Mark Le Fanu, General Secretary of the Society of Authors, explains when it is necessary for an author to have an agent.
Most of the queries that pour into our office concern publishers and their ways.
We advise on the terms they offer and on a myriad of issues to do with the exciting (and sometimes bruising) experience of being published. This rich diet is supplemented at least once a day by a member or an aspiring author saying ‘I think I need an agent. Who do you recommend?’
New authors often seem to take it for granted that all good writers have agents; that it’s impossible to get anywhere without one; and that they are bound to be interested in any book that is well written and original.
As experienced writers will know, none of these assumptions is entirely accurate.
Most professional authors are represented by agents who provide an important and valuable service. Indeed, most full-time writers could not manage without an agent to look after all their business affairs. However, the fact remains that agents usually handle fiction, general non-fiction and children’s books – broadly described as ‘trade books’ – and rarely stray outside these areas.
Agents and advances
Agents take great pleasure in extracting advances – as juicy as possible – from the big trade publishers like HarperCollins and Penguin, removing 10–15 per cent before passing the rest on to the author. When handling media deals, such as film proposals, an agent or other expert (e.g. a lawyer) is crucial.
While trade book writers have agents as outriders, if you write educational, academic, medical, scientific, technical or legal books ( to select a few categories), you will be extremely lucky to secure the services of an agent. Ninety-five per cent of them just won’t want to know. You'd be better off directly submitting your work to publishers, as per the guidelines on their website.
Poetry, short stories or memoirs? Unlikely unless you are already a household name, preferably with a wild reputation.
The vast majority of authors working in these areas should not waste time approaching agents and then agonising over rejections. Luckily, most publishers are well used to dealing direct with authors who manage their own business affairs. Specialist non-fiction proposals can sell themselves to a prospective publisher in a way that won’t work with fiction.
Help with publishing and media contracts
The Society of Authors can help its members by scrutinising publishing and media contracts in detail (without extra charge) and suggesting realistic improvements. The Society’s Quick Guide to Publishing Contracts (free to members) gives advice on the areas that should be checked most carefully. Even though publishers may like to give the impression that their contracts, hallowed by years of experience and revered for their fairness, should simply be signed with gratitude, negotiation is invariably in order. Firm but reasonable bargaining, informed by knowledge of what is achievable, undoubtedly pays off.
A few of the major trade publishers – shame on them – will only accept submissions from agents. Yet agents are highly selective and cautious about taking on new clients and the agents most in demand will only take on a few new clients each year. Agents need to be convinced that the writer has long-term commercial potential, with tempting commission prospects for the agency, and that the personal chemistry will work.
Ironically, while the conglomerate publishers have saved money by ‘releasing’ editors and readers of the ‘slush pile’, they have thereby increased the negotiating power of agents, who can now extract much larger advances for lead titles than in the past.
The concentration of publishing and bookselling into the hands of the big groups has had a huge impact on the nature of the services provided by agents. When publishers operated independently, nurturing ‘their’ authors and cultivating their loyalty, the agent did the deal and left writer and editor to work closely together, settling any differences over the customary three-hour lunch.
A tiger and a pussy cat
Now that publishing is more frenetic and publishers communicate less with authors, agents are becoming much more involved in giving guidance and advice to their clients. Even so, the duties of an agent remain poorly defined. Some are good at beating up publishers, others are better at ‘author care’. A good agent is both: a tiger in the presence of publishers, a pussy cat with clients.
How does one choose such a creature? Short of checking their pedigree (one parent a well-read diplomat and the other a second-hand car dealer being ideal), the clues – other than membership of the Association of Authors’ Agents – are elusive. Unlike publishers, agents tend to be generalists, rather than specialists. Part of our job at the Society of Authors is to observe the species and help authors with their agent-spotting. Every week, we take calls from members who want to change agents.
One author told me that his existing agent was like ‘having a first class ticket… on the Titanic’. But that’s another story.
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