Re: Is this a good or bad agent? Terry Edge at 10:34 on 02 December 2010
Shooter, I used to be very resistant to the notion that a writer should take responsibility for his career. Or to put it another way, I felt that a writer's career responsibility extended only to producing the best work he could. I now believe that it's probably always been the case that the majority of successful writers are the ones who've taken an active interest in every part of their career.
But when I first got a book published, large parts of the industry operated on a kind of amateur hit-and-hope basis, or at least they seemed to. Publishers still needed to make money but they had perhaps more established and secure markets, like libraries, to build a business on. Also, no one else was hard selling as much as they do today, so they could all take the time to build a writer's career. All of which meant that a lot of writers could think about nothing but their writing, leaving the nasty business stuff, such as it was, to the publisher and perhaps to the agent (although agents weren't as prevalent when I started).
Oh, but how things changed. While before, an editor could find a book in the slush pile, call in the writer, give him a contract, work on the book, then pass it to the publishing team, nowadays she has to, before doing anything else, sell that book to her team. And the way she does that is in the same way the marketing team will sell it to the retailers.
So, really, the key stage in many ways now is that initial pitch/blurb/marketing points, etc.
When I finally accepted that I had to be more commercially-minded, I signed up for Dean Wesley Smith's 15 day class in Oregon, which he jointly takes with his wife, Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Throughout the course, a sign sat in clear view to us all: "You are responsible for your own career".
Dean, as you've read, has become more outspoken in public recently about what he calls the myths of publishing. He gets a lot of flak for it. But, apart from the fact I like him very much as a man, the main reason I wouldn't give him flak is his track record: over 90 novels sold (all without an agent, although he has used agents to negotiate contracts), hundreds of short stories, etc. And the same for Kris. Not only that, but if you do the Oregon course, you can join an email forum comprising a lot of heavyweight authors (in terms of sales, publishing record, etc). There, you clearly see that Dean and Kris are not alone in their approach: many, many professionals take the same kind of responsibility for their careers.
So, I would say that it's now very important for a writer to get involved with, say, pitches, and not leave it to his agent. If you think about that editor who has to make the pitch to her team: is she going to feel more or less confident if the author has written it? If he has, she knows he's taking responsibility, and that must bode well for all the necessary promotion work these days.
I'm profoundly glad that my agent pitches my work for me - I wouldn't have a clue. Though I don't know if she writes pitches at all - as far as I can tell it's more a matter of building mentions and phone conversations in the course of all her myriad moving about in the trade, long before the MS arrives on the editors' desks at all.
I do understand this. I used to leave all the submission stuff to my agent. But nowadays I want to know how my work is being presented, and be the author of the form it takes. While agents will obviously talk up the importance of their role, I don't know any editor that wouldn't welcome the author taking responsibility for pitching/selling/promoting their own work.
Jo Fletcher (of Gollancz, although soon to set up her own imprint with Quercus) remarked recently that she didn't really understand why the author should be separate from what is now a clear chain of pitching, right on to the bookshelf. Any author submitting to her, she also said, would score a lot of points for including an Advance Information sheet, saving her from having to write it and showing he's in touch with the process.
Re: Is this a good or bad agent? EmmaD at 10:56 on 02 December 2010
Seems to me that these
have kicked doors open, negotiated contracts,
are different skills and energies (sorry, can't think of a less naff word for it)
and different again from this:
and are willing to work at your craft
As writers we all have some things which come naturally and some we have to work at. But only the last is actually about writing. The others are about earning a living from writing. My writing is what it is, and my business head's job is to sell it - and yes, that may include picking among the possibilities and choosing to go with the ones that are most likely to sell: as Jess Ruston said on here a while ago, ideas come from everywhere and what's likely to sell is just one more of place. But that's still putting the writing horse before the selling cart.
Working at my craft is at the core of what I do as a writer. My business head's job is to understand what I do best, what I can do if I apply my mind to it, and what is best done by someone else, such as negotiating contracts. I'm not very good at plumbing, either...
And what if an editor doesn't like your agent and actively ignores their pitches?
It happens, perhaps, and it is very hard to find out about, except by pitching only to reasonably well-known and successful agents, because then liking each other doesn't come into it, as long as they're capable of doing business together. What balances that is that editor does want good books, after all, and if a decent agent tells a sensible editor that they might like an MS they're representing, the editor will read it even if they don't much care for the sender. It's probably a good start for the writer to make sure that they like doing business with your agent - if they seem like a reasonably human being to a potential author, then they probably are to the rest of the world. And yes, one (notably forthright, feisty) publisher said at an SoA do that there's one agent s/he simply won't do business with, and I'm fairly sure I know which agent that is. But that's a rarity.
