Jeff Abbott is an international bestselling author and Curtis Brown client. He has been nominated twice for Edgar awards, and his most recent novel, COLLISION, was published in July by Dutton.
Obviously, you know you need an agent, or you wouldn’t be stalking Nathan, er, reading his blog. But I have found that too many new writers eager (or desperate) for representation are not thinking beyond the agent’s sale of their first book. And some aspiring authors balk at surrendering fifteen percent (or more) of their income to an agent. Others feel sure that their lawyer brother-in-law can cast an adequate eye over their contracts with publishers. (After all, using a lawyer for representation worked for President Clinton.) And with all the free agenting advice on Nathan’s blog and elsewhere, can’t smart, savvy authors just represent themselves?
Here’s some reasons why having an agent is crucial to your long-term career—and what an agent can do for you that you may not have even considered.
Advice you can use. A great agent does not just get you a solid advance and favorable contract terms for that first novel. A great agent will help you think about what your strengths are as a writer, and how to develop those strengths with each new book you write. For instance, I had written two successful crime series when my publisher suggested I might write a standalone thriller. A common thread in my mysteries was family relationships twisted by past secrets—not an obvious component of a novel of international intrigue, which was what I was envisioning for my standalone thriller. After my agent said, “you really do family relationships well, and you might consider carrying that over to a thriller, even though it’s a rather different kind of book.” I thought about it and realized he was right. I kept family secrets as a cornerstone of the standalone novel—it was a way to offer my existing readers a facet of my writing they already knew and liked. At the same time, it brought a fresh sensibility to an “innocent man on the run” novel. My agent had the wisdom to remind me family dysfunction would be an element I would love to write about—whether writing a small-town mystery or a global thriller. The result was Panic, a novel that has sold a half-million copies around the world, and is in development at The Weinstein Company.
Sound advice is not just about markets; it is about you, as a writer.
Subrights matter. A greater than anticipated amount of my annual income comes from subrights: foreign sales (my books are popular in the UK, Ireland, France, Portugal, and other European countries, and there is no single explanation for this) and from film options (either new, in the case of Collision, or renewed, in the case of Panic) and from screenwriting work that my film agent got for me (rewriting a treatment for a film that will most likely never be made—but I still got paid). Most new writers don’t think for a moment about the potential of their foreign or subright sales, or for additional writing work that their agents can negotiate for them. (Imagine an agent hearing that an editor would like to buy more historical fiction, and knowing that one of their clients has a burning passion for all things medieval, for instance.) New writers tend to think only of their agent’s relationship with American publishers. But an agent who is prepared and experienced in dealing with subrights negotiations—and works with overseas agents who know their markets—can have a profound effect on your bottom line. Authors representing themselves, or relying solely on local lawyers, are at a staggering disadvantage in these markets.
The quality and nature of the meeting. Most authors attempting to represent themselves are going to get only one kind of meeting: with an editor. (This assumes they’re extremely lucky enough to get that.) And of course, no meeting is more critical; the editor is every author’s first advocate inside the publishing house. But the best agents don’t just meet with editors. They also meet with editorial directors and publishers. Here I mean publisher as an executive title—the person who is the head of the entire publishing firm or imprint. In other words, the editor’s boss. Editors can only approve deals up to a certain dollar level; beyond that, it must be approved by the publisher. The agents who can get meetings with those executives are at a decided advantage in furthering their client’s careers. As well, truth be told: editors don’t want to negotiate with authors. They’d much rather deal with agents. Editors would prefer not to muddy the waters of their relationships with their authors—which involve a lot of creative feedback, revision, and trust—by haggling. Let an agent take point on those rough-and-tumble negotiations; you can focus on having the best creative relationship with your editor.
Your long-term relationship. I have been fortunate in having had the same agent now for twelve years. He took me on just as I hit a very unproductive streak: my father was terminally ill and I was working full-time and taking care of him, and not writing. I didn’t sell a book in the first two years of working with my agent. I wrote proposals that garnered no offers. Many agents would have dumped me. He stuck by me, constantly encouraging me, never giving up. When I started publishing again, I went through three wonderful editors in the course of six books. My agent has been the constant: through editors coming and going, multi-book deals, tough negotiations, setbacks and leaps forward, foreign sales to twenty countries, film options. An excellent agent can be not just your representative, but your rock.
These thoughts are based only on my own experience. But I urge you to think about your agent as more than a sales rep for your first book. And if you think you don’t need one—think again.