Thursday, April 03, 2008

Hot Topic - The Representation Equation

I've been asked to do some articles on various topics of interest to new authors, so today I'll be addressing the dilemma most authors face at some time or another: whether representation is necessary, and why.

You've completed your manuscript, and now you aren't sure what to do next. Do you get an agent, or go straight for the publishers? Is an agent really necessary anyway? Can you or should you represent yourself?

Possible Pitfalls of Solo Navigation: The Moxie and I recently met a lady who has had several books published. At first blush, that sounded great. Good for her; congratulations were definitely in order. Or were they? She went on to tell us that she hadn't gotten much of an advance for her books, and she'd signed away quite a few rights she shouldn't have, leaving her with very limited royalties. She admitted she hadn't understood her contract--which gives me the notion that she probably didn't have an agent to navigate her safely through the Boilerplate Sea. If anyone's making money off her books, it's not the author.

Gated Community Access: Will publishers look at work from authors who don't have agents? Yes; some will. But many more will not, and openly state that their houses are not interested in seeing work from unrepresented authors. When there is a pile of unrepresented, unrequested submissions on the editor's desk, it's called the slush pile. It's the last thing that gets looked at (if at all) after all the requested, represented submissions have been read. Yes, there are lucky authors who have been discovered and published out of the slush pile. But from articles I've read and things I've heard editors say at writers' conferences, it's rare and has gotten even more so over the last fifteen years. You may need an agent to get your foot into the right door. It reminds me of that Harry Potter scene where he tries and tries to get the right winged key--without which he cannot pass through the door ahead. It might not be an easy key to nab, but once you have it, you can finally continue on. (Note: no agents are to be harmed in the pursuit of the winged key--if you recall, that key looked pretty beat up once Harry finally captured it.)

Contract Matters: You might have heard that editors go to writers' conferences and take pitches from aspiring authors. Yes, they do. I've talked to one or two in the dim and foggy past. I've even had one ask to see a manuscript. Did I get an editor to look at my work without an agent? Yes. Would I have known how to decipher the publishing contract had she offered me one? No, not really. I would have paid close attention to the language and tried my best, but...would I trust myself to negotiate the best deal? No. I'm a good businesswoman, but I'm not sure I'm good enough to gamble my writing career on my ability to understand all the possible issues and ramifications inherent in a legal contract. I could miss the fatal clause and end up like that poor woman with many books and little to no royalties. It's just not a risk I want to take. In fact, if I'd gotten a publishing contract at that time, I'd have immediately called an agent I'd met before and asked him if he'd handle the contract for me. Often, even when unpublished authors do manage to make it to the offer stage, publishers will then ask them to go and find an agent to negotiate the contract. It's just easier for all concerned. And the agent will also handle royalty issues and send out 1099 forms.

So, do you really need an agent? At the outset, technically, no. You can go through the process alone, with the right contacts and no small amount of luck and good planning. But somewhere along the line, you'll probably discover that you want or need an agent. There's a lot to be said for avoiding contract pitfalls, not to mention having a strong advocate for your book other than yourself--someone with a vested interest in getting you the best contract possible and seeing that you don't sell yourself short.

Best advice I can offer--go for the agent first, if you can. Agents can function like a sort of first screening for the editor. Chances are, if the manuscript was good enough to hook an agent, it's quite a cut above your average slush, and the publisher will be much more likely to take a serious look.

Upcoming Hot Topic: Finding the Right Agent

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