Thursday, December 29, 2011

Literary Agents - The Other Guys at Your Party

Somewhere along the line, someone decided that literary agents were the bad guys of publishing, and a whole slew of people - mostly aspiring writers, from what I have observed - jumped on that bandwagon. It probably has a lot to do with the fact that publishing has become such a bottom-line business, and less of a creative literary outlet.

Now, before anyone considers sending me hate mail or a first-person account of why an agent sucked big-time or was a junk-yard dog, let me state for the record that not all agents are equal. (Of course!) They may not know what they're doing, they could be shysters, they might disguise themselves as agents when they're really just looking to take advantage of the unsuspecting and inexperienced. I'm not referring to the predators. Any writer looking to get a traditional book contract has a responsibility to him- or herself to do the research and be smart about what they're doing before they sign anything. Period.

Literary agents have 2 main functions, in my opinion: They serve as the front line in the publishing industry (that is, they know what editors are looking for--and are uniquely suited to match your manuscript with the right editor), and they negotiate your contract. (If you've never seen a literary contract, you don't have a clue as to what a quagmire it can be. Be grateful for this.) As a bonus, your agent can offer solid editorial feedback to improve your manuscript and increase your chances of getting a contract.

Agents typically get 15% of anything a writer earns--usually right off the top. If you sell your manuscript, the advance check (if there is one) is routed through your agent...and the agent takes his/her cut and forwards you the rest. This percentage is "in perpetuity," which means your agent is forever attached to the success (or failure) of the works represented. He/She is entitled to 15% of foreign rights, movie rights, ANY other rights that the work generates, ad infinitum. This burns some people's bacon. For others, it's a reasonable price for their work.

I recently had the opportunity to talk with author Josh Berk, who writes middle grade and YA fiction. Berk's first book, The Dark Days of Hamburger Halpin, was represented by Ted Malauer and sold to Alfred A. Knopf. Pretty impressive. The book received starred reviews and a nomination for a Read Kiddo Read award. By almost all standards, it quickly became a success. For a first-timer, this is huge.

"I thought I should just retire now," Berk says of that initial success.

Berk's agent, Malauer, was the middle man who made the deal possible. Could Berk have found the editor on his own? Possibly, but unlikely. Berk knows the importance of a good agent.

"He knows how to get the best out of me," Berk says of Malauer. "In fact, he should probably get more money, for all the pro bono psychiatric services."

So, before you jump on that bandwagon of people that says agents don't deserve "all that money they take from their writers," do some research, interview people who would know both the pros and cons, and then draw your conclusions.


Melanie Gold said...

Postscript: See my list of links above. Services such as Lit Match (aka Author Advance) will attempt to match your work with agents who are looking to represent the type of manuscript you're writing. It's not foolproof! But it's a start.

Natalia said...

Great post. It's nice to see this take from someone who knows what she's talking about. Here's another good take:

Melanie Gold said...

Thank you, Natalia! I'll add one more comment, this from Jordan Sonnenblick, author of 7 novels for children and young adults:

"A sharp-eyed agent is worth it, and they're freeing you up to write. My agent has struck things out of contracts that I wouldn't have known to do that has has paid every penny of commission."

Okay, enough said on my part. The point being: talk to people who know the business--the good and the bad--rather than the griping of people who've never had a book contract with a traditional publisher.