Sorry, no magic here
If you came to this page hoping to find a magical list of literary agents looking for black clients, eager to sell black books (and actually selling any), keep hoping. If I knew of any such agents, I would probably be with one of them.
Like many writers, no matter what color, I've learned that finding a good agent -- an agent who is right for my work -- is a hard, discouraging, and time-consuming process. There are many writers' websites these days, but be aware that most professional authors -- meaning authors who actually make their livings from writing -- usually don't belong to such sites, so what you are basically getting is a lot of speculation and conjecture from folks who might talk the talk -- a lot -- but who probably haven't walked the walk in any major way. In fact, many of these "writers" spend so much time on these sites talking about writing that one may wonder when they have time to actually write.
And most "black writers" sites I've found seem to be mostly venues for selling gris-gris, cyber-booty, and modern versions of money-drawing oil.
What is on this page are a few of my experiences with literary agents, and a little advice based on those experiences.
If there's one thing I've learned in over twenty years of trying to survive in the writing game it's that it's usually harder to find a good agent -- an agent who is right for one's work -- than it is to find a publisher. What does this mean? Basically that you shouldn't be discouraged by agency rejections. Of course, you shouldn't let any rejections discourage you, but the fact is your work is more likely to be rejected by agents than by publishers, so you should keep sending your work to publishers even if you're shopping for an agent. While this might not make sense (don't you need an agent first?) you will probably find that very few things in the writing game make sense... and the longer you play it the less sense it makes.
An honorable profession?
Most people of Color would agree that calling someone a pimp is not always a bad thing and is often a compliment. On the other hand, many whitefolk -- at least many over thirty -- think being called a pimp is an insult. Fact is, during a breakup with a former agent I used the word pimp to describe her profession and was promptly informed by her lawyers that to call a literary agent a pimp (at least this particular agent) could get me sued.
By the way, calling a lawyer a shyster can also get you sued... even if it's true.
But, whether you regard the word pimp as an insult or a compliment, the fact is that pimping is exactly what literary agents do; they pimp your work -- your novel, story, non-fiction book, magazine article, essay, or children's book -- to editors at publishing houses. If an agent is a good pimp, they not only sell your work but they treat that work and you, the author, with all the respect you deserve. They pimp their asses off to make sure you get paid as much as possible and as soon as possible. They take their rightful cut of your earnings with no bullshit or "extra expenses," and they pay you promptly what you are owed.
A good agent also tries to sell that same work to other publishers -- usually foreign -- as well as the film, stage, TV, ebook, and reprint rights. In other words, a good agent makes sure that your work works for you and keeps making you (and them) money in every way possible for as long as possible.
Like a good pimp, a good literary agent is always hustling. Selling their clients' writing is what their profession is all about; and your stories or novels are never going to sell unless editors read them. Therefore, you don't have to be a genius to figure out that editors aren't going to read your work if your agent isn't sending it to them.
Time out for rejections
Very few people like being rejected unless there's mental illness involved, but if you aren't getting rejections from publishers back through your agent, then your agent isn't pimping for you. Some writers don't want to see rejections, but if you're one of them you should have told your agent not to send rejections to you. But you really should look at rejections because, except for sales, rejections are the only way you know that your agent is pimping your work.
Rejections probably won't make you feel good, but sometimes they can be helpful in improving your work and making you a better writer.
How can rejections be helpful? Like this: if three different editors reject your work for the same reasons, then I'd suggest a rewrite to fix those things.
On the other hand, if three different editors reject your work for different reasons -- say each editor loved something about your novel that the others didn't like -- then you just have to put it down to editorial taste and make sure your agent keeps pimping that work until it sells.
Back to the game
Time to get down with the questions that most new writers ask about finding a literary agent. Remember that, like everything else on this site, I can only speak from personal experience, and what has worked for me might not work for you. Likewise, where I have failed you may succeed.
The good agent
How do I define a good literary agent? After over twenty years in the writing game, and after being associated with six different agents, I define a good agent as one who can sell your work. ...Period. Anything else that you like about them is just frosting on the cake.
You and your agent might not like each other, or at least not be compatible, on a personal or social level.
Your agent might not have a clue what your work is all about or what you're trying to accomplish by writing. ...Or care. And, strange as it may sound, a good agent doesn't have to understand your work -- or you -- to sell it.
Your agent will probably be white, at least middle-class, and know absolutely nothing about ghetto life or gangstuh games. ...Or want to know.
Take it from someone who may have had the best agent in the world but was too freakin' stupid at the time to know it, none of the above matters as long as your agent is selling your work! You might not like a doctor, but if he or she saves your butt then you should respect that person as a professional.
