Monday, January 7, 2013

On Agents

“If you took that money outside and burned it, how bad would it hurt you financially? Would you be okay without it?”
I was on the phone with my dad. I was twenty-five and living in Illinois at the time. I’d sent a query – an actual physical letter with a SASE and everything – to the Scott Meredith Literary Agency, seeking representation for a novel I’d completed in graduate school, an absurdist fantasy called Y3000, about a computer that was literally God and the hapless man who’d been chosen as God’s “user.” They’d written me back to let me know they’d be happy to take a look at my novel – for a reading fee of $750.
This was 1989. There was no Internet to log onto and do a Google search for “literary agent reading fees.” I’d been reading Writer’s Digest religiously for a few years, but I didn’t remember the magazine saying much about reading fees. In general, they seemed frowned upon, but I’d also been reading Locus, in which one of Scott Meredith’s agents, Russell Galen, had a regular column. That certainly seemed like a stamp of approval for the agency to me. And a number of writers I’d heard of were represented by them. So, if the agency was legit (as the kids say these days), then their reading fee must be too, right? Still, I had a nagging feeling that this might be a scam. I had no friends with any publishing experience, so Dad, as usual, was my go-to guy. Hence the call.
I thought about his advice, even imagined physically burning a pile of money. My wife at the time and I lived in a small apartment, we didn’t have car payments, and more importantly, we didn’t have kids. She was finishing the internship for her doctorate, and we wouldn’t have to start paying on her student loans for a while. (I was lucky enough not to have needed any student loans.) Yeah, I told Dad, we could afford to lose $750.
“Then go for it,” Dad said.
So I did. I printed a copy of Y3000 on my dot matrix printer, tore off the perforations and separated the sheets, packed the print-out in a box, enclosed a check for $750, and headed for the post office. And then I waited and tried not to kick myself for wasting all that money.
A few months later, I received a letter from Scott Meredith himself, telling me how much they loved Y3000 and that they wanted to represent it. He promised his agency would “get right to work selling this wonderful whirligig of a novel.”
I have since learned that Meredith’s agency took on very few writers, and that my situation was something of an anomaly. Keep that in mind.
I’d made a huge leap on my way to becoming a professional writer, and I was ecstatic. I had a phone conversation with the specific agent I was assigned, and I asked all the right questions that Writer’s Digest said you should ask: “What’s your strategy for submitting my novel?” “How much, if any, feedback will you provide on my writing?” “Do you prefer to be contacted by phone or letter?” (Email wasn’t a standard method of communication yet), etc. The agent was a nice guy, we got along well enough, and I was looking forward to working with him. So he started submitting Y3000, and I started writing my next book.
A year passed. The agent remained enthusiastic about the book, despite the rejections it had received from publishers. After the second year passed without any publishers taking the bait, the agent’s enthusiasm waned. My contract with Scott Meredith was to remain in force for two years, after which time both parties would reassess the situation. If neither terminated the contract, it would continue for another two years. I didn’t hear anything from the agent as the two-year mark passed, but I decided that perhaps the Scott Meredith Company and I should part ways – especially since they were reluctant to look at the novels I’d written since Y3000. I called the agent, and he agreed that terminating our relationship “might be for the best.” He sounded almost relieved.
To say this was a letdown is an understatement. But I continued chugging along, writing stories and novels, and occasionally thinking about searching for a new agent. But after how things had turned out with Scott Meredith, I wasn’t in any hurry. When I finally decided that the time had come to begin my agent search anew, I researched like hell. Still no Internet, so I scoured writers’ magazines and writers’ market guides not only to identify likely prospects but to make sure I knew what I was doing this time. I queried a number of agents, and a few asked to see some chapters, but all ultimately passed. Then one day I received a phone call from an agent.
“Hi, this is [NAME WITHHELD]. How ya doin’? I’ve just read over the chapters you sent, and I’d like to take a look at the whole manuscript.”
“Our standard reading fee is $300 dollars.”
Less awesome. I told him I’d have to think about it.
 The agent said no problem, he understood. He was also a writer, and he told me to hit a bookstore and check out his work to make sure he was bonafide. (Again, no Internet, so I couldn’t simply do a Google search on him.) I told him I’d get back to him tomorrow, hung up, and headed for the bookstore. Sure enough, I did find one of his books, a paperback suspense thriller that – based on the cover and the copy on the back – looked like a rip-off of The Silence of the Lambs. I wasn’t exactly encouraged. I returned home and thought about it all night. By this point, I knew reading fees were bullshit, but I was still tempted. All the other agents I’d queried had passed. What if this guy was my last chance?
But in the end, I couldn’t do it. I called the agent back, and told him thanks but no thanks.
He paused. “Well, how about you send us half the book to read, and we’ll only charge you $150?”
I laughed and hung up.
