Monthly archives for January, 2010

Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing: Agents Can Help with Careers

Kris and I in workshop after workshop, in conference after conference, give the same advice over and over. WRITE WHAT YOU ARE PASSIONATE ABOUT, THEN TRY TO FIGURE OUT HOW TO SELL IT.

The myth: Agents can give good career advice to writers.

This chapter on agents to me is the most important of all the agent chapters. Agents thinking they can give career advice to writers is so wrong in so many ways, it’s going to hard to figure out where to start first. And it disgusts me in so many ways, I’m going to have a certain level of problem keeping balanced on this. Fair warning. I think this myth is flat dangerous to any artist working.

So let me start first with the “art” aspects of writing and work to the business.


Every long-term writer I know does their best with every project. We all put our hearts and souls into every story, into every novel, into every project. There are no exceptions. Sometimes we hit, sometimes we miss, sometimes we love what we wrote and can’t sell it, sometimes we love what we wrote, critics hate it. Sometimes we hate what we wrote, critics love it.

But, without fail, we always do our best at the time we were writing the project. That’s Given #1.

Given #2 is that every writer should write what makes them angry, what makes them passionate, or what they love. From the passion comes true art. (I have started two comic book stores and own over 100,000 comic books. When I got to write X-Men and Spider-Man, I was writing what I loved deeply and felt frightened and challenged to even have the chance.)

Given #3. No writer ever should think for one moment about a project selling either before or during the writing phase. Ever. You try writing to market, to fad, to trend, and you might as well find another job.

So, putting all three together, you come up with a very clear statement that I repeat over and over and over.

Write what you love, what you are passionate about, (or as King says, what scares you), then figure out how to sell it when you finish.

Let me repeat: SELL IT WHEN YOU FINISH!!!

So along comes the agent myth about helping a writer plan a career.

Now understand, I have said over and over and over again that I have no problem with a writer hiring an agent. But for heaven’s sake, do it with solid business practice in mind and a clear head. Clear out the myths. You might just very well end up with a an agent you can work with for a very long time.

So back to this myth about agents. Writer believes that some agent can help them plan their career and what to write next. They take advice blindly from an agent who doesn’t really know them or their work or what they love and hate, some agent who they have not even bothered to check out (see previous chapters and comments), a stranger who is more concerned with their own business than what is best for an artist.

Here is the problem. Some young writer gets excited, does all the work, learns the craft, and writes a book he is passionate about. And then starts following the myths.

Myth: Rewriting is good, so agent tells young writer how to “fix” the book, so young writer dumbs his passion in his work down to what some stranger (agent) thinks might sell. (Yes, rewriting is career advice because the agent always says something along the lines of “I think this will sell better if you do this and this.”)

Myth: Agent takes the book out to a bunch of editor friends and actually gets a small advance. Author is happy about the sale and ignores the fact that it’s not his book much anymore. It sold, that’s all that is important. Any thought of art is long gone at this point. His name is on the cover and he has made it. That’s where all the thinking is for the writer.

Myth: Agent now thinks they know what the young author needs to do, so tells them what to write next. Young writer hates it, thinks he has already written that book the first time, doesn’t want to write the same thing again, but does as agent says. Doesn’t like the final product because it has no passion, agent doesn’t like it, and off into rewrite myth they go.

What I have seen hundreds of times is that young writers stop their careers right there. Second book was no fun, third book was pure torture, why bother, sales were not that good anyway, and writer stops writing. I would to.

This myth kills artists.

This myth combined with all the aspects of the other agent and sales myths, force young artist after young artist to compromise, think about selling before they write a word, move away from passion into safe sales, and thus into losing the very reason and passion the writer was writing in the first place. And when you lose the reason to write, the love of writing, the passion to write, you soon just stop writing.

It takes a very, very powerful self-belief to stand up to these myths and just write what you want, at the speed you want, and mail to who you want after you are finished. Yet to be a true artist, a true long-term professional writer, you have to learn to stand up for your writing and your art.

Is all this easy to learn? No. Darned hard, actually.

But to be a true artist, write what you want. Never write to market.


Now, this is a fun area because when you look at it, this myth becomes just flat silly on the surface.

You live in Outback small town. You were raised by some combination of humans, have friends that makes up some combination of humans, believe in some combination of religious beliefs, have some combination of writing talents, and have a very certain combination of fears, passions, and likes and dislikes.

In other words, you are an individual, a one-of-a-kind writer. That’s what makes your voice unique and your writing different from everyone else.

The agent is also a unique person, with certain likes and dislikes and beliefs in what sells and what doesn’t and who will buy what and why and how every writer should follow the recent trend and have a vampire do something on page three.

So you, young writer, believe in this myth of career planning, trust some stranger to tell you what to write. The stranger has a different upbringing, a different set of values, and no idea at all who you really are as a person. They don’t know your voice or what makes you unique. In fact, to them, you need to be more like everyone else.

Yet you let the stranger tell you what to write. And then you wonder why you are not passionate about your writing anymore. Duh.

From the fact that each of us is different, each of us is unique, it should become clear that no writer should ever listen to anyone else, family, spouse, kids, workshop, or agent to tell them what to write next.

Just write your own book. That way lies success. Anything else is just a disaster or failure waiting to happen.