The perfect agent
Ain't no such animal.
Almost every new black writer thinks they have to have a black literary agent. I did too. That's a cool concept, but is it realistic?
Not very; especially if you expect a Brother or Sister who instantly returns all your phone calls and emails, loved your work the second they saw it, understood everything you were trying to say, including your reasons for saying it, speaks fluent hip-hop and/or street-speak, sells your first novel within a week to a major publisher for at least 50k, and then sells the film rights a week later for a million.
Reality check, folk. Just like every other U.S. industry, most of the people at the top of the publishing business are white. ...And those few who aren't might as well be. Racism, either blatant and deliberate, or subtle and misinformed, influences many things in the publishing world, and even the best black agents have to deal with this just like you and me. While I haven't deeply researched the subject, I keep hearing that out of over 6,000 literary agents in this country only about 20 are black.
What does this mean (besides the fact we need to get off our asses, stop watching rap videos showing short-bus thuggers waving fistfuls of green rolling fancy-ass cars made in places most of them can't even spell, and get busy... including making it cool for our kids to start reading again)? Basically it means that most powerful black agents have so many clients already that they either won't accept a new author, or, if they do, they often don't have time to give a new author's work the attention it deserves... including pimping it.
The powerful agent
What is a powerful agent? Basically, it's an agent who has spent many years establishing and maintaining contacts with editors at major publishing houses, and perhaps has been such an editor themselves. If a powerful agent (no matter what color) submits a manuscript to a publisher, then the editor at that publishing house knows that the work is probably worth reading and will generally give it a look... at least. When a powerful agent speaks, editors tend to listen. This doesn't mean an editor will always buy a manuscript from that agent, but at least they will usually read it.
But, having a powerful agent doesn't necessarily mean that you, the writer, or your work will be treated with respect, either by a publisher... or even by your agent.
Also remember that no matter how powerful or good an agent may be, if they can't sell your work they are not the right agent for you.
I was once represented by (supposedly) one of the top black agents in this country. After she accepted me as a client I sent her several novel manuscripts and then, confident that I was well represented and my work was going out to publishers -- being properly pimped -- I went on with new writing projects. After almost a year without one sale, one rejection, or even one word from this agent, I finally contacted her and found that she had not submitted a damn thing of mine to publishers! In fact, she had lost all my manuscripts!
The primary purpose of an agent is to keep sending a writer's work out to publishers, leaving the writer free to write -- the primary purpose of a writer -- secure in the knowledge that his or her work is being pimped. As already said, no one is going to buy your work unless they read it, and no one is going to read your work unless either you or an agent sends it out. This agent wasted almost a year of my life. Worse, she violated my trust by letting me think she was doing her job while actually doing jack.
She claimed she had just been too busy to give my work any attention. Know what? I believe her. But, so what? If she was too busy to send out my work, then she simply should have said so up front and not wasted my time by accepting me as a client.
You may find that many agents, black, white, pink or purple, take on more clients than they can properly serve. This is an important thing to consider when shopping for an agent... especially a black agent. Be wary if they tell you how busy they are, or admit it if you ask them... which you definitely should. Watch out if they say something like they "have a lot on their plate at the moment, but will get to your work in a month or two." Try to contact other writers who've dealt with this agent and find out what their experiences were. (I later found out that a fellow author had a similar horror tale about this Sister.)
Don't expect an instant sale from any agent, but if you don't hear anything from your agent after about four months then it's time to find out what's up with that. This is one good reason not to sign an agency contract up front... more on agency contracts later.
The new agent
Could be subtitled: "The Weak Agent."
Since an agent's success depends upon establishing contacts and maintaining good relations with editors and publishers, it's logical that one can't become a powerful agent overnight. I had another black agent for a month or so. He was a young Brother just starting out and was full of energy, determination and hope. The problem is that energy, determination and hope are seldom good substitutes for age, experience and wisdom. Again, a successful and powerful agent has spent many years developing contacts with editors... editors who are generally white, at least middle-class, and don't speak hip-hop or G. In his determination to sell one of my books, this young Brother got an editor so pissed off -- an editor who had already published one of my books -- that the editor refused to consider any other new works of mine.
Moral? An agent may be a pimp, but he or she probably shouldn't act like one.
But, even if you do land a first-class black agent, both the agent and your work will still probably receive second-class treatment from mainstream publishers.
The bad agent
In this case bad is bad... and color don't make a damn bit of difference.
If I define a good agent as one who can sell your work, then it's only logical that my definition of a bad agent is one who can't.
I had a white agent for almost two years who not only didn't understand my work and didn't have a clue which publishers to send it to, but who actually advised me to give up on two novels I had written... and after making only two submissions. I sent both novels to major publishers and sold them myself. Both were fairly successful, are still in print and paying me royalties.
