Thursday, December 03, 2009

What Can I Expect of My Agent?

Ok, we've done my descriptions of my dream author as well as what I think you, an author, should be able to expect of your editor. After much ado and reflection, it seems silly to me that we haven't done a comparable post for agents.

I have worked with many agents, and have seen many different agent styles. Some, although totally opposite each other, are equally successful. There are a spectrum of ideal relationships, but there are also some absolutes. Let's start with those.

Full Fiscal Disclosure

You are an author whose property is making your agent money (however much or little it may be). That means that if you ask for a financial record of your account--how much your royalties have earned out, what fees have been deducted from your earnings--your agent should furnish said account with little to no dilly-dallying. Agents do run businesses and may have payment schedules that you will have to respect, but you are

a) entitled to your money eventually (if maybe it's not right this second immediately payable, you should at least know what is forthcoming and when)

b) free and open (and timely) information about what monies are owed to you by your publisher or any other entity.

For most agents, this goes without saying. Duh. But yeah, there are some shady players in the game. I told this story many years ago, and now can't find a record to it, but one of my authors discovered only by asking me point-blank when I let him know we were reissuing his book that his first edition had earned out. His agent had been telling him it hadn't made any royalties that period for the last 15 years, thereby exempting her from having to send royalty statements. Meanwhile she was keeping his money, and has now disappeared. Crappy, I'd say.

It doesn't happen often, but I gotta put it out there.

Comfortable Communication
You should not be afraid to talk to your agent. You shouldn't feel entitled to harass your agent 24/7, as in theory she has other clients, but you can't be afraid to reach out to her if you have a question. You should also expect straight and honest answers to those questions.

Some agents have policies of sheltering their clients from bad news, since their clients are less hardened by business. Other agents believe in 100% honesty, and forward editor rejections verbatim. Some tailor their strategy to their client's personalities. Both ways are excellent ways... for different groups of people. You may be the client who needs the kid gloves, or you may be the client who functions better with straight information. It doesn't matter! Both kinds of authors are wonderful human beings. What does matter is that your style matches your agent's, so that no unnecessary frustrations are introduced into your relationship.

How will you know your agent's communication style before signing? ASK! Now's a great time to practice how you're going to communicate together.

Your agent probably won't be your best friend--it is, mostly, a business relationship. But sometimes she will be. I do know of some agent/author relations that are characterized by so much camaraderie that they are basically constantly in touch, so I'm not judging you if that's your thing. The point is, don't have expectations about how intimate you'll be with each other. But do be very, very able to communicate with each other. A fantastic agent whose communication style doesn't mesh with yours may actually be a bad agent for you. It's worth thinking about.

Frequently Asked Questions

Other areas are grayer, and I can't give definitive yeses or nos. But here are some factors that may be relevant to your case, and which you should take into consideration at the onset.

Should I expect to sign an agency contract?
Not necessarily. Agencies, in my experience, run 50/50 on this. Some work with an author on a per-book basis, others work on a career development arc. But have the agent lay out all these policies for you at the onset. Don't be afraid to ask what their programs are for other clients.

Should I expect my agent to line edit my book?
No, you should not expect it. Some agents do edit, and some specialize in editing. Many of my favorite agents are real top-notch editors, and the manuscript comes to me looking as shiny as a newly minted penny. But some agents specialize in marketing, publicity, and contacts. They may not do any editing at all. Again, both methods have their merits; I know awesome agents on both ends of the spectrum. But you may be an author who needs more editing, or you may be an author who needs a more dynamic marketing force behind you.

Be honest with yourself--or have someone else be honest with you!--about how much editing your manuscript needs pre-submission. The reason I say this is if your manuscript is pretty rough and it turns out you have an agent who submits stuff as-is, you may find yourself getting rejected by houses that would have taken you seriously if the manuscript were cleaner.

Should I expect my agent to submit my book right away?

Well, yes, your agent needs to submit your book at some point; otherwise are they your agent? However, don't be hogtied by timeframe. Some agents edit or work on submissions lists for months. Do you want an agent who's going to submit right away? (Because that may or may not be good for your particular book, depending on a lot of factors.) But this is something you should certainly talk about at the beginning--what the submission plan is.

Should I expect my agent to submit my book widely?

No, not necessarily. A submission program varies from book to book, genre to genre. But my personal belief is that you should be able to talk this through with your agent beforehand, and she should be able to explain what her plan is and why.

Should I expect my agent to share the submission list with me?

