What do agents do?
At the most basic level, agents negotiate publishing contracts for authors. As we discussed earlier today, it’s characteristic for the agent or agency to have an agency boilerplate with any given publishing house, which is a better level at which to begin negotiations. In an ideal universe, the agent will negotiate the best terms possible for the individual author, based upon his or her knowledge of the market and what is standard and customary. In exchange for this, the author will pay the agent a 15% commission of the monies paid by the publishing house as a result of that deal.
The mechanism for this is traditional – the house pays the entire sum to the agent, who then deducts his or her fee and sends the balance to the author. Alternatively, an author can request to have cheques split at source, which means that the publisher cuts two cheques, one for 85% and one for 15%, of each payment and mails them to the appropriate party. Some agents find this worrisome, as they feel it indicates to the house that the author has a lack of trust in them. Publishing is very much a business of appearances and perceptions, so don’t dismiss this idea too quickly.
What else do agents do? Agents submit work to publishers for consideration and the work that comes in from agents is always given precedence for editorial review. Why is that? Because agents are the only ones who can multiple-submit work – that is, send it to more than one editor at a time – because agents are the only ones who can set up an auction for a given work.
An auction means that more than one editor wants to buy the work, and essentially they bid against each other. High bid wins. This is not the same as having multiple offers. When a work generates multiple simultaneous offers, there are other variables to consider than the money. One house might guarantee a large promotion budget but a smaller advance, and the author might find this appealing. Auctions are purely about the advance money.
A pre-empt can also only go through an agent. This means that one editor wants the project enough to pay a premium before anyone else offers, which will essentially take the book off the market. Agent and author have to decide if the offer is good enough, or if they should wait to hear from the other editors. If you’re interested in these mechanisms, there’s a women’s fiction book called THE OTHER SIDE OF THE STORY by Marion Keyes which has one of the best portrayals of publishing I’ve read in fiction.
Also, historically, the big publishing houses only accepted agented submissions. That means that they would only consider work from agented authors. The challenge has always been that it was difficult for an author to get an agent without any publishing credits, yet it was impossible to submit to the big houses without representation. Many writers, like me, started in category or at smaller presses as a result. This allows the author to build an audience and some experience, and maybe that was the intent of the strategy all along. Submission policies are changing at some big houses, so check the house’s website for their submission requirements.
Agents also can sell subsidiary rights and foreign rights for the author. This morning we talked about foreign sales. These can be handled by the publisher or the agency, depending upon how the rights were assigned in the contract. If the house buys world rights, then the publisher will try to sell foreign rights though its subsidiary rights department. Subsidiary rights also include things like audio editions of books, action figures, calendars – it’s kind of fun to read the list of possibilities. Any rights retained by the author can be sold by the agent or agency. Some larger agencies have subsidiary rights departments very similar to those at publishing houses. Smaller agencies often make alliances with sub-rights agents who specialize in specific markets.
These are all the roles traditionally performed by agents and agencies. Even within this specific range of responsibilities, there is a lot of variation between agencies. There are big agencies with many agents working there, and there are agencies which have only one agent working usually with an assistant.
When you sign an agency contract – and I strongly suggest that you do not do business without signing an agency contract, although some agents like to do business on a handshake – there should be a list of additional charges that can be posted against your balance, charges which are not included under the umbrella of the commission. Historically, these have been things like copying manuscripts or sending books by courier to foreign publishers or agents. Courier service within NYC is generally not an allocated expense, nor is rent or internet services etc. I seldom see any of these charges anymore, because we’re not sending physical books around. Submissions to foreign markets are usually made digitally.
You should also be aware that when you sign with an agent that your contract will be with the agency, not the agent. With a small single-person agency, this isn’t an issue as he or she is unlikely to leave the company. But if your agent at a big agency leaves that agency – maybe to go to another agency or maybe to set up shop on his or her own – you will be reassigned to another agent inhouse. (This is similar to a publishing contract – you sign with the house, not the specific editor, and if your editor leaves the house, you will be reassigned to another editor.) If you wish to follow your agent to his or her new digs, you will have to terminate that agency relationship and create another one, even though you’ll still be working with the same agent.
What difference does it make? Remember that all money resulting from a contract flows to the agent or agency from the publisher. This will continue, even if you break off your relationship with that agent or agency. You can guess that you might not be that agent or agency’s number one priority if you’re doing business elsewhere. Also, your agent will be named in the contract as the agent of record for the deal. This means that in addition to the flow of cash, any disputes or questions about the contract must go through that agent. Many houses will only deal with the agent of record when discussing a contract. This can become an issue when, for example, there are addenda to the contract, perhaps in the form of changing digital royalty rates. If you want to change from the traditional payment structure to payments split at source, most houses will only accept that change if it comes from the agent of record. This protocol also comes into play with rights reversions. It’s quite common for the house to only accept a request for rights reversion from the agent of record. It’s also quite common for the agent of record, if he or she is no longer the agent of the author, to not hurry to make the reversion request. When you think about it, this isn’t unreasonable – if the rights revert, thanks to the paperwork done by the former agent, the new agent will sell them for possibly more money and make a commission off the former agent’s efforts.
The bottom line is that you don’t want to change agents a lot. It will add too many jobs into the Administrator section of your pie chart. You want to be careful and strategic about choosing an agent who fits your needs well. Which brings us neatly to the nature of the agent.
Some agents are what is known as “handholders”. This means that they provide emotional encouragement to their authors. I know one author whose agent calls her every week, just to check on how things are going and address any questions or doubts. This agent is not her friend – she’s ensuring that the author’s productivity isn’t compromised by anything, at least not anything the agent can fix. This would drive me bananas, but this other author loves it. We’re all different and thanks to your pie chart, you can think about what it is that you need. Some agents are known as tough negotiators. Some agents are known as “editing agents” – they give their author clients extensive revisions to make the work more marketable before they’ll even take it out. Some agents are known for their diplomacy. Some agents are known for their connections, and all are known for their connections in certain niches. And there are agents who are packagers. This means that they have a lot of connections for work-for-hire. If you see your path as including a lot of that kind of work, at least in the near future, those would be good agents to query. The bottom line is that you want an agent who knows how to sell what you write, and has the connections to get it done.
What has changed in recent years – maybe just the last year – is that there has been an addition to the role of agents. There now are agents and agencies who offer either services to help an author digitally self-publish or which have become digital publishers themselves. This is a really interesting change. On the one hand, you can see that in offering these services, the agent is ensuring that the author gets back to the business of writing as soon as possible. On the other hand, there is a clear conflict of interest here. Historically, the one person who always had the author’s back and whose advice could always be completely trusted was the agent. This was because the agent’s income was derived solely from the author’s income. This change introduces another revenue stream for agents and one that could make clients wonder about the integrity of their advice. So, this is another variable to consider when you shop for representation.
Many authors believe that agents assume control of their careers, that as soon as they hire an agent, they can just focus on writing and let the agent manage everything. This is the worst possible assumption you can make. In a market in which there are dozens of definitions of success, it is imperative that you tell your agent what it is that you want, and keep control of your career.
If you don’t want an agent, or you can’t get one, you still shouldn’t sign a publishing contract without understanding what it says and means. You can hire a literary lawyer to review your contract for you – probably the best known one in our genre is Elaine English, who will explain your contract to you for a flat fee. You can also have your contract reviewed by the Authors Guild, if you’re a member, or by the Writers’ Union of Canada, again if you’re a member.
Read your contract! Understand it before you sign it. You don’t get to wiggle out of this part no matter what alliances you make.