As a result, this agent got 15% commission from my advances on these books, along with 15% of any other sales, foreign, film rights, etc., plus gets 15% of my royalties forever... and by doing absolutely nothing to earn it! I should add that she hasn't tried to sell any of the other rights. It's not that she won't, it's just that she can't. Why? Because she's a bad agent... at least for me.
She also couldn't read a film contract, sent me to a movie producer to make a pitch when I didn't have a clue what a "pitch" was, and gave me some really bad advice on a film rights sale... which got me cheated out of $20,000.00.
She once asked why I wanted to bother with foreign sales because "they hardly paid anything." Most of my foreign book advances have been under $2000.00. After all, many countries are small compared to the U.S., therefore most book sales in those countries will also be relatively small. I don't know about you, but if I didn't have a very patient landlady I would have been pushing a shopping cart out on the street years ago. $2000.00 makes a lot of difference in my life, so it was pretty disturbing to hear that this agent thought it was only chump change and didn't want to bother with it.
Speaking of chump change, in recent years this agent decided that royalty payments of under $50.00 were not enough for her to bother sending to me and simply started to pocket them herself... I'm not kidding.
You may find that many agents don't understand the concept that a writer can live on baloney sandwiches for a long time, but will quickly starve to death on an agent's hope of only steak dinners.
Of course, any agent puts their reputation on the line every time they submit a manuscript to an editor, and a weak agent is usually scared of submitting something that an editor might consider to be poor work. I think this was -- and is -- true for her. On the other hand, she has managed to stay in business, so she must be selling something for someone. This is what I mean about an agent who is right for you... she is obviously right for someone, but that someone wasn't me.
There are logical reasons why agents are sometimes hesitant to make a lot of submissions, but the primary reason is, if they send garbage to an editor then the editor won't want to read any more submissions from that agent. Make sense?
While many agents manage to stay in business by selling books, their relationship with editors is often tenuous and they are terrified to make any submissions that might make them look bad.
For this reason, most agents tend to be more critical of your work than an editor would be. This is something to consider if an agent gives you advice about your writing.
Writing advice from agents? Hmmmm...
The problem with agents giving editorial (writing) advice, is that most literary agents are not published writers themselves, or haven't been editors in any major way. I have never gotten good editorial advice from a literary agent; and unless your agent has had a few successful books published and/or has worked as an editor at a major publishing house, be very careful about taking editing suggestions from them.
I'm not saying that you should always refuse such suggestions -- a good agent knows the kind of writing that the editors he or she deals with prefer and tend to buy -- but I would think long and hard before doing major rewrites for anyone who doesn't have money invested in your work.
The key words here are MONEY INVESTED.
For example, it's fairly common for an editor to reject a manuscript, but tell your agent that he or she would be willing to give it another look if the author made some major changes. What has always happened to me is that after I spent weeks making those changes -- changes I usually didn't want to make because they tamed a story or pulled all its politically-incorrect teeth -- the editor rejected it again.
Of course, this might only mean that what I rewrote still didn't please an editor, but I have always found that doing major rewrites for people who have no money invested in my work is a big waste of time. ...My time.
An agent seldom has any money invested in a writer's work except submission expenses, and an editor only has money invested if they bought a work.
Agents with issues
One of my former agents -- black, by the way -- was a devout Christian. I have nothing against Christians who actually read and understand the Bible -- and, better still, really practice some of the good stuff in it -- but in this case I wrote a young-adult novel about Voodoo and she refused to pimp it. No doubt she thinks the Harry Potter books are "Satan's work" too.
A red flag should have gone up for me a few weeks after our association began when I forwarded her an email that had some formatting text at the top which included the number 666. She went ballistic and accused me of sending her "satanic messages!"
No, I'm not kidding.
This is an example of when an agent's personal tastes, beliefs, quirks, phobias or issues, can hurt your career. It's also a damn good reason why you should get to know as much as possible about an agent before you sign a contract or entrust them with your work. Some agents have personal issues that can affect how well they work for you... besides the one agent's Voodoo phobia, my former bad white agent was convinced that the "devil" caused her computer to crash. On the same day a virus was crashing computers all over the world! She also had an issue about "saving trees," and hated to make manuscript copies! (I'm not making this up!) I think most normal people would agree that if one has a phobia about wasting paper they shouldn't be in the publishing business!
More on getting to know your potential agent later.
Anyhow, other than the example I gave of a bad agent -- an agent who advised me to give up on two novels that have proven to be fairly successful after I sold them myself -- you might consider that out of my nineteen published books so far, eleven were rejected by agents, while Way Past Cool, my most commercially successful novel to date, was pronounced "marginal" in terms of sales potential by an agent.
