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Agents: Do You Need One?

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.

Comments

Jeremy C. Wright

Nothing like oversimplifying the equation.

If you get more value having an agent, with less time in, than you would have otherwise it's an obvious "yes" type of equation.

Finding the right agent (which I, very thankfully, did), getting in with the right agent (even harder than finding the right one, since the best only take a handful of new authors) and signing a deal are all huge.

While I could have, theoretically, gotten to the point I'm at today without one, I couldn't have gone (realistically) from concept to shelf in one year. It would have taken longer, I probably wouldn't have had the same quality of offers, and I likely would have simply given up - as far too many first time authors do.

I agree with everything else you said, except for how to decide if you need an agent. Then again, you obviously have more experience than I do, and my opinion is based purely on the fantastic experience I've had with my agent.

David Rogelberg

Joe, congratulations on setting up your blog. You're off to a great start, however I think your thoughts on agents seem more like a pot shot than an honest article. If you're interested in having a serious debate on the value of an agent, I'm happy to do it.

Joe Wikert

Hi David. Sorry that you consider my point of view nothing more than a pot shot. I'm just stating my opinion, which is based not only on my experience on the publishing side but also the authoring side. (I worked through an agent on the first few titles I authored towards the beginning of my career.)

I have no doubt there are exceptions to the rule, and Jeremy's post above confirms this. I hope other authors and agents will chime in as well -- it might create a nice summary of pro's and con's for anyone who's interested in the topic.

Btw, I think the questions I presented in the original post are perfectly reasonable things to ask an agent.

David Rogelberg

Joe, I don’t have a problem with your questions. I think it makes sense to ask good questions whenever you enter into a relationship. My issue is with your conclusions, which I don’t feel are fair, nor based on reality.

As you know, I’ve held your very same job at Macmillan and have also founded what is now the largest literary agency for Trade Computer Book authors, so I too have worked on both sides of the fence. When it comes to making a contribution to the industry, roughly 20% of all the books on the Amazon.com top 100 computer books are represented by Studio B. In addition, we sell approximately 700 projects a year. In short, I have a fairly broad perspective on this subject.

Before I address your points, I’ve created a short summary of your observations about agents from your post:

1)Agents can help authors in many ways, but generally don’t.
2)Agents are nothing more than middlemen, who “take” a commission and “move on.”
3)Contract language changes don’t affect the bottom line.
4)There’s no correlation between royalty rates between represented and unrepresented authors.
5)Agents should take an active role in developing the proposal and outline.
6)The agent should manage the author’s bouts of writer’s block and authoring ailments, and authors have a right to demand the help agents are sure to deny authors.
7)Authors should get references from publishers because an agent’s job is to make the publisher’s life easier.
8)Agents are reluctant to provide references.
9)Agents should do what the editor/publisher do.

If these are your conclusions, and I haven’t misstated them, I’ll happily address each and every one of them. If you want to clarify before we get started, please do.

Joe Wikert

Dave, here are my thoughts on each of the points you listed:

1) Yes, unfortunately this summarizes far too many projects I’ve seen over the years. A good example is when an author can’t write the entire manuscript. Many times the author is left struggling and the editor has to dig in to help find co-authoring help.
2) See reply #1 above.
3) Be careful on this one. What I actually asked was “how does this affect the author’s bottom line?” If the author is giving the agent a 15% commission, is that amount being more than made up by any adjustments the agent is able to negotiate in the agreement? Further, as I also stated in my original post, there is no correlation between an author’s royalty rate and whether or not an agent represents them, at least not in the list my group publishes. Maybe there are publishers out there where agented authors are indeed making more than non-agented ones – that’s not the case with my program.
4) See reply #3 above.
5) Yes, I definitely feel agents need to take a more active role in developing the proposal/outline. I’m sure you can cite cases where that happens, and that’s wonderful. But it definitely doesn’t happen enough.
6) Absolutely. Again, see reply #1 above.
7) Hmmm…I don’t see where I’ve made the case that an “agent’s job is to make the publisher’s life easier.” This post was really about the author, not the publisher. I don’t expect an agent to make my life easier. After all, the author is paying the agency’s tab, not the publisher. I’m just trying to give some pointers to authors who are looking at this business and wondering whether they need an agent, what questions to ask an agent, etc. Can you clarify this one and where you’re getting this interpretation?
8) Yes, I did indeed say the agent might be reluctant to provide editor/publisher references, but not that the agent would be reluctant to provide any references (as your note suggests).
9) You’re twisting my words here. I didn’t say “agents should do what the editor/publisher does”. What I said was that I wouldn’t ask an agent to do anything more than what I’d expect the editor/publisher to do. If we take your interpretation literally, you make it sound as though I’m suggesting the agent and editor/publisher should do the same exact tasks, which would be silly. If you re-read my post I think you’ll see that I was trying to stress that both parties should be held to the same standards, not do the same tasks.

