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Transcript for Episode 15.31

Writing Excuses 15.31: The Agent in the Room

From https://writingexcuses.com/2020/08/02/15-31-the-agent-in-the-room/

Key Points: How do you become an agent? Lots of different answers. Often, start as an intern or apprentice, and work your way up. It takes time to build an income stream. Start out by networking. You can be both an author and an agent. How does an agent and an author work together, especially between “send me more” and signing with an agent? Read the manuscript. Get a feeling for the person. It’s a long-term relationship. When do you talk about “the sticky stuff”? When we start talking about working together, we need to talk about communications style, morals, ethics, financial issues. Agents are business partners, not used car salesmen. Remember that when an agent offers to represent you, it is now your decision, you are hiring that agent.

[Mary Robinette] Season 15, Episode 31.
[Dan] This is Writing Excuses, The Agent in the Room.
[Dongwon] 15 minutes long.
[Piper] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And we’re not that smart.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Dongwon] I’m Dongwon.
[Piper] I’m Piper.
[Howard] And I’m not the agent in the room.
[Chuckles]
[Dongwon] No, that’s me.
[Howard] Yes, it is.

[Dan] Yeah. We have an agent in the room, and before we allow him to leave, we’re going to make him answer a bunch of questions. First one…
[Howard] Which you asked, fear listener.
[Dan] Yes. We have… This question showed up quite a bit when we did our little survey of listeners. We tend to think that most of you listen because you want to be writers. But there’s apparently more than a couple that listen because they potentially want to work in other aspects of the industry, as editors or agents or whatever. So, first question for Dongwon, if somebody wants to be an agent, how do they go about that?
[Dongwon] Terrible mistake.
[Laughter]
[Dongwon] It’s funny…
[Dan] See, you say that, but you were something else and then decided to become an agent instead, so…
[Dongwon] Well, actually, I was an agent first. So my first job in publishing was at an agency. Then I decided I didn’t like selling books, I wanted to buy them instead. So I became an editor. Then e-books were a thing. So I started working at an e-book startup, before I came back to being an agent, I wanted to work with writers more closely. It’s a nonlinear kind of circuitous story. Part of the challenge in answering this question is if you ask five agents how they became an agent, they all usually have a very different answer. If there is a track, it’s basically that you get an internship at an agency, and then get hired as an assistant, either at that agency or another agency, and then, over time, grow until the point at which you can start taking on your own clients. Where this gets very tricky in the part that people don’t talk about a lot is that each agency has a very different structure of how agents get paid. Right? So there’s a thing that’s called a draw, so sometimes, the agency will give you a certain amount of money, and then you earn that back out of the commissions that you’re earning for the agency. How much of a percentage is counted towards that depends on your deal with each agency. So that can be anywhere from like 25% on the very, very low end to 60 to 70% on the high end. So, figuring all these kinds of elements out is really important, and the biggest challenge to being an agent in the early years is that it takes a while for that income stream to build up. Because you’re not earning a salary, often, right out of the gate, and then it’s hard to get those first few deals going while you’re looking for clients. Then, once you do sell your first books and… $100,000 sounds like a really great deal. It is a really great deal, but your commission of that… So whatever percentage you get to keep out of that 50% that goes to the agency, that’s parceled out, usually over two, three, even five years. So it takes time for that income stream to build up. Usually, about year five or six is when you’re starting to get something that looks like a more livable wage. So, getting into being an agent is a very difficult process in a lot of ways. I think it sounds very attractive and easy from the outside. But the financial side of it actually can be quite tricky. One of the things that we need to look at as an industry is making that a little bit easier for people to get into the business, because, I think, we’re keeping a lot of interesting voices out of the industry and out of being agents representing writers from a wider range of backgrounds. Because the type of person who comes in tends to be relatively limited.

