Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Firing Your Agent (Part 3 of 6)

Misunderstandings occur, even in the best relationships. By speaking up, you can clear up differences. Unless your current agent is unusual, he has never taken a mind-reading course. That makes you responsible to communicate your concerns and unfulfilled expectations. Your relationship may require only occasional adjustments. If you take the initiative, you might even have a fresh start in your joint business venture.

Be cautious about dropping your agent, but don't be foolish and hold on to an unhappy relationship. Over the years, I've talked with writers who have switched agents. In most cases, they probably did the right thing. In a few instances, the unhappy writer didn't like the second one any better. Or the third or even the ninth.

Here's my advice—which I wish I had followed myself: Ask yourself, "What do I want from an agent?" Do you want someone who emails or phones every day? That's not reasonable, and most writers won't find such a person, unless the writer is getting mega-buck advances.

The agent who fired me didn't have a personality that worked well with mine: I'd call him bluntly aggressive. I wanted an agent whose personality reflected mine—someone I liked personally and assumed editors would as well.

Take time to think through what kind of agent you want. During the period when I knew my relationship would end with my first agent, I seriously looked at the kind of personality I wanted to work with the next time. I needed someone that I could email or phone and bounce off ideas and get a reply such as, "Sounds good" or "I don't think so," and then I could take it to the next step. I didn't need an agent who said, "Send me a proposal, and I'll let you know." I didn't want to invest a large amount of time into a product that wouldn't sell.

There are excellent reasons to fire your agent.
Be sure you choose the right one.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Firing Your Agent (Part 2 of 6)

Before you decide to fire your agent, carefully ponder the reasons you're unhappy. The common complaint is, "She isn't selling anything." It may help if we remind ourselves that agents don't make our books marketable. We may write remarkably well and be a steady seller, but that's no guarantee that everything will sell. Agents don't always sell everything they represent, no matter how persistent and assertive they may be.

My present agent has a manuscript of mine she couldn't sell, and the response we received is that the niche is too small. The fact that your work remains unsold doesn't mean that the agent isn't doing a good job. That agent may actually be doing an excellent job of representing you.

Here are a few questions to ask as you consider switching agents.

1. Are you receiving copies of publisher's rejection emails or letters? Generally, when an editor returns rejections by letter or email within a few weeks it's reasonable to expect copies of these rejection letters either as they come in or regularly—such as once a month. We don't like reading what the editors say about our manuscripts—but at least we can document that our agent is circulating our work. Granted that many writers have fragile egos, but an agent owes us this information, even if it's only to say, "Revell passed on your novel."

2. Does the agent pay royalties on time? Generally, within ten days after a publishing house sends a check, writers should receive the statements and a check from their agents.

3. Is your agent difficult to reach? Is she lax about returning email messages or voice messages? If you speak with your agent and explain your dissatisfaction, that conversation may resolve the issues. You probably won't be able to do it in person (the best way), so telephones are the next-best approach. Emails, faxes, and registered letters seem quite impersonal, but if you have no good communication skills you may have to resort to the impersonal.

If you consider firing your agent,
the first question to ask yourself is, "Why?"

Friday, December 17, 2010

Firing Your Literary Agent (Part 1 of 6)

In 1996, my literary agent fired me and I thanked God. The relationship, although not hostile, hadn't been the best. Had I followed my instincts, I would have terminated our agreement two years earlier.

I held back because, like a lot of other writers, I felt obligated—he had sold more than a dozen books for me. I worried that I might not find another agent. In the back of my mind, I foolishly wondered if he'd blackball me with other agents.

If we face the dilemma of should-I-or-shouldn't-I-end-this? we need to push aside our emotions and act on business principles. I saw this clearly when my friend Marilyn complained for more than an hour about her agent. When I interrupted long enough to suggest she end the contract, shock passed across her face. "He gave me my big chance. I wouldn't be a writer today, if he hadn't sold my books. "

"That's not true," I said. Even though I understood her feelings—I had been there myself—I wanted to do for her what I wished someone had done for me. "Did he receive his commission for the work he sold?" After she said that he had, I pointed out that her agent didn't make her a writer. "He worked for you and sold a product over which you labored."

I can give advice like that because I've grown more confident and I know more about the publishing industry. When a relationship isn't right, I know the quality of the work suffers. Why deplete our creative energies by coping with bad business relationships?

A number of professional writers have since told me, "Having no agent is worse than having a bad agent or being stuck with one you don't like." They may be correct. I disagree, because writers who have reached the level of professionalism are capable of getting a second agent. And if they can't, perhaps they need to market on their own.

Many (maybe most) career writers switch agents at least once. In my next blog post I'll talk about how to terminate the agent-writer relationship.

You may need to fire your agent,
but be sure before you take action.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

More Money and Scam Agents (Part 9 of 9)

Scam agents abound and they have a variety of ways of taking money from you and giving you nothing in return.

Here are some of the things to avoid.

