will negotiate on subsidiary rights (such as foreign rights), some won't, and many anthologists can't, because the terms are set by the anthologist's contract with the publisher. You may be able to retain some rights, or reduce how long you have to wait before selling reprint rights, or obtain other such concessions if you negotiate, but with a little information and effort you can do this yourself, without an agent.
And many contracts, especially from smaller publishers, simply aren't negotiable because the publisher is already offering the best terms he can afford, in order to compete with the bigger markets.
Many agents, especially the better ones, simply don't handle short fiction; there isn't enough money in a 15% commission to make it worthwhile.
- 4. I write nonfiction; should I have an agent?
- I don't know from personal experience -- my articles have never been agented, even when all my fiction was -- but Gregory Feeley said in a SFWA discussion, with the agreement of several editors and writers, "The imagined stigma of an unagented writer pretty much vanishes with respect to non-fiction writers, as there are numerous specialists who write only a few books and do not use agents for them. Publishers may fleece such authors -- I wouldn't know -- but they don't automatically assume that a self-represented science writer is a sub-pro."
Jeff Hecht, author of several technical books, says, "For getting started as a science-fact writer, for kids, adults, or whatever, you don't need an agent. Reasonable publishers are looking for you. They won't make you rich (figure on an advance of a few thousand bucks from the better class of science-fact publishers, less from the smaller ones). But they will get you published, and let you start building a track record.
"An agent will be able to extract more money from publishers, and generally should earn his/her keep by that and catching contratual pitfalls. But if you're just going to get an advance of $3000, remember that 10% = $300, or 15% = $450, which isn't exactly big money in Agentville. As long as you're at that level, agents may not make much sense for you, because they aren't adding much value.
"If you want to go above that level, you probably want an agent. They have the contacts to reach a wider market, and if they see a potential for a $30,000 advance, they'll put it out for auction and other agentish things. But don't expect that just getting an agent will pull in a $30,000 advance for a $3000 book."
I would assume this applies to other varieties of non-fiction, as well.
- 5. I write novels; should I have an agent?
- Probably. It's not essential; despite rumors to the contrary, there are markets that don't only accept agented submissions. However, most writers are better off leaving the contract negotiations to a professional, and a good agent can speed things up. A manuscript can easily spend as much as two years in the slushpile; an agent may be able to cut that to a few months. And an agent may pry a few thousand more dollars out of the publisher, or make enough on subsidiary rights to pay his commission several times over.
However, please note that we constantly specify a good agent; a bad agent will do you more harm than good.
- 6. Isn't any agent better than none?
- No. Definitely not.
To again quote Gregory Feeley: "A professional and professional-looking submission will look a lot better than a submission from an agent that the editor knows to be hopelessly small potatoes." Patrick Nielsen Hayden, senior editor at Tor Books, cites this as "a truth too often overlooked," and Damon Knight said that other editors have told him that submissions from some "small-potatoes" agents go into the slushpile.
Former editor David M. Harris confirmed this and expanded upon it, saying, "There are some small-time agents whose manuscripts don't even get to the slushpile. I recall a couple who were so off the beam that I could reject based on their cover letters; they were simply sending stuff for which I had no use whatsoever."
Eluki bes Shahar, who under various names has written everything from science fiction to Regency romances, says, "...editors, who are professionals, prefer to deal with agents who exhibit a similar degree of professionalism." Not all agents do.
The Guide to Literary Agents, published by Writer's Digest Books, has articles that address the matter of "agents who are worse than no agent." What it comes down to is that if you are handing your career over to somebody else, it's best to make sure that they're going to do a better job than you will yourself.
- 7. So how can I tell whether an agent's any good?
- Well, you can start by asking questions -- the AAR can provide you with a comprehensive list, probably more than you need. (And "Are you a member of the AAR?" is a good one to start with.)
Beyond that, I'll let Edgar nominee Billie Sue Mosiman answer this one with her list of signs your agent is not a good one:
- He puts your book ms. into a binder to send around.
- He has a P.O. box in Flint, MI or Salt Lake City.
- He hasn't sold a book of fiction in ten years.
- When you mention his name to other agents or pro writers their noses wrinkle and they have to rush for something to drink to wash the bad taste from their mouths.
- He tells you, "Don't write what you're good at. Write what sells for five trillion dollars this year."
- He has no game plan. He doesn't talk to you about your career, your future and how to approach it.
- He rewrites everything you send him. Or... he wants you to rewrite everything over again five times and you're buried in old work, never getting out new work and you never see daylight again.
- He thinks Stephen King is a hack.
- At conventions, if he attends them, he is found drunk at the bar 90% of the time.
- He represents umpteen romance writers and you're the token horror writer, or in any situation where you are made to feel you're the charity case.
"Aw, I could go on, but you know them when you run into them. It might take as long as a year to figure it out, but you'll know them."
Other HWA members added the following:
- Ashley McConnell: "He charges you a monthly fee for services, on top of which he expects a 15% commission."
- Dave Wilson: "...only talks to you if you catch him/her waiting for someone else's call, never returns your calls despite the promise in his/her evil answering box."
- Nancy Kilpatrick: "...when you haven't heard from him in four months, he acts annoyed when you phone to find out what's happening, as if you're disturbing him or something. And makes promises he then does not keep."
- Jeff Strand: "He asks you to make an action script 'more like Silence of the Lambs'."
- And Bob Weinberg took the positive approach; instead of saying what to avoid, Bob said, "I have to admit I always judged agents by a simple criteria -- would they have made a good Jewish mother? As per the movies and real life -- pushy, annoying, constantly questioning, and wanting the very best for their clients. I know not everyone likes this type of personality -- and many people can't stand it. But having a Jewish mother, I can testify to the results.
"A good agent is one who gets results."