Agents flat don’t know a writer’s business. That is a truth. Some may think they do, but they don’t understand writer cash flow, don’t understand how writers make money, let alone how much time and effort it takes us to produce a product. They don’t know and shouldn’t be expected to know. (If you think all your writing money comes through your agent, wow do you have a lot to learn about the business of being a writer.)

But to an agent only concerned with their own business (which writers do not understand either), they want to sell books. And if there is a current trend, agents want their clients to write into that current trend, even though a trend is usually two years old by the time an agent catches a whiff of it.

I had an agent call me four years after the vampire craze started and ask if I had a vampire novel. Wow, that was a human ahead of the curve. Not. Another agent called me after the Titanic movie became a hit and said, “Didn’t you publish a book about the Titanic once?” I said I had a novel that partially set on the Titanic, but that was it, and it didn’t fit. Agent didn’t believe me and wanted to see it, so I sent it and then agent wrote me a snippy note asking why I thought that book would ever fit being reprinted. I just laughed and said nothing.

So, because the agent thinks it would be good business for you to sell another book just like your last one, or worse yet, just like the one they just sold for another client, they tell you to write that. And if that one sells, they tell you write it again. And again. And again, until finally it doesn’t sell anymore and they drop you.

Now understand, I am not talking about series characters, or writers who love to write just mysteries or just science fiction. Back to the top. Write what you love first and foremost, then worry about how to sell it. If you love mysteries, write them. If you love science fiction, write that. If you have a series character you love to spend time with, keep writing books with that character.

But if the only reason you are writing the next mystery is because your agent wanted you to write it when your passion has moved to romantic suspense, then you are in trouble.

To an agent’s business, it makes great sense to tell writers to write the same book over and over again.

To a writer’s business, it makes no sense to write anything they are not passionate about. To do anything else dooms the business.

Speed Advice from all three perspectives: Art, Personal, and Business.

Well, every agent I know will utter the phrase: “Slow down and take your time and do your best work.”

That is career advice shows ZERO understanding of how writing is done from the creative side of the brain, how each writer writes at their own natural speed, how slowing down and writing from a critical perspective usually creates complete crap. The statement shows no understanding at all of how art is created by great writers.

And, of course, it shows no understanding at all of you as a person. Or even your writing methods. You are unique and maybe the best advice to you would be speeding up, or cutting down on rewriting, or doing some rewriting. The agent doesn’t know. They just spout a myth at you like it’s good career advice, even though every writer is completely different.

To an agent’s business model of only needing one or so books a year from an author, it makes complete sense to say such stupidity.

But to a writer’s business model, where more product means more money, more chance of hitting it big, more chance of creating art, unnaturally slowing down is just stupid business advice.

Some projects write fast, some write slow, some art has been created quickly, some art took longer. Study the history of writers and how long it actually took artists in the past to write something to completely understand this.

But the key is, you are unique, write at your own speed what you want to write.


This is yet again the stupidest career advice ever given to a writer. Some agent will say, “Why don’t you put that book away and work on the next one.”

My response is “While I’m working on the next one, why don’t you quit looking for excuses to not work and mail the book to five more editors.”

But, of course, you would never say that because they would mail it dead, meaning they would kill it in their cover letters to editors just to prove themselves right. But what you do is fire them, take the book back and mail it yourself while you work on the next book. Duh.

Never let anyone tell you to shelve a book for any reason. ANY REASON. And reasons agents give that seem logical to young professionals are things like:

—“Your career isn’t ready for this book.” Huh?

—“This book clearly isn’t strong enough for you to break in with.” Says who?

—“We got five rejections and it’s not working. Write the next book and we’ll see what we can do.” Lazy SOB.

Let me say this again. NEVER let anyone tell you to NOT market a book. Not your spouse, not your workshop, and certainly not some stranger who has a business card that says agent on it. Put your work in front of people who can buy it and keep it there. That’s good business. Nothing short of that is.

Again, back to a point I have made over and over in the other agent chapters in this book. Agents are not trained in any fashion. They have no schooling for agents, no organization that polices them. They have not gone to any publishing business school. They have nothing but a business card and an opinion.

So it’s bad enough that we writers trust them with our money, with picking editors to mail something to, with trying to get our books into Hollywood or overseas.

But it gets worse when we let an agent step into our writing offices in any fashion and give career advice. They are not writers, so they wouldn’t know good career advice it it hit them. They are not interested in writer’s careers, only their own anyway. So any advice would just be focused on what was best for them, not for you.

And they don’t know you as a person.

In summary:

—Write what you love, what you are passionate about, what scares you, what you want.

—Never, ever write to market. Just go into your writing space or office and be an artist.

—Then, when the project is finished, worry about how to sell it.

—Never, ever let anyone tell you what to write. It will kill your writing and your career faster than anything ever will.

Trust your own skills, your own voice, keep learning, and enjoy the writing.


Copyright 2010 Dean Wesley Smith
This is part of my inventory in my bakery now. (Confused on that, read the last Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing post about making money with writing.) I’m giving you this small slice as a sample. I’m giving you a taste, but not selling any of the pie. If you feel this helped you in any way, toss a tip into the tip jar on the way out of the Magic Bakery. If you can’t afford to donate, please feel free to pass this article along to others who might get some help from it. Every week or so I will be adding a new chapter on the myths and sacred cows of publishing. Stay tuned. Upcoming are chapters on bestsellers, research, rejections, and so much more. This business has a lot of myths. An entire book full.