Yes, agents do have an in with editors (their USP) - but it's a limited in of 8-10 editors say instead of the whole market (i.e. editors they don't know).
One thing I think to remember when translating advice from across the Atlantic to the book trade here is that the trade is much, much smaller and also even more concentrated in London than the US trade is concentrated in New York. It is entirely possible for everyone to know everyone, at least by reputation and almost certainly personally: 8-10 editors IS most of the whole market for your book, at least across in the mainstream houses and big indies, and an agent who represents the kind of writing that you do will have had contact many times over with pretty much any editor who might buy your book.
It's true that if the agent has a very poor track-record of sales, either because they're just a very bad picker of books or because they take on half-way decent stuff but always misunderstands it and so invariably sends it to the wrong editor, then the MS they send will always be on the back foot with an editor. A long, hard look at what they're selling to whom helps a bit with this call.
(Which is why my heart always sinks when I hear that someone has been rejected by 59 agents, and signed with the 60th. What are the odds that Agent Sixty is right and the 59 were wrong? What are the odds that an MS from Agent Sixty gets read any quicker than if it was in the slushpile. That's not the kind of perserverance that we all talk about...)
And there is the perennial problem of how many big houses just don't read un-agented manuscripts from new writers. It's all very well for someone who's already in the industry to say you don't need an agent to get read, but that doesn't hold if you're a total stranger to it. Though a track-record like yours, Shooter, in a different kind of writing, may be one way to get round that - I don't know. It's not quite such a cold call, then.
Crossed with you, Terry.
I suppose I know how my work's going to be presented because of what's gone on between my agent and me in the run up to selling it; if she was off-beam, I'd know by now. And I trust her, more than I trust myself, if you see what I mean, to know how to turn that understanding of my work into something as near irresistible as possible for editors. But I am incredibly lucky in my agent, I do know that.
Before her, I had a close call with another agent, who loved the novel... then rejected it in careful detail, explaining the what she didn't like about it. Which were all the best and most interesting bits. It was the worst rejection on my life and the one for which I'm most profoundly grateful. She would always have been wanting my work to be different from what it is, and would have been selling it to the wrong editors as a result. My current agent loved those bits the most...
What I'm really saying is that having an agent isn't about giving up responsibility for your career, any more than getting married is about giving up responsibility for your own life.
It's about being responsible enough to know what, of what needs doing to get and keep your career doing, you're best at, and what a specialist would do better.
Re: Is this a good or bad agent? shooter at 12:30 on 02 December 2010
What I'm really saying is that having an agent isn't about giving up responsibility for your career, any more than getting married is about giving up responsibility for your own life.
Great advice. And you have to do what works for you EmmaD, I certainly wasn't being derogatory about your own approach. If it works more stength to you. I mean that.
And I certainly don't intend to give up on agents either, but I will be a lot more informed and assertive about my approach/use of them in future.
For example my current agent can negotiate good advances, but not contracts it seems, so that has to affect how I work with them or I'm going to make problems for myself on every job. Communications must improve as well and I'm going to take my own lead on editing from now on.
As for marketing being ever more important, my last publisher said to me as long as I had a TV series I could have anything I wanted published. Unfortunately this is indicative of a cart before horse approach in publishing.
I found book marketers very ineffective. My experience was countless and pointless meetings, a roll out of tried and (self-professed) failed marketing strategies, little understanding of what media wanted, etc, etc. I consistently turned round better cross-media deals, more radio, reviews, and so on, and in a far quicker time.
So should I take more of a lead on this? Probably. Depends on the marketing department.
Basically what all editors and agents want is an as close to finished product as possible, this includes:
The finsihed product to sell.
The means/platform to sell it.
If you can tick these boxes in the commissioner's/editor's and marketing/sales heads you'll have a stronger pitch.
Btw, since starting this thread I have talked to my agent about their poor communication and things have improved already. When I next meet with them I will address the contract and pitching methodology problems we have and see if we can resolve those - but, my main focus now is, get this, writing.
Woohoo, come on. It's what I'm here to do.
Thanks for all your help again guys. I will let you know my progress.
Dang! A typo!
Re: Is this a good or bad agent? EmmaD at 12:44 on 02 December 2010
since starting this thread I have talked to my agent about their poor communication and things have improved already.
I think there's a core problem, which is that in any kind of relationship the key is to know what you want from it - from them - what you can do, what they can, what no one can, and so on.
But it can be hard in a new kind of relationship to know what you can expect as routine from any agent, what good agents do and you can be pleased about, what you will need to ask for but they can give you if you do, and what is way beyond the call of their duty and you should be bloody grateful for and take them out to dinner.
It can take a while to realise that things aren't how they should be, because you don't actually know, entirely, how they should be - not least because agents vary. And because, as my agent said, "The author's will only usually find out that it's gone wrong when it's too late." The agent's pitching to the wrong kind of editor, the publisher turned down an offer of something, the books aren't in the shops when the reviews come out, etc...