In the latter case, and fortunately, the agent was powerful enough to risk her reputation on a book she didn't entirely believe in. If you guessed that this agent was probably the best agent I could have had, you guessed right.
And, by the way, her agency did not give editorial advice.
A powerful and long-established agent will be more likely to pimp your work -- and maybe successfully -- than a less powerful or new agent. Not only that, but a powerful agent can afford to make many submissions, while a weaker or new agent will be concerned about copying costs and postage expenses (or maybe saving trees), and will be hesitant to make a lot of submissions. In fact, this bad agent of mine would only make multiple submissions if I supplied her with multiple manuscript copies at my own expense... something a lot of new writers can't afford.
I guess that made it okay because I was the one killing trees, not her.
One other hand, a powerful agent is less likely to accept you as a client in the first place. After all, they didn't get to be powerful by taking too many chances. In fact, most really powerful agents won't even consider a new client unless he or she has already had a successful book published by a major publisher.
This leads to a classic Catch-22 for new writers; namely that most powerful agents won't accept a new writer unless that writer has already had a book published with a major publisher. The problem is that most major publishers won't accept submissions from anyone but an agent!
Really bad agents
Could be subtitled: "How To Murder Your Writing Career Before You Even Get One."
This seems to come as a shock to new writers, but the fact is that anyone can call themselves a literary agent... and charge fees if they want to. Although there are several literary agent associations, there are no industry standards, licenses, or qualifications to meet if someone wants to call themselves an agent. And, just because someone calls themselves an agent, doesn't mean that an editor will accept submissions from them. Editors generally only deal with agents they know are legit, and many won't deal with an agent they don't know or haven't heard of.
And don't even think about calling yourself an agent in the hope that an editor will read your work!
Most legitimate agents stay in business by constantly hustling to establish and maintain contacts with editors, thereby selling a few books each year. As in other professions, most small literary agencies are small because they deserve to be. They are small because the agent can't choose enough writers who produce work that sells. They are small because the agent either doesn't work hard enough developing contacts with editors, and/or simply lack the business and/or public-relations skills needed to promote themselves and their clients. They are small because they can't or won't successfully pimp their clients' work.
On the other hand, some perfectly good agencies remain small by choice, either by not wanting to hire assistant agents to handle more work, or by simply deciding this is as big as they want to be.
There are many older agents in this category, some being semi-retired. This is fine for them, but it can mean death for a new author. Why? Because while the agent may be satisfied to make a few leisurely submissions every year -- and mostly to editors of their own generation -- this usually doesn't sell a new writer's work.
Back in the 1970s, there was a best-selling book titled Winning Through Intimidation by Robert J. Ringer. In this book, Mr. Ringer put forth the proposition that there are only three types of people you'll meet in the business world.
And never forget that while writing may be "art," publishing is a business.
The first type is out to screw you and tells you up front -- though usually through attitude -- that they're gonna screw you if they can. These are usually the easiest people to deal with (if you must) because you know where they're coming from. The film business is filled with these types, and your best defense is a good lawyer and/or film agent to get every word and promise in writing.
The second type is also out to screw you but pretends to be a good guy. They are harder to deal with because they are usually very skilled liars and put on the best benevolent fronts.
Thirdly, there are people who would never knowingly screw anybody, but though their own incompetence, lack of business sense, or motivation, they end up screwing you anyhow!
Unfortunately, many small agents fall into this third category... they are on the real and often very nice people with the best of intentions, usually easy to talk to and devoted to great writing. However, they are already satisfied with what they have, and/or have a "real job" or are otherwise financially secure, and don't feel any need to go out and pimp their asses off for a new writer. They are often the first positive contact a new writer has in the game, and the writer instantly melts in gratitude and signs a contract. (More on agency contracts later.)
There may follow months of friendly emails, IMs and phone conversations. The new writer feels blown up to the max... at last they have found someone who believes in their work! Someone who is going to sell their work! But time continues to pass, and the writer slowly begins to realize that few, if any, submissions are being made... not because the agent is incompetent, bad, lazy or deceitful, but simply because the agent feels no pressure to pimp the new writer's work. The agent isn't hungry, and may not know, or may have forgotten, how hungry most new writers are. If the agent is elderly, many of the editors the agent has dealt with in the past might be retired... or dead.