A few more agent-less years passed. By this point I was living and teaching in Columbus, Ohio, and I’d had a few short stories published in small-press magazines. I’d begun attending science fiction conventions as a panelist, and I was working on learning how to promote myself and – far more importantly for me at this stage of my career – how to network. I was on a panel with a local writer, J. Calvin Pierce, whose humorous fantasy I admired. We got to talking after the panel, and he invited me to have lunch with him and another local writer, Dennis L. McKiernan. After the con, Jim invited me over to house to talk about writing, and the day we got together happened to be the day his writers’ group met. Jim asked if I’d like to come along that night. Not only was he in the group, but so was Dennis and Lois McMaster Bujold. Of COURSE I wanted to go!
Eventually, I became a full-fledged member of the group, and after workshopping a novel with them, Dennis offered to introduce me to his agent. This gentleman agreed to take a look at my novel, and I shipped it off to him. Dennis was enthusiastic about my book and felt confident his agent would take me on as a client. I wasn’t so certain, but I remained hopeful.
In my early twenties, I’d made a vow that if I hadn’t published a novel by my thirtieth birthday, I’d stop pursuing writing and put all my energy into some other field. (To those beginning writers reading this, making vows like this is idiotic: don’t do it.) On the morning of my thirtieth birthday, I was sitting around my apartment, depressed because I hadn’t sold a book yet. The phone rang, and it was Dennis’ agent, calling to say he wanted to represent me. The book I’d sent him was a fantasy adventure, and the agent said he liked it, in part, “because it was about people instead of place names.” It wasn’t a book contract with a publisher, but I figured it was close enough to fulfill the spirit – if not the letter – of my vow, and so I didn’t give up writing. (I’m sure the world breathed a collective sigh of relief.)
I worked with this agent for a total of eighteen years – just about as long as my marriage lasted. He was always responsive to emails and phone calls, and he was happy to spend time talking with me about whatever the current state of publishing was and how it was changing. And believe me, it changed a hell of lot during that time. There were a few things that bothered me, though. First off, he never found a publishing deal for me. Every book I sold, I did so because I made the contact with the publisher. My agent got me better contract terms – not to mention more money – than I would’ve on my own, so I didn’t feel ill-served. And even though I made the contacts, the editors often wanted to know if I had an agent, for they in effect used agents as first readers to vet manuscripts before asking to see them. Over the years, I was surprised learned that this situation – agents not finding deals, only negotiating them – wasn’t all that uncommon. It certainly begs the question why authors ultimately need agents, and it was a question I asked myself from time to time.
After a couple years of working together, my agent stopped letting me know where he was submitting my work and if he’d received any rejections for it. By this point, my wife and I had our first daughter, and I was too busy with life to fret about the lack of reportage from my agent. I figured he’d let me know when he got a sale. During this time, I sent him a couple books that, in retrospect, I’m not sure he ever submitted.
Things picked up for me novel-wise in my mid-thirties. I began selling books on proposals, so I didn’t have to write them unless a publisher had already agreed to publish them. This meant I no longer had to rely on my agent to find me deals. I could bring them to him and he could negotiate terms.
Things went on like this for years, and I was content enough. My second daughter had been born, and we’d moved to Dayton where I took a full-time tenure-track job teaching at a community college. Then I got divorced and moved back into an apartment for the first time in a decade. For a long time I was depressed, and even though I noticed that my agent was no longer as responsive as he had been, I didn’t care all that much. Then it began taking him so long to look over contracts that publishers started contacting me to find out what was going on.
Which brings us to 2012, the year my agent seemed to vanish off the face of the earth. I had four different contracts for him to negotiate, and months went by without any contact. When deadlines for these projects began closing in, I gave up on my agent and began contacting editors directly. Two of them had started negotiations with my agent only to have my agent cease contact. The other had never heard from my agent at all.
Fortunately, all the editors were understanding, and I was able to negotiate new deadlines, and I didn’t lose any of the contracts. I was worried that something bad may have happened to my agent or someone in his family, so I hit Google (yes, Virginia; by now there was an Internet) and tried to find out what, if anything, may have happened to him. I found nothing.
I’d worked with this agent for almost twenty years, but I couldn’t have an agent who was unresponsive and who’d nearly let four different deals – deals I’d brought to him – get away. So after some thought, I send him the following message, both as an email and a registered letter:
I've heard from four different editors that you haven't contacted or didn't follow up with after initial contact. I hope this is simply due to your being extremely busy and that you aren't going through any personal difficulties. However, at this point, months after I originally set up these deals on my own, I'm going to conduct negotiations with these editors myself.

