Friday, August 20, 2010

Everyone asks about agents...


Back in my alter ego as Avenging Writer...  I began with an agent who never did a thing for me.  I fired him (or maybe he fired me?)  Regardless, I kept writing.  I also read a lot.  I read the kind of book I wanted to have written.  At first that was hard, because there were very few fantasy writers for adults around when I began.  So I went to the British writers for young adults, (they called them children), and I read them.  Then I found Eleanor Cameron and her Mushroom Planet books, and the Court of the Stone Children.  American.  There were a couple of Canadians:  one I remember, very good: A Walk Out of the World by a writer whose name I'm ashamed to say I've forgotten.  Ruth something?  Anyway, all the time, I kept reading and kept writing.  My writing was really not good at first.  Really not good.  But after Tolkien, suddenly every writer in the universe who'd been wandering around like me, dying for a genre that didn't exist, began to write.  Some of them (unlike me) wrote very quickly.  I got my book to Lester del Ray the same month he had accepted the Sword of Shanarra, and he wrote me personally with his apologies that he'd have liked to give my book a go, except that he simply couldn't take two brand new writers with big fat books on in the same publishing season. 

Well, that was a time of mixed emotion.  I was, mostly, tired.  I had sent the book to every publisher in English in the known universe, and Lester del Ray's was the final rejection.  Did I need an agent?  Not for that book.  Not to be rejected by everyone.

But I kept on writing.  New books, shorter books, with young adult protagonists, some good ideas, unique even.  And I kept on reading.  Every single time I found a book I loved to read, I wrote down the name of the publisher.  Fortunately, the one that came up most often had her own imprint.  So, each time I wrote a book I sent it to her first.  And eventually, I almost passed out, the phone rang and a lovely, elegant, special American voice introduced herself to me.  Margaret K. McElderry.  And she wanted to publish my book.

I went on from there.  Three more books.  Then I won a big contest.  I thought, okay, maybe I should have an agent now.  It wasn't hard at all to get one.  She signed with me, I with her, and she "sold" my award-winning book and my next one which both were more or less done at the same time to the same publishers I already had: Margaret K. McElderry in the USA and a real up-and-comer in Canada.  From then (1987, 1988) till 2009, the agents got 15% of every shekel, Belgian franc, dinar, yen, and dollar I earned with those two books.  And guess what?  Right after this agent negotiated the two contracts (haha, negotiated!) she decided she didn't want to be an agent any more and turned herself into a publisher. 

Nevertheless, she sold me along with all her other clients to the agencies that came after hers, and that is how I lost a great deal of money for nothing, because the new agent was very inexperienced and submitted my books to companies that had already seen them, that sort of thing.  So we shook hands and said goodbye, except for the twice a year cheque they got from  my earnings. 

For the next six books I was on my own.  I sold world rights to either the American or the Canadian publisher who had first accepted me.  They acted as my agents, one with considerable success.  I can't remember how many deals they made, but I know it made me many thousands of dollars richer. 

Finally, I got two screenwriters who wanted to take options out on two different books.  Screenwriting contracts, even just option contracts, are incredibly complex.  My publisher was not competent to deal with it, and disguised that fact with a screaming fit in which she told me she only offered to do screenwriting contracts as a favour to her writers (yeah, sure) and she didn't want to do it anyway and all screenwriters wanted things done yesterday and so basically to hell with me, take back my darn screen rights!  I said, "Are you...er...sure?"  Because this was a sure thing, real money.  She didn't put it in writing but she said she meant it.  So the first option got written by the screenwriter's agent and I just signed it, because it was money and who wanted to read contracts anyway?  Nothing bad happened to me.  But later, I found out that the publisher had taken back her word and kept for her publishing house the percentage she'd originally demanded for screen writing.  So then, the second screenwriter came along.  This time, I went to a proper literary agent, with promises that they could sell all my books from then on (this was a very good agency) since they had an agreement with a Film Agency that was also very good.  The film agent went to the publisher and said, "I hear you don't want the film rights in such and such a book.  Is that true?"  I had not said anything to my publisher about the taking back of the original offering, because, to tell the truth, I just was too busy to read my royalty statements and all the stuff that came with them.  Anyway, the publisher said, indeed she didn't want the film rights, and the Film Agency got it in writing, and negotiated a very complex and good deal for me.  Unfortunately my new book agents never got a chance to sell anything new.  I had a car accident at just about the same time as I signed with the agency, and it has taken nearly eight years for me to recover enough even to write little scraps like this.

So did I need an agent?  No, not for the books I published.  Yes, definitely, for film rights. And now that electronic rights are so in demand, you'd have to think seriously about getting an agent to help you decide what the best course of action would be for that kind of publishing.

The main thing is to be your own agent.  That is, you find the right fit for your books by reading and reading and reading until you know who you would want to be published by.  Then you just keep submitting your books, one after the other, to that publisher first.  I think I wasn't a particularly good writer when that wonderful Margaret K. McElderry first accepted one of my books.  But maybe she saw me improve?  So if I could do it, maybe you could as well.

I do believe there are many publishers who say they will accept only manuscripts submitted by an agent.  I have also heard that it is harder to get a good agent than a good publisher.  If I had it to do now, as a rank beginner, I think I would do both: that is, I'd submit my manuscripts to publishers (even if they said they wouldn't read it without an agent) and to agents at the same time.  Whichever one accepted me first, that would be the route I'd go.

But always, start at the top of your list.  Don't start with some publisher or agent you've never heard of.  Read and read and read the books like the ones you want to read, and make sure you read the acknowledgements, because they often mention an agent's name.  Don't expect an agent or an editor to be at the same house as you first found them.  They move around a lot, because they're good, and so people want to steal them from other publishers or agencies.  Use the internet, follow Publisher's Weekly, especially online.  This is where you get current news.

And whichever way you end up going, remember that you have to perform the task of being your own agent even if you have an agent.  You have to check their royalty statements to you.  Many, many agencies can't add worth beans.  You also have to check the royalty statements from the publisher to you or your agent.  There are so many reasons for that, it will require a lot of new posts.

Meanwhile, be an avenging writer.  Too many writers get stepped on.  Too many get ruined.  Think as if you were crooked.  Try to figure out what you might do to someone if you were crooked, and had power over that person.  Then prevent it from happening by putting things in your contract, as I discussed in detail in my second post. 

Never assume you're a bad writer just because you haven't been accepted by either a publisher or an agent.  Always believe in yourself.  You might just not have found your lucky time yet.  Keep at it, and it will come.  Baji-naji, as C.J. Cherryh would say!!   

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