December 27, 2003

are agents necessary?

The current issue of Poets and Writers has an interesting opinion piece by Steve Almond. His thesis: eschew agents. He has a valid point or two. He claims that authors are in thrall to agents, they look up to them and act subordinate and, well, desperate. A new writers rarely thinks of interviewing an agent; instead, she nervously hopes she’ll pass muster and become that agent’s client. And it continues in that manner throughout the relationship – the agent calls the shots, tells the author how he's going to market the book, who he'll send it to and then what she should demand in the contract. But who’s generating the material? Who’s the creator? The agent? No, the writer. So why give your power away like that?

I’ve seen all this, transposed to the film world, the screenwriter and her agent. I’ve been that writer, so nervous around my agent I never dared disagree with her game plan. I wouldn’t do it again. But there are other options. It’s possible, first of all, to be choosy about what agent you sign with, making sure to find one who respects you for your brain as well as your prose. And then, yes, it’s possible to be equals with your agent. Almond claims the agent is the writer’s employee. I don’t think this is exactly right. My accountant is not my employee. He has his expertise, which is not mine. We hire him in the sense that we pay him, yes. And we can leave him if we’re not content with his work. But we also bow to his superior knowledge of the tax laws. We bought a house on his say-so (though years after he said so, which was our mistake). We listen to him because he knows what he’s talking about. We’re in a contractual relationship, we use his services, but I would never consider him our employee. I think it’s similar with an agent and a writer. It behooves the writer to listen to the agent’s advice and to grant the agent his superior knowledge when it comes to marketing a book.

Almond is writing from a very specific perspective. He writes short stories. Not linked stories, not novels. Discrete stories. Well, short story collections usually have dismal sales. There’s little in that for an agent. Unsurprisingly, agents have not been terribly interested in Almond. Does that make them bad people, obsessed with the bottom line? Guess what? It is a business. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to pay the mortgage. Writers want that too.

His former agent suggested that Almond write a novel. He said he “wound up spending more than a year writing a terrible book.” He does say that’s his fault for listening to the agent and not his instincts, but he also faults the agents who regularly give such advice, saying they give it because novels sell better and therefore make them richer agents. I disagree.

I have a relative by marriage. He wrote short stories for a long time. Good ones. He developed somewhat of a following, but a very limited one. He started to write novels, most likely at his agent’s behest. It wasn’t easy for him, it’s not his natural métier. Guess what? He became a National Book Award finalist a few years ago. He got a tenured job at a good university. He wrote a respected book on writing. He’s a big name in the lit world now. Maybe agents have writers’ careers in mind when they give advice. Maybe it’s nice to have someone in your corner, someone who has reason to talk to editors at all the major and several minor publishing houses on a regular basis. Someone who has reason to keep up with the all-important publishing world gossip in a way that a writer probably never could – unless said writer got a job at a publishing house. Or at an agency.

Me, I’m planning to get an agent when I finish my novel. I plan to find someone I like and can trust to be my business partner. And then I plan to let that person give me the benefit of his or her wisdom in the field. And I’m okay with that.

Posted by Tamar at December 27, 2003 09:50 PM