Looking for an Agent: Progress Report

I’ve had a number of emails on the agent question, some from folks wondering how the search is going, wishing me luck or offering advice, and others wondering what on earth it is agents do anyway.

Thanks for the advice and agent suggestions and all the good wishes. Much appreciated. Here’s the answer to the two questions:

1) How’s the search going?

Not too foul. Nice lunches have been consumed, meetings have been held, there has been much talk of the future, of our careers, where we want to be headed and how best to get there. I’m starting to get a little weary of saying the same things over and over (Make me a star! Give me a career like Philip Pullman’s!). But fortunately the agents we’ve been meeting have been less tedious. Each one has been different and not one of them has been even a tiny bit creepy. I don’t know about you, but I’ve long been brainwashed by Hollywood into thinking all agents are unscrupulous and evil. Though, come to think of it, those were mostly Hollywood agents.

None of the seven agents we’ve met have done anything to get themselves crossed off the list: they’re all smart, interesting and fun to hang out with. I’m hoping I get to stay friends with the ones I don’t choose. (I wonder what the etiquette on that is? Christopher?) Every single one of them has met all eight items on my list. They all take the same percentage, offer the same services, go to the same important book fairs around the world. The more agents I meet the harder making a decision becomes. So I’ve decided that I’ll go with the agent who loves my adult novel (an historical set in twelfth century Cambodia) and my young adult books. That should narrow down the field some!

2) What on earth does an agent do to earn that fifteen per cent?

They act as a bulwark between you and your publisher. I negotiated my contract with Penguin/Razorbill myself, which was really awkward because Eloise Flood, Razorbill’s publisher, is a good friend. I don’t ever want to be in the position of bargaining with a friend again. An agent won’t be embarrassed about asking for more money, or to keep control of the movie rights, or the foreign rights, or whatever it is you want.

And your agent should know to ask for stuff you didn’t even realise you wanted. Agents have been negotiating with editors for longer than you. They know what scary clauses in a contract have to be crossed out. They know which publishers will do what for which writers and thus how to get you a better deal. Hell, agents understand contracts which already puts them a long way ahead of me. My eyes glaze over before I’ve hit the end of page one. (In my defence: contract pages are really long.)

A good agent knows which editors are actively hunting for which kind of books. They know who’d be right for you at all the major houses and most of the boutiquey, hip ones too. It’s their job to know all this. It’s a lot harder for a writer to be up on all that stuff, thus unagented books typically don’t get seen by as many editors and don’t get as good a deal.

If your publisher does something you’re unhappy with a good agent can fix it for you, or at least find out what’s going on and smooth things over. Just having someone run interference can be worth the 15% alone. Sometimes your publisher want to change the terms of the contract by, say, cutting one book into two, or publishing a book in paperback when they’d said it was going to be hardcover (neither of which has happened to me). That’s when you need to have someone who’s got your back to talk to, figure out how best to handle it, and then, best of all, go handle it for you.

Not only do agents understand contracts, they also understand royalty statements, which have to be the most incomprehensible things I’ve ever struggled and failed to understand. Trust me, I’ve really really tried, because your royalty statement is the statement that tells you how well your book is doing. They’re important! A good agent can spot when they don’t make sense, figure out what happened, and extract the outstanding money from your publisher. Useful, eh?

They also take you out to lunch at yummy restaurants and gossip with you. Yeah, yeah, I have friends I do that with too, but a) they don’t pay, and b) they’re not your agent so it’s not nearly as cool. "La, la, la, here I am at this fancy pants restaurant with my fancy pants agent. Look at me!"

To sum up: having an agent is all about looking cool.

New York City, 23 May 2005