A is for Agent

by Steve Laube

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I thought it might be fun to write a series that addresses some of the basic terms that define our industry. The perfect place to start, of course, is the letter “A.” And even better to start with the word “Agent.”

If you are a writer, you’ve got it easy. When you say you are a writer your audience lights up because they know what that means. (Their perception is that you sit around all day thinking profound thoughts. And that you are rich.)

If you are an editor, you got it sort of easy. Your audience knows you work with words and all you do is sit around and read all day. In my editorial days I was often told, “I’d love to have your job.”

But tell someone you are an agent and there is a blink and a pause. If they don’t know the publishing industry they think “insurance agent” or “real estate agent” or “secret agent.” Or if they follow sports or entertainment they think “sleazy liar who makes deals and talks on the phone all day.” I resent people thinking that I talk on the phone all day. (Hah!)

Even at a writers conference I always have someone ask, “What is it that you do?”

Deal Maker

An agent works on commission. Fifteen percent of the money earned in a contract they have sold to a publisher on behalf of a writer. I will be bold to say that any prospective agent who asks you for money up front is someone you should stay away from.

This is the category that most people focus on when defining the role of the agent. But it is only one small facet of what we do. Two months ago I published a list of the activities our agency had recently done as a way to help dispel the myth that we are only deal makers. It is how we earn our living but only a small part of our work.

Don’t get me wrong. This is a crucial part of what we do. Our contract negotiations are critical to the long-term health of the publishing/author relationship. Last Fall I taught a course at a conference called “Landmines in Your Book Contract.” Each time I read from an “offending” contract there were gasps in the room. There is a good reason to have a professional review any book contract you are ready to sign.

Advice Columnist

I’m not referring to our blog but instead to our daily conversations (phone, email, face-to-face) we have with our clients. The industry can be confusing when you first begin exploring its nuances. There was a time in your writing life when you didn’t know the answers either. So back then, who did you ask for advice? But what about now after learning the basics? Now the questions are more complex and the stakes are getting higher.

I spend hours helping a client review their options. For example when B&H Fiction closed two weeks ago we had a number of clients affected. Each one needed to have a full understanding of the implications for their situation and what to do next.

For another client it was wondering how to best work with their particular editor, someone I’ve known for many years. Everything is smooth sailing because the writer asked the right person for advice.

Career Counselor

In another conversation last week an author and I discussed her plans for her next book proposal. When to complete the proposal itself and what should be in it this time around – three books? – six books? – one book?

With another client it was deciding whether or not to try and sell his next idea to a different publisher. Not necessarily because of dissatisfaction but because I had multiple editors ask about his work and we had been wondering if their enthusiasm would convert to stronger support at a different house.

The question of whether or not to self-publish an e-book or some variation of that issue is something  we often address. Each situation is unique so cookie-cutter answers are of little help to a particular author.

Idea Machine

I am not saying my ideas are good, only that I can have a lot of them.
Struggling with the title of your book? We could brainstorm a half dozen alternatives at least.
Stuck in your writing? I often have a client call and we talk through their book to the place where they are stuck and come up with new ideas to break through.
Too many ideas in your head? I ask my clients to send me a “brain dump” of various storylines or book ideas. I can help decide which ones to shelve and which ones to present to their publisher next time around.

Sometimes just talking it through brings clarity to the author. It might not be my idea that worked, it was simply having the conversation that stimulated  creativity. It is a lot of fun when that happens.

Friend

Let’s be careful with this one. By “friend” I mean someone who is much closer than a business acquaintance but not so close that we look forward to painting each other’s toenails. To use the cliche of culture, I’m not your BFF. But I can certainly be that person in your writing world with whom you can share deeply.

With some clients it is talking through a spiritual crisis. For others a relationship breakdown. It can be the need to have someone know their health problem, one they don’t want publicly known. And even those writers who are buried by self-doubt, they need to have someone they trust who can encourage them in the right way.

Some of these relationships do grow into wonderful friendships. But make sure you keep your boundaries well set and your expectations reasonable.

10 Commandments for Working with Your Agent

If you haven’t read this list of ten commandments please do so (Just click the link above). It is a fun way to look at the topic. It is one of our top ten most read blogs ever.

Your Turn

Does this article create new questions for you? If so, either ask them in the comments below or click the green button in the right column called “Ask Us a Question” and we will try to address it at some point.

24 Responses to A is for Agent

  1. Leslie May 20, 2013 at 3:32 am #

    Steve, you nearly gave me one of those “spitting on keyboard” moments with the painting toenails line. But now worries, I don’t paint my toenails (shh! don’t tell).

    I thought I knew a lot about literary agents, but you expanded my vision with this post. Thanks!

  2. Ron Estrada May 20, 2013 at 4:22 am #

    I’ve only painted toenails once, but that was in my Navy days and the guy was asleep. Note: you want to be far away when he wakes up. Now my question: I’ve been told that the unpublished writer should not write the second book in a series until the first is sold. So I’ve taken that advice and started another potential series (same genre-mystery). I’m in the process of finding an agent now. In my queries, should I mention the new book or discuss only the complete novel? Thanks for more great info, Steve.

  3. Debra L. Butterfield May 20, 2013 at 5:42 am #

    Steve, lucky the author who has you for an agent! I always get so much out of your posts. My biggest dilemma is knowing whether to find an agent or not. At what point in a project should I make a decision to hire an agent or go it alone?