Thanks, Dean

Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing: All Agents Care About Writers First

I never intended to do so many of the agent myths in a row, but since we’re having such a great conversation, and Laura Resnick brought this one up in the comments on the last one, it makes sense to just go on.

New writers and many professional writers believe that when they hire an agent, the agent has their best interest only in mind. With many modern agents, this is so far wrong, a writer’s interest doesn’t even get in the top three places of focus for some agents.

So said clearly, the myth is: Agents always have their client’s best interests in mind.

But before I start, I want to be clear. Every agent is different. Every agency is different. What I tend to call “old-style” agents do care about their writers. “Old-style” agents know they are an employee of a writer, they work hard doing what the writer wants, and puts the writer first in any relationship.

But the newer “slush-reading agents” as I call them, the ones that most writers deal with early on, are what this myth is about.

And let me be clear on basic employee nature. Of course any employee is doing the job for his or her own reasons. Money, love, challenge, companionship, whatever. All are reasons people take jobs. And becoming an agent is no different. Agents are people and their focus is themselves first, of course, as it is with any employee.

But most places of work for employees have rules of behavior, where during the hours that the employee works, the employer’s needs come to the front and are the focus of the actions of an employee. Just good business.

A clerk in a store helps customers, takes their money, keeps merchandise straight, all for the betterment of employer, so that the employee can make money and keep the job. A waitress in a restaurant follows restaurant rules, serves food in a certain fashion, and works while on the clock for the employer so that she can get paid and help her life move forward.

But, alas, there are no rules for agents. None. The new wave of agents have sort of made up rules for themselves lately, using not their employer’s interest, but instead twisting the job to fit their own interests. Wow, imagine a waitress doing that or a clerk in a store? Yet that’s how agents in writing are functioning now. No rules, no guidelines, nothing to keep them thinking that their employer should come first.

So simple human self-interest and lack of basic rules explain why so much of these myths exist for agents.

For more information and a lot of great discussion, all the Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing posts about agents are linked here:

Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing: You must have an agent to sell.

Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing: Agents Know Markets

Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing: Agent Agreements

Please, please, if you have any desire to really understand agents and help your writing career, read all the posts and all the comments. Thanks, Laura Resnick, and everyone who asked questions and made observations and helped in the discussion following those chapters in this crazy book.

In a comment after the last post, Laura Resnick said, “Many agents (perhaps most) see their credibility, their reputations in-house at publishers, and the productivity of their editorial contacts as being based on having a high hit-to-miss ratio with submissions–a high ratio of submissions that the editor likes and makes an offer on.”

I want to really aim an arrow at what Laura pointed out on agent perspectives in her fine comment.

“Slush-reading agents” (meaning the current batch) in sending manuscripts to editors have both a similar and a completely different goal in mind than a writer does.

Similar Goal: Both the writer and the agent want the editor to buy the novel for as much money as possible. Such a sale helps both not only make money, but helps both of their careers.

Different Goal: The writer wants the novel out and seen by as many editors as possible, to give the book the best shot to sell and maybe even get a small auction going. The agent, as Laura points out, wants to make sure to protect the agent’s reputation with an editor, thus wants to limit the number of rejections.

And this difference in goals is where most of the troubles are. Agents who mail things for clients worry more about their own careers and their own value to an editor then they worry about selling a book for a client. In fact, if a book isn’t perfect in this type of agent’s mind, they won’t mail it. Not for fear of hurting their client, but for fear of hurting THEIR (AGENT) reputation.

When an agent asks a writer to rewrite a manuscript, who are they really concerned about? Not the writer, that’s for sure. They are only looking out for their own self-interests. Nothing more.

When an agent asks a writer to rewrite a manuscript, they are actually hurting the writer. Forget for a moment the fact that an agent is not a writer and can’t really give good advice, but look at a rewrite from simple business terms.

1)The work of rewriting slows down any possible cash flow.

2) Rewriting takes writer time that could be used to create a new project.

3) Rewriting on demand of an agent hurts a writer’s personal belief system.

All fantastically negative things to a writer working alone in a room somewhere. So a simple rewrite request from a theoretical employee who is supposed to have the writer’s best interest in mind is fantastically damaging to any writer’s business

And agents do this only because they worry about their own reputation, worry about what editors will think of them. They have no care at all the damage they are doing to their client. “Slush-reading agents” worry more about their own reputation with publishers and editors than they worry about their reputations with the writers who hire them. To them, the attitude is, “If the writer doesn’t like it, they can find a new agent.” (And the writer should, of course.) But the agent’s self-interest are so far above that of thinking about the interest of their boss, the writer, that nothing but damage comes of it.

Why this has happened is a number of reasons. The most often stated is that agents work for more than one writer. So their thinking is that if they have a good reputation among a dozen editors at hitting with manuscripts, those editors will give them extra time and read manuscripts faster. And for the clients of this agent who can get a manuscript through the employee blockage, it sometimes helps. At least with speed of sales, a very minor thing in the overall picture.

But, and there is a huge BUT with the above, the fear and worry about what an editor thinks of the agent’s reputation is very, very bad for a lot of the agent’s clients. The faster acceptance vs. the huge damage to many clients doesn’t equal out.

Who really cares how fast an editor reads a manuscript? In fact, I personally know of a number of projects that editors said to me, “The agent is always in a hurry, setting deadlines for an answer, so I just bounced it since I hadn’t had time to get to it yet.”