Don't pay a reading fee. Agents read manuscripts—many, many manuscripts. If they're interested in looking at yours with a view toward selling it, they take the risk of reading bad manuscripts—and they receive a large number of them. They can also stop reading in the middle of page 1. I've heard that most agents accept less than 2 percent of the manuscripts they read.

Don't pay retainer fees. I don't hear much of that these days, but it was an old method of asking clients to pay a small amount such as thirty dollars a month and it usually went on for a couple of years until the innocent writer figured it out and stopped paying.

Avoid literary agents that put ads in magazines or on the Internet. Good agents don't have to advertise. Most literary agents have more would-be clients clamoring for their services than they want.

The advertising agents seem to accept anyone who offers a manuscript and charge a fee to read, but I've never heard of those agents ever selling anything.

Good agents have websites. One questionable agency signs clients and then charges them $195 for the cost of setting up the writer's personal website with them.

Good agents gladly tell you the names of their clients, the books they've sold, and the names of the publishers. On their Internet site, one agency lists clients by profession and gives you first names only. My advice: Skip that agency because there's no way for you to verify their statements.

Good agents never refer you to a specific editing service. It's illegal for them to do that. They may suggest you get editorial help and come back, but they can't tell you which editor to contact.

If you have any questions about a particular literary agency, Google the name on the Internet. It's difficult for dishonest agents to hide these days from serious writers, but they still pull in money from the ignorant and naïve. Don't be either.

If a literary agency tells you how easy it is to get published
by signing with them,
you don't want to sign with them.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Agents and Money (Part 8 of 9)

Agents handle all money matters. Even when an editor contacts me with a book project—and that has happened many times—I don't discuss money. That's the job of my agent.

Only once has an editor brought up the topic. "We'd like to work with you," he said, "but we can't give you the big, upfront royalties you're used to getting."

He didn't explain how he knew how much upfront royalties I received, but I said, "I don't care much about money, but my agent does. Talk to her about the contract."

When you sign with an agent, they take care of your finances, and they charge you nothing but the sales commission of 15 percent. Twenty years ago agents charged for copying and postage because all manuscripts were on hard copy and went through the mail. Long-distance calls cost anywhere from five to ten cents a minute. In those days, many legitimate agents charged for the extras.

In 1997, until my agent sold for me, she charged $35 a month for office expenses. I think I paid for only two months. After that, she absorbed all costs.

There's no reason for those charges today. If an agent wants to add charges for anything beyond the standard commission, don't sign.

Reputable agents work on commission
and only on commission.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Two Agent Questions (Part 7 of 9)

"For how long a time do you sign with an agent?" Cheryl asked in an email.

That depends on the contract the agent offers. And good agents always offer contracts.

If you have limited publishing experience but an agent takes a chance on you, the agreement can be that the agent will represent you for a period of one year or as long as two. The agent may have doubts about whether she can sell your book. If she hasn't sold it within the time limit, you're now free to try another agent.

If the agent sells the book within that time frame and wants to represent you, she will usually become your representative until one of you severs the relationship. (I'll discuss that in a later blog entry.)

"I write fiction and nonfiction," Marty wrote. "Should I seek two agents?"

A few writers have more than one agent, but it's rare. Most agents want exclusive representation, but it's more significant than that.

Previously I wrote about career planning. Becoming a well-known writer or a best-selling one or a famous writer isn't easy and it takes committed dedication. Think of it this way: After you've published your first book, you begin to attract an audience for your type of writing. Each time you publish, in theory anyway, you widen your audience. One agent said, "I expect it to take four books until my authors sell big."

Most readers, however, don't follow authors just because they're authors. They follow them within a specific genre. Fiction readers rarely turn to nonfiction and vice versa. (We writers are strange creatures so we may be an exception.)

It's extremely difficult to build name recognition in any field, but to try to sell both fiction and nonfiction makes it even more difficult. That implies writers work double shifts of writing and promoting. It rarely works.

Agents like an author who works in one genre
and builds an audience.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Before You Sign with an Agent (Part 6 of 9)

Suppose an agent agrees to represent you. What then? Some writers are so desperate for representation, they'll go with anyone. One writer said, "Once you sign with an agent, if it doesn't work, you can fire him." True, and it's often painful. And it doesn't sound like a professional approach. I suggest you hold off until you sense the agent is someone with whom you can work.

I have a number of questions for you to consider asking agents, or go to their websites and look for those answers.

• Are you a member of the Association of Authors' Representatives?

• How long have you been in business as an agent?

• If I want to contact you, how do you prefer I do that?

• If I make contact in your preferred method, how long should I expect to wait until I hear from you? (If I don't hear within that period, what should I do?)

• How do you keep your clients informed of your activities on their behalf? Will you inform me of all responses to my work? Do you do that as they come in or send me a list?

• Do you have specialists at your agency who handle movie and television rights? Foreign rights? Or are you proficient in those areas?

• Do you have subagents or corresponding agents in Hollywood and overseas?

Even though those are good questions, agents may not respond to them. You also risk the possibility that the agent may label you as HMA (High Maintenance Author) and choose not to represent you.

Before you sign with an agent, learn about the agent.
This will be a long-term relationship, so be careful.