Remember that when you entrust an agent with your work, you are trusting that they know the right editors to send your work to. You are trusting that the agent has enough experience to know that one editor at a publishing house likes your type of story and might be inclined to buy it, while another editor at the same house would probably reject it. In other words, not only is it important that an agent know the right editors to submit your work to, they also have to know who not to submit it to. And, since editors frequently change jobs, move to other divisions, are promoted (or sometimes demoted) an agent must keep current, and that in itself is a lot of work.
Of course, if you knew the right editors to send your work to, then you probably wouldn't need an agent. About the only way you're going to know if your agent has this knowledge is if he or she sells your work.
I'm not saying that an elderly agent can't sell a young writer's work -- there is no substitute for age, wisdom and experience -- but make sure the agent is actually in business full-time, not semi-retired but still dabbling in the publishing game as a hobby.
This is another important question to ask before you sign with an agent... is being a literary agent the only thing they do? If being an agent is only a sideline to someone's real job, then it only seems logical that they're not going to pimp as hard for an author as someone whose living depends on selling books. While I'm sure there are excellent agents who only work part-time, speaking as a full-time writer -- if you'll excuse the metaphor mixing -- I wouldn't want a part-time lawyer defending me in a serious trial.
On the other hand, if you're only a part-time writer who only produces a few perfectly polished paragraphs a week whenever a Muse whispers sweetness in your ear, and don't have to suffer for your art (or whatever you call it), do without things, worry about paying your rent, define being hungry as that pleasant little tingle in your tummy before sitting down to dinner, define being broke as having to take a shorter vacation this summer, don't spend long, lonely, and often seemingly hopeless hours at your work while occasionally pondering suicide, don't have any burning need to say anything for the possible betterment of humanity and have your words read, don't frequently wonder if this culture isn't right in saying that authors are simply whiners or dreamers too lazy to work at real jobs, aren't willing to be dissed, dismissed, misunderstood, ignored, booed, screwed, and fight tooth and claw for every chance to have your work published, then you might be satisfied with a part-time agent.
A good agent is powerful enough to have many contacts with editors, but a good agent is still hungry enough, and/or dedicated enough, to pimp their asses off trying to sell books.
Your best strategy when considering an agent is to find out what books they have sold recently, and to what publishers.
Reading fees? Money up front? I don't think so!
Also in the category of really bad, way past bad, and total scum-sucking agents are many who charge reading fees -- meaning a fee to read and supposedly give you advice on your manuscript -- and/or who ask for any money up front.
I said any money up front! ...Any, ANY, ANY!
What about any don't you understand?
While there are a few legit agents who charge reading fees -- usually a one-time fee for a potential new client -- most successful agents make their livings from selling writer's work. However, there is no shortage of hopeful new authors who would do almost anything to have someone read their novel -- including paying somebody to read it -- and there are more than a few "agents" who make a good living off reading fees and/or other money up front and almost never sell a book to a publisher.
Not surprisingly, most such "agents" advertise for suck... I mean clients... in literary or writing books and magazines, and on the web.
Most real agents don't solicit new clients... because they don't have to. About the only exception is when some new writer blows up with a successful first or second book that they somehow sold themselves.
"Agents" who offer to represent you because you've joined a book or writer's site are almost always running a scam... usually charging reading fees or asking for MONEY UP FRONT in some way.
Another hustle is to accept you as a client, read your manuscript (or say they have), make you feel hopeful they can sell your book, then ask you to pay inflated copying and submission expenses or some other kind of phony-ass fees... MONEY UP FRONT.
If you pay, don't be surprised if this "agent" couldn't sell your book... and probably didn't try.
Beware of any "agent" who is associated with a publisher, which usually means they either own or are a part of a so-called publishing business... though they probably won't admit it. Their scam is to make you feel confident that their publisher (usually one they just happen to know) will publish your book... and then will ask for MONEY UP FRONT.
But don't confuse this scam with some legit agents these days who are really trying to publish books.
A good chant to remember is, "Money flows to the writer, not from the writer."
Though usually it's barely a dribble.
Again, your safest strategy when considering an agent is to find out what books they have sold... recently... and to which legit publishers. I can't think of any legitimate reason why an agent would refuse to tell you what books he or she has sold within the last two years... unless that number is zero.
On the other hand, some totally legit agents won't disclose the names of the authors in their stable. But if you know what books the agent has sold, you don't have to be a rocket scientist to figure out who wrote them.
Nor do you have to be a genius to realize, that unless they're representing Stephen King, no real full-time agent could stay in business by selling only one or two books a year.
FAQs about literary agents
Do I need an agent to get published?
No. But that depends on what you mean by getting published. Many major publishers will not accept submissions from un-agented authors or directly from authors... including authors like myself who might be called "successful." So, if you're hoping to make the big-time with your new novel, then you will probably need an agent.