Not my projects, thankfully, because I sell my own stuff, but friends. And when the editor said that to me, I just shuddered. A writer’s employee was causing the rejection because they were in a hurry. Yikes!

Anyone who has the slightest clue about what happens in editor’s offices when it comes to the process of buying a book know how long the process can take, and how many different battles an editor must fight. If the editor has some agent pushing at them, why should they drop everything and fight what that agent wants them to fight? They don’t. Mostly they just bounce the book.

So instead of pushing your agent to get an answer from some poor editor, why not push your agent to get the book project out on five more editor’s desks???? Give the editors time. And if you hire an agent to speed up the process of rejection, wow are you in the wrong business. Catch a clue. Your goal is to sell books. Give editors time to work. Put your manuscript on five to ten editor’s desks and then write the next project.

In fact, I have a term I use. It’s called “Irons in the Fire.” When a project gets sent out, or I get called on a possible future project by an editor, I think of it as just another Iron in the Fire and I forget it. I never think it will actually become real, and I never wait for anything. When they call with a real offer of money and terms, then it is real and not one moment before.

So my goal is to get as many Irons in the Fire as I can. I have had Irons in the Fire suddenly become a real paying project years down the road.

But agents, especially the modern “slush-reading” ones, have the idea that you should only focus in one place at a time, one book at a time, go slow, write only the same type of book book after book. After a first novel SALE, this might be good advice for a year or two, but for most of your career, it’s awful advice. So why do agents give it to you? Back to their focus on what editors think instead of their client writers.

That’s right. Your employee is telling you what to write so that they can please an editor. (Remember, editors work for publishers, the corporation you will depend on the agent to get a good contract from. See the problems forming?)

Editors have to treat a book in a sort of book-as-event manner, since it takes so much for them to buy a book. And they want that author giving that book their focus. But wow, if you write 500 words a day, one book a year publishing pace in many genres is way too slow for you by half. But your agent, because of their focus on what the editor wants instead of what you want, will tell you to slow down or just not write.

And if you slow down, write fewer books, you will make less money because you have less product. Worst advice an agent can give, has nothing to do with the well-being of a writer, and yet agent after agent after agent gives this stupid advice.

Slow down is the flat worst advice ever given to writers. Yet I will bet a large number of writers with agents reading this have gotten that advice.

It all comes from agents, at least the new breed of them, thinking more about their own career and what editors think then what their own clients think or need. The older breed of agents who like doing deals and negotiations and sales don’t care how many books you write. The more you write, the more they make, so they are happy.

Think this through, folks. Say you are a writer who can manage to average 1,000 words per day (about an hour worth of work), so you produce four novels per year. If you have hired an agent who only has about six main editors and a few other secondary editors they work with, and you are pouring four novels a year at that agent, it is in the best interest of the agent to tell you to slow down. Not your interest, because the more work you produce, the more money you make. But the more work you produce, the more your agent has to work, and thus basic human nature kicks in. (Cue the whining music here…This is TOO hard.)

(Again, read the earlier agent blogs about marketing and such.)

THE TRUTH. A modern agent (slush-reader/blogger) is looking for a one-book-per-year writer who hits it big.

In other words, like a lot of humans, modern slush-reader agents are lazy. They want money but don’t want to work. They want to find a writer to hit the home run for them, the next Stephanie Meyers. At the big thriller conference, a major bestseller got up to talk about agents. He said simply, “The worst thing that can happen to you is that your agent has a client that is a major bestseller. And it’s not you.”

I have seen this happen time-after-time, writers with a agent who has another client who suddenly hits it big, and suddenly that agent is not returning phone calls, having writers rewrite to slow them down, not mailing manuscripts, and on and on and on.

The agent you want is a person who works for you, who mails a book when and where you tell him to mail it, who listens and cares about your writing needs and your writing speeds and your need to cross genres. If the agent is focused on you, they will be fine. You’ll find a good working balance. But if they are more concerned about what a publisher’s employee (editor) will think of them, then run from them.

And run fast. The amount of extra help they think they can give you with editor-focused thinking will do nothing but harm you in so many ways.

One more way, never talked about but very real. An agent is hired to be your negotiator in contracts. But the focus for that agent is to keep a certain small group of editors happy. So you sell a book through an agent to one of those editors.

Agent doesn’t care about you at all. Agent only cares about coming across as a nice person to the editor, someone easy to work with, someone who “understands” and can give favors and find good writers when needed. Only issue is, the agent in the contract negotiation is “giving” your rights away. And your negotiating power.

And I have heard of a number of instances when agents worked across contracts with different writers, talking to the same editor. “You give me this in writer A’s contract and I’ll give you this in Writer B’s contract.”

Yup, it happens, and it should make every writer shout in anger, but alas, remember there are no rules for agents, no one looking over them, and thus publishers know this and can use this lack of rules for their advantage in all aspects of their business. And how would you, as a writer know that happened and you were writer B?

You wouldn’t. Not directly. Your agent would tell you, “Oh, we couldn’t get that detail fixed. And that’s assuming you, the writer, even know enough about contracts to ask. Most writers, thinking “I don’t need to know business” just trust these agents.

Agents who are thinking more about keeping editors happy and their own well being then your contract. Yup, that’s the person you want to trust.

So, for a moment, let’s talk about what every employer must decide about an employee.


