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To E or not to E

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So, why get an agent at all? Good rhetorical question, dude. A literary agent should do three things: First, they should find you work. Second, they should negotiate a better deal for your work than you could negotiate for yourself. And third, they should help you make good career decisions while also respecting who you are as a writer. I’d love one as well who was a great lunch companion, told terrific anecdotes, didn’t talk about golf and paid for their own coffee. But now I’m getting greedy.

Hemingway responds to a gentle reminder from his agent about a looming deadline.

Implicit, is that an agent should open up your world. You should get a wider, not a narrower view of your possibilities as a writer and your agent should push you to explore and express yourself in as many ways as are open to you. Sure, the agent’s purpose is to make money off your writing and to help you make money off it as well. But an agent should never lose sight of the fact that your job consists of laboring alone over empty sheets of paper, and that you can only concentrate on this lonely task because you depend on them for agency — which is to say action — in the world of media and publishing. It’s worth paying them 15% of anything you make because it would take much more than 15% of your time to do what they do, and you lack the contacts (and if you’re like many writers, the nice clothes, social skills and ability to maintain eye contact with another human) to get the results they can get.

If you want to publish an eBook, you don’t really need an agent. All you need is a finished manuscript, some cover art and an account at a place like Smashwords. Smashwords distributes your book to the Apple, Nook and Kindle stores as well as others, you promote it on Facebook or your blog. At worst, you can probably manage to make a few thousand dollars of family, friends and the mildly curious, and at best, your book takes off and you sell hundreds of thousands or even millions of virtual copies.

eBook publishing sounds so easy, and the returns appear so automatic, that you have to ask why you’d bother with a traditional agent and the traditional publishing route. I’m asking myself that question right now, as I go through the traditional process of submitting my YA novel to agents.

For me it’s all about expanding my range. I had an agent in Hollywood — he never sold anything for me, but I consider that at least partly my fault for being young, unable to recognice good advice when it was handed to me and, eventually, for not writing enough. But while Richard worked on my behalf he made things happen on the west coast while I was laboring away on the east. He went wide with scripts when they were ready, he called me with updates, he hooked me up with production company and studio story development execs. I got phone meetings and actual meetings, all arranged by the magic hand of agency, thousands of miles from where I sat. There was no way I could have made any of that happen on my own. It would have been a whole career just building the contact list.

Of course, this predated electronic submission of books and screenplays, and it predated eBooks. Electronic submission makes it much easier to put material into circulation. And eBooks make it possible for your material to be in circulation almost immediately, rather than waiting the 6 to 18 months traditional publishing usually takes.

But none of that gives me that little rush of having a thinking person working on my behalf. An eBook will never have lunch with an editor who casually mentions a movie producer who wants a certain type of book to develop. Smashwords won’t recognize that there’s a huge market for your work in Asia if it were translated. An eBook doesn’t know when a great editor splits off to form her own publishign company and is looking for manuscripts in your genre. An agent would see all that, and would work those angles both for you and for him or herself. Computers never have to sleep, which is a great and powerful thing. But a more powerful force is enlightened self interest, and a computer doesn’t really care all that much about your shared success, the way an agent, with a mortgage or kids in college, or an online poker addition, will.

Written by Alan

September 3rd, 2012 at 12:41 pm

Posted in Writing