I've enjoyed working with you over the last eighteen years – I've especially enjoyed our phone conversations and the lunch we had in NYC – but I think we've reached a point where it would be best if we ended our business relationship.

I truly appreciate everything you've done for me over the years, and I hope you take care.
I never received a reply. I still don’t know what happened, whether my agent lost interest in me, in his business, or whether he was having personal troubles. There’s a good chance I’ll never know.
So, halfway through 2012, I had a decision to make. Should I try to get another agent? After having published close to thirty novels, I was confident I could find someone to take me on. That wasn’t the issue. The issue was whether I needed an agent. Given the paradigm shift in publishing over the last few years, I had to ask myself if I even needed publishers anymore. Maybe now was the time to strike out into the brave new world of electronic self-publishing.
But there were still some good reasons for me to find a new agent. There are some publishers who refuse to take a look at unagented manuscripts, no matter who wrote them. And when talking to editors at conferences, at one point they almost always ask if you have an agent. Yes, you make the initial contact, but the editors want to know there’s someone they can work with who’ll act as a buffer between the two of you when it comes to business matters. But the real reason I decided I still needed an agent is because I’m not ready to jump into self-publishing. I’m too busy teaching and being a dad to give a damn about becoming a do-it-myselfer. Every editor I’ve worked with (with the exception of one) has helped make my books better. Publishers take care of cover art, copy-editing, and interior design. And although publishers don’t put a ton of money into publicizing most of their authors, they still do some publicity. Everything a publisher does for me – or more accurately, with me, since traditional publishing is a collaborative business relationship for mutual advantage and profit – is something I don’t have to do for myself. And the most precious commodity I have these days isn’t money; it’s time.
Besides, I worked damn hard to get where I am in the world of traditional publishing, and I want to see how much farther I can go before I become a do-it-myselfer (which one day very well may be the only way to go). I decided it was time to start the agent search again, for the first time in twenty years.
I attend a few science fiction conventions throughout the year, and in 2012 I went to Confluence in Pittsburgh for the first time (because they were kind enough to invite me). One morning, I was sharing a panel with Jonathan Maberry, a scholar and a gentleman if ere there was one. Jonathan sat down next to me and asked me how things were going. We chatted for a couple minutes, and then I told him about how things ended with my previous agent and that I was in the market for a new one.
“I can recommend a couple good ones to you if you want.”
Of course, I wanted.
In August I signed with one of the agents Jonathan recommended. I’d known of her for years, had friends who were clients of hers, and I liked what I heard about her. She knows publishing inside and out, has a seemingly inexhaustible supply of energy, and works tirelessly for her clients. (I’m not saying her name only because she doesn’t take on many new clients at this stage in her career, and I don’t want her to be bombarded by queries from people saying, “Tim spoke highly of you on his blog!”) She also attends conventions to meet with her clients and with editors (something my last agent never did). She’s great at keeping the lines of communication open, and she gives good feedback on the proposals I’ve sent her. She’s done a great job negotiating contracts for me, too.
So what’s the moral of all this? I’m not sure there is one. If you're going the self-publishing route, you don’t need an agent, that’s for sure. But if you intend to tilt at the windmill that’s traditional publishing, it’s a good idea to consider getting an agent.
Here are some tips:

