Letter From The Editor - Issue 68 - April 2019

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  Writing Advice by Mette Ivie Harrison
February 2018

Why You Need an Agent

A student asked me recently if I thought agents were just useless middle men and wouldn’t it be better if we got rid of them so authors could keep all the money for their own. I didn’t have a mirror to see my expression, but my guess is that it was pretty sour. Yes, agents have now taken over the job of overseeing the slush piles that editors once did themselves. Yes, if editors had more time, they could do that. Does that mean you should work without an agent? I don’t think so.

I’m going to admit up front here that there are certainly situations in which you won’t need or want an agent. If you’re publishing locally in Utah, the local publishers don’t like to work with agents. I personally think that this says volumes about these publishers, both about their professionalism and about their fear of authors demanding more for themselves, but it’s the way it is. You may not feel you need an agent for a small press deal. I can see why you might think the stakes are low. I get it.

You also don’t need an agent to sell short stories. If you’re not interested in writing novels and you’re planning only to sell short stories or only to sell short stories for a few years, you don’t need an agent.

This student suggested that instead of an agent helping you with a big deal, you could use a lawyer. Uh, yeah. That’s not the best plan. First of all, whatever lawyer you’re thinking of talking to probably doesn’t have experience you need. You’d need to find a lawyer whose specialty is entertainment law, and who has specific experience with New York publishing contracts. That’s because book contracts are different than other contracts. Each clause has a specific meaning within the book world, and a lawyer not familiar with book contracts may balk at clauses that are perfectly normal in the publishing world. This will make you seem like a problem author, which is not a good look.

The other reason a lawyer won’t help is that a lawyer doesn’t have the right contacts within the industry. Most agents have already worked out the terms of the contracts their clients will be willing to sign with each individual publishing house. A typical lawyer doesn’t have the clout or know-how to do this. A lawyer is also not going to be a great go-between in arguing for more money or a different clause. There’s no leverage. An agent has leverage because they have many other clients and a reputation. That means the publishing house doesn’t want to piss them off.

Yes, you’re paying 15% to an agent, and if you’re lucky you’ll never know how much you need an agent. Trust me, you do. If you’re in the business for long enough, you will see situations go down that are nasty. Publishers demanding advances back, books canceled, publishers going under and not giving you your rights back, books in limbo forever, and on and on. No one wants to think this will happen to their book, but it can, and you want to have someone to protect you who knows the ins and outs.

The long and short of it is: Get an agent.

Read more by Mette Ivie Harrison

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