Monday, August 06, 2007

Agents as Authors

I love your blog but see that you and other agents also write books. How does that happen and why?

I think that you have the right to also be authors but what happens when you have an author who is as qualified as you to write a book, a publisher is looking for an author, and you get the job? Is this an agent perk? I write this with all the most respect. Seems you are always saying you are busy, so why writing books and not agenting? I have never been published but trying to understand the business.

If you do a little research you’ll probably see that a lot of agents and editors are also or have been authors. And I was not at all offended by this question. In fact, I think it’s fabulous.

How does this happen? Well, in a variety of ways. Being entrenched in publishing allows agents to come up with new and fresh ideas every day. Sometimes they are ideas that we’ll pass on to our authors. We’re excited, we think it’s great, and we think we have the perfect client to write it. Therefore, we’ll pass it along. But every once in a while agents might feel the need or desire to stretch their own creative wings. When the idea comes in an agent might feel so passionate or so excited about it that she just needs to write it herself. In that case she would write a book in the same way most of you are writing a book—in her off hours. It’s very rare that any writer has the luxury of writing full-time. Most if not all of you have other jobs. Some of you are teachers, doctors, engineers, librarians, lawyers, priests, or stay-at-home moms. Whatever it is, few of you are spending all day in front of the computer. If an agent takes on a book project she would do it in the same way you do, in her personal time. Her writing would not be done in the office, but late at night, early in the morning, or even while on vacation.

The other way agents become authors is exactly as you suggest. There are definitely times when publishers go to agents they trust and ask for books on certain subjects. Usually they will ask if the agent has any clients that might be right, but there is the rare time when an editor is looking for just a writer (no platform necessary), and in that case, if the agent is also a writer, the editor might ask the agent if she’s available to do it. This is very, very rare though. An example of this are two books that Jacky and I wrote together. The Book of Thanksgiving and The Book of Christmas. Both were done very early in our careers as agents (in fact, at that time BookEnds was operating as a packager). I had a meeting with an editor/former colleague who suggested that they were looking to do a book on Thanksgiving and possibly other holidays and suggested that I could probably write it. Since Jacky and I were very new packagers, as was BookEnds, we decided that it might be a fun project for us to undertake ourselves rather than try to find an author to write it. It was fun to do at the time, but would I do it today? Probably not. As you well know writing a book is a time-consuming process, and at this point the only books I would willingly undertake would be those that speak to my passion. If approached, I might consider authoring a book on publishing, but most likely I would only author again if it’s an idea I truly felt passionate about or came up with on my own.

As you know, agents and editors preach platform, platform, platform. And rarely does an agent have the type of platform an editor is looking for when seeking an author. Therefore it benefits the agent best to talk to her clients rather than try to write the book on her own.

I guess your concern is whether or not you run the risk of losing out on work to an agent (your own) who would take projects for herself rather than pass them on to her clients. Unlikely. Unless I’m representing another agent it’s not very likely I am as qualified to write a book as any of my authors. Why? Publishing is truly the only thing I am qualified to write about. I am not a doctor so that rules out all books related to health; I’m not a professional speaker or well-known sales professional so that rules out sales titles. I don’t think I could write fiction to save my soul, and if I could I would want it to be an idea I came up with. I’m stubborn that way.

So don’t fear the agent who also writes, since many of us do in some capacity. If she’s a good, hardworking agent with a solid reputation, you’re in good hands. And if she has good connections it’s very likely she’ll be bringing projects or at least ideas your way.


11 comments: said...

I asked a debut author recently how he liked his agent, and he said he doesn't. The agent took a leave of absence to work on her own book right in the middle of the author's publishing process. Someone else at the agency had taken over, but didn't have the enthusiasm for the book that the original agent had. Since the original agent returned, author hasn't heard from her, and has no idea whether or not she still represents him.

Aimlesswriter said...

Hmmmm, I think I'd rather have an agent who was only an agent. I know how much work it takes to finish a book and how I think about it all the time (working out scenes, characters, etc) and thats only the first draft! I'd imagine its kind of hard to do the agent-shopping-selling-guiding thing while working on a book.
Am I being selfish?

Anonymous said...

I'm with you Southern Writer. After all the time it takes to write a novel, getting it to the point where it is finally publishable, heaven forbid you should hook up with someone who is, basically, a part-time agent.

