Books

Writers who want to be published (or who have already been published) are constantly in a state of turmoil trying to answer the question: Do I need an agent?

I’ve had two and recently signed with a new agency. I’m looking forward to the relationship, and I can promise you: I’ll be a good soldier.

The publishing consultant Jane Friedman wrote last year: “When writers ask me ‘Can you find me a literary agent?’ they don’t realize it’s kind of like asking me ‘Can you find me the right spouse?’ This is a research process and decision that’s best conducted by you.”

I couldn’t agree more.

And I wouldn’t consider that an aspiring author who would ask such a question is lazy, but one always has to check one’s motives. If you have the writing discipline to actually produce a manuscript, you probably have the discipline to find the right literary agent.

To writers, I always preach the same thing: be a realist. Yes, self-confidence is crucial and all that – it really is – but it is also just as important to be realistic. In other words, perhaps you will emerge as a best-selling author and make a ton of money. Good for you.

To be transparent: I make a decent living as a writer. Not rich, not poor. I have time each week to sit and watch a sunset. I don’t feel any pressure to write and publish. I do it because I enjoy it.

But no writer is an island (isn’t that a famous quote?). The right agent can be invaluable in one important area: keeping your motivations right and balanced. The best agent won’t exactly be Vince Lombardi, an intimidating figure, but neither should he or she be Mr. Rogers. If you aspire to earn a living and achieve some measure of notoriety, you could probably use the services of a professional agent.

You also need to get over the fact that for every dollar you earn as a writer, the government will take its part … and so will your agent. Typically, a 15 percent commission is charged by the agent to place your work. If you are offered a $20,000 advance, the agency will take it’s 15 percent. That’s just the way it is.

This is something else I always preach: let go of unnecessary stress. You can’t manage everything; you can’t have it all. Assume your role, let others assume their roles and together you’ll hopefully have something all can be proud of.

Your agent also has the right to expect certain foundational things: you will heed advice and then produce in a timely fashion the things said agent asks for: an on-time completed manuscript. An elegant proposal. A compelling “one-sheet” that explains what your book is about.

Don’t argue with the agent. I’ve found that the more a writer argues, the more he or she is unsuccessful. And, chances are, the agent-writer relationship will become frayed.

I love stories of agents who were reasonable, calm influences for their clients. H.N. Swanson, who switched careers and became an editor in time to represent F. Scott Fitzgerald. In fact, he gained fame as he represented others like Pearl Buck, William Faulkner and Joyce Carol Oates. Swanson sold books like “Old Yeller,” “The Postman Always Rings Twice” and “The Big Sleep” to studios, who in turn produced box office gold.

In all honesty, you need to pilot your own ship in getting into position to be a published writer. Get a copy of “Writer’s Market” and then do a deliberate search for just the right agent.

Remember, too: everything is negotiable. If you are fortunate enough to find an agent who wants to represent your work, ask detailed questions: Can I self-publish from time to time? That kind of thing.

If you do your due diligence, you’ll find yourself in position to achieve your goals.

That’s the kind of change agent you can believe in.


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