- 8. When should I find myself an agent?
- The popular wisdom among would-be writers, including a good many writing teachers, seems to be that you should find an agent before you try to sell your first novel. As is so often the case, the popular wisdom is probably wrong. Many publishers do read unagented submissions, and for the most part, the agents who will sign up unpublished writers are often not good agents. Groucho Marx' line about not wanting to belong to any club that would accept him as a member comes to mind--if you're a raw beginner, you probably don't want any agent who would want you.
(There are exceptions to this--every so often a good agent will just take a fancy to a promising beginner, especially if the agency is also just getting started. However, this is emphatically not the way to bet it.)
The consensus among established writers seems to be that the best time to hire an agent is about five minutes after you get an offer from a publisher. As soon as you stop screaming with delight at receiving an actual acceptance, you should tell the editor, "I'll get back to you," and you should call a pre-selected agent and ask if he or she will handle the deal for you. Most agents, not being stupid, will take the chance to earn some easy money and will agree. If the whole transaction goes well, then it's time to ask if the agent will accept you as a client. If you're not happy with the deal, it's time to look at other agents, and with a novel sale under your belt you can expect to be taken seriously by them.
- 9. How should I choose an agent?
- This is one place that belonging to HWA or other writers' organizations can be useful. HWA doesn't make official recommendations, and it would take some pretty serious problems to make them officially warn people away from a given agent, but they do publish their annual directory, which lists the agents who represent various members.
Take a look at who represents writers you'd be proud to be associated with. If there's someone out there who writes the sort of story you wish you could write, take a look at who that writer's agent is. If you find two or three writers you admire handled by the same agent... hey, that's a place to start.
If you know any published writers, ask them for advice -- off the record. Most of us are timid about saying anything nasty about our agents, past or present, in print, but are willing to talk privately. If you're active in one of the on-line areas where writers hang out, ask there; if you belong to a writers' group that meets in person, ask there; if you attend conventions, ask there.
There isn't any Consumer Reports guide to agents; the best way to find a good one is through personal recommendations.
However, be wary, don't ask just one person. An agent/client relationship is a very individual thing, and an agent who Writer A thinks is the spawn of Hell might be making Writer B rich and famous and happy. Compare notes.
And finally, check out the AAR. They can help.
- 10. What if an agent comes to me and asks if I'd like to sign with him?
- Depends. If you already have an agent, then this new agent has just violated the unwritten code of agent ethics (there's also a written one, the AAR Canon of Ethics, but it doesn't seem to cover this), and you probably don't want to sign with him.
If you don't have an agent, or he didn't know you had one (he should have asked), then consider the possibilities carefully. Ask around about this agent -- is he a respectable one that other writers have heard of, or is he completely unknown?
If he's unknown, politely decline. You can do better.
If he gets good reports from writers you speak to, then congratulations, you've hit the jackpot and become one of those exceptions I mentioned parenthetically in Answer #8--sign up!
- 11. Where do I find an agent?
- New York. That's where the publishing industry is based.
Oh, there are exceptions, and I'm including everything from New Haven to Philadelphia, really, as it's all part of the Greater New York metroplex, but in general, literary agents in the U.S. operate out of New York. If you're talking to an agent based elsewhere, ask why he's based elsewhere.
If he's in California because he also handles screen properties, well, okay, though it may mean that's where his emphasis lies and he might not be right for you if your stuff has absolutely no film potential. If he's got some decent explanation, that's fine. But if he's based in Paducah, Kentucky because that's where his mother lives...
You can do better.
- 12. What terms should I agree to when I sign with an agent?
- For decades, the standard agreement was that the agent got a 10% commission and that was all -- 10% of every dollar that came in.
Unfortunately, publishing income has not kept up with inflation (even though book prices have), and as a result most agents now charge 15%. Foreign sales, which often involve a second agent in whatever the other country is, are usually 20%.
You should not pay more than 15% on domestic sales!
Some agents will also charge for various expenses -- photocopying, overseas postage, etc. Which expenses will vary.
In general, charging extra for exceptional expenses seems reasonable for an agent who charges 10%, but excessive in one who charges 15%. And agents who charge for the ordinary expenses of doing business... well, we don't recommend them.
Also, any charges for expenses should come out of income received; the writer should never agree to pay expenses up front! That way lie scams and swindles.
As for other terms, make sure that your agreement includes a way to end the relationship quickly and painlessly if it doesn't work out. I know of cases where unhappy clients have been held against their will by stubborn agents. This is almost always bad for the agent, as well as the client, but it does happen anyway.
(No one ever said all agents are smart.)
Beyond that... use common sense. Don't sign away anything you don't have to. Ask other writers for advice if you find something questionable in an agency contract.
And before signing with any agent, don't be afraid to ask questions!
- 13. What's the AAR and what can it do for me?
- The AAR is the Association of Authors' Representatives, an organization that tries to do for agents what HWA, SFWA, and other writers' organizations try to do for writers: provide solidarity, advice, and so on.
The AAR has a Canon of Ethics that their members must agree to abide by, a page to help you find an agent, and other resources. I highly recommend this material, and you can find it all, along with other information, on the AAR website.
Their street address is:
AAR 302A West 12th Street, #122 New York, NY 10014
- 14. Are there other resources I should know about?
- Just about any writers' organization is going to take an interest in agents. Novelists Inc. has produced a superb guide to agents for their members; unfortunately, this does not appear to be available to non-members, and in order to qualify for membership an author must have had two or more novels professionally published within a five-year period.
SFWA, Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, has several model contracts on file, including a model author/agent agreement.
HWA can sometimes put their members in touch with past or present clients of various agents to get advice regarding that agent, and may collect comments on agents from the various computer networks, but this remains an informal network rather than any official function.
That's it; here's your list of handy exits: