Like many children's writers, I'm often asked about agents. Most writers would love to have an agent. But, then again, most writers would love to have a chef, a chauffeur, and a maid. Unfortunately, agents come with a cost--15% of what you make as a writer. The real question is: Is it worth it?
Do writers need agents? What will an agent do? And how can you tell if an agent is right for you? The answers to these questions are different for each situation, each writer, and each agent. But here's my general take on agents, both pros and cons.
A good agent will often have inside information about the publishing world. If a certain editor is looking for writers for a new series, a reputable agent will know about it. If Editor A likes humorous picture books and Editor B likes edgy YA, an agent will know that too. Your agent will make sure your manuscript gets into the right hands.
A lot of this information (but not all) is now available to everyone, and you can find it for yourself. Internet message boards, newsletters, writers' conferences, and networking can help you learn the tastes and current needs of editors. Why pay for something you can do for yourself?
An agent will help you sell your manuscript. She knows where to send it to maximize its potential. She will be your advocate with the editor and act on your behalf.
With a little persistence, you can do a better job selling your own manuscript. Most agents have 30 or 40 clients. They'll allocate their time accordingly. You can expect your agent to spend a small fraction of her time on your manuscript, whereas you can put in 40 hours a week if you want to.
Editors are very slow. An agent will get you a faster response on a manuscript.
An agent who has a good relationship with a particular editor will get you a faster response. But not all agents get faster responses from all editors.
An agent will get you better contracts. Agents have deals with editors that favor their specific clients. They can get you bigger advances and retain more of your rights.
An agent will take 15% of everything she sells. Some agents do get better deals for their clients. But some agents have no influence at a particular house and will only get you a boiler plate contract (one you could have gotten for yourself).
You have to ask yourself if the larger advance and the retention of subsidiary rights are worth the 15% the agent is taking. Don't forget, a larger advance isn't necessarily a larger amount of money for you in the long run. It's just how much you get up front. As for subsidiary rights, many agents never sell these rights, and you might be better off leaving them with the publishing house.
An agent will teach you the basics of the publishing business and be your friend and therapist. The publishing world can be confusing and discouraging, and it helps to have someone in your corner giving you advice and taking your side in negotiations.
It IS helpful to have someone on your side giving you advice. But not all agents give good advice and not all of them act on your behalf instead of their own.
The best thing you can do to avoid problems is to thoroughly evaluate any agent you are thinking of hiring. Here are some questions you might want to ask an agent:
1. Are you a member of the Association of Authors' Representatives? (They have a code of ethics their members must follow.)
2. Do you have specialists at your agency who handle movie and television rights?
3. Foreign rights? Do you have sub-agents who will be handling these rights?
4. Who in your agency will be handling my work? (Don't assume it will be the agent you sign on with if she works with other agents.)
5. Will you keep me informed of the work your agency is doing for me? (Some agents will let you go for months without getting back to you.)
6. How and how often do you keep your clients informed? (Find out if the agent reports on a regular basis or only when there's news. I prefer agents who keep me updated from time to time, even if they haven't heard anything.)
7. Do you read and review royalty statements? (You might be surprised to learn that many don't.)
8. Do you have an author/agency contract?
9. Will you edit my manuscript? (Some do, some don't.)
10. What happens if we decide to go our separate ways?
11. What are your expectations of me as a client.
12. How have you set up your business? Who will inherit the right to represent my manuscript if you should die while it's still earing money? (Don't by shy about asking. This is an important question.)