I disagree (in part)

October 1st, 2008 • Kate

So I came across the following article in my Google Reader, from the Editors of the Children’s Book Insider (where a special Ask Daphne! column appears quarterly!). Anyway, the article asks “Do You Need a Literary Agent?” And it raises a number of good points, as well as making a few statements I disagree with, so I thought I’d go over a few of those.

Before we begin, one important point: if your work is not salable, no agent — even the world’s best agent — can sell it. The time to start thinking about agents is when you feel you’ve invested enough time and effort in your work to truly call it professional.

Totally true, but worth restating. Then, after discussing how agents get paid through commission, the article states:

The client is responsible, however, for any expenses — postage, photocopying, long distance phone calls — generated on his or her behalf. Agents bill their clients periodically or subtract the expenses from an author’s advance and royalty payments.

This is not wholly true, and many agents now won’t charge for any expenses (I don’t), considering the cost of postage and such part of their everyday work expenses. Especially considering how much work is done via email, the idea of charging a client back for expenses is seen as a bit dated.
Another point I disagree with:

Only after an agent agrees to represent you will he or she help correct flaws and improve your work.

I’ve said this a number of times, as have other agents — we will frequently discuss a manuscript with an author and offer suggestions for revisions BEFORE signing them as a client. Seeing an author’s ability to work through an editorial letter or make changes to a manuscript is something that can make or break an agent/client relationship, and so we often like to undertake it before a retainer is signed.
And then there’s this:

MYTH: You will make more money – and faster – using an agent.
REALITY: Strike one against that myth is the fact that an agent will take 15% off the top of anything you earn. Strike two is that editors really don’t have a prejudice against unrepresented authors.

It goes on with Strike Three, but I’m afraid I’m going to have to come down on the side of the myth in this one. Yes, sure, you can find authors who’ll disagree with me, or can state concrete examples of unagented authors making buckets more money than they did with an agent, but IN GENERAL, I do think you can make more money with an agent than without. First of all, we’re only taking 15% off a sale. If you can’t get a sale because most major publishing houses WON’T work with unagented authors, that 15% starts to look like small potatoes. It’s not a prejudice (to debate Strike Two) as much as it is corporate policy. So if most publishers aren’t looking at unagented material, that deal you can get with an agent, even minus her 15%, is going to be a heck of a lot more than nothing. To put it another way: 85% of a deal is always going to be more than 100% of no deal.
A final response to the article:

So now, back to the question: Should you hire an agent?

I say, if you can, yes. If they want you. If you can’t interest an agent, who nowadays is often the first gatekeeper in the publishing industry, how are you going to get to an editor?
The whole article is worth reading, not just my comments, but I can’t help but feel like it was written twenty years ago and is just being reprinted. Your thoughts?

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7 Responses to “I disagree (in part)”

  1. Jon from Write4Kids Says:

    Hi Kate!
    Thanks for your comments — they're very useful.
    Actually, the article is a couple of years old, but we've been getting a lot of questions recently about agents, so I thought it would be a good time to reprise it.
    I'll do this — I'll have Laura take another look at it, along with your comments, and see if things have changed to the point where it needs a "version 2.0". My guess — version 2.0 is all but a guarantee, and our readers will have you to thank for it.

  2. Kate Says:

    Glad to hear it, Jon! I'll look forward ro reading the revised 2.0 version.

  3. Kiersten Says:

    All good points, Kate. At a writing conference I went to, when asked about agents a Delacorte editor laughed and said, "Actually, yeah, I'd prefer you didn't have an agent, because it means we'll be able to pay you a lot less!" Of course, she didn't look at unagented manuscripts, anyway!

  4. Tracy Says:

    Good points! It actually prompted a post of my own on the benefits of a literary agent.

  5. Tracey S. Rosenberg Says:

    Another point about the 15% thing – I assume (and I don't think I'm being naive here, though I am unagented) that an agent will negotiate the best possible deal for an author, and that this is quite likely to be more than the author can get by themselves. If an unagented author could get (say) 10K, and the agented author could get 15K, the agented author is making more money than the unagented author even though there's 15% being taken off the top.
    Which means that 85% of that deal is worth more than the 100% of the other deal.
    I'll take it! 🙂

  6. Sarah Laurenson Says:

    I have an editor interested in the manuscript I'm working on. When it comes time to submit it, I'm going to look for an agent as well. I'm happy to pay a good agent 15% so that I can spend my time writing and not trying to learn the business parts I don't know. Plus that agent may know more editors who might be interested.
    I guess I look at it as paying the expert. I can clean my house or change the oil in my car, but why waste my time doing that when I can pay someone to do it for me?

  7. lotusloquax Says:

    I sure appreciate you clarifying the current trends.