Understand that every writer will be a different sort of boss, and every agent is different, still, let me try to lay out some basics at least to jump from.

1) Don’t ever expect an agent to save you. Agents won’t and can’t save you.

2) Don’t expect them to know everything. Agents are not as knowledgeable about your writing and projects as you are. And after a time, they won’t even know as much about the business as you do.

3) Don’t expect them to be good in all areas and all genres. All agents have weak areas and strong areas. You need to understand them and balance their strong and weak areas against your needs.

4) Don’t expect an agent to do everything for you. Hire an agent (or any employee) for ONLY what you need. Nothing more.

5) Don’t expect them to tell you what to do. (Or worse yet, plan your career. Before you hire them, be clear with yourself and them what you expect from them and what you want them to do. If you start letting an employee guide the ship, your ship is doomed to crash on the rocks.

6) Just because you hired an agent, don’t expect the work to end. Expect to double and triple check everything they are doing all the time. It is your business, after all.

7) Never expect them to care or work as hard for you as you will work for yourself. This is just standard for any employer, and really, really is true for agents. You have only your own career, they work for dozens of writers, if not more.

If you have ever run a business or office with employees, you know I have just described what any good employer thinks about with hiring an employee.

Again, no agent is the same. Many are very, very honest. But understand they have no rules, other than the rules you give them as their employer. They are human, and often would rather not do the work, especially if they think the project is only small or has no hope. As the boss, you have to be aware of these human traits and understand them and push where a push is needed.

But never once believe that an agent, any agent, no matter how good they seem, has your best interests at heart. They do not. That is an ugly myth. They are an employee that only cares about their own business. And they are an employee without rules unless you put the rules on them.

And some of the agents these days might as well be working for (and just drawing checks from) the publishers. But if you understand that, you can work around that and keep your best interests in mind in who you hire.

Just like the owner of a restaurant or a clothing store, you have to control those who work for you and keep them working the way YOU want them to work. And if an understanding can’t be reached between you and your employee, fire them.

It really is that simple.

Copyright 2010 Dean Wesley Smith
This is part of my inventory in my bakery now. (Confused on that, read the last Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing post about making money with writing.) I’m giving you this small slice as a sample. I’m giving you a taste, but not selling any of the pie. If you feel this helped you in any way, toss a tip into the tip jar on the way out of the Magic Bakery. If you can’t afford to donate, please feel free to pass this article along to others who might get some help from it. Every week or so I will be adding a new chapter on the myths and sacred cows of publishing. Stay tuned. Upcoming are chapters on bestsellers, research, rejections, and so much more. This business has a lot of myths. An entire book full.

Thanks, Dean

Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing: Agent Agreements

Okay, without a doubt, the silliest thing that has ever come along is agents having writers sign an agreement.

To understand how silly, just put this in real world terms instead of writing terms. Think about walking into a job interview with an employer and handing the employer an agreement that you wrote up that the employer must sign before you will work for him. Employer is going to frown and say, “I don’t think so.”

An employer should be handing an employee an employee agreement. In other words, with agents it should be exactly the other way around than it is now. Duh. Shows how bad in general writers are in business.

Writers should hand agents an employment agreement defining what the terms of the employment of the agent will be and so on. I’m not even sure when this myth of agent agreements started up. Sometime in the last twenty years when a young bunch of agents started thinking they controlled the writer instead of the other way around. More than likely it started because writers are bad at business and agents just needed to protect themselves if things went wrong. Then agents realized that they had an opportunity and have taken advantage of it.

I have never signed an agency agreement and would never do so. I have always considered them the dumbest thing to ever come down the pike. Of course, I did go to law school, so I am fairly clear on the concept.

But that said, since we are pounding on the writer/agent myths in all the comments after the last Killing Sacred Cows of Publishing chapter, (And you should read all the comments if you haven’t before going father) I figured this chapter would be a fine time to develop the bones of an agreement that writers should hand agents. Or at least a checklist that writers can give a perspective agent so that both understand the terms of their employee/employer relationship. Or, if nothing else, a checklist of questions to ask an employee you are thinking of hiring.

This is standard in much of business, and, of course, a contract between a publisher and a writer defines the terms of that working relationship between partners in great detail. (Don’t even get me going on the stupidity of an agency clause in a publishing contract. Sigh.)

So, making a large assumption here first. As Laura Resnick pointed out in her great comments after the last agent post, an agent these days is becoming less and less valuable to many writers. And less needed. And many writers are choosing to hire an Intellectual Properties attorney to do contracts. So this checklist is only for those thinking of hiring an agent. I want to be clear on the fact that I agree that an agent is not required.

But if you do decide to try an agent to help negotiate a contract, at least hire the agent under your terms.

And feel free to copy this list and structure it into any form of agreement you would like. You are the boss. Make it work for you.

Also, please note that I will be coming back into this post and adding in suggestions from the comments section after this post, so this will be a developing agreement as the discussion goes onward. (If you see a clause or section in [–] it has been added because of the comments.)


EMPLOYMENT AGREEMENT (or checklist for hiring a literary agent)

I, _______(agent name)_________ agree to the following terms in relationship to my employment as the literary agent for __________(writer name)______.


1) Negotiate Book Contracts. The agent will keep the writer completely informed at every step of any contract negotiation. Agent will make no decisions for the writer. Negotiations will be done at the best speed possible.