Jim Minatel

It's also fair to point out that Jeremy's book and situation are highly unique and outside the usual "computer trade" book market we work in. I have no doubt that in Jeremy's case, go with an agent was the right move.

I'll tell you what would really be great, is if there are some literary agents lurking reading this thread who normally deal mostly with authors outside the computer trade market, they were to jump in and post some comments with opinions. I'd love to know if the author-agent-publisher relationship is different in the broader publishing world than what we have all come to expect from each other in this segment.

Jeremy C. Wright

Agreed, my case is unique. But I'm extremely happy mainly because my agent (a Studio B agent by the way) is very, very passionate about me, the projects I'm working on and the future.

It's great to see someone who can both help me focus and help me expand the horizons of what's possible.

Also, in case I haven't said this before, I love the fact that this blog exists. I'll be starting my "book blog" as soon as my final title is settled on, and I'm sure I'll be referencing posts here as part of this.

Michael Miller

I'm somewhat unique in that I'm an author who used to be a publisher. While agents are mandatory in other parts of the publishing agency, I agree with Joe that they are in most cases unnecessary in computer book publishing.

From an author's standpoint, I simply don't see the added value; c-book publishers and editors take submissions direct from authors, and a middleman doesn't add anything to this equation. (Actually, it subtracts a percentage for the author.) Computer publishing editors are easy to find and easy to contact; you don't need an agent to navigate the playing field. And c-book contracts are somewhat standard, so there's not really that much extra negotiating they can do for you -- certainly not enough to earn their keep. Again, if c-book publishing operated like New York literary fiction publishing, it would be a different story, but it doesn't and it's not.

From the publisher's perspective, in my 12 years on that side of the table I only saw a handful of cases where an agent helped the process. In most instances the editor develops a personal relationship with a pool of authors, and the agent doesn't do much more than get in the way. (Sorry to offend any agents reading this.) There was the rare instance where an agent was able to help "manage" a non-performing author, but more often than not the agent couldn't offer much assistance in this type of situation. Again, not much value added, just another body to deal with when negotiating the contract.

I suppose a brand-new author in the field might be able to gain some entry to publishers by using an established agent, although by the second book that benefit is diminished. And, again, c-book editors are easy to contact, and I've found they do a good job of sorting through and evaluating proposals from old and new authors alike. (I don't always like how they sort, but that's human nature.) And I also suppose that a decent agent can help a lazy or overworked editor find writing talent for books under deadline -- although any editor with a good Rolodex should be able to do this on his own.

I think the best measure of an agent's value in any part of the publishing biz is how many of them there are, and how many authors use them. In NY publishing, there are hundreds of agents and virtually all authors avail themselves of their services. In c-book publishing, there are less than a handful of agents, and a relative few number of authors who use them. The vast majority of c-books are signed sans agent.

Again, sorry to offend David R. or any other agents reading this, but I'm just relating what I've found on both sides of the publisher/author table. I suppose I'd change my mind if I found an agent who (a) brought me projects I wouldn't have gotten otherwise or (b) was able to negotiate a significantly more attract contract (i.e., at least 20% higher advance and royalty rate -- more than enough to cover the agent's fees). But that hasn't happened yet, so what does that mean?

Of course, all this is just my opinion... reasonable minds may disagree.