Helps if you've got experience in a related industry, but even then practices and habits never map neatly across the divide. And you may decide to live with some drawbacks, if in other ways they're terrific.
Very best of luck with it all, anyway.
"The author's will only usually find out
Ooops! Not a greengrocer's apostrophe, the result of careless cutting-and-pasting...
Re: Is this a good or bad agent? shooter at 14:09 on 06 December 2010
Some more posts/articles readers of this thread may find useful on life without an agent:
Re: Is this a good or bad agent? Freebird at 11:52 on 16 December 2010
You could probably secure everything in the first list without an agent at all. I have, and my publisher is brilliant - we all treat each other like adults and work as a team. Just got a new commission (with significant advance) without the aid of an agent at all.
Your agent works for you - if he/she is unreliable and unprofessional, then it's time to talk about it plainly and consider finding another one or building on this early start yourself.
Re: Is this a good or bad agent? euclid at 18:57 on 02 January 2011
To Terry Edge:
That Dean Wesley Smith link was an eyeopener! What an amazing set of articles!
Thanks for the link, Terry.
(my first post)
Re: Is this a good or bad agent? Terry Edge at 19:23 on 02 January 2011
Euclid, I'm glad Dean's articles worked for you. Dean (and his wife Kris Rusch) get a lot of criticism from certain quarters, perhaps because they write (and sell) so much. I don't really know why it is, but fiction seems to be an area where often people are put up as experts who don't actually write very much! By contrast, I've found that the writers who tend to have the most actual wisdom about the profession are the ones who are very productive. Which doesn't mean I agree with every idea Dean has, for example, but I always listen to what he has to say about how the profession actually works.
Re: Is this a good or bad agent? alexhazel at 19:59 on 02 January 2011
Unlike most of the other contributors here, I don't have any experience of the publishing industry to offer. However, there are some things that struck me from a purely business perspective:
Try replacing 'authors' with 'patients' and 'agents' with 'doctors'. Question: how professional would you consider such a doctor to be? Would you go back to him/her a second time? I know it's not quite the same relationship, but it does have a similar expert/non-expert perspective.
Believes you should answer the question you want to answer not the question you're asked.
If I had that from someone I was effectively paying to provide a service, I would ask the question more forcibly.
Rarely responds adequately to communications.
Offers to do things then never follows up.
Those are both unprofessional, regardless of the profession. Business people (professional ones, at any rate) often 'under promise and over-deliver', not the other way around.
From what you've said, Shooter, it sounds to me as if you could do your agent's job for him. That would suggest one of two things: either you don't need an agent, or you need a different one. Maybe this is a point worth putting to him, when you meet. Personally, I would make clear that it's a last chance to get things right. I would probably also specify a deadline by which things need to be working smoothly.
Re: Is this a good or bad agent? alexhazel at 22:15 on 02 January 2011
I've just been reading through some of those articles - particularly about agents - on Dean Wesley Smith's website. I'm somewhat gratified to find that some of the opinions of a highly experienced writer coincide so closely with some of mine, which are based on nothing more than good business practice and common sense.
I don't really know why it is, but fiction seems to be an area where often people are put up as experts who don't actually write very much!
Oddly enough (or perhaps not so oddly, when you think about it) I once heard Paul Hogan say something similar, in respect of film critics, in an interview after Crocodile Dundee 2 (I think) was released.
I think the arts in general are replete with people who are good at their craft but bad at business, and as a result a certain number of people with dubious abilities but plenty of greed get drawn to the potential to make money by, basically, ripping off either artists or the paying public (or both, if they can manage it).
Re: Is this a good or bad agent? Terry Edge at 11:03 on 03 January 2011
Alex, there's a kind of caveat in Dean's advice, which is it's mostly aimed at professionals or writers with a professional attitude. There was an article in the New York Times Online recently, in which the author asserted that you can't really make a living from writing, therefore writers needed to teach and preferably teach degree courses. Quite a few professional authors replied strongly to this, in general to say a) they made a good living purely from their writing and knew lots of others who did, and b) that on the whole people who teach degree courses are hobbyists, not professionals.
An awful lot of what is said by publishers is aimed at keeping out the huge waves of unsolicited manuscripts from unprofessional authors that wash over them constantly. But I've never encountered an editor who didn't enjoy receiving a proposal/ms direct from a professional author, even if she didn't in the event take it on.
So, I think the first task for any of us is to decide if we are going to be a hobbyist or a professional. If it's the former, then perhaps it's easier to justify allowing an agent to control your career. If it's the latter, then you're thinking is going to be quite different, by necessity.
