Thursday, November 25, 2010

Some truths about being an Australian agent

One of the commenters on this post talked about why s/he had progressed through several Australian agents - the implication being that Australian agents are unprofessional - and now had a US agent.

S/he said, 'What I do want is my emails replied to, say, within a week. And my mss read within two months. I want my agent to have some kind of idea when he/she should be following things up with my publisher (option clauses etc.) and actually give a rats about selling my rights on elsewhere when they become available.' And then went on to say that her US agent could do all those things brilliantly.

So I thought I'd clear up a little something about why agents in one territory may be behaving differently than those in another. The reason is money. Advances in Australia are smaller than those in the US, as a rule, simply because the volume of books sold here is smaller. With fiction, not drastically smaller for first novels, but significantly smaller for the successful authors. And the same is true for non-fiction. Australian agents are therefore not working with the same amount of cash per author, on average. So we have to take on more authors than our US/UK counterparts in order to pay the bills. And that means less time for each client overall. We are also less likely to be able to afford to have assistants or admin help of some kind. Less likely to have a slick office with the latest computer and database.

Australian agents usually also don't have the luxury of being able to specialise. In the US it's not uncommon for agents to specialise even down to one genre of fiction (e.g. romance). If we tried that in Australia we'd need to have a trust fund. It means that Australian agents are probably better versed about the whole market - fiction, non-fiction and children's - but, again, it means that our attention is somewhat scattered.

There's also the simple fact that most of our day-to-day job is taken up by administration, when admin is usually not what we're good at. We're good at finding stories that publishers want to publish, we may be good at giving our authors editorial feedback, we're good at understanding how the publishing game works. I think it's safe to say we didn't go into agenting to do administration. Yet because of the aforementioned cash squeeze, admin is what we spend a lot of the day doing. And, unfortunately, it's what most authors notice most - the email answered days late, the manuscript read late because of the time taken up in admin. Any deal that's done, any support that's given, could vanish in the haze of why-didn't-you-answer-the-three-emails-I-sent-two-days-ago. [Note to commenter: yes, I'm being hyperbolic, but I'm trying to illustrate an extreme case, not the usual case. And it's Friday and I'm excessively tired, so I am barely restraining my snark.]

Agents also spend a lot of time talking to publishers - again, work that is invisible to authors - and these days many of us spend time trying to keep on top of what's changing in the industry, specifically in digital publishing. Two years ago we spent a fair bit of time on the Productivity Commission business. Again, this work is invisible to our clients - until such time as we can use it to help them, and that time is still coming in respect of digital publishing.

As far as I can tell, yes, US agents will do a better job of answering the emails quickly and following up the clauses, because even if they're working on their own they tend to have fewer clients, and if they have fewer clients and have admin help, they are freed up considerably. Even having someone to send out your post and write letters can help enormously.

Given that this sounds a bit like whinging, I shall anticipate the question, 'Why are you an agent then?' I'm an agent because I get up every day believing in stories and authors and publishers, and every day I hope that I'll be able to get through the admin more efficiently and read the client manuscripts I need to, and then maybe at the end of the week I'll get to submissions. It can be a frustrating game - and, as anyone in the industry can tell you, it's been a demoralising year - but I'm in it because I love reading, fundamentally, and I love what the act of reading brings to me and to the world. It just doesn't make me any faster at wading through my inbox. But it does help me find publishers for authors.


Anonymous said...

This is really interesting and thanks for outlining it in depth, because not one of my agents has ever really said any of these things to me before.

It would actually be really helpful going into the relationship, I think, if agents could outline exactly how they work/how their time is spent in this way, because it only becomes clear after years spent working with them and even then you only glean this stuff from comments they make here and there.

My current agency sends around emails saying which staff members are on holidays/away at book fairs etc., letting authors know if they'll be out of office and so on. They also let us know if it's a busy time for them in general, or if they have time to do some reading. It's good to know this stuff so you're not emailing at times people are away, or really busy.

When I said I have a US agent, I didn't mean I don't have an Australian one also. I do. And she's really good. But, yes, the differences are huge. My US agency has their own full-time marketing person, which is pretty amazing. I completely understand that's just not going to happen here.

Still, all this said, I will never forgive the Aussie agent who left me floundering as a fledging author, mid-contract. Petering out contact via email is pathetic and gutless and unprofessional. It would have only taken a few minutes to give me some pointers on what I could do next. It took me two years and a whole lot of self-doubt to work out what I could do next because I had so little industry knowledge.

While I'm here, thanks for the great blog. Always enjoy reading (and keeping up with the industry, lol!).

Anonymous said...

While your comments provide a valuable reminder of the pressures brought by a small marketplace, isn't this a bit hyperbolic?:

"any support that's given, vanishes in the haze of why-didn't-you-answer-the-three-emails-I-sent-two-days-ago"

I don't think it's exactly helpful to represent authors as so fundamentally self-centred or as having no sense of perspective. Would-be authors who complain (sometimes unreasonably) on agent blogs, as far as I can see, complain about delays of months, not days. I'm hoping you don't really think of authors as being this unreasonable.

Sue Bursztynski said...

I'd settle for having ANY sort of response from an agent. I long ago gave up trying to get one because I rarely if ever got a response at all to my inquiries. One agent, whose clients all rave about her in their acknowledgements, didn't bother to reply for a YEAR and then only to say, "Have you tried such and such a publisher?" Most of them who bothered to reply said their books were full, which may indeed be the case in this country, but was no use to me. I did get an agent in WA for a short time, but she closed down to concentrate on her own writing.

All I wanted was someone to do the running around for me so I could get on with the writing, but it was not to be.

Well, I've sold ten books all by myself, plus short fiction, articles and education materials. I think I've been a reasonable agent for myself. Publishers now know my name and mostly look at my submissions, even if they say no at the end.

I do understand what you say about your reasons for being an agent - they're the same reasons I have for slush-reading - and it sounds like you're a good one. Wish I'd found you when you were taking new clients!