Monday, August 11, 2014

Question: my friend wants me to be his agent

Hello - I came across your blog recently, and have found it a very interesting insight into the world of literary agent-ness. I was hoping you could help me answer a question. A friend of mine has asked me to serve as his agent in getting his first book published. I have zero experience, but I am trained as a lawyer, so I figured that I could handle the legal side of things, at least. I also truly love my friend's writing style, and would love to see him get exposed to a wider audience. My question for you is: is this completely crazy, or is it possible for me to get my friend's book published on my own? I'd love to do it if I can, but I don't want to hurt my friend's chances. Any advice would be super appreciated. Thanks! 

Here are the questions you need to ask yourself:

1. How many editors do you know well enough to have their direct phone line AND have them pick up the phone when you call?

2. How many books have you read in your friend's category so that you know what's current, what's not, and what an editor will consider fresh and new?

3. Do you know what the standard splits are on sub-rights in a publishing contract? Do you know what to actually ask for instead?

4. Do you know what rights are normally reserved to the author in a publishing contract?

5. Do you know what a first proceeds clause is and why it's important?

6. Do you know what a royalty audit clause is and have boiler plate wording for it to insert when the publisher doesn't?

7. Do you know what a production editor does and why it's important to know that?

8. Do you know what countries to exclude from a contract that includes a non-exclusive license for the open market?

9. Have you ever seen a royalty statement, and if so, do you know how to read one and explain it to your client?

10.  Do you know what should always be excluded from the warranties and indemnities clause of a contract?

An effective agent has a complex set of skills and knowledge that go far beyond Contracts 101 in law school.

An effective agent knows the people to call, and the people s/he's calling know her. Or have heard of her. Or her agency.

An effective agent has boilerplate language for contract clauses that the publisher doesn't include in the initial draft, and knows that you're supposed to do that.

An effective agent knows the importance of the production department and what their deadlines are.

An effective agent knows how to read a royalty statement, knows who to call when the statement needs explaining, and can then in turn explain it to a client.

An effective agent is someone who has experience doing all these things, and most important has a network of colleagues to call on when a situation arises that she doesn't know about.

If your friend wants a brand new agent, well, you're probably no worse than some of the other beginners I've seen.  But if your friend wants an EFFECTIVE agent, well, he might want to query people who've done more than just read his book.


mhleader said...

Having had the experience of having more than one ineffective agent, I can only say that Ms. Shark is EXACTLY CORRECT! Having an ineffective or even flat-out bad agent is FAR, FAR WORSE than having no agent at all.

Go with an agent who knows what they're doing, has the resources needed to do it, and has the connections in YOUR genre to accomplish that, or don't bother with an agent at all.

Your writing career is nothing to screw up by going with someone who is brand-new and has no idea what they're doing--no matter how much you like them personally.

The Voice of Experience here. Listen to Ms. Shark. She knows whereof she speaks...

John "Ol' Chumbucket" Baur said...

"I recently discovered your legal website. My friend has asked me to represent him in his upcoming murder trial, and while I'm not a lawyer, I really like my friend and would love to see him get acquitted. Is this something I should undertake? Is there anything in particular I need to know? And while I'm at it, another friend has asked me to handle his upcoming coronary bypass."
Makes about as much sense, don't you think?

William Plante said...

I didn't know John did coronary bypasses.

Rena McClure Taylor said...

Hey! I'm better off than I thought. I have no agent, but at least I don't have a bad agent.

Anonymous said...

Holy moly. Talk about a strange situation. Maybe they stayed at a Holiday Inn recently.

Karen said...

If you want to stay friends (and sane) I would recommend you steered them toward getting an experienced agent. Unless you want to become an agent, of course. Offer to look over their contract for them by all means, and take into account everything Janet says above. But your friend may be expecting a lot. It's a big ask of anyone.

LynnRodz said...

John, I couldn't have said it better. Btw, do you by any chance cater bar mitzvahs, baptisms, or weddings?

Richard Gibson said...

Oh, well, THOSE 10 questions... but apart from that, am I good to go? :)

Bill Scott said...

I'm 0 for 10. The new agent scenario is a bit frightening. Hopefully, there is a mentoring system at most agencies. Ten questions copied and pasted.

