Working With A Literary Agent: Who’s At The Wheel?

iStockphoto / cnrn
iStockphoto / cnrn

‘Be Ready To Act As Your Agent’s Consultant’

Make it clear you want a consigliere, not a manager. Tell the agent your priorities in every contract negotiation. Be prepared to nudge them back if they drift into a different lane.

Dave Morris
Dave Morris

This is Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles author and Fabled Lands co-creator Dave Morris. His interactive adaptation of Frankenstein from Profile Books and inkle (Apple and Android) brings together many of the facets of his career — literature, game design, graphic novels, comics, and television.

Being both producer and wordsmith, designer and dealmaker, Morris has a singularly complete view of what can happen in an author-agent relationship.

He took to his Mirabilis blog site recently to write about Publishing Contracts: Three Key Things To Watch For. And, to outline his three points (there’s more on each in the original writeup), here’s a quick look:

  • First, a publishing deal is a joint venture. In any joint venture, you can only agree an equitable division of spoils when you know what each party is putting in… authors can be delicate flowers so maybe you don’t like the idea of demanding to know the publisher’s business plan for the book? Spin it around. Do you think they would sign a contract that specified all their obligations but left blank the details of what you were going to write? The reason they wouldn’t is they can always do a deal with someone else. And so can you. You have a finished manuscript. You can walk across the road and publish with someone else. They want your book, remember. Any glint of magisterial disdain you may detect is really the shiny sweat of desperation.
  • For the second tip, skip to the stuff at the back: what does the contract say about its own termination? In the old days termination might be triggered by a book going out of print, but with print on demand that’s meaningless. Instead you’ll need to agree a minimum level of sales. Consider that and other termination conditions. Your aim is to make sure that the rights don’t remain tied up in perpetuity.
  • Thirdly, be aware that it’s all very well to make statements of intent, but the contract has to back them up. Short of a default that triggers actual termination, what happens if one of the parties fails to do what they said they would?…A contract is a set of game rules, you see. You sign and then you start playing the game and each side will see what they can do to win.

When I contacted Morris for some comments, one of the most intriguing things he said was that while an agent is a type of consultant to the author, the author may have to be a consultant to the agent, as well. Here’s how he put it:

Increasingly, publishing deals draw on experience of other industries. Mine is in videogames, for example. Your agent won’t know as much as you may do about those new fields. Be ready to act as their consultant as much as they are yours.

All of this adds up to the need for an agent to be broadly skilled and widely conversant. And these are factors that one high-profile agent, Kristin Nelson, is talking about these days.

‘Not All Agents Are Equal’

Kristin Nelson
Kristin Nelson

Kristin Nelson recently broke her long holdout as a Twitter refusenik — because, as she wrote in her newsletter, “I just couldn’t handle any more haranguing from social-media user and journalist…Porter Anderson.”

I’m very proud of myself, yes.

And I’m especially proud to have Nelson join us on the tweeterie because anyone as adept as Nelson at working with authors in today’s media-driven markets has a lot to contribute to our conversation on that blue bird’s medium.

Note, by the way, the combination that Nelson has made of her name and her profession and agency initials name as her handle: @AgentKristinNLA. This is a workable combination of name and career identification that answers the call I made recently with publicist Sharon Bially for publishing’s people to get onto the feathery platform with their names, not their companies’ names as their handles, and their faces, not their facades — or book covers — as their avatars.

Known in part for a client list that includes some of our leading self-published and hybrid authors including Hugh Howey and Jasinda Wilder, Nelson also represents the literary novelist Jamie Ford and one of the most talented new authors to arrive on the scene recently, Josh Malerman. Malerman’s Bird Box, which we wrote about in our interview with him here at Thought Catalog, has just had its paperback release today from Ecco Books.

Karen Dionne
Karen Dionne

And by coincidence with Morris’ writeup at his Mirabilis site — and independent of his comments to me about working with agents — she has started a series of her “Pub Rant” blog posts at her agency’s site on just what makes an agent good vs. otherwise. Her rationale for the focus:

Writers don’t know what a good agent does. How could you if (1) you’ve never experienced it and (2) you’ve only ever had one agent and no way to assess just how strong he or she might be at the job?

And so she has teamed up with Karen Dionne, co-founder of the “writers helping writers” site Backspace to produce a series of posts on the topic of understanding and recognizing good agenting vs. the other kind.

You can read their first exchange, Agent As Savvy Business Manager, both at Nelson’s site and at Dionne’s.

Your Blog Sommelier Here

Let’s pair the thoughts on this topic of our highly accomplished author, designer, and producer in London, Dave Morris, and those of our highly accomplished agent, author advocate, and Twitter newcomer Nelson in Denver.