2) Sub-rights (or subrights). Agent will send the book or project to all appropriate sub-right agents depending on what is allowed under the contract with the first publisher. Agent will make best efforts to sell available sub-rights to any project of the writers. Agent will keep the writer informed as to where any project has been sent, and any and all responses.

3) Money and Accounting. Agent will pass the writer’s share of money from any project through to the writer within two days of arrival. Agent will do a monthly accounting for the writer of all money received under the writer’s name from all sources. A full year-end accounting will be sent to the author within two weeks of the end of the year along with any appropriate tax forms.

4) Offers. Agent will pass any offer from any source to the writer for approval, no matter the size or source. Under this agreement, agent has no right to speak for the writer in any fashion in decisions on offers without first consulting with the writer.

5) Marketing of Work. If writer so requests, agent will market a new work to appropriate publishers. All cover letters to editors will be approved by the writer, all extra material sent along, including bio material and pitches or proposals will be approved by the writer before being sent. Markets will be agreed upon between the agent and the writer. If so requested, agent will keep the product on the market until the writer decides it is no longer appropriate for the agent to market said work. All rejections and letters from editors about the project will be forwarded to the writer at once.

Part Two: AGREEMENTS: WRITER AND AGENT AGREE on the following terms of this employment of agent by the writer.

1) 15% Fee. Agent will receive 15% of money paid to writer for any project the agent sold or negotiated. 20% Fee for all sub-rights sold, to be divided 10% to sub-agent and 10% to agent in this agreement if a sub-agent is involved. If no sub-agent, the 15% fee applies. [Writer has no duty to pay the agent any commission on any book or project not worked on by the agent.]

2) Continuation after Employment Termination. Said fees stated in #1 will continue for the life of the underlying contract of each project.

3) Termination of this Agreement. This agreement may be canceled by either party without cause at any time on written notice to the other party.

4) Privacy. All dealings on sales and contracts and financial of the writer shall remain private between the agent and the author. Any breach will lead to immediate termination and the cancellation of all money owed to the agent under both clause #1 and #2.

5) Transfer of Agreement. This agreement can not be transfered in any way. The agreement is terminated upon the death of either party or the agent leaving the business. This agreement does not transfer to an agency in general.


1) Timely Reading. It is understood that the agent will make a best effort to read the author’s manuscript to be marketed in a timely manner.

2) Timely Marketing. It is understood that the marketing of a manuscript will occur within one month of the agent’s receiving a new manuscript from the writer unless otherwise agreed upon by both parties.

3) Refusal to Market. It is understood by both parties that for one reason or another, the agent will not want to market a certain project. The agent has the right to refuse for any reason to market a project and the writer is then free to market it in any way the writer deems fit. [It is understood that the writer has no obligation to pay the agent any fee for any project not worked on in some fashion by the agent.]

[4) Speed of Production. It is understood that the writer is under no obligation to produce any certain amount of work for the agent. However, in reverse, if the amount of workload the writer is producing becomes too much for the agent, the agent under #3 in this section has the right to refuse to market or work on certain projects.]

5) Feedback. It is understood that no comments about the manuscript are needed or wanted from the agent unless asked for by the writer.

6) Career Planning. It is understood that no career planning is needed or wanted from the agent unless requested by the writer.


Okay, how would a writer go about using the above agreement? A number of ways, actually.

First off, you could just type it up into a legal agreement (contract) and hand it to an agent you are interested in. To be honest, that might get some interesting results. Not sure what the results would be, but it would be interesting to say the least. It would show you as a firm business person, that’s for sure. That might be good for some, not so good for others. Remember, all legal contracts are negotiable before signing.

Second, and a more of a logical way to present this would be to talk to the agent on the phone and back and forth on e-mail, then when you have the parts of the above agreement you want, write a letter to the agent as a summary or deal memo as they are called. Your letter would start, “I want to make sure I have down in writing everything we talked about and agreed to.” Then have the agent agree and you have a working agreement without the formality of the above contract.

Third, use this as a guideline to search for the right agent who does most of these things anyway. Develop a question sheet from the above terms and ask the agents you are interviewing.

What I basically laid out is how an agent functioned before this current wave of slush-reading, myth-riddled agents came into the mix. Many, many, many agents still function just like this, and would just shrug at the terms of this agreement. In fact, with one of those type of agents, you would never need to present this agreement. You would just know almost everything would work in the conversations and the following deal memo you sent them.

So, one last time, the agreements agents send writers are bogus at best. If you decide to hire an agent and they send you their agreement, just send them the one above, modified to the way you like it. If nothing else, you will get a conversation going with your future employee. And that might just save you years of pain and keep your relationship with your employee much happier.

Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing: Agents Know Markets

Back to agent myths for a moment. There are a lot of them. I did a general Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing post about how you need an agent to sell a book. If you haven’t read it, go here and read it now.

The myths that surround agents are killing a lot of writer’s careers these days. There isn’t a week that goes by that I don’t hear stories from at least one writer about how an agent hurt them. Often more than one. The myth that you need an agent to sell a book is an ugly one, the myth that writers work for agents instead of the other way around is really causing problems among younger writers. I have not had a lunch or dinner or meeting with other professional writers in the last few years that hasn’t included agent horror stories.

So, staying on my little trusty pony and running at the windmill one more time, let me talk here about yet another agent myth.