On the other hand, many small and independent publishers not only accept submissions from un-agented authors but actually don't like to deal with agents.
Don't get discouraged by agency rejections. As we've already learned, most agents are nervous about sending out a new author's work, especially work by new black authors... or many times any work by black authors. Each time an agent makes a submission to a publisher they are putting their rep on the line. If an agent gets known for submitting trash -- or maybe just a lot of black work -- they are not likely to stay in business very long. This makes them very cautious.
I sometimes wonder how many good writers were never published because they became discouraged by rejections from agents -- not publishers -- and gave up.
Can an agent get me a better deal?
Usually. ...A good agent, that is. Most new writers are in no position to haggle with a publisher... and the publisher knows it! Most of the time you will be offered an off-the-shelf contract with the lowest advance (if any) they think they can get away with, and all the terms in favor of the publisher, including foreign, paperback, reprint, film, stage, TV, and electronic rights. Remember that there are many things about a book deal besides the advance money... like, how much in royalties are you being offered? And, what other rights to your work (as mentioned above) are you selling along with your book or story? The list goes right on down to how many free author copies you'll get.
Most average folk, myself included, aren't very good at reading contracts written in legalese, and, like I've said, most new writers are in no position to barter with a publisher. And, with that ass-kickin' first contract in your hand -- the one that proves you're a "real writer" at last -- most new writers wouldn't dare haggle. This is when having a good agent is really worth their 15 or 20 percent commission.
This can also be the time when you find out just how good or powerful your agent really is. Just as when making submissions, new or weak agents are often very reluctant to bargain with editors.
Just having an agent is no guarantee that you won't be screwed by a publisher, though most major publishers don't screw writers... at least not blatantly. The real art of screwing writers is practiced in the film industry.
Maybe the best way for a new writer to feel is that you're probably going to get screwed to some degree, but a good agent can make that screwing a little more comfortable, while a bad agent will only make it hurt more.
Sometimes a lot more!
How do I find an agent who's right for me?
That's one of the biggest questions in the game... and if you find the right answer please let me know. As we've learned, most powerful agents won't take on a new writer until that writer has proven they can sell big-time. And most big-time publishers won't read your work unless you have an agent.
What applies to selling your work on your own also applies to finding a good agent... you send out lots of well-written query letters and wait, and wait... and wait. (See the Submitting Your Writing page.)
How will I know if my agent is right for me?
You won't at first. Not until you've either sold one book with them, or a long time passes and you haven't. The right agent for you knows the right editors to send your work to, and should be pimping your work until it sells. Unless you just like to tell people you have an agent, there's no use having one unless he or she can sell what you write. It doesn't make a damn bit of difference how nice or cool your agent might be, what impressive credentials they may have, including a stable of well-published authors. or even how hard they work for you... if they can't sell your work, they are not the right agent for you.
Look at it this way; there's no such thing as "almost alive" or "a little bit dead." It doesn't matter how well a doctor performs an operation if the patient dies. Likewise, there's no such thing as "almost selling a book." No matter how hard an agent works for you -- or claims they do -- if they can't sell your writing they aren't the right agent for you.
What questions should I ask a potential agent?
Lots! And don't be afraid to. If an agent is on the legit and interested in you as a client, they will answer them. What books have they sold... recently... and to what publishers? What genres of work does the agent handle? What genres of work don't they handle? The second question is probably twice as important for a writer of color.
If you are a black author, ask if the agent represents any other black writers and, much more importantly, have they sold any of those writers' work?
But, setting aside the color issue, don't find out, as I did, after you've signed with an agent, that your agent doesn't handle ghost stories (for example). You may not be writing ghost stories at the moment, but you might want to write one some day.
And don't find out, as I also did, after you've signed with an agent, that the agent's religious and/or personal beliefs or issues will get in the way of their willingness or ability to pimp your work. A good agent doesn't have to believe in your work with all their heart and soul to sell it, but they're probably not going to be able to convince an editor to buy it if they hate, fear, or loathe it.
If possible, try to meet your potential agent face to face. Or, these days, at least have a visual communication. Many people have had the experience of imagining how someone looks like from a voice on the phone and then finding out how wrong they were. Aside from possible personal issues, are an agent's looks, clothes, style, personality and speech important? You'll just have ask yourself if you want to be represented by this person... if you want this person marching into an editor's office or taking an editor out to lunch in your name. Remember that, at least technically, an agent works for you, and there's an old saying that one is often judged by their servants.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this piece, I once had a brief association with a young Brother who was just starting out in business. He was very aggressive, which is a good quality for an agent to have; but as we know, "aggressive black males" are usually avoided, despised and feared by whites. I'm told that after a meeting with him an editor supposedly said he would "never buy any book from this loud-mouthed guy!" (I suspect another word was used in place of "guy"... privately, anyhow.)
