Agents are much maligned: you don’t have to go far to find a professional writer who will say all theirs does is take their commission, leaving the writer to do all the donkeywork. I know one guy who insists that he hasn’t heard from or even met with his in fifteen years except at Christmas where she sends him a card… And spells his name wrong every year without fail.
So why have an agent, if you have to find your own work? Not only are you in the same position you were previously, you’re now actually WORSE OFF: if you get the work, you’re signing between 10 and 15% each time too. At least before as a non-represented writer you could keep all of it. There’s also the inevitable waits for your agent to get round to reading your latest spec or pitch, or approve a particular reference or whatever. I mean, what do these guys actually do to deserve this?
Quite a lot, in reality. Just as a new writer, you’re not actually party to it… since you’re not playing in that pond yet. If I was a writer commissioned on a TV show as opposed to the bits and bobs I do now, my agent would be far more involved. This is not because his cut would be bigger, it’s because I would have strayed off the beaten track of corporate work and into Writers’ Guild Rates.
This is a big deal. Whilst corporate contracts and collaboration opportunities for jobbing writers on things like website copy, CD-Roms and short film and features can vary wildly according to what individual producers can afford on very low-to-no budgets, there are minimums what the “bigger” companies and networks MUST pay. Very often these bigger companies and networks don’t want to deal with writers. Writers have a very poor reputation when it comes to money. One bloke told me recently, “I’d end up offering to pay them.” I don’t doubt it. It’s embarrassing talking about money with reference to your ability and what you consider is taking the mick; it’s embarrassing to say something like, “I’m worth more than that, thanks, give me a bit more.” I know, because I have done that before with my fingers crossed behind my back: once I got slightly more, the other time I got told to like it or lump it, the budget just would not stretch any further. I liked it. Of course.
But that’s what agents are all about: money. As the comments thread in the previous post points out, the agent is not a God-like creature who will bestow jobs and opportunities upon you. They are the money guys and gals, the ones who will negotiate on your behalf and get you the best deal they possibly can once YOU have found the job yourself.
Yet this “best deal” does not refer JUST to getting the right fee for a certain job. Until I spoke to actual agents of the realities of their job, I had no idea what an involved job it actually was:
* contract writing and/or checking
* translation rights of published novels and screenplays
* movie rights
* Updating information on repeat fees, satellite broadcasts, changing media etc – an agent has have up to the minute knowledge on this
* legal issues to do with libel & blasphemy
* legal issues to do with dead writers’ estates
* legal issues to do with infringed copyright
* book fairs and signings
* conferences and seminars – attending and speaking
* meetings and phone calls with networks, prodcos and sometimes attached actors
* welfare of existing clients – even if an agent only responds to the emails and calls of his/her writers who email him/her FIRST, that’s still a lot of people
That’s just ELEVEN things there, I’m sure there’s a lot more – and not all agents will deal with all of those things (some only deal with scripts for example), but that’s ELEVEN very involved aspects of the job – BEFORE they sit down and deal with potential clients’ work. Some agents do other work ON TOP OF THIS, like Julian Friedman with his Scriptwriter Magazine. In other words, your average agent has a massive workload.
Is it any wonder then your spec might slip the net?
Agents are not cash cows or golden tickets. They’re are surrounded in myth it seems: once you’ve got one, you’ve made it! You are a REAL writer! Newsflash: you’ll never feel like a “real” writer, since I don’t think anyone can quite believe they make money at doing something they actually like. I’ve heard professional writers, when asked what they do, say stuff like: “I write… A little.” WTF…a LITTLE? I heard Tony Jordan speak at a seminar in 2006 and one thing he said really stuck in my head: he said that before you are paid to write, you always introduce yourself as a writer. Once you are actually earning as a writer, you say you’re anything but; it’s as if you are apologising to others for having a job you love when others are stuck grafting at jobs they hate. Interesting psychology there.
I guess it boils down to an agent is not your guarantee of success; they have so much to do, you have to catch their eye and even then you have to still catch everyone else’s. Your only guarantee of success is you.
PART THREE: When is an agent not an agent?