Before I get into the silly myth about agents knowing markets better than writers do, let make a few quick, basic points that need to be clear.

—Agents work for writers.

—Agents can’t buy books, no matter how much they talk about “acquiring” a novel.

–Agents make 15% of what they sell of a writer’s work, never money in any other fashion.

—Agents don’t know enough about writing in any fashion to make a writer rewrite a book. If they did, they would be writing and making 85% instead of 15%.

–95% of modern agents, especially agents you can get as a beginning writer, have no more clout with editors than a beginning writer does. (Yeah, I know, that’s a huge myth all by itself.) The 5% that do have major clout (and can get a manuscript pushed up high in a company), you don’t know their names and couldn’t find them if you tried. In other words, not all agents are equal.

—It takes nothing but stationery to become an agent. No rules, no organization, no school is needed.

So, with those basics in mind, let me talk about AGENTS KNOWING MARKETS. A huge myth.

So often I hear writers, especially young writers say, “Oh, I need to get an agent so I can get this book to the right market.”

I just shudder. There has been few dumber sentences uttered in the English language. Maybe when I said to Kris when we were talking about starting Pulphouse Publishing, “What can it hurt?” was a dumber sentence. But not by a lot.

To understand at a deep level why this is just flat silly, we need to look at a few things about agents.


Seems like a well-duh, until you think about it a little. Humans have likes and dislikes, they make enemies and they make friends, and worse yet, they have opinions and tastes. Every agent I have ever known, without fail, has favorite editors and very firm ideas (often misinformed) about what one editor will buy or won’t buy.

Now, understand, as an editor, I often didn’t know what I was going to buy until I saw it. And Kris when she was editing F&SF would famously go to a convention, say something on a panel about how she hated a certain type of story, and then every time go home and end up buying that type of story within a week. It seemed to never fail. Editors just don’t know what we want until we see it and fall in love with it.

Also, editors are always looking for a corporate way up the ladder, and often edit across book lines if they find a book outside their list that they love.

But agents have firm opinions on what an editor will buy or not buy, and won’t send an editor a book that they believe won’t be right for the editor. Thus your employee is rejecting your book for you without ever giving an editor a chance to read it. Back to the problem with agents having opinions.

Agents have made enemies. Ahh, there’s something you don’t often think or hear about, but it’s very, very real. Back in my editing days, when I would sit around with other editors at conventions, I heard all types of horror stories about how editors would bury things from certain agents, never read them, lose them, and so on. Yeah, editors are human also. Duh.

One agent was so bad to me at Pulphouse, when she called, I would never take her calls and never bothered to read anything she sent. I know, I hurt the writers, but it wasn’t my problem the writers had hired an agent that was hurting their careers. Not my job as editor to take care of stupid writers.

Well, folks, that attitude is pretty common in major publishing. One writer friend of mine had an editor who really wanted to buy the writer’s work, but the writer’s agent and the editor were mad at each other, so the agent never sent the editor anything, even though the writer kept telling the agent to do so. Turned out the writer thought the editor was mad and the editor thought the writer was mad. It wasn’t until a convention and a chance meeting that they discovered that the agent in the middle was the problem. Writer would have sold a ton more books if the writer had just mailed the books directly to the editor.

Still on the topic of Agents are Human, let’s look at tastes for a moment.

An agent thinks they are a super reader of some sort or another. Especially the young agents who had a few years of editing before moving over. That group of agents put their “taste” on a work. This often comes out in phrases like “I couldn’t get behind this book.” Or, “I don’t think this book will sell.” Of course, neither of those opinions has anything to do with their job working for the writer, but in today’s world of agent myths, you hear that all the time from young agents.

They are putting their own personal “taste” on a manuscript. And thus getting in the way of a manuscript selling.

See, the real truth about publishing is that it only takes one. Put that phrase over your marketing desk. IT ONLY TAKES ONE.

One editor to fall in love with your work, to push your work through all the roadblocks in a publishing house, to turn an unlikely book into the next bestseller. But if you have to run everything through the “taste meter” of your employee, you are adding a second level of acceptance to a book that often makes selling just flat impossible. It is hard enough in this business to have one person fall in love with your book, it’s damn near impossible to have two in a row. So by following an agent’s “taste meter” you are dooming a lot of work.

Still on Agents are Human topic. Agents get tired and lose interest. The ranks of bestsellers and classic books are filled with stories of a major book getting rejected thirty, forty, fifty times or more before selling and becoming big. (Back to it only takes one.) But agents after five to eight rejections on a project get tired and just quit on the book.

Why? Well, that leads to point #2 for the answer.


Again, agents develop a set list of editors they like to work with, with houses they think they know, and when a book goes through that list, it’s suddenly hard for them to find new markets. And they won’t send it to any house that…

—they don’t think is good enough for the writer

—has an editor they don’t like

—or had a bad experience with on another client’s book.

Also, they can’t think outside of any box. Science fiction and fantasy agents often would never look at going to a romance house with a book. Luckily, for paranormal romance fans, romance editors have no problem with science fiction and fantasy

Agents have developed a few major markets and editor friends they like to sell to, and when a book doesn’t get picked up in those top eight or ten spots, the agent gives up on it. Yet that same agent would be upset if their client wanted to market it themselves. At that point, they start talking about things like “career planning” and “focus” and things like that to hold back their own employer. I can’t begin to tell you how many times I’ve heard that in writers’ horror stories. Yow.


