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To Agent or Not to Agent?
That Is the Question!

2006 Lori L. Lake


Lori L. Lake

It's always interesting to read articles in writing magazines and letters to the editor about agents: when to get them, who likes them, how useful they are, etc. I think each particular writer lives in his or her own circumstances, and depending on those circumstances, the answer to "Agent? Or no Agent?" is different. But I have some opinions and observations, which I have made to people off and on over time. I kept getting asked this question so often, that I've finally turned it into an article. It's long. Go get a cool drink and kick back.

Stating My Situation Up Front
First off, I do not have an agent, and at this point, I'm quite happy with that arrangement. I will shortly be seeing my ninth book published from the small press world, and I've learned a lot in the six-plus years I've been working with small lesbian presses. But I also have a number of author colleagues who publish with big New York presses and with medium-size presses as well, so I'll try to give a broad picture in answer to the question "Agent? Or not?"

Niche Writing
If you work in a niche genre as I do (in my case: gay/lesbian), then you have about a 98% chance of writing for the love of it, not for the money. Few GLBT authors make enough income to live on from writing only. For every Sarah Waters, E.Lynn Harris, or Armistead Maupin, there are several hundred authors writing for the love of it and not being paid anything near what their labor is worth. But it is a labor of love, and I would do it whether I were paid well or not. I'm not expecting to ever make a jet-setter's living off my books—but then again, you never know. Hope springs eternal.

Keep in mind that of all the books published, non-fiction far outnumbers fiction, and an even smaller percent of the fiction is gay-related. If you don't believe me, go look at There are about 6,700 books on Aviation, 9,700 on Birds, and over 32,000 on Computers (and Amazon's counter only goes to 32,000!). Meanwhile, there are fewer than two thousand gay and lesbian literature/fiction titles currently listed.

You Don't Need An Agent for a Small Press Contract
I'm working on edits for my ninth book right now, and I've never used an agent to work out any of the contracts I've made. I'm not sure why anyone from mid-list on down would want an agent. They take 15-20% of your gross and charge you for office supplies, phone calls, and postage. Who needs that when we already don't have money rolling in like crazy? Maybe an agent can get you in at Alyson or Kensington, two of the biggest G/L presses, but what would be the point? Neither of those "big" presses pay much better than most of the small presses. In the small press arena, if you study up about contracts and publishing, you can represent yourself just fine, and by querying Alyson and Kensington—without an agent—you can get your foot in the door.

So you don't need an agent for smaller presses—but you may wish to engage the services of a literary lawyer who can advise you about the details of your contract. Rather than spend 15-20% of your very meager royalties on an agent, spend the funds on making sure your contract is satisfactory.

More on contracts toward the end of the article.

Wasting Time?
Agents are a picky, choosy lot. They rarely will take on new clients unless they think some big (or moderately substantial) money is coming their way. This is why it's so hard for authors writing for small niche audiences to get agents. We're looked upon as small potatoes.

If you are writing fiction intended for the mainstream audience, and you believe that your novel will sell to a New York press such as Random House or St Martin's or Simon & Schuster, then by all means, seek an agent. Keep in mind, though, what the current marketplace looks like. If you're writing a lesbian romance, you won't get a New York publisher—not unless it has some other incredibly compelling angle to it. If, on the other hand, you're writing cutting edge mysteries (e.g., Ellen Hart or Laurie R. King) or unusually clever period pieces (e.g., Sarah Waters), then a miracle could happen.

But the few agents I have chatted with socially have told me they would run screaming if approached by an unknown author whose books sold small numbers to a niche audience. In fact, even well-known authors who've been going it on their own usually can't get a literary agent for their future lesbian projects. If you had a couple of bestsellers—say an erotica book and/or a suspense/thriller that can crossover and really take off—then you would have a better chance of hooking an agent. But why bother when you're producing small press/niche books?

I have yet to hear from an author writing gay lesbian popular (or literary) fiction who snagged an agent and went on to get such a sweet deal that it made me want to go out and find an agent for my own books. The fact is, the more time you waste seeking an agent to represent you, the longer you will wait to get your manuscript to a publisher who can actually get it out to the reading public. Don't waste that time.

The Unacknowledged Truth
Most authors and most publishers never mention the fact that the majority of small press gay and lesbian books are considered best-sellers if they sell 2,000-3,000 copies. Certainly there are a number of authors from small/non-mainstream presses who can move 8,000, 15,000, perhaps even 25,000 copies of a fiction title over a couple years' time, but those are the exception, not the rule.

500 copies sold in the first year a debut author's title is issued is not unusual. It comes as a great shock to many lesbian writers that this is the case. Given those numbers, agents tend to shy away.

