What It Means To Be A Writer, Part 3 => Using an Agent

August 29, 2012
This entry is part 3 of 6 in the series What It Means To Be A Writer

What agents do, and whether or not you need one, is an important topic for any professional writer. If you only think you have one book idea in you, you probably don’t need an agent. But if you hope to do more writing, let alone attempt a career partially based on writing, then you have a decision to make. In this post, I’ll provide some information as to what an agent does. Understanding the role of the agent should help you make the decision, should you be in that situation.

For a sense of perspective, I’ll say that I did have an agent (who shall remain nameless) for maybe about two years. I signed with an agent after I had already written three books, and my agent represented me on two titles. After that, I ended the formal representation, although I’ve had many conversations with the agent since that time. So, in short: I used an agent but am not currently using one, nor would I expect to in the future.

The three biggest assets that agents provide are:

  • They aren’t you.
  • They have direct communications with the key people at the various publishers.
  • They know how to negotiate contracts.

Let’s look at these in detail.

An Agent Isn’t the Writer

This fact is obvious, but why is it an asset? For two reasons:

  • The agent can be the bad guy.
  • The agent can protect you from the publisher.

When you’re represented by an agent, the publisher will deal with the agent for all things not directly related to the writing process. This includes, most importantly, the contract negotiations, but also making sure you’re being treated properly by the publisher in any regard. Rather than you having to go to the publisher and complain, your agent can complain for you. Similarly, the agent can protect you from the publisher. If you’re behind schedule on a book and the publisher is thinking about firing you, the agent can step in and calm the publisher down (in theory).

An Agent Knows People

This is the biggest strength of an agent, in my mind. One of the hardest things about getting published is getting your ideas to the right people at a publishing house (i.e., the people that can make decisions). A good agent has relationships with the key people at all the publishers. The agent can call or email those people, discuss your ideas, get feedback, and so forth. Moreover, publishers are frequently telling agents what books or topics they’re looking for so that the agents can bring those to the writers they represent.

In short, an agent is an open conduit to the publishing pipeline.

In my situation, my agent had heard from Wiley that they were looking for a “Mac Timesaving Techniques for Dummies” book. I was then able to create a proposal explicitly for that book, which I eventually did get and write (two editions of). On the other hand, my agent had earlier known that O’Reilly was looking for a similar Mac tricks-like book and I proposed a similar book to them. And O’Reilly just sat on the proposal, never making a decision.

So the fact that the agent directly talks to people at the publisher does eliminate a hurdle, but it doesn’t mean that anything more is guaranteed.

An Agent Knows Contracts

If you have a book offer, whether one you got for yourself or one an agent got for you, the agent will negotiate the terms of the contract. To me, this isn’t as important as many might think. I’ll discuss contracts in a separate post, but let me briefly explain my reasoning here.

First of all, you need to understand that everything in a contract is negotiable, whether you are negotiating or the agent is. Know that “negotiable” just means you can ask for it; it doesn’t mean the publisher will change the deal. Second, a publisher won’t give an agent any better deal than they’d give you directly. Publishers know what they can afford to offer on a particular book (given the expected sales and price of that book), down to the penny. A publisher won’t give you more than they can afford for that book. Period. Third, in my experience, agents will make a big deal about getting changes that I would consider to be minor, such as an $11,000 (USD) advance instead of a $10,000 advance. (Not that $1,000 is insignificant, just that if you only ever make the advance, the book didn’t do that well; the royalty rate should be far more important).

The main advantage that the agent has here is they know what they can reasonably expect to get and you probably don’t. You may also feel uncomfortable in negotiating, particularly when you’re just so happy to get the book contract in the first place. Again, I’ll cover some details about contracts in another post.

The Agent’s Cut

For the agent’s efforts, they get 15%. This, as far as I know, is non-negotiable and is off the top. If the publisher agrees to an advance of $10,000, then $1,500 goes to the agent and $8,500 to you. When royalties come in: same split. And after an agent has represented you on a project, she or he represents you on all future editions of that work and derivatives (e.g., videos and translations).

If the agent is getting you work, that extra work you’re getting, as well as the time you’re not spending doing all the negotiating and such, should, in theory, make up for the agent’s cut. That’s the theory. You’ve really got to be comfortable with the role of the agent, what the agent is doing for, and the relationship you have with your specific agent, because that 15% is there forever and can really grind on you (I practice not thinking about it; it’s hard).

Why Use an Agent?

There are two historical arguments for using an agent:

  • You’ll get more work.
  • You’ll spend more of your time writing and less time doing the other stuff (such as hunting for work and negotiating contracts).

Whether or not these will apply in your situation is something only you can decide (e.g., do you need more work? do you want the work to come to you?).

A common third, but relatively new, argument for using an agent is to get into new avenues, such as online video instruction and self-publishing. In fact, many agents are working the self-publishing angle as viable reason to use an agent.

How Do You Get an Agent?

For technical books, the two biggest names are StudioB and Waterside. I’ve actually had interactions with both, and been represented by one. If you want an agent, both agencies have plenty of information and instructions on their Web sites. Both also have a fair amount of author resources on their site, should you want to do more research.

Why I Don’t Have an Agent

As I stated in the introduction to the post, I had an agent for a couple of years, but don’t any longer. Why?

First, I have a great relationship with my primary publisher, Peachpit Press. I have a direct contact to discuss new books with, I trust them when it comes to negotiating contracts, and, generally speaking, the agent was just in the way of a good, professional relationship that I have with Peachpit.

Second, I get enough work as is. I’m very fortunate here, but I can keep doing as many books (and articles) as I want through Peachpit for as long as I want to, I expect. Because I’m an experienced writer, I also do get other publishers contacting me directly.

The short answer for why I don’t have an agent is that I was fortunate enough to build up a decent start to a writing career before I had an agent, and so the agent wasn’t able to help me grow that much. If an agent could help me make more money doing less work, that’d be fantastic, but as I said, there are pretty hard caps already in place for what you can earn to write. (There are no caps on ancillary opportunities, such as public speaking, but the agent won’t represent you on those.)

Also, I’ll be honest: the loss of that 15% really bothers me. But I try not to think about it…

Let me know if you have any questions or comments that you’d like to share on this topic! Next up, I believe, will be a post on contracts.