I've done my homework on agencies, and there are some, even though they do have a track record, who are clearly part-timers.

Despite their years in the business, they still haven't qualified for AAR (which requires a minimum number of sold books in a given year to qualify.) These same agents are known for taking up to six months to respond to a query, and heaven only knows how long to read a requested partial or full.

How frustrating would it be to work with an agent like this? Sadly, we first timers may have no choice. I actually have material out with an agent like this, but I'm praying that I receive a positive response from one of the three others who are timely and professional. I guess the positive is that I will have plenty of time to explore my entire list before I hear back.

Dara said...

I've often wondered about this - glad you tackled the question. I'd feel better now approaching an agent who is also a writer.

Anonymous said...

There are some big AAR agents who are authors as well. It's not just the part timers. They write under their own names. I think it's an interesting way for agents to get an idea of what the author is going through.

Just to complicate things, there are more than a few editors who are also writers, as well, and I've never heard anyone complaining about them. That seems more like a conflict of interest.

Anyway, there are lots of agents with part-time jobs (to pay the rent) when they start out. 15% of nothing is a very small amount! It takes a while to get going.

If an agent can do both, why not?Non-fiction is totally different. As Jessica said, the books are sometimes written to order to fill a need. I only see a conflict in fiction if the agent is writing something they represent and sell. In that case, I'd rather be somewhere else.

Diana Peterfreund said...

My agent's a writer. Soon after I signed with her (and she got me a two book deal at auction), I got a nasty email from another writer saying I was a fool to hook up with an agent who was a writer, conflict of interest, blah blah.

A year later, I saw that this writer had hooked up with another agent who was, secretly, a writer. I always wondered if the writer KNEW of her agent's side projects, or if she'd changed her mind sometime in between. (It's amazing what that offer of representation can do.)

I've been with my agent for two and a half years now. In that time, she's sold six of my books, four at auction, not to mention selling me in four foreign territories, and now I write full time. And I can't begin to count the sales she's made for her other clients.

Anonymous said...

My only point was: you want an agent working for you full time, not someone who can take an eternity to submit your work to publishers.

Hustle and Hard Work = Income (assuming the stars align just so)

Sign Me,

Anonymous 8:21

Liz Wolfe said...

I wouldn't have a problem with an agent because he or she is also an author. I'm sure some can handle it well while others would have a problem balancing the two careers.

Anya Richards said...

Doesn't it all boil down to whether your agent is working for his or her clients to full capacity, rather than whether they (like most of us) have dual careers? If they love being an agent then they'll be working like crazy for their clients and reluctant to endanger that aspect of their life for anything. My editor is also a writer, but I trust her to fulfill her responsibilities to me and her other authors. What I don't expect (although I suspect it happens all the time!) is that she is going to give that aspect of her life 24 hours, 7 days a week. She's entitled to her own time, and what she does with it is really none of my business.

In the agent hunt it really pays to look at back list and track record, I think. I remember reading somewhere that it's better to have no agent at all than an ineffective one. Makes sense, because if the agent has no credibility in the business, are you going to take the chance that your book will be that one in a million long-shot that is "easy" enough for them to sell?

When you get right down to it, the question isn't really whether your agent is also a writer (or a lawyer, or a mom, or anything else) but whether you trust them to do the very best for you and your career. If the answer is 'no', then it's time to look elsewhere. That issue of trust also has a lot to do with whether you feel comfortable sharing your ideas with them, or expecting them to funnel projects your way too.

Anonymous said...

Of course Deidre Knight comes to mind as well. I remember my first thought when her first novel came out was...huh, she's awfully busy. How does she prioritize? But seeing the great sales coming from that agency...that speaks for itself. I now think an agent who has been through the whole cycle themselves can be an excellent mentor to a writer--tremendous knowlege of promotion, politics, expectations, etc. To me it's moved from a negative to a plus.

Karen said...

Interesting. Until this article I would have said, no, never take an agent who writes because it's a conflict of interest. But thinking about it from the perspective of someone in any other job, doing it after hours or on holidays, like most writers, then it makes sense. After all, agents are mostly in the profession because they love stories, so why wouldn't they be natural writers as well?
Food for thought.