[Dan] So, if somebody wants to do this, what angle of approach do they come in? Are there people they have to talk to, is it all about networking? What do those first steps look like?
[Dongwon] I think networking is the most important one, right? So, unfortunately, almost all of these jobs are in New York. They’re starting to spread out a little bit more, especially on the agency side. But what you want to do is go to events where you can meet agents, meet editors, meet writers even who can help you be introduced to some of the decision-makers who might be hiring. That’s how you hear about new jobs, that’s how you hear about opportunities. So networking really is number one for what you need here. There are a couple paid programs, like, the Columbia program and NYU, that are sort of paths into publishing. Those can be ways to meet people. They can be quite expensive. I’m not sure that they’re always effective or necessary. But those can help if you’re willing to go that path.
[Piper] I think one of the things I want to jump on and say is that you don’t have to choose to be an agent or a writer. I know several of the agents that I’ve run into overtime are both authors and agents. In fact, I’ve had several editors asked me if I ever wanted to become an agent. So I happened to ask this exact question to my agent, Courtney Miller-Callihan of how does one normally become an agent. She basically said exactly what you said. Generally speaking, there’s an apprenticeship or an internship depending on the agency. Agencies are structured in a different way. I think the only thing that differs, and I’d be really interested in getting your opinion on that, is that she actually did spend some time in publishing first, in fact, in the contracts department, prior to starting to pursue an agent career. I personally have benefited from that because she’s excellent with my contracts. But what do you think about people who potentially are getting experience with the publishing houses first, or other experiences?
[Dongwon] For me, having a wide range of experiences in the industry has been really, really helpful, right? Understanding what things look like from the editor’s side, how the internal conversations at publishers work. All agents understand that to some extent, because you deal with it a lot, but having been in the room is a very different vibe from somebody explaining it to you, right? So I think having a wide range of experience can help a lot. But the thing about agents, especially, is we all have different strengths and weaknesses, which are more varied than you see in most industries, I think. How agent A versus agent B does their job can be really night and day. What skill sets they bring to the table is really defined by their background and their experience. So coming from a contracts background, your agent probably has a slightly different perspective on how some of those arguments happen in-house, whereas to me, I’m good with contracts, I know what I’m doing there, but I don’t always understand when a contracts person comes back to me and says, “We can’t do X or Y,” like, why they’re coming to that decision. It’s a little bit of a black box to me sometimes. I would love it if I knew more about that process. That said, we all have different areas that we come from and different expertises, and part of the process is really figuring out what you need from an agent and how they can best support you in your career and picking someone who has that skill set, that is congruent with yours.

[Dan] Cool. I want to pause here for the book of the week. Which, this week, is one of mine. My book, Extreme Makeover, which I chose specifically because it was one that my agent had a ton of input into. More so than any of my other books. The initial manuscript for this was well over 200,000 words. Then she helped me trim it down to 180, and then, of course, the final version after it got edited was like 120.
[Howard] Is 200 the one that I read? Before it had been agented?
[Dan] No. You read the 180.
[Howard] Okay.
[Dan] So, the agent had helped clean it up and helped really guide…
[Howard] So what I read had been cleaned up?
[Dan] Yes! Yes, it had.
[Chuckles]
[Howard] [garbled] old friend. What I read had been cleaned up. No, I liked it. I really liked that book, and I was reading the version that is longer and unnecessarily so.
[Dan] Yeah.
[Howard] The one that you, fair listener, can read…
[Dan] The final version… The initial version, the first draft, was a big, giant mess. I have always used my agent primarily for business stuff, and this was the first time that I went to her and said, “Hey, this is a mess.” She’s like, “Yeah.” “Help me clean it up.” With… Working with her, we wrangled that into a very good story that was kind of un-publishably long. So we got that down to 180. Then turned it in, and Whitney Ross at Tor Books trimmed it down again. But that agent relationship is really valuable, and people get different things out of agents. I typically don’t use them for editorial, but in this case I did. So, that’s my book, Extreme Makeover. You should go listen to it. Or buy it. Because it’s awesome.

