Thursday, June 7, 2012

What Do You Want In An Agent?

I've been doing a lot of thinking recently on which route to pursue when it comes to my novels.  Do I want to go the traditional route or chance it by going indie/self-publishing.  As I pondered these things, I dwelled upon some of the aspects required for each, and one of the most prominent ones in regards to traditional publishing is the need for an agent.

An agent is supposed to be the one with all the contacts.  I've discussed this before, as the literary agent is the one with all the contacts in the publishing world and supposedly has the ability to get you past the gate and to where you need to be in order to have success.  However, I've recently begun to have doubts about the true utility of agents.  Oh, not whether or not they're really the ones who can get you the access you need, because clearly they can, but whether or not they really have the writer's best interests at heart.

Recent events have made me wonder if some of the agents out there are more interested in maintaining contacts than in looking after their clients.  I understand that they can't piss off the publishers too much or they'll find a lot of doors slammed in their faces, but some of the cozying up they do at the expense of better returns for their clients clearly shows a conflict of interest.

However, beyond that, I've begun to wonder at the role played by agents.  Not for the contacts, but for what they're supposed to do once they've gotten their client in the door.  Once the agent has gotten a publisher to show interest in a book, doesn't the main job become getting the best possible terms for the clients?  Shouldn't the nuances of contract law be an agent's bread and butter?
Most agents got into the business because they love books.  However, once I've gotten in, I don't care if they love books or not - what I want at that point is someone who knows how to get me, the client, the best deal possible.  You can bet that the publisher has a team of lawyers working to make sure they get as good a deal as they can.  It's not in the interest of the publisher to give perks to the author unless it benefits them in some way.  With that kind of firepower arrayed against you, shouldn't your agent be just as well versed in how to negotiate a contract?

Unfortunately, most of what I've seen tells me that most, although not all, agents really don't understand the varying clauses and their meanings.  Yes, there are a few who both love books and are lawyers, but those are rare, and their client lists are already mostly full.  For the rest of us, having a great book lover who wouldn't know the difference between a consideration clause and a considerate person sets us up for an epic fail.

Further, most agents I've encountered seem more to want to be writers than agents, except that they don't want to go through the messy work of creating the book themselves.  Instead, they'd rather someone else write most of it, then they'll critique it and tell you what you should change to make it better.  Well shit, don't most of us have ideas on what would make a story better?  Would that make us good agents?  Isn't re-framing the book and helping cut parts out or re-working other parts the job of an editor, not an agent?  When I want an editor, I'll hire one, but I'm asking for an agent.  Besides, don't the major publishers have tons of editors anyway?  Why are we adding yet another layer to the mix, and one whose edits are likely to be edited again?

Yes, this is a critical post, and it's meant to be that way.  The agents I've encountered are all good people, but I truly wonder if they have the skill sets required beyond simply having contacts on the inside.  I want a firebreather who can get me the best deal, not a starry-eyed book reader who thinks pro rata is a nifty new pasta dish down at the Olive Garden.

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