David Rogelberg

First, Jeremy’s case is not unique. Studio B’s agents always work hard for their authors, and we focus on the right activities to benefit our authors at every stage in their careers. Second, we’ve had 10 years of steady growth, and I predict that the percentage of represented books will continue to increase in computer book publishing. In fact, with at least 10 new author inquiries a day, I’m working hard to hire people I believe can become great agents. Third, we’re growing specifically because our authors are seeing a return on their investment in excess of the cost, and that’s why they’re staying with us.

With that said, I’m not surprised that some publishers don’t see the value in agents. An agent’s job is to make their authors look good, create opportunities, provide options, negotiate the best deals, offer experience based guidance and provide a safety net for when things go wrong. In fact, if the agent is really doing a masterful job, the added value should be largely transparent to the publisher. It’s quite possible that from a publisher’s point of view that it appears that the agent has negotiated a few contract points and just “moved on”, but that’s not the case. In fact, it’s probably quite the opposite.

First, we believe an ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure, and much of our work takes place before a book is placed with a publisher. At Studio B, by helping our authors get started with just the right editors and publishers for their projects, we greatly reduce the chances for problems. For example, at Studio B, we wouldn’t team up an author who prefers a light edit with an editor who likes to rewrite everything because that would be a disaster in the making. But even when problems do come up, we try to get our authors the assistance they need before editors ever find out there was a problem.

Think about it. Does it really make sense that every time an agent adds value that he should call the editor to toot his own horn? If we’re presenting a proposal, does it make sense for a Studio B agent to talk about the agency’s contribution to developing the idea and proposal? If an agent helps an author remove a writing problem, does it make sense for the agent to call and let the editor know there was a problem that’s now solved? If an author looks like they’re going to run late, and we can find someone to help them so they can make their dates, does it make any sense to tell the editor? Absolutely not! After a contract is signed, the agent’s role is to make sure that the author comes through and that the publisher thinks more highly of the author for the next book, so that the author’s success can be rewarded. So, if you as a publisher have signed a represented author and the project runs smoothly (and you don’t hear from the agent), it could very well mean that the agent is doing a *super* job. And when the agent negotiates the next contract for that very same author, and asks for a better deal because everything went so smoothly on the first book, it might just be due to some of the agent’s hard work.

Kathy Sierra

In my case, I didn't think to ask Studio B for references, because so many other successful and visible authors were recommending them. I kept seeing David or Neil's name showing up in the acknowledgements page of books, and when I attended conferences with other authors, I'd hear good things. But I heard plenty of negative things, too. However, I noticed that the *most* successful authors were usually the ones with glowing agency reviews, while the *least* successful authors were the ones complaining about how the agent did nothing.
In some cases, it appeared that the unsuccessful ones wanted the agent to work miracles. One author was upset that a Studio B agent "had the audacity to tell me I should upgrade my technical skills if I wanted to become more marketable." She saw that as the agent's excuse for why she wasn't getting work.
I believe that it's a two-way street, and that the more *you* contribute to the author-agent relationship, the more you'll get *back*. The authors who want the agent to do all the work isn't likely to *get* as much help. But we've found that when you (the author) are enthusiastically, energetically trying to improve your skills and potential, and actively trying to bring new ideas to the mix, the agency can become a valuable part of that team.
I can see why it will always be a somewhat tense relationship between author, agent, and publisher, but I cannot believe how much of David's creative brainpower has affected what we do now.
That said (and though David would probably argue this one), I still don't personally see a need for many new computer book authors to get an agent unless they're unable to get any book deal at all... as long as they're willing to do the work of learning about book contracts. The very first (and unagented) book contract we signed was FULL of horrible things we knew nothing about, and we couldn't afford an attorney at that point. Other authors laughingly referred to it as the, "bend over and take it first timer contract". They pretty much all agreed that an author with an agent would simply have never *seen* that version of the contract, since the publishers know that an agent would have taken the most offensive clauses out immediately (this was not a Wiley or O'Reilly contract ). But if we'd done a little research, we could have had those removed ourselves, without an agent. By our second contract, and without an agent, we knew better.
We were on our fourth book before we really started getting serious about finding an agent, and that was motivated solely by contract negotiations that simply became too complex. We found ourselves spending too much time on contract issues, when we *should* be spending virtually all of our time working on books. I'll admit that it was distressing for us to see that our publisher was unhappy with our decision to get an agent, since we value our relationship with the publisher more than anything else. But we did keep in mind that a huge chunk of other book deals with that publisher were being represented by the same agency, including some by the publisher's own editors!
But we got SO much more than we ever expected. We expected contract help, but what my partner Bert and I *got* was a new third member of the creative team. And indeed, the kind of help you're talking about -- we're getting that and MORE. Studio B is helping us to become more focused, they're helping us figure out creative ways to become more productive, and they're adding new ideas that we never imagined.
As for the agency commission/bottom-line thing, the way we view it is that even if it's a wash--the agent's improvements to the deal are cancelled out (for the author) by the agency commission--if it saves the author *time* and stress, then it's still a gain for the author. But for a lot of first-time authors, using a publisher's more or less standardized contract, and especially with a publisher like O'Reilly who uses simpler contracts that don't require a law degree to understand, this might not be an issue.
And one more little anecdote--we had a conversation with David R when we first got started, and told him where we were at (already up to our necks in book deals that were straightforward, and that we were happy with). He spent an hour teaching us about the business, only to tell us that we probably didn't *need* an agent at that point. We appreciated the help, and went our separate ways. But a year and half later, when things became enormously complicated, we knew just who to call.

