Blogger: Wendy Lawton
One of the things we value at Book & Such is our reputation for truth-telling. Saying it like it is. In deference to members of our own profession, we sometimes shy away from being truth tellers about the claims and practices of literary agents. That’s not fair. If you are trying to choose an agent or an agency, you’ll hear all sorts of claims. If we don’t ever criticize our own ilk, how is a writer supposed to tell the good from the bad or the ugly? So today I’m going to address some of the things I’ve heard agents claim and talk a little about each claim.
Let me state at the outset that I am not immune from pointing out the good things about our agency and may have fallen into the trap of bragging, bombasticating or being a bit expansive at times. For that I beg forgiveness.
But let me address some of the things I’ve heard so that when you go looking for your perfect agent, you’ll have some context. Here are some blusters I’ve heard recently:
“If your agent has not also become a publisher in these changing times, he’s shortchanging you.” This is ridiculous. There are enough newly-minted indie publishers out there to populate a small town. Some agents may decide to dip into publishing in this new climate, and that’s okay. Others are working hard to chose non-affiliated, reputable publishing options for their hybrid authors. Agenting and publishing are two separate professions, and the jury’s still out as to whether they can reside comfortably in the same firm.
“I happen to know how much money every agent makes.” A small group of agents were talking together at a conference when this bombastic statement was made. The inference here was that this agent made more money than any other. The conversation stopped cold for a moment. It was a ridiculous statement. If the agent meant he was following sales on Publishers Marketplace and trying to assign a dollar figure to them, he still didn’t have enough data to make that statement. And some of us– like the agents at Books & Such– purposely do not report sales to Publishers Marketplace. Our sales data are confidential. No one but the IRS knows our bottom line.
“If your agent is not selling to Hollywood, he’s not representing you well.” Yeah. Yeah. We all option books and some of us have properties already in production or getting mighty close, but when an agent on a panel starts talking about the books he has sold to Hollywood, he’s just playing to writers’ unspoken dreams. Each novelist can envision the very actors he’d like to see for each character in his book. But optioning a book for film is a far cry from seeing that book played out on the big screen. The movie industry is built on hyperbole and wild dreams. We agents all work hard to identify and take advantage of real opportunity, which is a lot rarer than it seems. Most of us also partner with superb film agents who specialize in this segment of the industry.
“If your agent is not actively selling your foreign rights, he’s leaving money on the table.” This may be something you hear more often in ABA than in CBA. The truth is, all agencies exploit as many rights as we can, including foreign rights. In the CBA, we’ve found that most of the publishers do a far better job of selling those foreign rights than we do. A whole-world outreach is often part of their mission statement, and most have longtime relationships in each country with dedicated salespeople on staff who actively sell rights at BEA, Frankfort, Hong Kong and all the important rights shows. Retaining and selling an author’s foreign rights often only makes sense for internationally-known authors. Otherwise, the publisher does a better job and ultimately makes more money for the author. In one of her early jobs in publishing, our own Rachelle Gardner sold foreign rights on behalf of a publisher. She knows the ins and outs of what works and what doesn’t.
“I’m doing more deals than any other agent in [name the category].” This bit of bombastery is pretty meaningless as well. An agent who says this may be coming to this conclusion because of sales posted on Publishers Marketplace. Trouble is, as I’ve said already, many agents don’t post sales. Some only post significant deals or deals they want to bring to the attention of the industry. Others post absolutely every deal including deals struck for meager or no advances just to reach that #1 spot in a category. Don’t be fooled. Some sales will actually damage the writer’s career. The quality of the sale made by an agent and the way that sale advances a writer’s long-term career becomes the hallmark of a significant agent.
“Your agent is in the publisher’s pocket.” I’m so tired of hearing this. There are a handful of agents who are proud of the fact that they have made enemies among publishing houses by “sticking up” for their clients. Yawn. An agent can be tough on behalf of his client and still be respected by publishers. A year or so ago, one of our colleagues, Steve Laube, a fine agent, was lambasted for this very thing on a blog written by a self-appointed self-publishing industry “expert.” As we later teased Steve about it, we all had a good laugh about how the publishing houses who’d had to negotiate with Steve would feel about hearing that he was their lap dog. Steve has always been tough on behalf of his clients yet still respected by publishers.
I could go on and on. I’ve had potential clients tell me that they chose another agent because they “wanted a shark” out there working on their behalf. Or that a certain agent could get them so much more money. Or that they needed someone willing to really fight for them, even taking a publisher to court if necessary. Yikes.
I guess what I’m saying is, choosing an agent is a tough decision. It’s a path marked with many pitfalls. Go beyond agent self-statements and braggadocio. Do your due diligence. But I don’t need to tell you that. The fact that you regularly read agent blogs and are willing to go deep already means you’re probably inoculated against bombastic rhetoric and grandiose claims. Being an agent is not a contest. We don’t compete in literary agent olympics.
You need the agent who is focused on your career, not his career. You need someone who is going to guide that career, keeping an eye trained on the long haul not the short term.
Okay, your turn. What impresses you about an agent? What have you heard on agent panels that has given you pause? Is it all just plain confusing? Sound off in the comments.
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