Crunching the Numbers
I have a friend with a middle-to-big publishing house, and she gets very little attention there at all. Her publisher—we'll call it Medium-Bigshot Publishing (MB Publishing)—faithfully edits, jackets, and packages her novels, then does standard promotional work. After that, it's up to her.

MB Publishing focuses on all the hot, new stuff, and upon the big money-grabbers. My friend's books have reached an avid audience, but it's considered a small fan-base, which puts her not quite bordering on mid-list in book sales performance. Her first print run was 5,000. She gets 36 cents for every mass market paperback and will get a total of $1,800 once that run is all sold, of which she already received a $750 advance. She also has to wait until her advance is paid back before she gets any royalties. (In industry parlance, she has to "earn out" her advance, and then royalties get paid.)

In comparison, my publisher pays me 10% of cover price and publishes substantially long, trade paperbacks. So I make $1.60 to $1.90 per book. After only 1,000 of my books are sold, I've already made as much from them as my friend will get from her entire run. That's not to say that I am making money hand over fist or anything, but my point is: why would either of us want to shell out 15% of our pittance to an agent?

Don't I Need an Agent to Help Negotiate My Contract?
Do you find yourself worried about not knowing things that an agent would know and use to protect you? Well, it's not all that complicated. I'm not a lawyer, and I don't play one on TV, but I've managed on my own and with a minimum of worry to negotiate nine contracts for books and a number of others for articles and short stories.

The one thing people are always asking about is subsidiary rights, all of which should be made part of the contract negotiation. Whether it's possible movie rights, foreign language publication, audio books, e-books, etc., all rights you grant to the publisher go into your contract—or not. Anything NOT in your contract is still yours.

You have to expressly grant the rights to the publisher in the contract or the publisher has no rights to those items. I, for instance, never give up the rights to films. But I negotiated a fair split for foreign language subsidiary rights. I think the publisher should get a small amount since they are the initial contact and will start negotiations. Also, the publishers own the best and cleanest copy of the book in a form that is easy to transmit to a foreign press or movie producer, so they ought to be compensated for that. It's always nice to hope that these sorts of rights will be optioned or purchased by someone, but the likelihood of a movie option or any of those other subsidiary rights for GLBT books is small....not impossible, of course, but still not very likely.

But What Do I Do Without an Agent?
My advice to brand new, niche writers is to find reputable publishers that already put out work you would accept and read. Don't go with a fly-by-night or Vanity Publisher (the type that charges YOU). Check out a publisher thoroughly on the Net, go to a bookstore and look at their books, ask bookstore owners, buyers, and workers what they think. Also, always write to their authors and ask for advice and opinions on how good the publisher is. Are royalties paid on time? Does the publisher follow through on promises? Do they meet the timelines and deadlines they contract to?

Then once you have narrowed your search, submit to places that you think are decent. CRITICAL ADVICE: Follow the press's submission guidelines to the Nth degree. If they say 12 pt Courier with one inch margins, don't give them 11 pt Geneva. If they prefer electronic submissions, don't mail them your manuscript. FOLLOW DIRECTIONS! Most presses figure that if you can't follow something as simple as guidelines, they aren't going to waste their time—they assume you'll be an idiot to work with (although of course it's not true!).

I Found a Publisher! They Sent Me a Contract!
When you are offered a contract, you may want to take it to a lawyer to look at—or at the very least, ask other authors who have been published by reputable presses for help and advice. There's lots of room in a contract. Usually the publisher sends you their "boilerplate" contract and throws in everything but the kitchen sink but is willing to remove offensive/undesirable items upon request.

Educate yourself first, then you can deal with them knowledgably. Keep in mind that if you would like to have a career in writing novels, you're going to need to know as much as possible anyway, so you may as well start learning now.

There are a number of resources to which I regularly refer. You can find most of these in the library, but all are worth adding to your personal library.

For good guides on contracts, I recommend the following:
How To Be Your Own Literary Agent : An Insider's Guide to Getting Your Book Published by Richard Curtis

Literary Law Guide for Authors: Copyrights, Trademarks and Contracts in Plain Language by Evans and Evans (This one even comes with a CD-Rom of common sample contracts and information.)

How to Be a Literary Agent: An Introductory Guide to Literary Representation by Richard Mariotti and Bruce Fife
In addition, though they are dated, these two books are helpful:
Be Your Own Literary Agent: The Ultimate Insider's Guide to Getting Published by Martin Levin

From Pen to Print: The Secrets of Getting Published Successfully by Ellen M. Kozak
You can find some great information about contracts and agents online at:
The more you read and study, the more you will learn the lingo, and understanding the terminology used is more than half the battle.

Good luck!
Lori L. Lake, 2006
From her untitled book about novel writing, a work in progress.
Not for distribution or copying without the express permission of the author. Lori can be reached at and welcomes questions and comments.

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