Tuesday, 1 June 2010
Agents - What Are They For?
Don't worry, this isn't one of those patronising articles that assumes you don't have the mental power to find out for yourself. But I have noticed as I trawl around the online writing community that there are some misguided assumptions about agents so here's my take for what it's worth.
The received wisdom is you need an agent to get your book published. Well, considering all the major publishers refuse to look at unsolicited submissions there is some truth in this. An agent has the knowledge of the industry to know which publishers are looking for what. He also has a good grasp of contracts and can guide you and negotiate on your behalf when it comes to signing on the dotted line. If you're a really hot property he'll get several publishers interested so they have to bid for your product, a good way to get a huge advance. He's the go-between, smoothing things out if you have problems with your editor. And he should be the first person you talk to about any career plans or queries.
What an agent isn't is a writing coach. I know many agents have been editors and have considerable editorial skills. But it is not their remit to tell you how to write. That's your job, and if you can't do it you have no need for an agent.
With this thought in mind I was surprised to see a major agency offering critiques in a charity auction recently. Seems a bit odd. Charity auctions are usually for people donating their expertise while the recipient pays the money to charity, eg hairdressers give hair cuts, rock stars give concerts etc. But critiques are not what agents do. OK, they have to read a lot of stuff and evaluate it, but that's not the same as a critique. If this agency wanted to donate their skills to charity they should be offering their expertise in contract negotiation, not creative writing.
So what's wrong with this anyway? Surely if it's for charity it doesn't really matter? Well, yes it does. What it does is exploit the vast pool of unpublished authors who will go to any lengths to get their work into an agent's hands thinking it's the golden ticket to a publishing contract. And that's another misconception. This game isn't about getting an agent, it's about writing a great book publishers love. Once you can write books like that agents will be hammering on your door to represent you. You need to work on your writing, come up with an original story idea and execute it well, learn all you can to improve. Throwing cash at an agent, even if it's for charity, will not help you do any of those things.