[Dan] But that leads us into the second half of our podcast, which is, how does an agent and an author, how do they work together? I want to guide this talk a little more specifically. What is the process… At what point… We talk a lot about submitting to an agent, and the agent saying, “Okay, this looks good. Please send me more of it.” From that point on, until the point where you actually sign with an agent, what does that period of time look like?
[Dongwon] In my case, unfortunately, it often looks like a very long delay while I’m finding the time to…
[Chuckles]
[Dongwon] Read the book that I’m excited to read. But I think a lot of things go into that. The first is reading that manuscript and saying how you feel about it. Then, sort of looking into the person a little bit. I’ll often Google them, take a look at their social media profile, and… There, I’m not looking for do you have a big following. I’m just trying to get a sense of who this person is. Right? A thing I talk about a lot is that I like to work… I work with people, I don’t work with projects, right? I sign a client, not a book. So what I’m looking for is are we going to get along well as people and as business partners. Are you someone that I feel like I can communicate with? Are we going to be having fun together? Honestly. Like, you want that relationship to be one that has a certain energy to it, and a certain excitement to it. Especially at the beginning, when you’re just figuring all that stuff out. So a lot of times, I’m looking into who that person is. Do I feel like they have a lot to bring to the table in addition to just the words? Right? Are they ambitious, do they have career plans, do they give off an air of competence and confidence in the world?
[Piper] I can say Courtney Miller-Callihan, who is my agent, was also aware of me on social media prior to our connecting. In fact, I had tweeted… Retweeted a blog post about… Just addressing when authors want agents versus not, and had lightly given my opinion that I personally would be looking for an agent when I had a manuscript to do so. She tweeted back at me and said, “Hey, drop me an email when you’re ready to talk about that.” Of course, the assumption was I would know her email. Which, she was correct, I did.
[Chuckles]
[Piper] So I sent her an email. Before I had… I tried to stay really, really obvious. I did not have a manuscript ready yet. But she got on the phone with me anyway. She had a conversation with me anyway. She was already familiar with my work. Because of that, and our conversation… She knew that there were a couple of other agents who were interested in working with me, but they were waiting for me to have a manuscript to send. She kind of maybe took advantage of that situation a little bit. No, I’m kidding. But she did offer me representation without a manuscript. She kind of placed a bet on a dark course.
[Dongwon] I’ve kind of done that a lot, actually.
[Howard] She was… You say she was familiar with your work.
[Piper] Yes. She was familiar with my work.
[Howard] That’s… That’s not… That’s not the unknown quantity that you make it sound like.
[Piper] True.
[Howard] If an agent knows that you have written things, Indy or with another agent or whatever, they have a really strong sampling of what they can get from you when your next manuscript arrives.
[Piper] True. She was familiar with my voice that way. I will say that one of the things that she does look for in all of her clients is a sort of quirky sort of voice. So it’s not nailed down by genre per se so much as she’s looking for certain quirks that match her taste and her personality. She says that a lot of times, when it comes to selling books, she knows which editors have similar taste to hers, and so they are things that are marketable. Eminently so. But also quirky. They hit a… They strike a chord that unique and individual while still being [garbled]
[Dongwon] The thing is, I’m looking for that thing, that spark of energy and uniqueness and point of view. So I often will take a bet on someone who hasn’t written a novel yet. I’m happy for that to be a very long-term bet, right? Five, seven years before that is going to be a book that we have out in the world. But I know, from talking to this person and seeing this person and seeing either short stories they’ve written or awards they’ve won or even podcasts they’ve done that they’re going to do something interesting. I’m going to help them get there. If I get in early, then I can really help shape those early steps and hopefully get to where they want to go in a more exciting way than if I hadn’t been involved.