This left me with a hard decision to make because breaking up with an agent is usually not a pleasant experience -- at least for a writer -- but you can't sell a book if an editor won't read it because your agent pissed him or her off.
And be alert for red flags early in your association... such as being accused of sending "satanic messages."
Watch your back with agents who advertise for "ethnic" work and/or profess to be champions of black (and/or other minority) authors, because they are often exactly the kind of agents you don't want! It's easy to claim that one rides a white (or black) horse and wants to right wrongs, but what most such would-be crusaders don't realize is that if they actually do champion black writers they will be treated as if they were black themselves. And when this starts to happen they will usually lay down their swords and leave you to battle alone.
To paraphrase a Lone Ranger joke: "What do you mean 'we,' black man?"
Again, it doesn't matter how nice or cool your agent may be, or how hard he or she works -- or in this case how much they want to champion black authors -- if they can't sell your writing they are not the right agent for you.
Another important question to ask is, will you have to pay for copying and mailing/shipping/formatting/transmitting your manuscripts? As you know, copies and postage aren't free, and time is money -- unless you're a writer -- and I was with one agent for over a year before I discovered that she only sent out as many copies of a manuscript as I provided her with.
Some agents may charge you extra, over and above their commission, for postage, copying and manuscript preparation, and/or for electronic manuscript formatting and submission time... and whether or not they sell your work. Find out if this is going to be the case with your agent. Many good agents will take a chance on a new writer and not charge for these things until a work is sold. But then you may find that, like hospital supplies, you're paying way too much for things you could have bought a lot cheaper yourself.
What about agency contracts?
An ultra powerful agent once told me that she didn't believe in agency contracts -- meaning a contract between you (the writer) and the agency -- for the simple reason that if you decide an agent isn't right for you, and/or don't like working with them, then it's stupid to have a piece of paper forcing you to stay together. Likewise, it's just as bad for an agent to be bound to a writer they don't get along with.
Agency contracts are for the benefit of the agent, not the writer. Most agency contracts are pretty one-sided, saying what you have to do, but not very much about what the agent has to do.
If an agent sells a book for you, he or she automatically becomes the agent-of-record for that book, and will usually add this provision into the publisher's book contract, so there's really no reason to have a separate agency contract. And, as happened to me, if you sell a book yourself, your agent may, and probably will, claim their commission... even if they had nothing to do with the sale.
Think long and hard before signing an agency contract: be sure you understand what you are being bound to. Having a lawyer look it over is a cool idea.
Setting aside the pimp concept, the ideal relationship between you and your agent is like a happy marriage with children... the children being your books. If your marriage turns out to be childless, or becomes more like a shotgun wedding from hell, then you should be able to divorce with a minimum of yelling and screaming and lawyers.
What are my obligations to my agent?
Just as in a good marriage, you need mutual respect, trust, and understanding. In this kind of marriage both people work... you, the writer, provide your agent with new manuscripts to sell, and he or she sells them, gets the best deals, and you both make a living.
There are children... your books. Your main obligation to your agent is to keep producing those children, and to meet whatever agreements or deadlines there may be after a sale of your work... such as doing rewrites (as specified by your editor) making corrections, reading galley proofs, and getting the corrected proofs back to the editor... ON TIME.
Unless you want to risk getting dumped, don't be constantly bugging your agent by asking what they're doing to sell your work. If you have a good agent, you can assume they're trying to sell your work because that's how they make their living; and if there is a sale, and since a sale is in both your best interests, your agent will probably phone or email you a minute after a sale happens.
It is not reasonable to expect an agent to give you their home or personal phone number: if they do, treat it as a privilege and don't abuse it. Likewise, don't expect an agent to chat with you either by phone or IM, or reply to your emails on weekends, holidays or after normal business hours in their time zone. If they do, that's also a privilege and don't abuse it.
And, just as in a marriage, remain faithful and trusting of your agent... at least until (or if) you find that your loyalty and trust have been betrayed. Even if you suspect they're not doing much for you, make every effort to be sure there has been no misunderstanding. Breaking up with an agent can be a very traumatic experience... usually for the writer.
What are my agent's obligations to me?
Just as if you were out working every day -- even if writing isn't "real work" -- and came home to find your spouse kicked back on the couch with a forty in hand, having done nothing all day but watch TV, and the kids are dirty and hungry, you need to make sure the relationship between you and your agent isn't all one-sided.
Never forget that your agent works for you, not the other way around. Literary agents often forget this... and film agents flatly deny it. Just like tending the house and taking care of the kids, an agent's job is sending out your manuscripts to publishers and (hopefully) eventually selling them.