Claudette Moore

I don’t think any one agent (or any one publisher) should have to defend the missteps of those who have gone before. Dave feels he does a good job for his clients, I feel I do a good job for mine, and yet we have very different agencies. If you’re an author reading this, you can do your homework by getting those references Joe rightly suggests. My 20+ years in computer book publishing (the last 15 as an agent) suggest to me that authors are quite willing to share their opinions. Editors, too.

I’d hate to see Joe’s new blog get stuck in the mire and muck, so I’ll try to shift the focus a little from the tired old publishing complaints. Normally I’m reticent about spouting my views to anyone but my clients and co-workers (the poor things) but I think I’d like to share a pet publishing philosophy and then address a tangent issue Joe brought up.

I look at the author/agent/publisher relationship as a partnership, from first draft proposal to out of print. We all have the same goal of producing successful books that make money for everyone. If we keep that partnership in mind at all times, we work to solve any problems that arise with minimal finger-pointing, with maximum respect, and the common goal in mind, then we have the best chance at getting a great book to market and selling the heck out of it.

This sounds simplistic, but it works most of the time. When an author falls short of achieving his goals, the agent and publisher can try to find a way to pick up the slack. When things go awry on the publisher’s side, it’s up to the author and agent to make some noise. If an author feels like he needs advice from his agent, he should get on the phone. (The sooner, the better.) Blame shifting will drag a project down every single time.

This publishing partnership doesn’t start out balanced. Publishing contracts are by their nature biased toward the publisher – it’s my job to try to make it a more reasonable document in terms of the author compensation and treatment. It’s the publisher’s job to not let me get away with too much. (Darn the luck.) It’s the author’s job to write a good book, on time (or as close as is humanly possible), and deal with the publisher’s occasional imperfections in the editing, production, distribution and marketing areas.

I’ll go on record with the others as disagreeing with Joe’s statement that agents don’t (or can’t) improve their computer book author’s contract terms, at Wiley or any other publishing house. I have plenty of clients who came to me after publishing one or two or three books successfully, and I’ve made meaningful improvements for all of them. Every publisher has a range of what’s normal, what’s acceptable, and a good agent can push the limits and even go beyond. You have to have the “goods” to do this, though, and it still has to end up working within the publisher’s standards of business. Enough said.

Joe wanted to know about trade agents, so I’ll comment on that too. I know several trade agents well and have represented a few of those books over the years. The successful trade agent’s job is exactly the same as mine – work with great authors to develop compelling proposals and then sell them to the right editor for the best possible terms. Piece of cake.

From my experience, the critical difference lies not in the agents, but in the editors. Computer editors can quantify the prospective audience for a book on a particular topic with relative ease, while a trade editor may be trying to catch a cultural wave or tap into an ephemeral shift in political sensibilities, or what have you, even as it applies to practical books like cookbooks or gardening books (yes, there are trends in those categories). And never mind the alchemy of the creation of great novels or mysteries.

