Drawing on forty years of experience in the book business, Bill Fawcett answered his own query in an entertaining talk on Friday afternoon to Jody Lynn Nye’s Writer’s Intensive Workshop participants and alumni. Fawcett said that you should not have an agent until you have an offer in hand but that some authors are able to engage an agent earlier due to relationships with the agent or one of the agent’s clients. He noted that if you sell a book or two or indie publish and sell 30,000+ copies on Amazon, if an agent has room on their list, you may get some interest.
On your first contract, he noted that the agent may not do much because a new author has very little leverage. As you sell more, the agent can do more for you. Fawcett noted that agents are aware of the contract terms offered and will work for you to remove the most egregious clauses. He also noted that agents could offer different types of services. He mentioned Donald Maass’s practice of development review as opposed to Russell Galen’s more mercenary approach and the specialized expertise separating literary, media, and foreign rights agents.
Red flags in dealing with agents, according to Fawcett, include if your agent does not respond quickly, says they are marketing your book but acquisition editors aren’t seeing it, and the agent wants you to pay them directly instead of taking their commission from payments from your publisher to you. He noted that agent commissions run a standard of fifteen percent (up from ten percent when he started out in the 1980s). He reminded writers present that paying commissions is a good thing: your agent only gets paid if you get paid.
Fawcett stated that including ebook sales in agency contracts is now standard, and that young adult and middle grade literature is an expanding area of opportunity. However, he stressed not to give in to an agent who insists that you write in a lucrative emerging genre that you feel is not what you want to do.
Fawcett stated that agents can be found from internet listings or talking to represented authors with work similar to your own. Comments are often posted online about agents, but Fawcett cautioned to take those with a grain of salt as sometimes authors develop an unjustified bias against their agent (or former agent). He stressed in closing that a sure way to kill your career was to make damaging comments online about an agent (or anyone else in publishing) and said, “don’t do it!”