    • Steve Laube May 20, 2013 at 1:05 pm #

      Debra,
      The answer lies with each writer. A generic bit of advice would be unhelpful other than to say “when you are ready.”

      Some authors do fine without an agent. Others may go it alone for a while but then realize they prefer to have the professional counsel with them at all times (I have a number of clients who followed this path.)

      The danger is thinking your work is great and sending it out to editors and agents when in reality it needs a lot of work first.

      Attend conferences, read books on writing, get into a critique group, hire a book coach…all are ways to improve your craft so that it IS great and lands on a desk with a bang instead of a whimper.

  4. Thomas Allbaugh May 20, 2013 at 6:47 am #

    This is a helpful post, once again. And I have been convinced for a long time that this is how a good agent-author relationship should work, especially with events occurring like the shutting down of the B&H fiction line. But it does strike me that some of these very helpful “services”– brainstorming titles, talking through places where a writer is stuck with a project, and sorting through and selecting new book ideas to pitch to publishers–could all be performed by a really good writer’s critique group.

    • Steve Laube May 20, 2013 at 1:09 pm #

      Thomas,

      Marci answered this below better than I would. Realize that my blog post is an overview not a comprehensive list of everything we do. Click through to “Are Agents a Dying Breed” http://www.stevelaube.com/agents-a-dying-breed/ for a sample of our to-do list.

      Yes, a great critique group can do many of the same things. And a lot of our clients avail themselves of that type of community. But the agent tends to have a better handle on the entire industry and what has been working lately.

  5. Meghan Carver May 20, 2013 at 8:52 am #

    So much good information here, Steve. Sounds like a mutually satisfying relationship. (Especially since I won’t have to paint your toenails!) Thanks for your time and efforts.

  6. Marci Seither May 20, 2013 at 9:00 am #

    Thomas, I totally agree that many of the services can be done by a good critique team, but then again, I “could” have my 13 year old rotate my tires. There is a big difference between “could” and “should”. A good agent understands the behind the scenes publishing industry beyond what many authors understand. A great agent helps to bridge the gap between brainstorming and effective brainstorming so that the writer can spend less time spinning their wheels and more time perfecting their craft and writing.
    Thanks for the post.. I have painted my toenails since I was a teenager so I have that covered!

  7. Pat Jaeger May 20, 2013 at 9:16 am #

    Thanks for the information, Steve. It’s really helpful to know what’s being done for your clients. I’d rather be a writer! lol

  8. Pat Jaeger May 20, 2013 at 9:20 am #

    Oops! I wanted to ask along with Ron Estrada, about series. I have one novel finished in a series of three, and possibly four novels, but already started the second novel. Should we be writing other stories instead? Thanks again for the post.

  9. Judith Robl May 20, 2013 at 9:25 am #

    Steve, thank you for the insight into the parameters of your vocation. And thank you for the small typo:

    Idea Machine

    I am not say(ing) my ideas were good…

    It comforts me to know that even the best in the business are not totally perfect. You are on my short list of “agents I’d like to have” when I’m ready. (Just a warning… [wink] – and I won’t have toenail polish ready for either of us.) :-)

  10. Marci Seither May 20, 2013 at 10:04 am #

    A is for Agent… but for authors A can also be for Anxiety.
    What makes an author desirable or undesirable for an agent to represent? Is it like a credit score, where certain dings on your history can make it difficult to find an agent and if so, what are some of the positive things an author can do to improve their standing?

  11. Jeanne Takenaka May 20, 2013 at 10:08 am #

    Great post today, Steve. I love your humor but also your down-to-earth descriptions of an agent’s role. I love that you see one of your strengths as an idea generator and also as a friend for a writer as s/he figures out the industry and how to work through all the aspects of it (professional, personal, mental, etc).

    I’m a little disappointed about the not polishing toe nails part though. ;) Just kidding.

  12. Evan Moffic May 20, 2013 at 10:42 am #

    This is a great list, and every aspiring writer should read it. It helps us understand the process of writing and team effort that makes success possible.

  13. Pat Lee May 20, 2013 at 11:34 am #

    Fun read. But as for painting our toenails, we probably couldn’t agree on the color. Thanks for some great insights.

  14. Rick Barry May 20, 2013 at 12:38 pm #

    Steve, based on your experience, is it possible to determine how many clients are too many for one individual agent? Even as I type, I realize some clients will pen a book a year, while others will churn them out much faster. But how does an agent know when when to stop offering representation? Do you reach a cutoff point?

  15. Ellie Kay May 20, 2013 at 4:07 pm #

    A is for “Bad Agent Jokes”

    Two agents walk into a coffee bar. Pretty soon, an author walk by. One agent looks at the other,
    “There’s another one of those people who take 85% of what we make.”

    ******

    An agent is simply a fallen editor

    ******

    If you want an agent of change, then change agents.

    *****

    How do you get released from your contract with your agent?
    answer: Tell bad agent jokes on his blog

    • Steve Laube May 20, 2013 at 4:12 pm #

      You shall pay for this.
      Oh wait. You already do.

  16. Peter DeHaan May 20, 2013 at 5:17 pm #

    A is also for awesome. I think the two words go together.

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