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Industry Advice: Robert N Stephenson

by Robert N Stephenson
Agent, ALTAIR-AUSTRALIA

The idea of using an agent to present your book to publishers has become more established over recent years and at times it would be foolish to approach a publisher without one. Many mainstream publishers will not look at manuscripts unless it comes from an established literary agency.

What does the agent do that is so different from a writer submitting their work?

The first thing is that agents act as a fire wall between the writer and publisher; it is usually assumed that only the very best will make it through this wall and to the desk of the publisher.

There isn't any hard selling involved in representing a book, the book is either good or it isn't and no amount of agent jargon is going to change the fact.

The agent generally comes into their own around contract time; this is where they will negotiate better rights, better money and even better percentages. Writers have dumped their agents at this critical stage believing they can do that part themselves and have ended up with less than desirable contracts, plus a bad name in the industry.

Agents also monitor your career as a writer, collecting royalties and checking royalty statements. The agent, as in the case of Altair Australia Pty Ltd, will also investigate foreign markets for your book that might otherwise be closed to unrepresented works. Think of them as a kind of business manager; you are left to write, give talks and go to conventions while the agent ensures your books stay in print and or get published.


What not to do when approaching an agent:

  1. Don't send an agent you life story - sure your life might be interesting, but unless you own a major corporation or are famous most people just aren't interested - their own lives are hard enough as it is. If you write fiction make sure your work has been edited and proof read before submission. If you have seen similar ideas on TV then the agent has to and just won't want the book and don't tell the agent you write like a famous author if it is glaringly obvious that you don't - this is just annoying and usually gets you bounced quick smart.
  2. Don't start making demands on the agent with your first submission. Think about it. There are tens of thousands of writers in Australia and a hundred times that in the world; an agent will happily work with a reasonable client than with someone who is pushy or rude. Be patient and always be polite. Don't ring the agent and expect them to drop everything for you because they haven't replied to your submission you sent last week. Reading manuscripts takes time and agents don't read them each and every day, they may have set reading periods each week or month, so don't be surprised if you wait up to 12 weeks before you receive a reply on your submission.
  3. If you don't want agent A to represent you then don't send in your manuscript. Agents don't have time for indecisive people.
  4. Do not and I mean do not, negotiate a book deal without your agent and then tell them you don't need them for that deal - that is the easiest way to get yourself sued and your book canned by the publisher.
  5. If you are dishonest then do not apply. If you only have one book in you, do not apply - unless that book is mindblowingly brilliant.
  6. It is a hard business and it takes hard and dedicated people, no one is going to hold your hand. If you have determination, tenacity and just an inkling of talent then you will go far.
  7. Never ring this agent and ask for feedback on a rejected submission - I will hang up - sorry if that sounds harsh but you might as well learn the business is harsh right now then get your feeling hurt later.