Fun with Agents

Please Note: This article first appeared in RWA’s official monthly newsletter, Hearts Talk, in January, 2009. Due to the passage of time, some information in the article may no longer be relevant. Please ensure you research your chosen genre thoroughly before submitting.

By Allison Rushby

A few months back, a throwaway comment from a writer who’d recently signed with an agent shocked

me to my very core. ‘I’m so glad I’ll never have to think about the business-side of things again!’ she told me. I wasn’t sure whether to congratulate her or shake her. Or both.

Having written 12 manuscripts now and published 8 books, I thought it might be interesting to take a quick stroll through my publishing history and look at what went on behind the scenes agent-wise during this ten- year period. Perhaps this will demonstrate why, in my opinion, you’d be crazy to stop thinking about the business-side of things at any stage of your publishing career.

Book 1 – we’ll call my first published book Book 1. I’d written another ms before this, but it was terrible. It did, however, make me some good contacts, including an Australian agent. When I sold Book 1 to a large Australian publisher, I brought this agent on board. So, books sold by me: 2. Books sold by agent: 0.

Book 2 – to be fair, Book 2 was almost as terrible as my first unpublished attempt. It was late 2001 and chick-lit was dying. Fast. My agent wasn’t exactly pushing for another book and my publisher wasn’t either. I freaked out for a while, but finally abandoned Book 2 and started writing another ms. 2003 rolled around and chick-lit picked up in a big way in the US. This started to filter through slightly to Australia and, one day, I noticed some gorgeous, huge, red chick-litty dump bins in all the bookshops in the city. I emailed my agent and she told me to, ‘Be careful, they’re probably a vanity publisher’. A quick google showed me that this ‘vanity publisher’ sells around 200 million novels a year. Within a few months, I was in London being offered a two-book contract. Thus, books sold by me: 4. Books sold by agent: 0.

Books 3 and 4 – it would be almost eighteen months before Book 3 was released. I spent a good deal of this time searching for the right agent in the US. I finally secured an agent who can generally be found hovering in the top five dealmakers on Publishers Marketplace.

Books 5 and 6 – after Books 3 and 4 were published, my publisher was keen on another two-book contract. My new US agent negotiated this, but these were very boilerplate contracts. There was no shopping around, no handpicking editors. So, it might sound harsh, but… Books sold by me: 6. Books sold by agent: 0.

Books 7, 8 and 9 – my next books were a Young Adult (YA) trilogy. My US agent passed me on to the YA specialist in the office. He tried very hard to sell this trilogy in the US and came close a number of times. Finally, I asked if I could try my hand in Australia. I sold them to a major Australian publisher. Books sold by me: 9. Books sold by agent: 0.

Books 10 and 11 – chick-lit had died its cyclical death in the US, so I sold my next adult novel and next YA novel to my Australian publisher. I used my US YA agent to negotiate on behalf of me for both of these books. He got me a little more money and managed to wrangle some of my rights back. So, books sold by me: 9. Books where agent didn’t shop around but got me a little more money and managed to wrangle some of my rights back: 2.

I guess at this point you’re wondering why the heck I have an agent at all, right? Well, that’s a fair question, but the truth is I wouldn’t be without one anymore. And I’ll tell you the five reasons why:

  • they’re a great go-between. There have been several points in my career where I have been very grateful not to have to pick up the phone and throw a tanty about something. For example, 50 books recently landed on my doorstep in Portuguese and, despite not knowing a word of Portuguese, I slowly but surely worked out it was someone else’s book with my name on the front. And then? Well, all I had to do was email my agent and leave it with her. Sometimes it really helps to have someone else call up and have that tanty while you maintain your good relationship with your editor;
  • agents have great contacts. Being on the ground, and being a small market, I can almost keep up with the Australian market. The US and UK markets, however? Not a chance. Especially when it comes to mainstream women’s fiction and YA fiction. I need someone there, on the ground, who knows what’s going on on a day-to-day basis;
  • they’re a fantastic first read. Your family and friends will mostly just read your ms and gush. Hopefully your agent will gush, too. But then he/she will be useful and will give you ten to twenty things to run away and change that will make your ms a better read and an easier sale;
  • they’re helpful when it comes to career planning. You might have two or three ideas that you’re thinking of writing next. Your agent will be able to steer you in the right direction when it comes to working out what you’ll be writing over the next few years; and
  • editors listen to agents. Editors listen to agents they trust and they respond faster to them, too. If you have a good, well-respected agent, you’ll get faster responses.The bottom line for me is, I like my current agents. They’re both lovely, professional people who respond to my emails in 24 hours. They meet with editors every day. They go to conferences. And book fairs. They know stuff. And I trust them. Sort of. But the truth is, at the end of the day, I like me and trust me more. This is my dream job and I would never hand over control of my dreams to someone else entirely. But I’ll take all the help I can get! And with the right help on board, I have to say that this publishing caper is definitely less difficult and confusing than it would be otherwise.


Allison Rushby/Alli Kincaid’s next release is a YA called ‘Shooting Stars’, to be released in the US, February this year.  Her 4th YA novel, Blondetourage, was re- leased  with Random House Australia as was her second Alli Kincaid novel, Wrong Way, Go Back. You can subscribe to her newsletter and see her sad ‘look, I’ve got cute kids!’ photos at http://www.allikincaid.com

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2 Comments

  1. Sure makes it hard to know what is best, agent wise.
    But this highlights that these days we all need to be business savvy and keep an eye on what’s going on in publishing.
    Suzi

    Reply

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