What an agent can do for you

[May 2006] Hypothetical situation: I’ve written a terrific novel. Edited, revised, polished it. Started sending it out to publishers. One is intrigued. More than intrigued, the editor loves it. She starts talking it up in-house. Her enthusiasm spreads. The publisher decides to take a chance on me. An offer is in the pipeline. I expect to hear any day now.

Exciting? You bet. The offer comes though. Whoa—that’s more then I expected. Where do I sign?

I’ve done all the legwork that an agent usually does on a writer’s behalf. Baited and set the hook, made the big catch. What point would there be in looking for an agent now? Get real. I’d be giving away 15% of that nice big catch for nothing.

Think again. This hypothetical mirrors my personal reality in selling a Dark Tower companion. I queried the publishers, made the pitch, and submitted the final, detailed proposal. All but sealed the deal. However, I knew the potential pitfalls in dealing with a book contract were many. Me, a babe in the woods, on one side of the bargaining table and Penguin, a huge conglomerate with a team of lawyers, on the other.

I needed advice and help. With a decent offer in the offing and a package that seemed attractive, I was able to get an agent to agree to represent the book in short order. The process dovetailed nicely, though I remember being very nervous at the time. The agent agreed on a Monday and the offer came on a Tuesday. I put the editor and agent in touch with each other and let them duke it out.

The original offer was pleasing. Higher than what I’d been told to expect. However, my agent said, “Of course, we’ll ask for more. That’s just how it’s done.” In a few days, he negotiated a 40% increase in the advance and retained foreign translation rights to exploit separately, something that would never have occurred to me. Just like that, he more than covered his commission.

When I finally received the Penguin contract, I was stunned. Seventeen legal-sized pages in dense, small print. Clauses, sub-clauses and sub-sub-clauses, some of them conditional on previous clauses. My agent walked me through it a paragraph at a time. We suggested some changes (movie rights for a non-fiction companion seemed moot, so why include them at all?) and the process was over in few more days. Completely painless, which was good because I was sailing on a cloud of euphoria and would likely have made some costly mistakes on my own.

Once that project was over, though, I had something else. An ally. Someone actively rooting for me. Interested in what came next “in my career as a writer.” To have someone else in my corner was heartening. Envigorating.

My agent read a batch of my short stories to get a feel for my strengths. He made suggestions about what direction I might consider going with a novel. We brainstormed in general terms. It wasn’t a matter of him telling me what I should write. Rather, he picked up elements in my short stories that worked particularly well. Pointed out things that I wasn’t consciously aware of.

And away I went with the novel. My agent was always available to me during the process. He offered to read partials to provide more immediate feedback. I spent over six months on the first draft and sent the unwieldy, unedited mess to him the week before I left for NECON in 2004.

During the ensuing two-year period, we took that draft and whipped it into shape. He was encouraging from the beginning. We discussed problem points by e-mail and by telephone. Each time we spoke, I felt revitalized and renewed, ready to tackle the daunting task of another draft. He helped stoke my creative fires. Sometimes his suggestions were general: I think this character needs more of an arc. Sometimes they were more specific. Always suggestions—the final decision about what to do was left to me.

His insight into what works and why it works was amazingly helpful. Conceptual ideas about resolution. My early drafts had too many threads running off in different directions. I’d tied the big ones up, but some simply petered out. Not forgotten, but left in an unsatisfactory state. The work of the last four months especially has been to pull these threads back together to create a finale that has power.

The overall plot hasn’t changed much during the 30 months since I wrote the first words. Course corrections, mostly. The ending received the most attention, and, though the outcome is the same, what befalls the characters is more complete and complex.

I received the kind of editorial direction that you’d pay thousands of dollars for—and it hasn’t cost me a cent. He’s still working off the 15% he made from the Dark Tower book sale. What this says to me is that he believes he can sell this book. He’s a busy guy, with numerous clients. He’s involved in auctions. Movie deals. If he didn’t have faith, it would be easy for him to take what I sent him originally and just go through the motions, gather a handful of rejects and turn me loose.

The whole process, while laborious at times, has been invigorating. Someone else thinks I can write—and that he can sell what I write. He takes my calls. He calls me! He responds to my e-mails. We have lunch if I’m in New York. He’s read my manuscript at least five times, maybe more. When a small press offered to publish a collection of my short fiction, he looked at it in terms of whether it would substantially grow my readership at this point in my career and advised me to wait.

He’s my partner in crime. None of this would have happened if I’d balked at the idea of getting someone to represent me when the deal on my first book looked like a sure thing. The first draft manuscript of this novel was sufficiently flawed that I doubt it would have attracted an agent.

What can an agent do for you? Each will be different. Each agent, each set of circumstances, each relationship, but just think of the possibilities. Yes, they get a cut of the income from your work, but they’re worth every penny. And then some.

Comments are closed.