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Agents, Part 2: What Do They Do?

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?

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27 thoughts on “Agents, Part 2: What Do They Do?”

  1. ‘before you are paid to write, you always introduce yourself as a writer’ — what really? I’ve been paid to write once or twice and I certainly don’t consider myself a ‘writer’ (neither does the WGGB*). Someday, maybe. For now, wanna-be (don’t try to tell me that ‘anybody who writes is a writer’ — not everybody who applies a sticking-plaster is a doctor).

    Anyway straying from the point: agents. Wish I knew who came up with the best description: ‘an agent is to a publisher as a knife is to a throat’.

    * and why isn’t it the WGUK? But that’s another issue.

  2. It’s probably BECAUSE you’ve been paid for writing that you feel like a wannabe SK, I know I certainly feel like I’m not “there” yet – but then so do many professional writers with CVs a hell of a lot bigger than mine, so I’m not sure it ever changes! Yet I was a lot more confident about my position when I was a student, which was why TJ’s comment resonated with me.

  3. Nah, before I was paid at all I was even mroe reticent about it. I used to hate it when friends brought my writing ambitions up at parties in front of people I didn’t know. It felt like boasting about something I had no right to claim.

    Anyway, that’s why you pay an agent to claim it for you (well, you do if you can afford one).

  4. Good grief, I had no idea. I honestly didn’t. But now you mention it, I suppose movie rights don’t just sell automatically and books n’ stuff don’t just translate themselves, right?

    Suddenly I feel less vitriolic against the guy I sent my one feature script to and never heard back from. Two years ago.

  5. I don’t count. I always introduce myself as a writer* … but that’s because I’ve been a hack for 20+ years. 🙂

    Of course Lucy knows I’m being slightly disingenuous (oooh, that was fun, never used that one before) as I find the idea that someone would actually like my screenplays (as opposed to articles) quite scary. ooops given the game away.

    *Except when I introduce myself as an editor, or publisher, or programmer, or house-husband, or the wife’s bit on the side. 🙂

  6. Dear Agents who read Lucy’s blog,
    I have a diverse portfolio of completed scripts which would make a fine agent’s pack/spec calling card scripts/new productions.
    Please send me an email to arrange a meeting.

  7. Very good Sheiky! I don’t actually know if any agents read my blog regularly now you mention it. Maybe we should do a survey? Or maybe then the comments boxes would get flooded with pitches… ; )

    SK, I think you can claim something as your aspiration, if not your action career. Our dreams are ours I reckon.

    Anya, I think we’ve all felt like that…

    Steve, you’re your WIFE’S bit on the side? Sounds like you have a frooty marriage going on there, glad to hear it!

  8. There’s definitely a sheepishness involved in describing yourself as a writer. I’ve been a journalist of various sorts for over 10 years now and that makes me a writer, I guess but I always think that I won’t really be a proper writer until I’ve got some produced scripts under my belt. But I suspect you’re right that it’s not a description you can ever attach to yourself in a completely comfortable way.

  9. on introducing myself as a writer:

    MALONE: Do you carry a badge?
    WALLACE: Uh, yes.
    MALONE: Carry a gun.

    down here in New Zild, we have just one agent to rep screenwriters. whose books have been full these past few years. but that’s how small the pool is.

    (there were two such creatures until a few years ago – the other one has become a producer.)

    i do, however, have a manager. she doesn’t shop my work around but she negotiates the contracts – a vital job where i’m not squeezed between the creative relationship with the producer and the need to be paid what i’m worth. she can push much further ’cause she has no stake in the relationship other than to get the best deal for me. i likes my manager.

  10. Have I chased after an agent? Nope.

    I’m not yet in a position where I have contracts and rights to be negotiated, sadly.

    Similarly I can’t yet prove I’ve enough earning potential for them to risk allocating a place on their books.

    And do I call myself a writer? Sometimes. If I think I won’t get ask that question.

    What one? The bad one. The “So what have you had published/made then?” one. The one where I get arrested for biting the hand patting my head!

    But mostly I say I’m a journeyman. Hopefully past apprentice but no-where near master

  11. Oli: I think it’s like anything, you have to be up-to-date on various things “just in case” if you’re an agent. Stuff like blaphemy, obscenity, plagiarism, etc are all minefields and *can* bite writers on the arse from time to time (and thus their agents). But time is money and all that.

    SK – fair enough.

    Rach, I don’t think any of us are masters – except maybe the dead writers, whose stuff has become classics of literature or filmmaking perhaps? As long as I’m still around, I can learn I reckon. I think we all can.

    DF – didn’t realise there were so few in NZ, no kidding? Good point on management, will touch on that in the next post.

    Colin – thanks for stopping by and for the shout-out on your blog!

  12. Personally, if I make it as a writer, I’ll say I’m a writer when asked.

    But if I have to keep doing what I’m currently doing to survive, then I won’t.

    It would be nice if agents where a little more up front in saying that it’s a two way street and I don’t intend to do all the running myself.

    The agent is fundamentally the employer here, not the writer (especially at the start). Because the agent says whether he/she will take you on. The agent has the business and infrastructure to sell your product.

    In effect he is allowing your product to display in his market warehouse, if that makes sense. I guess until a sale is achieved and the product is validated (as are yourself) then this balance of power won’t change. When you’re “hot”, the agent becomes your employer, that’s when the balance of power shifts.

  13. You’re unlikely to sack an agent in the first phase of business. Also, who is left jobless if you “sack” your agent? The agent? I don’t think so. You’re back at square number one again.

  14. Agents are like anyone else, they trade on their good name and if one writer sees fit to move on for a GOOD reason (other than say a fit of petulance), you can bet they’ll worry about it. Look what Ruth Rendell and Robert Harris kicked off at PFD.

