Saturday, 8 August 2009

Agent or solo (again)?

I'm back! And thanks again for all the reading suggestions (see comments following my last post).

I have good news. I think. An agent has emailed to say she "would love" to represent me. This is what I wanted, especially since the WIP is barely out of nappies, and so I didn't have much to show her. But now I have cold feet. All that stuff about contracts and VAT (VAT?), plus the risks entailed in someone else being involved in my work. Of course, I wanted someone else, otherwise why bother to approach an agent in the first place? I wanted someone with publishing experience, someone to go over ideas with, and someone with whom I could discuss all the little niggles which are too trivial to bother Will with. But now the prospect seems oddly daunting.

How have other MNWs fared? I'd love to hear the experiences of people who have continued to go it alone, as well as those who have an agent and do/do not recommend having one. I don't have to decide yet - in my present crippled state I can't even get up to London to meet her - but I would be most grateful for any advice. I know I've posted on the subject of agents before, but it's a big step (big steps aren't what I'm good at right now, although I'm down to walking with one stick - yay!), for which apologies. But I want to get it right.


Ann Weisgarber said...

Frances, things are looking up. You're walking with a stick, and you've had an offer from an agent. Congratulations on both achievements.

It's my guess that unless an imprint approaches a writer, she/he needs an agent. A good agent knows editors and knows what they like. A good agent will get your book to the right people and when the sale comes through, she'll make sure the deal is right for you.

I had an agent about three years ago, and it was a good experience. The only negative was she couldn't sell Rachel DuPree. At the time, that was a huge negative but I sure don't see it that way now.

Here's what I learned.

It's important to not be awestruck or intimidated by your agent. I was so impressed by the agent's client list that I was nervous about working with her. I never felt all that comfortable asking for her help or for her opinion. This wasn't my agent's fault but was mine. It's important you feel relaxed with this agent. She's probably going to make suggestions for changes and you have to be able to speak up.

Second, it's important to understand how your agent works. Will she send out queries to only the top publishing houses? Or will she consider smaller (i.e. smaller advances) houses? What about independent or university presses? Will she send out in batches or one at a time?

Third, what are the agent's strengths? Fiction or non-fiction? That seems obvious but if her contacts and sales are limited for fiction, that can be a problem.

Fourth, has she made suggestions about possible revisions? You might want to ask her about this before signing a contract. You can't expect her to spend a lot of time on this before you have a contract, but it's important to have a rough idea. I heard from an agent who said she'd represent Rachel DuPree if the story was told from the point of view of Rachel's daughter. Whoa! That would have been a very different story. I wasn't interested.

Last, make sure you're clear on how to terminate the contract. Is the contract for a year? Or longer? And if you want out, what are the terms?

Once you've met the agent in person, you'll have a good sense about all of this. If, though, you feel a bit uneasy, trust that. This person is representing your work and you. It has to be a good fit. We've all had the experience of working with Will, an editor who cares about his writers. You want that same experience with your agent. Anything less, and you'll feel cheated.

It's a big dicision, but never lose sight that you've written two novels and that you aren't a novice. You're a great client for any agent.

David Isaak said...

All of Ann's advice is terrific.

I have so much to say on this that I'm going to post on the topic rather than respond here.

My quick answer, however, is that I think you are better off with an agent--but with the caveat that it ought to be an agent you really want. In other words, sure--but you can now afford to be picky.

It's better to have no agent than the wrong agent (like Ann, I had a top agent before I came to MNW--but my retrospective on her performance is less generous than Ann's.)

Tim Stretton said...

I don't have an agent, Frances, but I think it would be helpful to have one - but only the right one.

Because I'm trying to place The Last Free City, and most publishers won't look at unagented submissions, it's a way for maximise my opportunities.

But I agree with Ann and David that the wrong agent is far worse than no agent at all. If you aren't comfortable with what's on offer, walk away.

Faye L. Booth said...

I think Ann's covered it pretty comprehensively!

For my part, I find my agent invaluable, but of course different people suit different approaches to things. Are you a member of the Society of Authors at all? If so, you can ask them to read through any contracts you have been offered (it's a free service to members, which I used and can recommend), which could be useful if you want to demystify some of the jargon.

Whatever you decide, congratulations!

Frances Garrood said...

Thanks for all those thoughtful comments (and I bet your agent is kicking herself now, Ann!). I shall look forward to your post on the subject, David. (Made it to the pub at lunchtime today with my one stick. Life looks up).

Len Tyler said...

Good to hear you are on the mend, Frances. And congratulations on finding an agent - that's really excellent news.

This is an interesting debate - and it was worth checking the blog today just for Ann's advice. The exit strategy is an important point that hadn't occured to me until now. I'll print Ann's list of questions out and take it with me when I next meet up with an agent!

I agree completely with Faye about the Society of Authors - they are absolutely brilliant. Worth every penny of the annual sub.

Ann Weisgarber said...

Frances, if you made it to the pub, then you're on the mend. That's great news.

Len, I'm glad my suggestions are helpful. Agents have their role and can be incredible allies, but right now, I'm happy to be flying solo. (Frances, I did hear from my former agent after the Orange Prize nomination; what a shock.) People tell me agents are the people who get novels optioned for movies. Is that true? If so, I'm out of luck. Oh well.

Frances Garrood said...

Ann - why don't you let that agent take you out for a very expensive and delicious lunch, and then thank her nicely and tell her that on reflection you've decided to go it alone?

Thanks for the good wishes, Len, and all the very best for the new book (and the new career!).

David Isaak said...

Hi, Ann--

Never fear. Publishers sell movie subrights, too--if the contract lets them keep them.

I'm told that the second best way to get your book snapped up by the film industry is to get it in front of one of the mysterious Hollywood "book scouts," but that seems to be a rather shadowy line of work.

The first best way is to have your book become a megabestseller. But that's even more mysterious than finding a book scout.