[Dan] Cool. So, this leads into the next question, and I love the way one of our listeners phrased this. At what point in this relationship do you talk about the quote sticky stuff. This is all a lot of business, this is a lot of projects, but at what point do you start talking about personal beliefs, morals, politics, religion, the things that make that author who they are and how that will be reflected in their career? At what point do you bring that up in an agent relationship?
[Dongwon] So, whenever I’m looking at signing somebody and bringing them on board, I make sure that we have a phone conversation. There’s… At a minimum, you want to have at least one conversation. There are times when I have three to four to five to… Sometimes months long that we’re talking. Or even years in a couple cases. When you have that in person conversation, when I call to start talking about it, like, are we going to work together, that’s the point at which you want to start asking those questions, right? What I love more than anything to see is when a writer challenges me in those conversations, and really asks me the difficult questions about communication style, about morals and ethics, about financial issues. What happens if this thing goes bad, what happens if that thing goes bad? What happens if some random event or you get in trouble on Twitter or what are your views on this? How do you feel about these things? Those are interesting conversations to have, and they’re really important conversations to have. Because, ideally, an agent is a business partner you’re going to have for decades. Right? So, why wouldn’t you want to know more about those scenarios, before you get into it?
[Dan] Yeah. That’s something that… At one point, I was at a con talking about agents and how to find agents, and somebody in the audience kind of pulled out the Freakonomics anecdote about the real estate agent, right? Like, it’s in their financial interest to give you the best deal early because then they get their money quick and they’re not in it for the long haul. He’s like, “Aren’t agents the same?” No. Not in the least tiny bit. I can think of very few people, including the Writing Excuses team, that are as closely partnered and invested in my career as my agent. We work together very closely, and it’s a very long-term thing.
[Howard] Yeah. The difference there is that the agent… I mean, if Dongwon were to begin representing me… I don’t have a manuscript for him, I wish I did. This conversation would be much more entertaining…
[Laughter]
[Howard] Dongwon and I would be having conversations about where he’s planning on shopping it, what maybe I need to do to refine it, what plans do I have after this manuscript, because if/when it sells, that is going to open some new doors, it’s going to close every door that it didn’t sell to for sequels, potentially. That conversation is all about repeat business. Okay. I say repeat business. It’s not repeat business when I have partnered with someone. It is a partnership. Your real estate agent is not a business partner. Your real estate agent is a used-car salesman with something that doesn’t have wheels.
[Dongwon] Yeah. I mean, we are real estate agents if your real estate agent was also helping you renovate your house. Was also helping you design what your lawn is. Was also considering like how do we rebuild the neighborhood around you to be more suitable for your… Like, what would you do…
[Howard] And you’re going to be buying a new house every 18 months.
[Dongwon] Exactly. Exactly. So, that conversation is really, really important. Finding those elements in that conversation that can really make you stand out, and, for me, as an agent, help me stand out as well. I had a case this last summer, where I was talking to a potential client. She was in the very enviable position of having 16 agents offering representation all at once.
[Piper] Yay!
[Dongwon] She wrote in a category that I had never represented. So it was a really interesting set of conversations that we had about why me. Why should I be in this race at all, much less the person who ended up winning it? All that came down to the conversations that we had. Right? All that came down to my strategic vision, my vision for the book, and what was coming down the road for her in five years and 10 years. We just really hit it off and had a really wonderful conversation about all the potential things that we could be doing. It’s an opportunity for me, as much as it is an opportunity for the writer. The thing to remember, if there’s one thing you take away from this particular podcast, is to remember that as soon as an agent offers representation, the power dynamic completely inverts. The power is now in your hands. It’s now your decision. Right? Up until then, you’re trying to get an agent’s attention, but always remember, it’s your work, it’s your career, and you are effectively hiring an agent. I work for my writers, not the other way around. They pay me, quite literally, for what I do. So when you’re having that conversation, think about that. It’s like that old saying about when you go in for a job interview, you’re interviewing them as much as they’re interviewing you. That’s true in that case, too. So think of the hard questions. Think of the things you really want to know about how this partnership is going to work over the long term.

[Dan] Yeah. In fact, that’s something we want you to start thinking about right now, even if you’re not at the point where you need an agent. So that your homework today, and Dongwon is going to tell you about that.
[Dongwon] Yeah. So, what I would like you to do is start making that list of questions, right? Start making a list of the strategic questions you want answers to, the moral and ethical things, the communication style elements. Make a list of 5 to 10 questions. What’s important to you? What are the things that matter in your career? What are you afraid of in terms of your relation with your agent? Don’t be afraid of asking difficult questions. Because if you ask a potential agent a hard question or an uncomfortable question and they react badly, then what happens when that situation actually arises? How can you trust them to have your back in that moment? So, feel free to go hard and go big.
[Dan] Awesome. Great advice, and we hope that you’ve learned some good stuff about how to work with agents and potentially how to be one. So, you are now out of excuses, now go write.