Terri Lynn Coop said...

Several years ago, my public defender inbox yielded a client with a raft of fairly serious charges including a high speed chase that was all caught on video.

It took a couple of months and using some political markers to get him a deal that included a year of probation and a fine.

Every time I had him convinced, he would back out right before the court date. Finally, he said he wanted a trial.

His sister, a pre-law major at the local community college had convinced him he could beat it (despite that unfortunate confession caught on tape at the sheriff's office.)

So, we had a trial. It did have a few fun moments, such as cross-examining a very strait-laced state trooper on the trajectory of vomit from a moving vehicle and making him solemnly read from a transcript of the chase that included the word "fuck" many many times.

Guilty on all counts.

We refer to that as a "University of Google law degree."

The one thing I know for sure as a lawyer is when I need to call a lawyer.


El El Piper said...

When I was a child, I would watch the Olympics and see how gracefully the skaters made their moves. I fully expected to be able to go out on the ice and do triple twists. I was stunned when I found myself on my butt every time.
I have also discovered that there are many things I can learn to do myself to save money, such as build furniture or tile my kitchen.
It takes a lifetime of experience, it seems, to know your limitations. Sometimes that can-do spirit pays off--and sometimes your stubborn independence leads to disaster.
On the professional side, as an architect I preferred to work with developers who were experienced enough to respect what we did. It was more frustrating to work with naive clients building their dream house who assumed that it took 15 mins to whip up a set of drawings.

BonnieShaljean said...

Lifted from the Shark's own Facebook post (which in turn linked to Laird Barron's Wordpress blog). His words bear repeating:

How do you know if an agent is the right one for you? Due diligence. 90 percent of writing has nothing to do with actually writing. Due diligence is a great big chunk of the something that has nothing, and yet everything, to do with making it as a pro.

Elissa M said...

People who look at other people's jobs and think, "How hard can it be?" usually don't know enough about the job to even realize how much they don't know.

I take pride in knowing when I'm ignorant.

DLM said...

Elissa, being "just a secretary" I know people do that to me all the time. I had a boss who honestly believed the greatest encouragement he could possibly offer me was to say I could be an analyst. In no industry I've ever worked in in 30 years have I met a happy analyst yet. Thank you, I'm a secretary on purpose, actually. I've also fielded COUNTLESS people who imagine there is no insult whatever in telling me they have some friend who's out of work, so they want to go into admin work so they can parlay that into something else. Which: I cannot even.

Janet, your blog has amongst the finest comments on Teh Intarwebs. I love reading the readers here, it's the only place I do I think.

Lance said...

Hard to get past that part about will the publisher take your calls. Can't get that from a class or on-line research. Great information. Much better informed if I ever have to discuss a pending relationship with an agent. A new agent in an established firm is one thing, but a new agent in her own firm may be something else. Thank you very much for this great post.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Let's trade. I'll be your agent you be my cleaning lady. I dream of having a clean house.

John "Ol' Chumbucket" Baur said...

The tip off is in the first sentence, when the writer calls the blog "a very interesting insight into the world of literary agent-ness." That sort of offhanded, flippant phrasing suggests that the writer is thinking, "Hey, I trained to be a *lawyer!* How hard could anything else be?" Lawyers and doctors are the two worst at this, but every field does it to some extent. "I learned how to do what I think is important, everything else must be easy." I know a lot about my profession, but Saturday when my wife's car wouldn't start, I called a mechanic to replace the solenoid and starter because I know I don't know everything.

Joyce Tremel said...

DLM, I was a police secretary for ten years. I feel your pain.

DLM said...

Joyce, I *love* my work, and have reason to be grateful for MOST of the people I've ever worked with. Even the thoughtless ones say what they do because they think highly of me and believe I deserve "better" - so no pain. It's my good fortune to have no right to complain. But I can say there's some good mileage in the stories about people who can't believe that.

The use of the term secretary, too, is extremely tactical on my part. For one, anything -"assistant" feels to me a great deal more subordinate and heirarchical to me. Two, you can watch for the "squick" on people's faces and learn a lot about their ideas when they react.

Okay, shutting up now.