FAQ – Agents
Should I get an agent?
When you are looking to get published, getting an agent - any agent - may seem like the Holy Grail. And it is true that some, in my view short-sighted, publishers insist on submissions only coming through an agent.
A good agent may be able to help you with one or more of the following:
- honing your proposal,
- nurturing you through difficult times,
- securing a huge advance and killer contract,
- securing foreign and other rights,
- financial trouble-shooting, and
- offering continuity if your editor leaves.
The myth in publishing is that all authors benefit from having any agent.
Not so - a mediocre agent may be worse than no agent. Mainstream publishers
are clued up as to the agent pecking order (apart from if new to commissioning, when recycled proposals come in thick and fast).
Here are three key points to consider:
- Is your sector one where agents are the norm? It is less usual, for example, for authors
writing for the professional, schools or academic market to have agents than those in the
general trade sector.
- Do you expect your profile to build over the next few years? Stalingrad, for example, was Anthony
Beevor's ninth book. In other words, are you looking for an agent for your immediate or future needs?
- What specific services are you looking for in an agent?
Whether you opt for the services of an agent or not, it is in any case useful to build your knowledge of
the commissioning process as well as of publishing contracts.
The Insider's Guide to Getting Your Book Published is written from the perspective of
a commissioning editor and packed with insider advice. And Gill Davies' Book Commissioning and Acquisition, its more academic counterpart, deals with what happens once a deal has been agreed.
Re publishing contracts, Clark's Publishing Agreements: a book of precedents, includes sample contracts of every
aspect of author—publishing contracts, as well as detailed comments on their clauses. The FAQ in the Contracts section also gives
a few pointers.
New Best Friends
Your relationship with your agent (and this applies to publishers as well) will include both social and commercial elements. The social/emotional side is usually the one emphasised. Publishing is more relationship-based than most other industries. But there is also the odd bit of spin.
Best to recognise from the outset that your worth to an agent or publisher is linked to financial return. Enjoy each other's company, have lunch but don't lose sight of this principle.
How do I go about finding an agent?
The short answer to the question is to go through the listings in the Writers' & Artists' Yearbook and The Writer's Handbook. If you are a published author, The Society of Authors may be able to advise you. NB Anyone can set up as an agent, though they need to fulfil certain criteria before they can become accredited members of the Agents' Association.
However, listings in themselves will not be that much use, unless you want to take the 'Dear Agent, I am desperate, please take me on.' approach.
Before approaching agents put yourself in their. Agents make their money by retaining a percentage of their clients' income, say 10—15 per cent on UK deals, sometimes more on foreign rights. This percentage will be deducted from your advance, from any rights deals and from subsequent royalty payments.
As it takes more effort in establishing an author at the start of his or her career, agents will want to know that you have several books in you, not just one. They need to feel confident that you will make them money.
Here are some guidelines to help you make an informed choice:
- Client List. All agents have client lists, in the same way that all publishers have catalogues. Ask to see one. NB The client list doesn't always point to the brilliance of an agent, as a new agent in a large agency might well have inherited authors from a retiring agent; conversely independent agents starting out may still be building their list.
- It is important that your prospective agent understands your genre and has established contacts with target publishers. If you are a literary biographer, for example, an agent specialising in historical fiction may not be the best choice.
- Then there is the ‘big fish' versus ‘small fish' point. Having an agent who already represents high-profile authors in your field will not always be to your advantage. On the one hand if an agent considers you a potential successor to a star author, you might
be able to piggyback off that author's reputation. On the other, if you are seen as a list-filler,
you may be better off going to an agent who boasts fewer high-profile authors in your field
but believes in you. Enthusiasm papers over a lot of cracks.
Talk to several different agents. Ask them the same questions, so you can compare answers.
NB: Ask questions. Agents confident of their abilities will have no qualms in confessing ignorance and/or showing interest in finding out more.
Do you feel comfortable with your agent? Do you agree on the level of contact? Do you prefer the minimum of intervention or do you work best with regular meetings and phonecalls? Make sure you and your agent feel the same way.
Will your agent be your day-to-day contact, or will this be delegated to someone else? Delegation is not necessarily bad - a young enthusiastic assistant seeking a promotion can work in your favour - but it is important that you understand from the outset who you will be dealing with.
Like publishers, agents have strengths and weaknesses. Some will be good at the killer contract; others at nurturing you through a difficult editorial process and so on. Identify both what is important to you now and also what your priorities might be in the future.
While some agents are universally admired - for example Ed Victor for the mega-deal -
opinions on others vary. This is only natural given that publishers and agents all have their
favourite contacts and that feuds are not unknown. That said, here are some pointers:
- Ask your prospective agent if you might speak to a couple of his or her clients. You will obviously not be put in touch with any disgruntled clients, so best to make your questions specific: 'Is x good at y?' (ie rights selling, editorial nurturing, negotiating a huge advance) rather than 'Is x a good agent?'
- Assuming you have been offered a publishing contract, ask Mark Lefanu at The Society of Authors a similar question. Reputable agents and publishers tend not to speak disparagingly about their colleagues but you should be able to pick up any lack of wholehearted enthusiasm. Finally, a direct 'What in your opinion is x's least strong point?' may elicit information.
- Finally, remember that no one source is infallible.
If you are in a position to secure a respected agent for your first book, go for it. But remember that a bad agent is worse than no agent. You may well be in a better bargaining position when you come to your next book – in a buyers' rather than a sellers' market.
How do your services differ from those provided by literary agents?
- We are able to provide all the services of a publisher, short of funding the publishing process. Because our salesforce and distributor are paid on commission, we have a commitment only to take on books with commercial potential.
- Unlike agents or publishers, we do not hold client monies – our distributor, Central Books, pays these direct to
the author or publisher, once sales and distribution commission has been deducted.
- We take on either publishers' whole lists or author's individual books, ie unlike an agent we do not commit to an author's future work,
unless part of a series as in the Boozers, Ballcocks & Bail series
- Finally, we work on a mixture of flat-fee and success-fee component.