- By Harry Bingham
- Published 04/10/2013
I was once asked by an aspiring writer whether my literary agent was my friend or a necessary evil. The answer was neither. As it happens, I thoroughly like my agent, but I don’t socialise with him. We have an excellent relationship, but it is a business relationship. That partnership may develop into one of friendship, but nothing has gone wrong if that doesn’t happen. But necessary evil? Huh? That’s not the alternative. A literary agent typically takes a commission of 15% of an author’s domestic earnings, 20% of their overseas and film earnings. That way of putting it may make it sound like your literary agent will make you 15-20% poorer but really that’s not the case at all. Here’s the simple truth: An agent is there to make money for you. What’s more, if you want the heft of a big publisher behind you, then if you are writing any type of fiction, you basically have to have an agent: the big publishers are not going to look at your fiction any other way. If you are writing non-fiction, the deal is a little more complex. More generalist, popular non-fiction (the kind of thing you might find at front of store) will certainly need a literary agent. More niche, subject-led non-fiction may not need an agent. Here are the five main things a good agent will do. One: auction your work A good agent will know the publishing industry well enough that they can identify the right publishers, the right imprints at the right publishers, and the right editors at the right imprints. That’s not a knowledge which can be gleaned from the internet or in any way at all other than the good old-fashioned one of meeting people over months and years, building relationships, staying in with the gossip. That insider knowledge alone will easily make a 15-20% difference to your eventual advance. Indeed, it will quite likely make the difference between success and failure. For something as fragile and personal as a novel (or any type of fiction), getting the editor right is a crucial choice. Two: negotiate a contract
Publishing contracts are fairly samey, in the sense that any two publishers will offer contracts that look reasonably akin to each other. Yet that doesn’t mean you can just take what you’re given without wrestling over the detail. Also the industry is in a place of rapid change. You can’t know current best practice from an internet search or by scouring the pages of a textbook. You simply have to be in the market negotiating these things day in, day out
. That is: you have to be a literary agent. Three: Achieve overseas sales Authors are so transfixed by the dream of becoming published writers that they often forget quite basic facts about their financial future. My most recent novel, a piece of detective fiction, was bought up by a major UK publisher with a huge strength in my particular area. I was thrilled, of course, and have an excellent relationship with them. But that same novel has also sold widely overseas, and has secured a TV deal too. All told, I’ll make twice as much from those ‘additional’ sales as I have done from my main publication deal. And just to be clear: if I didn’t have an agency with an excellent foreign sales team and a very strong affiliated film and TV agency, I wouldn’t have all those lovely things. Remember: agents are there to make you money. Four: Fight your fights In any long term relationship with a publisher, you will have your disagreements. And, although it’s absolutely fine for you as an author to state your case in a calm, professional way, there will also be times when you need support. It’s not that writers are all shrinking violets who need to pay others to act tough for them. It’s that, as an author, you need cordial relationships with your editor, your publicist, your paperback specialist, your marketing team and so forth. An agent can act tough without jeopardising any of those things. You possibly can’t. And remember that a lousy cover can kill a good book. So if you hate the cover and you can’t get your editor to listen properly, you will need someone who can yell on your behalf. That person is your literary agent. Five: Manage your career It’s a shocking fact that publishers have become almost uninterested in managing the careers of ‘their’ authors. I once heard a very senior agent comment, ‘A publisher’s product is a book. My product is a successful author.’ My own editor at that time, who was in the room, nodded in agreement. I don’t, as it happens, think that publishers should be so removed from the development of their authors. But I do think that you will need some industry professional to guide you. That guidance will potentially cover almost any area. Don’t write that, write this. Time to switch publishers. Have you thought of writing crime? I think your character needs to be darker. The advice you get is potentially transformative. I once wrote a popular history book which, after advice from my agent, probably sold for ten times more than it would have done if I had handled the same material in the way I’d first envisaged.
The truth is that a good literary agent is worth far more than the measly 15% they may charge. Make you poorer? They’re there to make you rich.