My personal belief is yes, a client deserves to know who is reviewing their manuscript. Some agents are reluctant to share this information fully with clients; I imagine it has to do with not wanting to jeopardize editor relationships if a client has a freak-out and does inappropriate contacting.

Should I expect my agent to share all the editor responses with me?
Which way do you prefer? Talk it through at the beginning.

Should I expect my agent to pick up the tab?
Again, this varies from agency to agency. Typically, agencies will bill clients--after the client has earned money, that is--for the following things (and ONLY the following things): postage; expedited mail; photocopying. If your agent is billing you for other things than those, look twice at your statement. Some agents don't even bill for those things. Either way, remember it IS your money (see above) so there should be full disclosure about the fees you're being charged if fees are being charged.

NB it is NEVER ok for an agent to charge an editorial or publicity fee to a client unless that has been negotiated beforehand, and even then we're on shady ground. It is against AAR regulations for an agent to charge you any fees that have not been fully disclosed beforehand, and furthermore, things like freelance editing or freelance publicity that take place in the same establishment that is repping your project constitute huge conflicts of interest. Also, it is never appropriate to charge reading fees or representation fees--your agent will work on commission, as set forth in your agency agreement (if you don't have a contract with your agent, the agency agreement will be in a clause in your contract with your publisher), and will take a pre-determined portion of your earnings after the book is sold based on how much it sold for. If an agent is asking for other fees pre-acquisition, do snooping to see what other people think about that (but to me, I'm hard-pressed to see how that's not shady).

I'm not going to take a specific position on whether or not it's appropriate to charge pre-negotiated additional fees for specialist colleagues to edit or work on publicity for a book, because I know of a couple (not many) agents I work with who do this and seem to be genuinely providing services they wouldn't be able to on their regular commission, but even in the best of cases it makes me a little nervous. It is a practice prone to abuse (as you can probably guess from all the blog reading you've done). If an agent tells you you need a freelance editor to go through your book before it's ready to submit (which a lot of people do), it seems more kosher to me if the editor is not someone who works for the agent or on their payroll. Ya?

In fact, many agents have specialists who work in the agency on client books for no additional fees--remember the agency will profit from the success of your book. Some great agents have marketing managers to help develop projects at zero additional fee to the clients. Not every agent can afford that, but it makes a lot of sense for the ones who can, doesn't it?

Let me know if this is clear as mud or what, or if I can flesh out/develop. Also, agents, please chime in with yays or nays.


Lydia Sharp said...

Beautifully linkable. Thanks!

Kristi said...

Wonderful post - thanks. I hadn't thought of the potential marketing/publicity aspect of an agency.

A. Grey said...

Thanks for that. As someone who is shopping for an agent right now, information like this is priceless!

Leona said...

More and more I'm heading to your blog early on in my routine. Thanks for all the information :)

Donna Alward said...

I agree that communication is key. Love my agent, and I felt when we met that we just clicked. I knew she was "the one" because we talked several times and seemed to be on the same wavelength.

For me an agent is also my advocate, so being comfortable with that person is HUGE.

slushpilehero said...

Great post. I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on agents donating query/partial critiques to various auctions and having authors bid on (and pay for) such a service.

magolla said...

I've heard similar advice before, but by agents ON agents. I love your take, Moonie.

Word of the day/verification: *sipplett* a teeny-tiny faerie slurp of nectar

Frankie Diane Mallis said...

Wow this is such a good post! I've read a lot of info on what to expect from your agent and agent/author relationship but usually those posts are more concerned with what questions to ask before stepping to a relationship and how to know if you want one. This is excellent information to consider once you are working with an agent or something to keep in mind as you search for one. Thanks!

moonrat said...

Slushpilehero--great question. in my opinion, that's a freelance critique service that happens to be being performed by an agent. There's no hint of representation, and in theory if it's a charity the agent is making no money. (full disclosure: i've done similar "donation" critiques myself.)

if an agent is making money from a critique they do of your work, which i haven't really heard of before, it's important this is understood as a freelance developmental they-help-you-with-constructive-criticism situation. if you are PAYING an agent to consider your query and they simply say yes or no, something is afoul.

Charles Gramlich said...

ahh, good stuff. Clear and to the point.

Rayna Reads said...
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Rayna Reads said...