Trade editors need to catch the trend early, but not too early. If they guess wrong a few times, they’ll be working at Barnes & Noble. They rely on agents to vet proposals and screen out the noise so they can focus on suitable authors and books with potential.

I keep my client list at a manageable level for that reason – it’s not a closed list, but I do try to be careful not to overextend, so I can continue to provide good service. Word of mouth is everything, for authors, publishers, and agents.

Jim Minatel

Just honing in on the "do agents positively impact the bottom line" question: the real answer I think is a definitive "sometimes." Some people are born negotiators, some pay sticker price for their cars. An author who paid sticker or went to a "no haggle" dealer for their last car because they hate negotiating might do well to consider that an agent might benefit their contract bottom line. An author who is as good at negotiating as writing and knows their market value might do well enough in a negotiation on their own to not make it financially worth having an agent.

Joe Wikert

Dave, I'm thrilled for you that your business is thriving. Nevertheless, we still have some fundamental disagreements on how the agent-author-publisher relationship is working today in the computer book business. A good example is where you said "If an author looks like they’re going to run late, and we can find someone to help them so they can make their dates, does it make any sense to tell the editor?" I think the editor/publisher needs to know about this potential problem and authoring help. In fact, as you know, some agreements clearly state that any co-authorship help needs to be approved by the publisher first. More importantly, however, I've seen far too many instances where the editor had to go out and find the co-authorship help, not the agent.

Kathy, you've got first-hand proof that the agent can indeed add value. I only hope we start seeing more author/agent relationships working as well as yours. Your post can be a good tool for any author considering the help of an agent.

Claudette, welcome to the discussion! Excellent observations. The point you made in your final paragraph is the one that really got my attention, and I have to say I think it helps distinguish you from other agents: not only do you keep your client list to a manageable level, but I think you tend to be very selective as to who you represent. I mean that in a good way, btw. We haven't crossed paths too many times, but when we have I know I have the chance to work with some of the best authoring talent out there. Kudos to you for that reputation.

Jim, you also raise some good points, especially when it comes to the author's skill set and interest in negotiations.

Jeremy and Mike, thanks for your contributions to this discussion. I'm hoping we get to hear from more members of the author community.

Katherine Murray

Interesting discussion! I think I'll weigh in as a long-time author with experience on both sides of the track ("with agent" and "without agent"). First, Joe, I think your questions are good and fair ones for authors who are looking for an agent; I've made the same suggestions to new writers myself. I think the author-agent relationship is vitally important; in a very real way, that relationship can shape (expand or limit) the opportunities writers have to do what they do.

I've worked with Claudette (Moore Literary Agency) since the early 90s. Over the years, Claudette has introduced me to a number of new publishers, resulting in books that were more lucrative, more creative, and more collaborative than projects I had gotten on my own.

Early on, I didn't think I needed an agent because I always stayed busy. Publishers continued to call me for specific titles, but they were usually looking to fill a gap they had already identified, not necessarily interested in developing new possibilities. Over time, I wanted to do more than just stay busy--I wanted to write books that were more creative, more profitable, and had the potential of a longer life than the books I had been writing.

Claudette always knows what I'm working on and what I'm fascinated with, and she knows what publishers are interested in and beginning to explore. She is able to find the right projects for me (in fact, the last two books I've signed have actually been her ideas) and works with me to craft the idea into something that is unique, answers a proven need, and is fully developed. I've written dozens of books in the last 20 years, but I still count on Claudette to help me find and smooth out the rough spots in the outline or concept we're developing for a publisher.

The books I've written without an agent have been just projects--commodities that sit on a shelf for a period of time, make some money, and then die off. The books I've done with my agent are part of a larger on-going collaboration with publishers and editors I respect and enjoy. With the latter, I invariably receive better offers (advances and royalties), better schedules, and better opportunities for creative, interesting, and unique projects--plus I have the added security of continuing professional relationships with different publishers. That adds directly to my financial bottom-line and to the sense of satisfaction I get from what I do for a living.