I once was talking to an agent who admitted to me at a convention, in front of other writers, that she didn’t have time to read outside of her own clients. Now that should stun you to your toes. It sure did me.

So I asked other agents for a couple years that same question and discovered that many of them read some nonfiction in what little spare time they had, a few read a little inside a special area they liked to represent, but uniformly, they didn’t have time to read outside of their own clients much at all.

They were just too busy.

So my question is this? If an agent is too busy to read what is happening in fiction across the board, how could they really know markets? I flat asked two different agents that question a couple year’s back.

One answered honestly. “I read Publisher’s Weekly reviews, I read the blurbs selling in Publisher’s Marketplace, I glance at back cover copy of books that our agency represents, and when in stores I read back cover copy some.”

Well, I do all that! And a bunch more, including a lot of actual reading of books across many different genres. So by hiring an agent to market my book, I would be hiring them because they know LESS than I do, read less than I do. Oh, my, I don’t think so.

Plus, as I said, agents are busy. I only focus on my own books when looking for markets and watching lines in bookstores and reading the trade magazines. But an agent has upwards of 40 or 50 clients, some even more than that. I have a lot of pen names, granted, but I still have nowhere near as many types of writing to take care of than one agent.

So a major logic question: Who can really discover markets better? Me, focusing only on my own book, or a busy agent who has 50 other clients and never reads much outside of those clients?

If you have problem with that answer, you might as well stop reading these posts. You are doomed.

So the myth is simply I need to get an agent who knows about marketing. Total hogwash. Agents know a dozen or so editors our of the thousands that work in publishing, and they have a lot of writers to work for, and they are too busy to read much.

Truth. You can do it better yourself. Agents have no secret organization that allows them to know market information before you do. Especially in this modern age of computers.

So some tricks on how to get more informed about markets an agent. (Because so many of you right now are feeling panicked about how much time that’s going to take. Right?)


#1…Just follow about fifty or more different major publishers on Twitter and read their release promotion. Make notes of books that sort of match something you are doing.

#2…Follow Publisher’s Marketplace and make notes on books and editors that match what you are doing, and search the data base for addresses.

#3…Follow a lot of writer’s blogs, publisher and editor blogs. (Agent blogs are worthless for the most part. Sorry. And what are they doing blogging instead of working for their employers?)

#4…Read fiction. All the time. And when you read a book that is similar to yours, make note of the publisher and read the author acknowledgments where they thank their editor. Duh. And oh, yeah, look at the copyright page and the spine for the imprint name. Duh.

#5…Talk to your local ID bookstore (not a chain) and ask for their old copies of Publisher’s Weekly, then read the articles, the reviews, and so on, and again make notes. If they don’t have it, go into a superstore and just read it standing in the magazine section. Or if you are rich, subscribe.

#6…Read your genre news magazines. All of them, no matter what genre you are working in. Locus, Mystery Scene, Romantic Times and so on.

#7…Join a writer’s organization, but do not offer to help or be on any panels. Just join and read their newsletters and use their site.

#8…Go to writer’s conferences and genre conventions and talk with editors. Not agents. Meet the editors, be nice, be polite, start making relationships. Remember, it only takes one.

In other words, make it a habit of staying informed. You can’t do it overnight, but after a year of this sort of thing, just five minutes here, five minutes there, you will know a ton more about marketing your own work than any agent will ever know.

Again, when looked at completely, it seems like too much to do. But the truth of the matter is this just takes five minutes here, ten minutes there, a few short sessions on Twitter, an e-mail every day from Publisher’s Marketplace with sales, and so on. Very short amount of time every day, but it adds up very, very quickly.

Remember, you still need to hire an agent when you get an offer to help you negotiate the deal. And once you have a major deal offer, you can use the phone to call an agent and find one and interview them, just as you would interview any other employee.

Say you have an agent, how do you help them market?

#1…Stay informed as if you don’t have an agent.

#2…When you send them a book, make sure you get a list of editors before they mail out the book, and talk about them and why the agent is sending to a certain editor.

#3… Make suggestion of other houses your agent can send to, and other editor’s names.

#4…Get all rejections the moment they come in to the agent and after a couple have the agent get the book back out. Never let the stupid and lazy practice of sending out to five and then waiting until all five come back before sending out to more. Keep it at least five editors at a time. Force your agent to do this as well.

#5…Take responsibility for your career and your work. If your agent doesn’t want to market a book, you do it, or fire the agent. If they give up after ten, you tell them you’ll keep marketing it and call them when there is an offer. You know your books better than any employee does. Always remember that.

Okay, I have jabbed my lance at this problem one more time. I have a hunch that when I finish this Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing book, the biggest general section will be on agents.

Copyright 2010 Dean Wesley Smith.


This is part of my inventory in my bakery now. (Confused on that, read the last Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing post about making money with writing.) I’m giving you this small slice as a sample. I’m giving you a taste, but not selling any of the pie. If you feel this helped you in any way, toss a tip into the tip jar on the way out of the Magic Bakery. If you can’t afford to donate, please feel free to pass this article along to others who might get some help from it. Every week or so I will be adding a new chapter on the myths and sacred cows of publishing. Stay tuned. Upcoming are chapters on bestsellers, research, rejections, and so much more. This business has a lot of myths. An entire book full.

Thanks, Dean

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