What’s interesting about Morris’ and Nelson’s approaches to the subject of an author’s best bets for good experiences with agents is that there’s perhaps a subtle difference in the power-sharing element of the relationship. Maybe authority is a better term than power here.

The question is not so much that our agent wants to run away with the ball as it is that our author likes the idea of coming along to help carry it.

Certainly, Nelson opens with a very sharp observation on what seems to be a defining aspect of the literary agent’s stance:

It’s the only job in which the agent picks the client (writer) first, and then the client decides whether or not to hire the agent. What other job is remotely like that? None. It’s unique to this industry.

I’d expect Morris to agree with her statement:

Once an agent offers you representation, saying “yes” and hiring your agent is a business decision—one with real consequences that directly impact the success of your career.

And for my own part, I’m ready to go along with her right now when she writes:

I’m constantly amazed at how rarely writers demonstrate business acumen when it comes to their own publishing career—something that would never fly in their day jobs or in other parts of their lives. Ultimately, an author who is smart, educated, and business-oriented will have a more successful career.

You have only to look at how many writers trade “tips ‘n’ tricks” all day long in blog posts often written by other writers who have no more experience and grounding in professionalism than their readers. This is part of today’s Internet culture, of course, the general idea that amateur people (not to say blind people) are just right for leading other amateur people. Despite the fact that much “wisdom of the crowd” sure sounds like gossip, many would-be authors — and some experienced ones — are prone to act on questionable advice and logic.

‘When your future is being decided you don’t want to be waiting outside a closed door.’
Dave Morris

It’s good to have Morris and Nelson and Dionne coming to us with stronger stuff.

Here are Nelson’s nine points. She writes:

In my opinion, based on a decade-plus of experience, good agents:

  • command authority naturally

  • are good negotiators and unafraid to walk away from a deal if necessary to protect the author

  • are assertive (not to be confused with aggressive)

  • are comfortable with conflict and don’t avoid it (as in they don’t acquiesce to the publisher so as to not “rock the boat”)

  • advocate on behalf of the author (not to be confused with persuading the author to accept whatever the publisher wants simply to avoid conflict)

  • are highly organized

  • are skilled, financially stable entrepreneurs if they run their own agencies

  • know how to be team players

  • are good communicators, both with you and with the in-house publishing team

I was struck by a tweet from one of my own readers who looked at at that list and wanted to know if what she deemed “personality traits” should be considered elements of good business practice for an agent.

Well, if the book that agent handles is my book? Yes, ma’am, I want these personality traits well in place, myself, and I do seem them as elements of good practice for an agent.

Who’s ‘Driving The Boat’?

I was really disappointed years ago while sailing on the 248-foot 1938 schooner Polynesia (now the Argus) to hear her captain refer to his work on the bridge of the tall ship as “driving the boat.”

In a way, though, this is the question that pertains to Morris’ comments to me. It does come down to “driving the boat”; to a shared understanding of how the shots are to be called.

His points address how an author needs to think about an agent, just as Nelson’s address the bearing and presence of a good agent.

It might surprise the “you get more attention at a smaller agency” folks to read Morris, for example, saying to me, “My advice after thirty years in the business is sign with an agency of reasonable size. They have more contacts (increasingly essential to strike a good deal in modern publishing). And an agency can bring in experts as and when you need them, deploying resources unavailable to the Lincoln Lawyer agent.” He’s referring there, of course, to Mickey Haller, Michael Connelly’s “Lincoln Lawyer” who works from his car, a Lincoln.

Good agents ‘advocate on behalf of the author, not to be confused with persuading the author to accept whatever the publisher wants simply to avoid conflict.’
Kristin Nelson

Morris’ main message is that the author will always care more than anyone else will, and that putting everything completely into the hands of even the best agent could be a mistake:

Go through the contract yourself and understand the intention and the ramifications of every clause before you sign. You hope it won’t all go wrong, of course, but start from the assumption it will and look at every clause in that light.

What he’s getting at is that agent-as-representative is the operative concept.

The best agents are there to guide and advise when you’re negotiating with a publisher. Some, though, insist on having full control of the negotiation in your stead. Never accept that deal. When your future is being decided you don’t want to be waiting outside a closed door. It’s not just that the agent may have different priorities; they also can’t give your contract negotiations the one-on-one laser focus that you will.

Notice the burden of education this places on the author. It may surprise writers, but expecting to “just put it all into my agent’s hands” and walk away represents a kind of negligence that could result in some unpleasant surprises.

Keep an eye on Nelson’s “Pub Rants” space where she’ll be writing about each criterion in her monthly series.

And keep an ear out for the kind of good sense you hear from experienced producers like Morris:

Don’t you and the agent have congruent goals? Not quite. He or she gets a percentage, but you’re the one who has to live by the contract’s terms. Make sure, therefore, that you’ve scrutinized and agreed every point. TC mark

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