FOUR THINGS YOUR AGENT CAN DO FOR YOU
If you hope to sell your book to a large mainstream press for a hefty advance (or even a not-so-hefty advance) it’s almost impossible to do this without an agent. Agents not only wield a lot of power, but they’re also the only people who are 100% squarely in the writer’s corner.
Don’t get me wrong. Most editors are lovely people who were drawn into this line of work because they’re passionate about books. But the editor works for the publishing house, and that will always be where her first loyalty lies. An editor might honestly adore your book, but if she can acquire the manuscript for $10,000 there is absolutely no incentive for her to offer you $20,000. The agent, in contrast, gets a percentage of whatever you earn, so he has every incentive to try and get you more. Plus, in this topsy-turvy environment, in which houses are constantly merging or folding and even the most seasoned editors fear for their jobs, the odds are that your longest lasting relationship will be with your agent. Writers and agents tend to bond for the long haul.
Finding and signing with an agent is the first major decision you’ll make in the publishing process, and it can trigger huge, shuddering, junior-high-sized waves of anxiety. Most writers desperately want to be able to say they have an agent. Not only is it a clear step on the path to publication, but having an agent is often seen as a stamp of legitimacy, a distinction that separates the pretenders from the contenders.
But don’t let your eagerness lead you to the wrong agent. Because having the wrong agent is like having the wrong spouse – much worse than being on your own. Your goal should not simply be to find an agent but to find the right agent for you. When you consider all the roles that agents play, it’s clear why choosing the right one from the start can save you bucketloads of problems down the road.
What Do Agents Do?
The primary function of an agent is to present your book to an editor he thinks might buy it. Your agent’s ability to successfully do this depends on three things: A) His understanding of your book and where it belongs in terms of a publisher, B) his knowledge about what editors are currently in the market to buy and what they’re looking for, and C) his general salesmanship, i.e., his ability to create excitement or buzz about your book.
Publishing has always been a complex business – you’re selling, after all, an intangible thing, an idea. This will never be the same as selling nuts and bolts, because an idea is worth precisely as much as people can convince each other it’s worth. Not to mention that we’re living in a time when, thanks to the advent of epublishing and the mergers of once-independent houses into large multimedia conglomerates, an already complex business is in a period of rapid change. Even the most savvy writer probably won’t know as much about the industry as an agent.
Even if you’re at a great house and you love your editor, there are going to be rough patches along the way. I;ve heard of writers who were unhappy with their deadlines, revisions, cover art, publicity budgets….pretty much anything you can imagine. But it’s never a good idea to call up your editor ranting and raving. After your fit of pique passes, you still have to work with this person.
Agents have to work with these editors again too, especially if they’re the sort of agents who sell over and over to the same houses. A smart agent won’t want to ruin his relationship with an editor so he will be politic in his complaints. But that agent doesn’t have to work with that editor again immediately, the next day, on matters as subtle and delicate as whether or not to kill off the heroine’s mother in chapter two. So most agents will man up and take the hit of complaining on behalf of their authors.
4. Agents edit.
Here is one of the lesser known facts of contemporary publishing: in many cases, the editor and agent switch roles.
Before I sold my book, I pictured an agent as a fast-talking guy in a suit, some combination of a carnival barker and a circa-1980s Gordon Gekko type, making deals while snorting lines of cocaine off a hooker’s chest – certainly no one you’d want to hang around with and the last person on earth you’d turn to for advice on how to improve your book. The editor – probably a thin, earnest young woman from a Seven Sisters school – would be the person who would go through the manuscript with you line by line, debating the placement of a comma or sharing long dreamy conversations about symbolism and syntax.
Boy was I wrong. As it turns out, at least in my case, my agent was the one who helped me edit the book, and my editor then took it pretty much intact. The new paradigm is that manuscripts, at least those by first-time writers, are arriving at their publishing houses in pristine condition, courtesy of a lot of preliminary work between the author and agent. So be prepared for the fact that your agent is not only a salesperson, legal advisor, advocate and buffer, but he may be your first editor as well.
Kim Wright is the author of the novel Love in Mid Air and a how-to guide for writers titled Your Path to Publication, from which this article was excerpted. You can order Your Path to Publication through Press 53 at http://www.press53.com/BioKimWright.html. Follow Kim on Twitter at @Kim_Wright_W.