Hear me out on this one before you assume I’m just trying to take advantage of any first-time authors who might be reading this blog…
First of all, my opinions are all based on the computer book business. Your “mileage will vary” if you’re looking for agency information on a novel you’re writing. In fact, you’ll undoubtedly find there are some areas of book publishing where you’ll never get anywhere without an agent. Computer book publishing isn’t one of them.
Before you agree to work with an agent, you need to ask yourself (and the agent) a few questions:
- What exactly is the agent going to do for me?
- Is it something I could do myself, without having to pay them a portion of my royalties?
- What sort of reputation does this agency have in the industry? Do editors/publishers enjoy working with this agent?
Here’s the big reason why I’m so disappointed with this part of the (computer book) publishing equation: I see so many things an agent could do to help the author and the editor, but they generally don’t. That’s pretty harsh, I know, and I’m sure any agents reading this will chastise me. But there are just too many projects where the agent is acting like nothing more than a middleman, taking his/her percentage and moving on. Sure, they might negotiate some language changes in a contract, but how does this affect the author’s bottom line? I guarantee you that there’s no correlation between an author’s royalty rate and whether or not they’re represented by an agent, at least not in the list my group publishes.
If you’re going to work with an agent, make sure they’re earning their cut of your royalties. For example, I strongly believe an agent should take a very active role in developing the proposal and the outline with the author. I’m not talking about a simple quick review of what the author submits – I mean the agent should roll up their sleeves and join forces with the author to help craft the book’s vision. The agent should also be there to help the author through bouts of writer’s block and other authoring ailments. Many of the agents in the computer book industry used to be editors or authors themselves. They’ve got the knowledge to do this. You’re paying for their services and you’ve got a right to ask for and expect their help.
As you would do with any other type of purchase or investment, be sure to research agent/agency candidates. This includes asking them for references, which should consist of authors and editors/publishers. Use this as an opportunity to see (a) how many references they’ll provide and (b) the quality of those references. Ask those references how happy they are with that agent and their agency. What do they like/dislike about them? Btw, the agent might be reluctant to provide references from the editor/publisher side. That would be a red flag in my book. Any reputable agent should be close enough to their editor/publisher partners to trust them with this sort of discussion.
The bottom line: I wouldn’t ask an agent to do anything more than what I’d expect the editor/publisher to do. By the same token, I also don’t think an author should accept any less than that!
Are there any agents listening in? If so, please give us your point of view.