Monday, August 5, 2019

An agent as fairy godmother

Q: Do you have, or have you ever had, an agent? Depending on your experience, mount an argument for or against having one.

- from Susan

I’m one of the lucky ones. I’ve had an agent since my first manuscript, Murder in the Abstract, was ready to share.

I had fired off a couple of queries in late 2007, one response to which exemplifies the experiences many of my talented friends have had. I was in New York City and dropped off the query at the reception desk of a large agency’s midtown office right before noon, as the staff was heading out to lunch. When I got back to my San Francisco area home, an envelope was waiting: a crookedly Xeroxed, abrupt ‘not interested’ form letter. The thing was, it was postmarked shortly after noon on the day I dropped it off!

But my beloved partner had a fast-moving cancer and I set my agent search aside to care for him. I had signed up for the Book Passage Mystery Writers Conference earlier. It took place a few months after he died in 2008 and I decided to go. What the heck – I wanted to be with my writing friends and have something to focus on. Attendees could pay a little extra to have a faculty member read 20 pages and, thinking everyone else would ask for her, I nevertheless requested the sole agent on the faculty as a reader. 

I was shocked when she said she loved it, wanted to read the whole thing that week and, if she liked it, wanted to represent me! 

(The original sale and start of my zigzagging career)

I have had an agent ever since. The question is, would I argue for or against having one? My answer, based on my experience, is always have an agent if you can find one who truly likes your manuscript, will work seriously to sell it, will stick with you if it doesn’t sell easily, and will stay in communication with you. I have learned over the years that many agents concentrate on sales while others offer their clients more nuanced career advice. My current agent does the latter and it’s a real bonus. In both cases, the 15% they get has been well worth it, not just because of sales contracts but the ability to negotiate rights, read royalty statements (trust me – not simple), and share insights into the state of the industry that could affect the appeal of my work.

Having said that, I know writers, usually self-published, who are thriving, sell more books than I do by avoiding the screwed up Big Five publishing universe, and are happy. They don’t have, or seemingly need, agents. They don’t have to negotiate with traditional publishers, argue over cover choices, let a publisher control book pricing and marketing, and skim off most of the profit from sales. Some non-agented authors I know do have contracts with traditional publishers, those who will look at un-agented manuscripts. Those publishers deserve halos, in my opinion, because there aren’t enough agents out there to properly serve all the good writers.

For me, having an agent has been the right path. But that’s just one experience, and I bet some of the talented writers on Criminal Minds have done as well or better without an agent. 

My books, all sold by my agent, in print in new editions
 (hard cover, paperback, audio and e-books)


Paul D. Marks said...

As you say, Susan, having an agent is a good thing in many ways. I haven't had much luck in the prose world, but in Hollywood I had agents from the biggest agencies to the smallest. Some were good, some weren't. If you find a good one, you're very lucky. And it sounds like you've got a good one!

Susan C Shea said...

Paul, I've had two - the first was my fairy godmother and sold all my books. The new one (career-building) is on board and giving me good advice and urging me on in the newest endeavor - fingers crossed!

Paul D. Marks said...

Sounds like you've struck gold twice, Susan. That's very cool.

Frank Zafiro said...

Susan, your description is exactly how I envision a great agent/author relationship should be: a partnership based upon belief in the art and talent in the business elements. That's awesome, and I'm glad it continues to work for you!