Obviously your agent can't sell your work if he or she isn't sending it out.
But, understand that agents can't make miracles happen or change what's wrong with this society; and in the case of black books only a limited number will be published each year no matter how good they are.
There's really no rule, but it's not unreasonable to expect a good agent to submit a manuscript to at least six different publishers before giving up on it, or advising you to give up. In other words, you should have at least six rejections to prove that your work was indeed sent out.
Just because an agent gives up on one of your books doesn't mean that you have to; but make sure your agent understands -- even if they might not approve -- if you're going to keep sending out an "unsalable" work on your own.
Some agents resent this: I don't know why, unless it makes them look bad if you sell what they couldn't. In the case of my bad agent, she resented it like hell but she didn't let her resentment get in the way of claiming her commission!
But, make sure you don't send it to the same editors your agent already has! This will make you look bad.
If you do sell a work on your own, you may still have problems with your agent (as mentioned above) especially if you have signed an agency contract. You may resent having to pay someone for a sale you made yourself, but it's usually cheaper and easier than trying to fight it in court. Just learn from the experience and don't make that same mistake again.
If it becomes obvious that your agent isn't making enough submissions, any submissions, or isn't following up on any leads for submissions you may have discovered, it's time to have a long talk.
Your agent is expected to fight for you during and after the sale of a work. This means that your agent should get you the best advance and terms, make sure you retain the most rights to other sales or uses of your book, and act as a mediator if necessary between you and your editor during the publishing process.
But, just as when submitting your work, your agent is putting his or her career on the line each time he or she argues with an editor; and you may quickly learn whether you have a weak or a powerful agent by how fiercely and/or effectively he or she is willing to battle a publisher in your name.
As long as you're not making a pest of yourself, an agent should respond to your letters, phone calls, faxes or emails within a week or so... if there is nothing especially time-sensitive about them.
My agent hasn't responded to my calls, letters and emails for two months. Have I been dumped?
Possibly. Just like they say about Hollywood, when your agent stops returning your calls it's time to worry. Life ain't fair as we know, and if an inconsiderate agent decides to dump you, you may not even know you don't have an agent for months... time you could have been spending sending out work on your own or finding another agent.
A few agents seem to think it looks better if a writer dumps them; I assume so they can say the writer was temperamental -- or just plain mental -- and may stop responding in hope you will dump them, but the end result is the same.
If you suspect you've been dumped, or that your agent is playing the above-mentioned game, send a certified letter with return receipt saying that if you don't hear from your agent within two more weeks you will assume you've been dumped (or polite words to that effect) and will begin seeking other representation. At least, for what it's worth, this will give you proof that the agent dumped you but wasn't a decent enough person to come out and say it.
I don't think my agent is doing her job, can I look for another agent while I'm still with her?
Most agents will tell you that soliciting other agents while still with your present agent is the worst sin in the Bible and is "just not done."
Actually, it's done all the time. Many successful writers simply outgrow their first agents... agents who for one reason or another can't deal with big-time publishing or Hollywood. Matter of fact, it's also very common for agents to steal each other's clients. But don't expect an agent to admit this.
And don't expect any understanding from your agent if you do this. Also be aware that the publishing world is a very small place and word will get around.
Can changing agents hurt a writer?
As far as I've been able to tell, not in the eyes of most editors, but definitely in the eyes of most agents! Many agents seem to feel that a writer should stay with them for life... even if it's a short life because the writer starves to death.
If you have a ten-book contract with a publisher, you probably won't care what agents think; but if, like most black writers, every book is a first book, you should be damn sure you're doing the right thing. How? Good question, I haven't figured it out myself.
At best be prepared for a verbal or email drive-by from your present agent.
Also be aware that author/agent divorces can be messy, especially if there have been children -- your books -- or if your present agent still has manuscripts of yours out for consideration by publishers.
Unless other arrangements can be made -- in writing -- your present agent will still be agent-of-record for whatever books she has already sold and rightfully entitled to her commission(s) from them.
She is also entitled -- if she chooses -- to keep pursuing other sales of whatever works of yours she has sold, such as foreign or film. Even if she doesn't choose to do so, you may still be obligated to pay her a commission on any future sales of those works... possibly including a major movie deal.
As far as any work she still has out in submission, you need to arrive at an understanding -- in writing -- about what will happen if she makes a sale after your divorce.
And be sure to get a complete list of the submissions she has made and the editors who considered them to make life easier for yourself and for your new agent.
That's all, folks
That's about all I can tell you about my experiences with literary agents, but feel free to email me if you have any specific questions.
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