Wonderful & thorough--as someone working in an agency now, I'm proud to read through and say that we completely fit your guidelines! And it's always nice to have authors who know what to (generally) expect as a client and don't feel that, perhaps, I am giving them my own spin on the explanation. I always want potential clients to know that your agent is YOUR agent--don't ever feel cheated! Do your research, make your calls, ask your questions- the earlier, the better.

Rebecca Knight said...

It's awesome to have an editor's perspective on this! :D Also, I hadn't thought about how I'd like to be informed about editor reactions to my book--I'm definitely a "give it to me straight" person. When the time comes, I'll make sure to discuss it :).

Thanks, Moonie!

Voidwalker said...

Great info as always. It's sad to see all the scam artists out there and being a neophyte in the publishing world can really help their cause. I appreciate your willingness to bring these points to light.

Lyn Miller-Lachmann said...

Great advice, clearly written. Thanks!

Ello said...

Excellent post as always. ONe thing that always strikes me is how often I hear from authors who are afraid to contact their agents. I think it comes from this fear of driving the agent away. So in that case it is not necessarily the agents fault that there isn't an open communication with their authors. Agents can be very busy, it is up to authors also to stay in touch with their agents.

Kimberly Kincaid said...

Spectacular post- thank you! As a writer, I'm a precarious place because I reallyreallyreally want an agent to like my stuff enough to rep it. The sad truth is that there are people out there who will take advantage of that. So thanks for the clear delineation of what is the norm and what is decidedly not.

Donna Gambale said...

Thanks for this! I've read a lot on the topic, but you covered things I hadn't seen before.

Keith Popely said...

You're an angel, Moonster.

Jill Myles said...

I think it's also interesting that some agents will encourage you to go back to your editor with minor, chatty things (they will handle the ugly stuff) and some...want to be the BE ALL END ALL GATEWAY. I've worked with both.

Christy Pinheiro, EA ABA said...

UGH! That agent story makes me glad I self-publish. Scary; but there's a lot of crooks in the world.

clindsay said...
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clindsay said...

I also think it's important to note a couple of things that your agent will expect from you:

* Respect boundaries, weekends and holidays unless otherwise agreed upon in advance (for example, if an auction is in play or if you live out of the country and it is necessary for your agent to contact you during non-working hours). You'd be surprised how often clients think it's okay to call on a Sunday night at 9:00 PM. Just because we often work from home does not mean that we don't keep regular business hours.

* Come to the agent/author relationship with a boatload of patience. Once we submit your projects out into the wild, the best thing you can do for you career is to a.) start another book, b.) take up a hobby. c.) take a vacation, d.) all of the above. Most agents will give you information when they HAVE information; this means you don't call/email/use semaphore to contact us every week to follow up on how the submission is going.

* A sense of discretion about what you blog/tweet about regarding your book sale or the agent's business. I once saw an author friend of mine post a photo of her signed book contract on her blog. I was horrified. Things that shouldn't be discussed on your blog: $$$ amount of advances (it serves no purpose and can frequently start pissing contests within the agency when another client with a similar book sees that s/he didn't get as much of an advance); anything IN the contract; the actual announcement of the book deal (don't post about this until your agent and your editor tell you it's okay to do so); and specifics about editorial rejections, including names of publishers and/or editors. And never, ever badmouth a publisher/editor on your blog. Just don't do it. It is unprofessional and damaging to your career.

* An understanding of the fiscal realities of publishing. This means understanding and owning the fact that you - not your agent - are responsible for your own taxes, accountant and/or bookkeeper. This also means accepting the fact that an agent's job is not to ensure that you make a living as a writer, but rather to sell your work and help guide your career. Making a actual living as a writer is a very hard thing to do and more often than not you will need to keep your day job, especially if you write fiction.

* Understanding that your agent is not: your editor, your therapist, your marriage counselor, your tax advisor, your best friend, your adversary, or your ATM machine.

I see may of my agent friends who have clients who don't understand the things I've highlighted above, and more often than not, it leads to problems with the author/agent relationship.

When you hear of authors who agent hop frequently, it is almost always as a result of the author not understanding one or more of the points above.

All that being said, GREAT POST as always, Moonrat!



(stupid typo in previous post!)

DebraLSchubert said...

Great post. I've just signed w/an agent who I adore. She has already given me some very insightful editorial notes. I'm going to send her the link to this post and tweet about it. ;-)

Simon Hay Soul Healer said...

Thanks for another great post.

Kate said...

Great information - as always!

Thanks also to Colleen for the agent perspective.

Bernita said...

Thank you, Moonmouse.

Make Money Fast said...
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