Tuesday, March 13, 2007

On Agents, Part One

Agents are one of those Catch-22s of writing. You need an agent before a lot of publishing houses will even look at your manuscript. Yet it is really, really hard to get an agent to represent your material if you aren’t published. After all, they’re in business, and smart business people lower their risks.

I’ve heard writers say, “I don’t need an agent.” Maybe they don’t. But I know I do. When I first started writing, I had the usual trouble finding an agent, although that might have been partially due to the fact that I was living overseas. Sending a manuscript from the Middle East or Australia is an expensive proposition. One agent looked at three of my manuscripts, one after the other. She kept saying, “I like your writing but I have problems with this book.” I finally gave up on her because I decided she liked the way I string words together but didn’t like my stories. In retrospect, however, I realize she was right. All three of those manuscripts had serious problems. One I subsequently revised and published as The Bequest; the other two will never see the light of day (who would have believed the time would come when I would TURN DOWN offers to publish them? They simply aren’t worth the months it would require to turn them into something I’d now be willing to put my name to).

I had an agent tell me she’d read my manuscript, and than lose it (not something you want to hear when you’ve just spent $50 mailing it to her). I had an agent say she’d represent my manuscript, then fall ill and never send it out (without telling me). And then I found Helen. She was the first agent who saw NIGHT IN EDEN, and she jumped on it.

I love Helen. When I first met her, she was an agent at William Morris. They’re a huge, prestigious agency (although Helen herself was young and fairly low on the totem pole), so it was quite a coup for me to sign with them (although that’s not strictly true; I have never actually signed a contract with Helen. Many agents are still “old school” and think it’s an insult to operate under anything but a handshake agreement). Then Helen fell in love with a Hollywood producer and rather than transferring her to their Hollywood office, William Morris let her go. Helen decided to form her own literary agency in Hollywood and I left William Morris to go with her as one of her first clients. It’s a decision I’ve never regretted.

This is getting way too long; tomorrow I’ll talk about why.


Steve Malley said...

I went to a writer's thingy here a few months ago and was flabbergasted to hear that agents are rare, and NZ publishers are still reading unsolicited fulls!

Of course, there are like five of them, and they put out less than a hundred books a year between them. But still...

I've gone the agent route, too. The North American market is just too big to ignore.

I hope all is well with Helen...

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