To my way of thinking, if you're in it for the short game and just want to place a project with a publisher, you can go it alone by doing your homework and shopping the proposal around. But if you're thinking of the big picture of your career, and you want over the long-term to do creative work you feel good about with publishers you respect, find an agent who really clicks with you and can advocate for your long-term career interests. When you find the right person in the right agency, it's a great investment in your writing future.

Thanks for the opportunity to post! And congrats on the blog, Joe. :)

Claudette Moore

Thanks for the kind words, Joe. After all these years I still love this business -- even when publishers keep rewriting their contracts. (You know who you are.)

Jim's point is well taken. I'd like to tweak it a little though. I can't resist.

For some of my more high-profile or prolific clients, a critical part of what I do is advise them on what projects NOT to do. Projects abound for good authors, but being selective means that they will get a better return for their efforts. Unagented authors have a harder time turning away work, I believe.

No is a powerful word -- it makes room for projects that are clearly more interesting or more lucrative. I've never regretted saying no -- wish I could say the same about a few of my "yes" moments. (I'm refering to business-related activities here, of course ;-).

Claudette Moore

Okay, I didn't pay Kathy to write that. Really.

I wish I was that good all the time. But as Kathy and every one of my clients can attest, I have good days, weeks, and even months and bad ones. Just like authors and publishers. And every other agent.

That's where my "let's work as a team" philosophy comes in. We've all missed our marks from time to time, so let's try to fix the problem, learn a lesson, and move on. It's a complicated business we're in. It falls apart real fast when one side puts a lot of effort into blaming.

Have I beat that drum enough?

Matt Wagner

Hi Joe,

Congrats on the blog. Hi David, Claudette, Mr. Miller, nice to see you!

I posted something about this in a response to a question about agency commissions this morning and I'll repeat it here, though admittedly it duplicates much of what Claudette and David say --

"A better question might be "where does an agent earn his 15%?" In the tech book world this is a fair question as we're in a relatively small industry and there are plenty of author listservs, lots of contract info that's readily available, and easy access to acquisition editors.

"I earn my money in prospecting for titles the author might not have found on his or her own, managing schedules and publisher expectations to ensure that my author has very little down time between projects, working out conflicts in the editorial and production process, helping to find a co-author or contributor when we're in a jam, and packaging new ideas for publishers. On this basis on some projects I'm probably overpaid and on others I am most certainly underpaid."

Joe, your post is great for igniting passions but I'd like to add to this discussion the fact that I, as an agent, and probably the others who have posted here, have often come up with authors to help un-agented authors bailing on their own un-agented Wiley projects. I've worked with every group at Wiley from the trade group, computer group and business group, so you might imagine I would also take some offense. That said, the agents have stated their case quite well.

The bigger question (as far I'm concerned) is do my authors need Wiley? Can we get a better deal, or find more ownership, or more timely advance payments elsewhere? And ultimately, in some emerging markets, do they need an agent or publisher at all? And what can I do to help them deal with this changing landscape?

I have about 5 books in development with various Wiley groups as I speak so I won't pretend that I've made this decision. But you've been with several companies Joe, and you know that as publishers become bigger and more hide-bound they often become arrogant, less creative, and tighter-fisted. In that case it's good to work with someone keeping an eye out for greener pastures. That's what an agent does, and some authors might manage it quite well on their own, ala Mr. Mike Miller, and others definitely benefit from the advice, and counsel of an agent.

On the trade side of things there's no doubt that an agent is almost an essential accessory to help cut through the signal to noise ratio, but even that's changing as editors become more wired.

Joe Wikert

Katherine – thanks for adding your thoughts. I’m glad we’re hearing from more authors, especially ones who have worked both with and without agents. Your point about collaboration is critical. Obviously, you collaborate regularly with Claudette, which is great. I would argue that a un-agented author can collaborate directly with the editor and produce the same results. Again, that’s not to take anything away from Claudette – I’ve got a lot of respect for her. But I have seen many authors establish strong ties with certain editors, resulting in a string of highly collaborative projects. It’s interesting that the offers you get for un-agented projects are coming in lower than the agented ones. After I had written a few books, if I received an offer that was below what I wanted, I just said “no” or “you’ll need to raise the package by $X/X%.” The result was I either got what I needed or I passed on the project. An agent could handle that sort of negotiation, of course, but I figured I could do it just as well. From what I gather though, you’ve got a great relationship set up with Claudette and it doesn’t sound like you should change a thing.