    I think the writer-agent situation is more than just employer-employee on either side, but tend to think the writer has more “power” (if you want to call it that) at the end of the day… You can vote with your feet.

  15. The agent says whether they will take you on, just like a prospective employee decides whether they want to work for the employer who is interviewing them. And if they turn up for the interview and the place is a complete shambles that looks like it might go bust in the next three months, and their products are rubbsh, then the employee is going to go seek work elsewhere — just like an agent is not going to work for a writer whose output is sub-standard.

    In any employer/employee relationship both sides have to commit for it to work. So who chooses is not the question, because both choose. The question is, who is paying? And it’s the writer who’s paying the agent for services, not the other way around. The agent isn’t paying the writer to write; the writer is paying the agent to negotiate. Therefore the writer is the employer.

    If you sack the agent you are at ‘square number one’ only as much as a company who sacks their, say, sales manages. They have to go through all the work of finding another one, yes, but they still have their products which are still in demand (and if they are not in demand they have bigger problems than whether they have a sales manager or not).

  16. Who ever went along to an interview, and when offered the job, said they would think about it? Of course you want the job or you wouldn’t apply for it in the first instance. It’s also highly unlikely that I’d even walk through the door to the interview if the building sucked. Applicants for a job are desperate 9 out of 10. Writers are desperate for representation, a sale and £££($$$).

    The writer is paying nothing to the agent, full stop, until a sale is achieved. It’s the agent who is taking all the risk, to his reputation etc by having you on his books. If he supplies duff clients, his business will soon go down the pan.

    Agents don’t need to “find” writers, they come knocking on the door in their droves. Agents do need to keep good writers though. They are the ones that pay his mortgage. I’m sure a good, proven writer who sacks his agent will have a very good reason for doing so.

    Until you are proven and selling, I’m afraid you’re certainly not the employer here, in non-literal terms. We are talking about the reality of the agent-writer union as far as I’m concerned. Good debate though 😉

  17. I’ve refused a job I was offered (well, it was sort of a constructive refusal: I wasn’t sure about the company so I told them about the Christmas holiday I had booked, and as suspected they rescinded the offer) as have many of my friends. How do you make up your mind about whether you want to work for a company or not without meeting them?

    That writers go begging to agents is just because they don’t understand how it works. They think, wrongly, that agents are masters to whom they must supplicate themselve in order to get contracts — when in reality they are nothing of the sort. They have a job to do and if you as a writer need them do do that job, you employ them. If you don’t need them — and as their job is for the most part negotiating contracts, before you have a contract you definitely don’t need them — you don’t employ them and don’t bother thinking about them.

    The advice I have heard, and which I intend to follow, is not to bother even looking for an agent until you have a contract. Then call up agents and say ‘I have a contract that I’m considering, are you interested in representing me and seeing if you can improve it?’

    Then choose which one you’ll go with, depending on the deals they offer and how well you personally think you’d get on. Just like when you’re applying for jobs and checking out potential employers to see which one you think you’d prefer to work for, based on which is offering the best salary and benefits and which seems the best place to work.

    I wouldn’t approach an agent unless I had a contract.

  18. Paul, as a spec writer you’ve paid me to read your script and I’ve given you advice on what you might like to do next with it.

    Whilst this obviously does not make me your agent, your paying me money does not make me your employer either – yet you say this changes for the writers and agents where the writer is paying the agent commission? So then the builders I paid to build the cupboard under the stairs a few weeks ago are MY employer… Not so. I gave them money, they built stuff for me.

    I’m inclined to agree with SK that agents are like solicitors, accountants etc. They provide a service, they’re extremely useful -but if you don’t need one, why would you want one? I suppose it comes down to the fact that some writers don’t realise they don’t need one…Yet.

  19. I think where I’m not in sink with a few people is that, I’m talking, not in a “literal sense” but a “virtual sense”. Yes, they are “like” accountants, solicitors, etc, but one key difference is they aren’t getting paid on commission, and them receiving their fee has nothing to do with your stature as a writer, but their skill, in their field of expertise.

    A mega point here is that if, like me, you’re looking for studio interest (ie the states), then I need, either an agent or to show up in the major competitions. Because they simply won’t even read your script if you’re not represented. I’m afraid it becomes vital to have an agent in this respect.

    But it depends where you want to be. If we’re talking UK, maybe not. And like SK says, the advice of get an agent when you’ve got a commission is probably correct. But are we talking principally about writers who have yet to make a sale? Or people who can pick or choose what they want?

  20. Hang on — they are getting paid on commission. Of 10%, famously. And them receiving their fee is entirely to do with your stature as a writer — their skill can just make the fee bigger, as 10% of a bigger advance is obviously bigger.

    I can’t think what else you might mean but what you have written seems obviously wrong. Could you clarify?

  21. I think what paul means there SK is that the solicitors, accountants etc don’t get paid on commission like the agent.

    However, whilst fees will vary for the writer dependant on stature, the agent’s commission will remain the same – the actual monies involved won’t though. Ten per cent of what I earn now is peanuts. Ten per cent of what I earn in 5 years will hopefully be ALOT more, for all concerned!

    As for getting US studio interest -traditionally you’re *supposed* to have an agent, but like all things there are no hard and fast rules. I would wonder why a writer didn’t fish their own pond first though, since I would imagine it would be less difficult to find some nice juicy contacts when you can actually go and meet them, etc. But each to his own.

  22. Oh, I see, ‘they’ switches referents halfway through that sentence.

    Still, the agent’s fee does (as you say) depend on your stature as a writer — respected writer, bigger advance, bigger payment for agent.

    I don’t see, though, why working on commission should make someone less an employee? Salesman work on commission and they are employees; and you could say the same about no-win-no-fee solicitors.

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