The Amazon Iowan

Blog of Author Heidi Cullinan


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Why I Have an Agent

One of the most common questions I get from other digtial-first authors is why do I have an agent. Sometimes the question is asked curiously, but mostly there’s an implied hell in the query, as in, “Why the hell do you have an agent?”

I understand where the implication that being agented in my business is unnecessary, and for many authors I can see how an agent would be superfluous. However, I think more of my brethren should consider following my lead. Here’s why.

Agents are for professional-minded authors. While I understand most authors believe they are professional-minded, it’s not a bad idea to do some naval-gazing on this one. Individual definitions on professional-minded may vary, but here’s something to start with.

  • Focused on long-term over short-term
  • Focused on building a career, not indulging a hobby
  • Concerned about careful wording of contracts and the implications these wordings have for future works
  • Concerned about getting competitive publishing contracts

The list goes on, no question, but these are some points worth emphasizing. I can’t tell you how many authors I know who don’t read their contracts, who simply sign them because they assume since the publisher wanted their book or was so friendly that of course they wouldn’t ever screw them over. Anyone who has been screwed over in publishing knows the meanest sharks usually smile before they bite off your head. Trust the law and nothing else. The law comes in your contract, and it is the only thing that will save you.

Contracts can include nasty little clauses, like moral rights or rights-of-refusal which, if too limited, can mean you’re locked into bad terms on a series forever. Let’s say you start out at a less-awesome-than-most house with 30% or less royalties. Really, these days anything less than 40% is dismal, but  let’s say you have to go for 30% or, God help you, 25%, which is what I started at. Sometimes we have to do what we have to do.

Let’s say, though, that you have a series contracted for 25% and the series does well. If you don’t know what you’re doing, you can end up signing a contract that means you will get 25% for every book in that series, even the ones you haven’t sold yet. In general first right of refusal means you show them first, but contracts are tricky bitches.

I was recently shown a contract from a publisher I wasn’t familiar with which declared no negotiations on any points. I have to say, I was floored. Jaw-hanging floored. Really? Nothing is negotiable? Not even those clauses giving said publisher all kinds of wiggle on release, the ones that say the author has to keep track of when the book is up for regeneration (which apparently wouldn’t happen) or risk automatic renewal? The much lower than I’m used to now rate? With no word on why I should settle for that? And a firm no-agent policy? Really?

Really?

For some authors it’s less of an issue. The best deal and the best money is not their focus: they want their story told, and they want it told in a particular way. Perhaps they truly want a specific cover artist or editing experience. Perhaps their greater concern is the timing of releases. Or perhaps this isn’t even a real career for them but more of something fun on the side. None of these focuses are wrong, and in the case of these here, no, an agent isn’t necessary. And as I said, number of authors are able to be professional-minded without an agent.

If thinking about contracts makes you sweat? If keeping up with what’s competitive and what isn’t makes your head hurt just thinking about it? If you aren’t already somewhere you are very happy with and want to keep your options open or focus your career?

Get. An. Agent.

My agent is Saritza Hernandez. She bills herself as “The Epub Agent” because she was doing this when no other agent would touch it. I lose track of when she is and isn’t open to new clients, but obviously I recommend looking her up. Another agent I know interested in digital-first works is Eric Ruben. He’s closed to submissions, but if you meet him at a conference or on the streets of New York, say hello, and you never know what might happen. More agents are considering us every day. Watch for them at cons and read their bios and watch Publisher’s Weekly. The smart ones know we are where the future is at. And some of them will probably be doing more contract counseling for one-time fees, since this may be a better fit for both them and the authors. Maybe you could even ask them if they’d be open to such a thing.

The problem with people asking me why I have an agent is that most of the best things she does for me, I can’t discuss in detail. I’ve had many instances where I would ask for something and get told no or get silence, but Sary asks and I get everything I wanted and stuff I didn’t know to ask for. I’ve had awkward, delicate moments where I would have pancaked and hard handled with serious grace. I’ve had her fight for what I knew was right, and when I haven’t won, I got better and clearer answers of why than I’d have had without her. And there have been times, many of them, when she has stopped me from stupidity. I’ve lost my temper with a situation and she basically told me–smiling and soothingly–that this was the best that could be had at the moment, so I needed to figure out how to navigate.

The truth of the matter is that even the nicest, truly benevolent publishers have their best interests at heart, and your interests are there only to serve them. An agent gets paid only when you do, and she is there for you and you alone. She wants you to get the most money and the best deal. It’s her job, and if she doesn’t do it, she doesn’t get paid. An agent looks at your contract from your point of view and makes sure it’s the best possible for you, or she knows when to walk away. An agent can also hold delicate conversations with the publisher more gracefully, like a yenta. Because essentially that’s what she is.

An agent is not for everyone, and yes, they’re hard to find. I looked for fifteen years for one, and no one ever fit. It was harder to find my agent than my husband. It may seem easier to simply go with the flow, to suck up the bad contract or confusing wording. It might work out.

Or it might not.

I am a neurotic control freak who loses her head when she tries to predict what direction to take in this volatile business, which is why I have an agent. This year twice now she has said, when I began whirling like a dervish, “Do this now. Now do this.” She’s given me insight on which publishers to try and which not to. She’s RIGHT on top of the money all the time, and rights and distributions and who looks well-seated to last and who is not looking so rosy. She has saved my ass and my face more times than I can count and under circumstances I can’t share. She has secrets I can’t tell, some of which she doesn’t even tell me. In short, she has everything I don’t have and everything I need.

She shares it with me for 15% of every book she sells for me. Honestly? Most days it seems like the biggest bargain in the world.

And that is why I have an agent.

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