Every so often, I think to myself, “I’m glad to have my agent,” who is the fabulous Ginger Clark, of Curtis Brown, Ltd. And every so often, a young writer asks me, “Do I need an agent?” So:
1. If you’re writing and selling short stories, you’re most likely okay without an agent. Just make sure you read whatever contract the publisher sends you carefully. I don’t think you want to give them the right to do anything other than publish your story in their venue (unless they’re willing to pony up some serious cash for whatever extra they’re asking for).
2. Once you move into publishing books, though, an agent is pretty much indispensable. For one thing, they’ll get your book onto the desk of the editors most likely to be interested in it. It may and most likely will take some time for those editors to get to the book; all the same, the process takes considerably longer without an agent. Once an editor makes an offer on your book, your agent can tell you whether it’s a decent offer, and advise you how best to proceed, which may include negotiating with that editor for a better deal. Your agent’s also the one who’ll review whatever contract the publisher is offering, and work to make sure its terms favor you.
Here are a few things my agent has done for me:
1. She got the publisher of one of my books to double the advance they were offering, and then held them to their agreement when they tried to back out of it.
2. She held a publisher’s feet to the fire when they tried continually to delay the publication of one of my books.
3. She got one of my books in front of editors at publishers such as Harper Collins and Simon & Schuster.
4. During a recent publishing debacle in which one of my books became involved, she remained calm and helped me chart the best course through it.
(I realize all of this is a bit light on specifics, but I’m not interested in starting any unnecessary trouble, right now. Should you catch me at a convention, however, a shot of a good single malt might loosen my tongue.)
The relationship between writers and agents is kind of a strange one. You’ll see writers and agents talking about firing one another when they’re unhappy with each other, but I’m not sure that description gets at the heart of the relationship. Without the writer, the agent has nothing to sell. Without the agent, the writer’s at a considerable disadvantage. Ideally, I guess it’s a kind of symbiosis.
I do think there’s a tendency for a lot of writers, who are an insecure breed, to start with, to invest their relationships with their agents with emotions that aren’t helpful to either. Above all else, it’s a professional relationship; remember that, and act accordingly, and you’ll be fine.
Oh, and one more thing: when you meet a publisher who says they don’t like to work with agents, run in the opposite direction, as quickly as possible. Agents are part of the business of publishing. I guarantee you, anyone who’s complaining about having to work with agents is someone who owes people money, is not responsive to their writers, and is generally not following the best business practices.
My agent, however, does swear a lot. I mean, seriously.