Hi Matt – welcome to the discussion! I have no doubt that you and other agents have helped us (and others) pick up the slack when an un-agented author has missed a date or simply can’t deliver. Some day I’ll have to gather the data on this, because I’m not sure which percentage is higher: agented authors filling in for un-agented failures (for lack of a better expression), or un-agented authors filling in for agented failures. It’s probably a tight race. As I mentioned in an earlier reply, however, what disappoints me most is the number of times an agented author misses a date or needs replaced but the agent isn’t on top of the situation. More often than not, the editor has to find a solution. What’s your opinion on this? Should the agent help find the co-author or should it be the editor’s responsibility?

Dave Taylor

Joe, nicely done weblog, but that's no surprise given your mentors here. I've been writing professionally for over a decade with a variety of publishers, including Wiley, I started out unagented, then signed up with an agency, and now represent myself again.

In my experience, most authors have the "mousetrap" approach to writing, as far as I can tell. They have a "great" idea for a new book, often on a terribly overexposed market like XML or .NET, then they shop it around to various publishers hoping that someone will be sufficiently interested to pursue it. Then they dance with an AE, singing the Proposal Isn't Quite Right Yet song, until the "committee" is satisfied that the book is publishable and sellable. Finally, eager to begin writing and afraid to have wasted all their efforts to date, the author promptly signs whatever contract the publisher sends along, often getting terrible terms but assuaging themselves that "at least they'll be published" and so on.

Add an agent to this picture and you have an advocate and, ideally, a career coach, combined with a strong negotiator and someone who has the one thing that the vast majority of authors do not have: experience in the publishing industry. Agents catch cross-accounting clauses a mile away, for example, but most authors only realize years later how the small print in their first few contracts continues to adversely affect their royalty streams. (and by the way, isn't it time publishers stopped trying to pull that fast one on authors anyway?)

Having said all of that, I have to say that I am very comfortable negotiating, walking away from uninteresting or insufficiently lucrative work, and can read a contract as well as, if not better than, most agents. My experience being represented was very poor and in fact I have since been trying to get out of the agency claws for the one ongoing book project where they are absolutely doing nothing on what is now the fifth edition of the title.

And simultaneously I am talking with an agent about signing on to have him help me continue my move out of the tech book arena completely, into business and parenting titles. In addition to the earlier comments, I believe that one of the greatest values of a good agent is a great Rolodex (or the digital equivalent!) and while I can pick up the phone and chat with any AE in the tech publishing business, I'm a fish out of water in this new sector. Am I going to negotiate the 15% agency commission down, if possible, in light of the fact that I can negotiate for myself and can nitpick contracts and manage ongoing relationships? You bet.

Circling back to the original question, my advice to writers is always if their love is writing, not the business of identifying, clarifying, negotiating, producing and marketing a published work, then they'd do well to get an agent. If they are capable, competent, business-savvy and either have connections in the field or can make them, then self-representation might well be a good alternative.

Frankly, I have never understood why there aren't more pay-as-you-go agents in the industry (tech or otherwise) who could be brought on to projects on a per-book basis. But that's another blog posting.

Matt Wagner

I can't recall a book of mine where my author had bailed or failed, or, as can happen with the best of intentions, had a life emergency, and I didn't work hard to find a replacement -- inasmuch as a contracted book is a bird in the hand, it's wasted effort if I can't convert a sale into honest to goodness income for all concerned.

I work hand in hand with an editor to help find a solution (per your contract) with an eye toward preserving my client's stake in the book and with the hopes that I can find a gig for the client who comes in to help out. Have I always been successful? No, probably not, but I'm certainly in the game and responsive. I do this because I have to be a good partner if I ever hope to sign new books. Ideally, I can spot problems before they start and suggest a collaboration at the very beginning if that's called for.