Re: Is this a good or bad agent? alexhazel at 11:29 on 03 January 2011
Alex, there's a kind of caveat in Dean's advice, which is it's mostly aimed at professionals or writers with a professional attitude.
Really? I read it as trying to tell aspiring and newly-published writers a more accurate story than the one that the trade, for various reasons of its own, likes to propagate. Yes, he's trying to encourage a professional (or, rather, businesslike) attitude, but I didn't read him as speaking only to those who already have this.
I was particularly interested in his article on earning a living from writing. It made me realise that there's a whole subject to do with copyright that any writer needs to understand, in order to maximise the earning potential of their work. Of course, not all of us have law degrees, but that doesn't stop us from finding out enough about intellectual property rights to help us know what we can do.
In business terms, writing is really no different to any other craft in which one works for oneself. It's very easy to focus purely on the craft and ignore the commercial side of things, which is a common mistake made by lots of people in that position (indeed, I've come across writers who reject any notion of having to think commercially). I think what Dean is trying to do is emphasise the obvious: that if you want to make a success of it, you have to be aware of commercial/legal things, as well as the writing.
And the notion of 'career' is a strange one, isn't it? You would rarely come across a self-employed jeweller, capenter, plumber, electrician, etc. talking about having a career, rather than a business. The notion comes from the mindset that says you are working for someone else, not from one that thinks in terms of selling a skill.
Re: Is this a good or bad agent? euclid at 12:24 on 03 January 2011
Correct me if I'm wrong, but Editors in USA seem to play a different role from those in UK. Editors in the UK are either employees of the publishing houses and not involved in finding new material, only with editing manuscripts selected by others, or commercial freelancers who charge to edit your manuscript. Some of the latter are or claim to be "scouts" for the agents.
In US, I gather, from reading between the lines, there is a different breed of editor who acts as a "scout" for her employer - the publisher - but without charging the writer for editorial services.
Is this correct?
Re: Is this a good or bad agent? Terry Edge at 13:41 on 03 January 2011
Alex, sorry, I didn't express myself clearly. By 'professional attitude', I meant anyone who's serious about their writing, which includes aspiring and newly-published writers.
I agree it's a common mistake amongst writers, to focus purely on the craft and ignore what they see as the commercial side of things. In the past, there might have been a clearer divide between writer/craft and publisher/commercial concerns. But today, commercial concerns filter back further into the craft, and perhaps the best testing ground for how much a writer is prepared to learn how to submit and sell their work is in their attitude to pitches/proposals/blurbs/ marketing notes, etc. Many still loathe having to do this, or leave it to their agent, as if it has nothing to do with the creative process.
I'm now much better at submitting in a commercially-oriented way. But I know that I need to also get much better at understanding the business side of writing. I attended Dean's 15-day class a couple of years back and apart from the general exhilaration of the experience, I also felt quite ashamed to see him (and his wife Kris) display such a thorough knowledge of how to conduct their business affairs as writers. This included a truly brilliant grasp on the history of publishing, i.e. in one class, they spoke for something like 3 hours, without using notes, on that history, not just in factual terms but how each stage affected what happens today, with me getting wrist cramp from frantically scribbling notes.
Euclid, I don't think it's really like that. In most general respects, editors carry out similar roles whether they're based in the UK or the USA. The submission process, for an author, is not that different either.
UK editors do not 'only  manuscripts selected by others, or commercial freelancers who charge to edit your manuscript'. Editors select manuscripts they believe are publishable, either from the slush pile or as submitted by agents. At the majority of publishing houses, they then have to convince the acquisitions team of your book's viability, and after that convince the marketing people too, etc. At no stage in this process, should the author be paying anyone to look at his work.
As a separate issue, the author may choose to pay a manuscript agency or freelance editor to work on his book prior to him submitting it to a publisher or agent. But no editor worth his salt would take direction from such an agency. Unfortunately, some of the larger ms agencies have in recent years been over-playing their role in the acquisitions process, clearly to elicit more business from authors desperate to get published. But even then, they would never dare suggest they can get a publisher to take on your book; instead, they promise only to put it in front of an agent (which you can clearly do yourself, anyway).
As said, it isn't that different in the US. But US editors are not really 'scouts' for the publisher; they're normally a paid employee of the publisher whose job it is to acquire books and then get them into a publishable state.
Re: Is this a good or bad agent? euclid at 14:24 on 03 January 2011
Terry: Thanks for that reply. So, there must be reference lists of editors in USA who work directly for publishers and whom a writer could approach with a maunscript and expect it to be read and maybe recommended to the publisher. In the UK I think this territory is exclusively the agents'.
Also, in UK there are reputable editing companies (like Cornerstones) that charge a fee for reading and editing a manuscript. I gather this practice is frowned on in USA, as editors that charge a fee are all(?) scam artists.