I saw a great twitter post by an agent this week about negotiating contracts, and it got me thinking about what agents do. I think there are a ton of great posts from agents out there on the subject, but I wanted to hit it from a writer perspective. I might not know what happens behind the scenes, so if you’re an agent and reading this and thinking ‘I do way more than that!’ then I apologize in advance. But I’m just going to hit the stuff that I see from my side of the relationship.
This is from my own experience, and may or may not be representative of other debut authors and their agents. I’m also not here to debate traditionally published vs. self-published. My book is being traditionally published by Harper Voyager. That’s what I know, so that’s what I’m going to talk about.
There are some basics, of course. They sell your book. They do the research, and they know which editors are a fit. There are markets you can’t get into on your own, publishers who only take works submitted by agents, and they help get you read. This is known. So I’m not going to spend a lot of time on these things.
They make your book better. The first thing that happened with my agent, Lisa Rodgers, the first time I talked to her was that she gave me notes on my book. I’ve heard people say that you don’t need that sort of thing if you’ve got good critique partners. You can get great revisions elsewhere. Maybe. But I have great critique partners. I write pretty clean, I think. I do multiple drafts, read by multiple different critique partners, several of whom are published authors themselves. Even after all that, after reading the book once Lisa gave me eight things to look at. Of those eight, six were mind-blowing. The kind of note where you read it and go ‘Oh, of course! Why didn’t I think of that?’ The seventh was solid, and the eighth I had doubts about, but her other thoughts were so spot on that I tried it anyway. It didn’t work for me, so I kept what I had, but I learned more about my book in the process.
Would my book have sold without her notes? Maybe? But I’m not confident that it would have. It was good. But I’m not sure it was ‘break into a tough field (adult SF) as a debut good.’ Now it is.
They open doors. I went to Dragon Con, which was huge and overwhelming. It sure did make it easier that Lisa had arranged for me to meet a NYT best-selling author. Later, I ran into Myke Cole at the author bar and introduced myself. The first thing he said? “Oh, you’re Lisa’s client.”
They help you with your confidence. Ever write something and then immediately question your own ability as a writer? No? Just me? An agent is a professional with a vested interest in your success. When they tell you something works, it helps. Simple as that. When I got rejections from editors, many of which came with editorial thoughts that conflicted with the thoughts of the previous rejection, Lisa helped me parse that feedback. Without that, I almost certainly would have over-reacted to the rejections. This seems like a small thing. I assure you, it isn’t. I had three ideas for new projects. I pitched them to Lisa, and she gave me her opinion on each of them. It’s extremely valuable to hear that your ideas are viable. (I ultimately didn’t write two of them, since PLANETSIDE sold.)
They get you more money. After my phone call with my now editor, we were expecting an offer. Lisa called me later that afternoon to tell me it had come, and to give me the basics. It was a one book offer with an advance that both she and I thought was fair. So fair that we didn’t think we needed to counter, and we decided that we’d let other editors know about it to see if there was other interest and go from there. Sometime between that conversation and the next day, that deal became two books. I have no idea how that happened. What I can tell you is the impact that had on me. It’s more than just double the money (though double the money is certainly nice.) More important, it means I have a book coming out in 2019 (after my debut in 2018). It means I knew what to work on next, which for me, is huge. Knowing what to work on, I got to work, and now that book is complete and through three revisions. Without that certainty, without that deadline, I would likely have worked on something, but probably without the same level of drive and commitment. Second books are HARD. Knowing what to write and when it’s due is a huge help.
She negotiated a ton of other rights in the contract as well. I won’t go into all of them, because my contract is 17 pages long. That’s not an exaggeration. I think in one clause, I was initially supposed to donate a kidney. I’m pretty sure she got me out of that. Honestly, I don’t know everything she did.
One thing I know about is the audio rights. Publishers want to keep audio rights. Authors want to have their own audio rights, because they can then sell those rights for more money. For me, the money wasn’t the big deal. I just want to have an audio book. I like audio books. I listen to them all the time. It means something to me. The publisher wasn’t willing to give up those rights, but what we got was a clause where if they don’t use those rights within 12 weeks of publication, the rights revert to me. That’s perfect for me. I’d love nothing more than for my publisher to turn my book into an audio book. Now they have a deadline. Maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe they’d have made it into an audio book right away, regardless of the contract. But it makes me feel better. In my mind, I’m more likely to get what I want: My book available in audio format.
One could argue that if the publisher was willing to negotiate, I could have done that on my own. I don’t think so. I wouldn’t have known to ask for that, and even if I did, there’s no saying they’d have given me the same consideration they gave Lisa. What I do know for sure is that all that happened while I was still focused on writing my next book. I didn’t even have to think about it.
They help when things don’t go the way you hope. This next piece isn’t about me. Something happened to a writer I admire who is also repped by Lisa, and I asked her permission to share it here. K. Eason wrote a great fantasy series that came out in the summer of 2016. The first two books of the trilogy launched just a few months apart, and they were brilliant. Book one, ENEMY, blew me away. Smart, well-written fantasy set in a Roman inspired world. I ate it up and immediately devoured book two, OUTLAW, when it came out. They were my second favorite fantasy books of 2016, behind only NK Jemisin’s THE OBELISK GATE. Then something weird happened. The publisher didn’t pick up the option for book three in the trilogy. Book two wasn’t an ending. It clearly needed the third installment. I have no idea why the publisher made that call. I don’t pretend to understand the business side of these things. What I do know is that as a fan, this was a crime reminiscent of the cancelling of Firefly. Just ridiculous.
So what’s an author to do? The book was already written. Enter the agent. Lisa worked with Eason to find another home for it, and when they couldn’t find something traditional that worked for them she put the agency’s assets behind it to help self-publish. They got a great cover and did all the other professional stuff that goes into making a quality book, and now ALLY comes out on March 20th.
Note: ENEMY AND OUTLAW are currently on sale for $1.99 each. If you are a fan of Abercrombie or Jemisin, I highly recommend them. You’re welcome.
I could list more things, but I’m already pushing 1400 words, so I’ll close with this: Having an agent gives you somebody who is on your side. Publishing is a big, confusing world. You will have questions. It’s really nice to have an ally who will answer your questions, make you more money, and tell you what you need to worry about and what you don’t. Trust me, they earn their 15% and then some.