As the author's fortunes are linked to his publisher, my fortunes are linked to my client's. As publisher you may come from the other direction and see an agent as an intrusion on your unhindered relationship with your authors, but from my side I help decide which publisher to work with from the get-go. I've encouraged many authors to sign with Wiley and I would think that's the same of the other agents represented here. Between us we've probably repped at least one thousand Wiley contracts (when you include IDG and Hungry Minds). That should shed a little light on our mutual interests.

I've never argued that every tech author needs an agent, and I've often turned folks away who had a reasonable deal in hand if I couldn't in good faith tell them I could improve things for them, but I always tell them to keep me in mind if they plan to make this a career and want a long term relationship with someone who will remain in the industry long after their publishers change hands and their editors change professions.

Frankly, the three oldest agencies have outlived many publishers, and these agents have worked with their clients upwards of 15 years in one capacity or another.

I remember seeing your first contacts at Waterside, Joe. Scott Foresman didn't pay much back then. Call me if you'd like to do better next time ;-)


Joe Wikert

Dave -- thanks for the very insightful perspective. The pay-as-you-go agency concept is interesting. In fact, when I was writing (many years ago), it wasn't so hard to get an agency to work with you on a title-by-title basis. I haven't been on the authoring side for a while though and don't know the breakdown on this. Claudette/Matt/Dave -- what's your opinion?

Matt -- Ouch! OK, the cat's out of the bag. You know how tiny my advance was on a couple of those Scott-Foresman projects from the 1980's...and that's when I was represented by an agent! Now you can understand why I decided to do the rest of my books without one! Actually, it was all about fortunate timing: the market was coming back, which meant I was able to negotiate a better deal and I didn't have to give 15% of it to an agent.

Brad Hill

Perhaps this discussion illuminates two different views of authorship: The publisher's view and the agent's view. Publishers, for the most part, view authors as one-off content providers. Agents view authors as career management clients. Whether an author uses an agent should be determined by the author's alignment with one view or the other. This idea seems borne out by the comments above, especially from dedicated agents who build long-term relationship with authors.

Most of my books have been unagented, and I believe I understand book contracts as well as anybody. It helps to have a taste for business, entrepreneurship, and negotiating. I did sign with an agent who wanted to move my career away from series softcovers to the trade side, and who nearly poisoned my preexisting relationships in the process. I have flied solo since firing him, with the exception of projects brought to me by agents. My long-running AE contacts have become nearly agent-like (no, I'm not fooling myself); we discuss long-range plans and possibilities.

Despite being a lone wolf, I value good agents tremendously, and talk with them all the time. I envision the day when I work primarily in partnership with a career manager who earns 15 percent of my business. I do think the era of exclusive agent-author contracts is crumbling. Or maybe I just hope so. I have found extremely skilled and connected professionals (hi, Matt) quite willing to be flexible on that point.

David Browne

As a Waterside author with Matt representing me--Hi Matt, very nice to see you here--having an agent helped dig that initial foothold for me. Matt passed me suggestions, small projects in supporting other authors and a steady flow of ideas until we settled on a book project. I later went my own way as I learned more about the busines and felt comfortable that I knew what the benchmark probably was in negotiating deals. As others have already said, for authors uninterested in the business side of book publishing, a good agent fills that need.
There is a definite cost to marketing and sales, and whether the author takes time away from fulfilling a contact to handle those areas, or pays an agent for marketing and represenation is simply one of the decisions most book authors make.

John Forester

As a formerly agented author, I can only say, what a relief to get that agency out of my wallet! The only reason I retained my agent after the first contract (other than out of the kindness of my heart) was to have their legal team behind me. But when I actually needed their services to back me in a contract dispute, I found that the agency was in cahoots with the publisher! And ditto for the publisher, who would not back me when I fired my agent! As my lawyer put it, agencies are just there to bring authors to publishers already raped.

Joe Wikert

This continues to be an excellent thread for any author weighing the pros and cons of using an agent. I would also encourage those authors to read an earlier post I made on how to choose a publisher. IMHO, a strong relationship with an editor can often replace the need for an agent.

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