Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Literary Agents: Fair Players or Dodgy Dealers?

Let me state first, I'm all for having an agent. I think they can be an important asset to any writer but, as in all walks of life, I believe there are the good and the bad; the fair players and the dodgy dealers.
It has shocked me to read some of the vitriol spread by aspiring writers about agents and I believe they are showing a lot of ignorance. Tarring and feathering in one, uninformed swipe.

Some of you might be saying - oh, yes but what does she know, she's not published, she hasn't got an agent.
All this is true, I can't deny it, but I have had some dealings with agents, I try to gather as much information as possible from various sources so as to make a considered opinion, and I don't believe that ignorance is bliss, I think it's for the naïve and often foolhardy.

Here's the comparison I like to draw from. As someone who worked in film, I was sometimes in charge of handling budgets, employing my own art department team, breaking down scripts, researching time periods, working to shooting schedules which, as many of you may know, does not work in script or scene order. Basically, it's a job that requires juggling several balls and trying to keep them all up in the air because if one goes, that can cause many problems and the production can be badly affected.

I loved my job, I loved the creativity but what I found was to have a good team around you helps to get the job done better.
Depending on the art department's budget, I sometimes had to take on the role of more than one person, which led to many a 24 hour day, sheer exhaustion and rising stress levels. This can be fun in some ways, the adrenaline rush, the fun of working on a project you believed in. Okay, sometimes that wasn't always the case, some projects were a nightmare from start to finish but... the thing is, when a film is in production there is an end to it. A time when you can collapse in a big heap, sleep for a week, succumb to every bug going, because it's wrapped and the job is done. (One thing I can assure you, working in film is not glamorous, it's sheer, bloody hard work and long hours.)

When you have a good team you can delegate to, the added stress of worrying about spending ten grand on props hire becomes an issue for someone else because they are in control of the budget, they're keeping a tally on the receipts (and receipts have a tendency to breed like mice if not kept in check.)
I, as the designer, could design the look and be all 'creative, darling' - really do the job I'd trained for, be the creative one, get my vision up on screen. Of course, again, there's team work in that the DOP, the Director, the Lighting Director, the actors, everyone on and off set, all produce the goods too, that everyone works together to produce the best they can.

So, for me, having an agent means I can delegate roles that, as a creative, I have no interest in. Numbers bore me, contracts bore me, and believe me as a freelancer, I have read and signed many a contract. If someone is paid to do this work for me - fantastic. It leaves me much more time to do the things that are important to me - writing, thinking about writing, reading books, hoping that inspiration will hit me soon, drooling over David Tennant.
If I was having to go through the minutiae of contract wording, getting the best deal, making sure I was covered for insurance issues, checking I wasn't handing over film rights, etc, I would then have less time to write, read, think. I don't know publishing law, I don't know the ins and outs of publishing contracts, I don't know how rights work in other territories, I don't know if the deal I'm being offered is the best one for me, but if I have a good, trustworthy agent with intimate knowledge of the industry doing this for me, well, thank you very kindly, I want that person by my side.

If that's too long-winded a comparison, another one I've bandied around is, as a freelancer I was self-employed so had to do my own taxes. I got me an accountant and, boy, was he worth the fee. Go in with a bag of receipts and plonk it on his table (Ok, I was a bit more organised than that, they were in a folder and, sometimes, in date order but still in need of a bloody good sort out.) If you're working and tax deadlines are looming, there's isn't always time to do your own accounts and even if you do, personally, I find it boring and not fun. Life is way too short and it can take a good few hours - so, take it to the lovely accountant person who knows the details of what you can and can't do when filling in tax forms, can make sure you're not paying over the odds, knows what's going on and voilà, the job is done. It's in their hands, they'll do their best for you.
I hasten to add, even getting an accountant, I made sure I got one who came recommended and who knew the film and creative industries. I did my research.

So that why I think agents are important. They become a member of your team, they're working to help you and if they are good, they should be worth their weight in percentages.
But it is up to us as aspiring writers to research them, check out their client list, see what their background is, perhaps see what their success rate is. The internet won't let anyone hide, there are sites that post warnings about some agents, check them out.
Decide what you want to get from working with an agent and if it's really not for you, I think that's fine too.

And please, leave your

Let me know your feelings on the matter or any experiences you have had.


Welshcake said...

Totally agree. With everything. Except maybe drooling over David Tennant. Christopher Ecclestone or maybe Dylan Moran for me.

I think aspiring authors don't like agents much because they reject us!

Tracy said...

Hi Welshcake
I hadn't mentioned David T or Doctor Who for a while so had to get it in there somehow. ;)

Sandra Patterson said...

I agree too. Contract negotiations are tricky blighters, not to mention knowing which editors to approach. I wouldn't know where to start.
I'm still unagented - working on it - but I gather from those who know better a good agent will earn his fee and more when it comes to getting you a deal.

Michelle Sutton said...

An interesting read, Tracy, and makes a lot of sense to me. Found myself agreeing with you (inc. the drooling over DT ;))

~Jediya from TB~ (incase you didn't know ;))

Tracy said...

Hi Michelle - good to see you here and thanks for commenting.

Jon M said...

All sounds like good sense. I played in a ceilidh band and we used lots of agents, they found work for us, some gigs were great others dire but I never begrudged their percentage!

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