Don Carpenter, novelist and screenwriter, famously quoted a movie agent thusly: “’Hello,’ he lied.” Agents, whether they ply their trade in Tinseltown or Gotham, have a rarely deserved reputation for being, well, unscrupulous and underhanded. In fact, most of us are honest, hard-working professionals whose job description on any given day includes being a tough negotiator, an unlicensed therapist, a financial advisor, an editor, a producer, a critic and a fan. There are entrenched codes of ethics in our business (check out the AAR’s site, if you don’t believe me) and most of us who care about our reputations would never consciously breach the trust placed in us by our clients. As Jane has been drilling into my skull for about 150 years now, our reputation is all we have.
Clearly, we are all capable of making mistakes, whether intentional or un-, but the one thing authors need to be assured of is that their agents are looking out for their best interest…always. Authors should manage their relationships with their agent the way they would their most important personal and business dealings:
- Be respectful but firm about your needs and goals.
- Make sure you read all contracts and ask questions when you don’t understand something.
- Get satisfactory answers to your questions (backed up with paperwork when appropriate).
- Check out that agent’s reputation before signing on—call others of his/her clients if necessary.
- Be involved in the publishing process from the get-go. Don’t just wait for a phone call. Be proactive.
- Communicate with your agent (without being a pest) and demand good communication back.
- If things aren’t working out, sever your ties—again, respectfully but firmly. Make sure you have a written release of your property to the extent allowed by your agreement.
I’m sure I’m preaching to the choir here, but I know that sometimes, in the elation that follows that initial phone call from an agent telling you s/he is interested in representing you, all caution goes flying out the window. This is when you should do your Snoopy dance quietly, take a deep breath, and start checking that agent out.