Jay Lake (jaylake) wrote,
Jay Lake

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Secret agent man, secret agent man; they've given you a number and taken away your name

I was exchanging emails with a writer this evening on the subject of working with agents. It's a funny topic -- they were looking at their first agent relationship, and had queried some issues on which I, naturally, had some opinions.

That got me to thinking about the whole writer-agent dance, especially how it looks and feels from the front end. It's one of the weirdest pieces of career development there is in our business. You can learn how to write from some combination of books, conventions, conferences, workshops, and sheer internal motivation. You can learn how to submit (short fiction or novels) from those same sources -- that's mostly a matter of aligning your practices with industry norms. You can even learn about copy editing and production and promotion and so forth, especially by hanging around the blogs of mouthy hypergraphics with a bad tendency to overshare.

But agents? It's like being a kid and wondering about sex. Everybody smiles and nods, but no one will tell you a damned thing.

For one, the writer-agent hookup process is highly idiosyncratic. Yes, we have the system of writing query letters, sending sample chapters, and so forth. It's a good system, well-documented, easy to understand. I'm sure some people arrive at their agent relationships that way. I don't know very many of them. Virtually every writer I've spoken to about this has some half-cocked story about how they got hooked up with their agent.

So it's mysterious up front. Also like sex, it can lead to commitment. And make no mistake, an agent relationship is a commitment. I've often said that getting an agent is like getting married. You'd better get along really well, because the books you sell together will be like children, that always belong to both of you, even if you split later on. You need a high degree of personal and business trust, and some sympatico doesn't hurt at all either. Admittedly some people work with their agents very much at arm's length, but to me that seems inadvisable -- the agent knows far more about the publishing industry than most writers ever will. I'd rather leverage that understanding and expertise to mutual benefit than simply employ a paper pusher.

Which is another important aspect of agentry. The agent is the writer's employee and business partner. They work on commission, representing the writer's interests. "Employee" in this context is very similar to "consultant", with that mutual respect and leveraging of expertise I mentioned above -- hence the concept of partnership. In the world of publishing, writers are the primary resource, agents are the interface between us scribblers and them big, bad publishers.

But it means when hooking up with an agent, you have to look at how their business practices align with your own, whether the mutual expectations are congruent, and all the other things you'd look for in a business context. It also means they'll be looking at you and your likely (or at least possible) career arc. If the agent can't be passionate about your work, they can't represent it with strength and fervor, and no one makes money. And when you're messing about with agents, it's a money-making relationship at heart. They have to pay the rent and buy food, just like editors and publishers do. Writers, too, though we have a lot of comfortable myths about struggle and artistic purity to wrap ourselves in. I'm not sure if agents tell the same campfire tales about their dreams.

I have a strong prejudice in favor of agents who live and work in the tri-state area. (For non-USAnians, that's the zone around New York City -- Connecticut, New York and New Jersey.) All the major publishing houses in American SF/F except Baen are based in NYC, and a significant majority of their staff are located there. While there are excellent agents all over the United States in many branches of fiction and non-fiction, the SF/F publishing industry is highly concentrated. So any agent not able to make weekly lunches or in-person appointments in NYC is working at a disadvantage. Is that fair, or how it should be? I dunno. It just is, and I'm not ready to raise the banners against that system.

(I will add parenthetically that you should never pay any fees to an agent. Not reading fees, not handling fees, not nothing. One of the core rules of this business is that money always flows to the writer.)

I've probably left off half a dozen important things, and misrepresented half a dozen more, but that's ok. Doubtless I will be corrected and chastised appropriately in comments. The thing is, this topic is mysterious and not all that commonly discussed. There's no secret handshake or hidden lodges to be tyled here, just people doing things they love and getting paid for it. Understanding what's going on is to everyone's benefit.
Tags: books, process, publishing, writing
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