Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Sidebar: A Few Words About Literary Agents

People keep asking me, "How do you find a literary agent?" Actually, it's remarkably simple. As we all know, the easiest way to find a hot hook-up on a Saturday night is to be young, pretty, blonde, and female, and then to stand up in a crowded room and loudly announce, "I feel so drunk! {- giggle! -} Can somebody please take me home?"

Likewise, the easiest way to find a literary agent — assuming you are not young, pretty, blonde, female, and already famous for that Internet video you made as a result of that hot hook-up back in the first paragraph — is to attract interest from a publisher, and then to stand up in a crowded room and loudly announce, "[publisher name] wants to buy my book, but I don't have a literary agent. Can somebody please help me?" Before you know it, you will have collected enough literary agents' business cards to completely wallpaper your office and get a good start on the den.

That, thanks to Byron Preiss and the Robot City deal, is essentially how I got my first literary agent. This agency — let's call it The Willy Wonka Literary Agency — was headed up by an Important Big Name: by a man who was widely loved, respected, and admired throughout the field, and had been for decades. During the courtship phase I was glad-handed, wined, and dined by Mr. Wonka Himself, who really made me feel as if I was something special, and with a true master's touch painted a glorious word-picture of the marvelous future that awaited me, once I made the decision to entrust my career to WWLA.

After I signed the contract, of course, I learned the truth: that Mr. Wonka Himself only handled the top ten-percent (by income) of the agency's clients, and my career was in the hands of an Oompa-Loompa.

Now, this is not necessarily a bad thing. Some agencies, sadly, treat their Oompa-Loompas as fungible. (And no, this does not mean that fungus grows well on them. If you don't know what it means, look it up.) The agency employee who is representing your interests today may be simply the result of whichever poor s.o.b. drew the short straw and got phone duty while everyone else went out to lunch. But WWLA at least assigned me a permanent case worker, and I had the good luck the first time around to draw one who was talented, ambitious, and eager to make a name for himself. My first Oompa-Loompa was very good for me.

Unfortunately, about halfway through the whole adventure with Baen, my guy got fed up with doing ungodly amounts of work for cacao beans and quit, to take a job with the rival Peter-Paul & Cadbury Literary Agency. Whereupon I was assigned a new Oompa-Loompa, and this time had the bad luck to draw one who, in his previous career as a literary critic, had famously slagged off The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy in print, calling it wretchedly unfunny and predicting that this new guy, Douglas Adams, would soon vanish back into that dismal anonymity he so richly deserved.

This was a change in circumstances that was to contribute much ungood to the Great and Final Conflict With Baen, which was shortly to erupt.

But before we get to that, let's review the rules for dealing with agents.

1. An agent is a commissioned salesperson. He or she works for you, selling your work and getting paid only when he or she sells your work to a publisher, and then only when the publisher remits payment, whereupon the agent skims a previously agreed upon percentage off the top and passes the rest on to you.

2. Unless you are already an established author, are already famous for activities in another field, have already seen a nibble of interest from a publisher, or have had the incredible good luck to find an ambitious Oompa-Loompa who is looking to build a new clientele and start his own agency, any agent you can get now is most likely one you don't want. Yes, I know, this is a Catch-22, but that's the way it is. You must make that first break all by yourself.

3. Any fool can hang out his or her shingle and claim to be a literary agent. You will find a tremendous number of frustrated editors, frustrated critics, frustrated publishers, and worst of all, frustrated writers, currently working as agents. Avoid these people, unless what you really want is a nanny looking over your shoulder and telling you what to do.

4. Remember, you are hiring an employee to represent you, so always check references. Ask for the names of current clients and the titles of recent book deals. If the prospective agent will not provide information of this nature, be suspicious. Most agents can't wait to brag about their success stories. If a prospective agent plays it too close to the vest, he or she may not have any success stories to brag about.

5. Review Rule #1. Given this principle, any prospective agent who demands a reading fee before he or she will even deign to look at your work is either a.) not really interested in adding new clients at this time, or b.) a parasite preying on the gullibility of would-be authors.

6. Any so-called agent who reads your work and then tells you that it is not marketable as-is, but he or she happens to know a "professional editor" or "story doctor" or some such similar creature who can, for a price, make it marketable, is at best a parasite preying on the gullibility of would-be authors, and at worst something much worse. This sort of business activity is often prosecuted as mail fraud, but not often enough.

7. Finally, always remember that if there was one perfect agent, we'd all sign with him or her, and all the rest of them would be out of work. The same agent can be brilliant for one writer and a disaster for the next. (Except for those few poor sods who are a disaster for everyone they touch, but you can usually suss them out by applying Rule #4.) Take your time; talk it over; decide whether the working relationship feels right before you sign anything.

Any more questions?