·         Make sure you’ve written the entire manuscript of the very best novel you’re capable of, one which is publishable in its current form. An agent can’t represent incomplete, unfinished, or unprofessional work. (Once you’ve published some novels, then you can start selling on proposals, but that’s not how you start out.)

·         Avoid fee-charging agents.

·         Avoid agents who, because of the changes to publishing, tell you they double as publishers and will publish your book if they can’t find anyone else to do it. This, not to put too fine a point on it, is horseshit. They have no incentive to sell your book elsewhere if they intend to publish it. You might as well self-publish the damn thing.

·         15% commission is still the standard. Agents earn their money by getting you more money and better contract terms.

·         Find an agent who will give you some feedback on your writing but who doesn’t pretend to be an editor and make you rewrite everything.

·         Find someone who’s willing to stay in reasonable contact (but don’t text them every five minutes to see if they’ve sold your book yet).

·         Try to find someone who’ll be upfront and honest with you about the bad as well as the good.

·         Find someone who believes in you and your work.

·         Find someone who wants to represent you, not just one novel of yours.

·         Find someone you feel is a good fit with your personality and style of working. If an agent doesn’t seem like a fit, move on and keep looking.

·         Don’t agent-hop every few months just because your book hasn’t sold to a publisher yet. Give your agent some time to do his or her thing.

·         Find agents through referrals from other writers, at conferences, by checking the dedications and acknowledgements pages in published books, through agent guides like Writer’s Digest and Jeff Herman put out every year, and by checking out the website of the Association of Author’s Representatives:

·         Remember, there is no educational path, no training, no degree, and no certification for being an agent. Make sure to do your research before signing with anyone.


My novel Ghost Town, written with Jason Hawes and Grant Wilson of the Ghost Hunters TV show, came out in fall. It’s the sequel to Ghost Trackers.

The Nekropolis Archives, an omnibus featuring my zombie P.I. Matt Richter, and containing the novels Nekropolis, Dead Streets, Dark War, and three short stories about Matt and company is still available.

My horror novels Like Death, The Harmony Society, and Beneath the Bones are still available, as is my Shirley Jackson Award-nominated novella The Men Upstairs.

My story “Thou Art God,” appears in the anthology Dark Faith: Invocations. “The Great Ocean of Truth” appears in the anthology Fear the Abyss from Post Mortem Press. Another story, “No More Shadows,” appears in Evil Jester Digest 2.


The Nekropolis Archives:
The Harmony Society:
Beneath the Bones:
The Men Upstairs:
Dark Faith: Invocations:
Evil Jester Digest Volume 2:


  1. Excellent advice. I agree it has a lot to do with a writer's goals whether or not an agent is needed. But there are still many of us who daydream of the almost Hollywood idea of a writing career.

  2. Thanks, Tim. It's always great to get advice from someone who's been down the rough road. Sometimes I read articles written by authors who have landed a sweet deal with a great agent right off the bat and all they do is complain about people complaining about how hard it is to find an agent.

  3. You really need to let me read this Y3000 novel sometime, Tim.