Tuesday, July 29, 2014

It's not you, it's me. Okay, it's you

I do actually have an agent, who took me on nearly five years ago based on producer interest in a film project of mine. Nothing came of it, or other projects that followed, so the agent prepared a lot of contracts for no income. True, they were riddled with typos and missing clauses, but I didn’t feel like I was in any position to complain.

I’m not sure the agent is the biggest fan of my writing, either, based on the fact that some of my scripts elicited no response at all when I submitted them for feedback, and I think they only sent one to any producers (who did end up optioning it).

Then, last year, I was commissioned (not as a result of any agent involvement) to develop a TV series, generating enough commission to compensate (I think) for that earlier unpaid work. Karmic balance and all that.

Relations were cordial. Until the agent forwarded me a contract to sign, saying it looked “fine”, even though it was 18 pages long and the agent had received it literally 10 minutes earlier. I found some unfavourable terms in there that had to be renegotiated.

So. Is switching agents frowned upon in Australia? Would I be assumed to be a high-maintenance client, best ignored? Am I expecting too much?

Switching agents isn't exactly applauded (in any country) but it's not verboten either - it's a business decision, and you have to do what's right for your business. There are a handful of things which suggest that your existing agent perhaps isn't right for your business:

1. The contracts riddled with typos and missing clauses. Typos are one thing - I've seen contracts from publishing companies and film studios with typos, and I've also made typos in my own contracts - they happen to everyone. But missing clauses are another - the intent of a contract can still be clear if there typos but that's harder to say if there are missing clauses. As for preparing contracts for no return - well, that's the risk film agents take. Literary agents do a lot of work on manuscripts and that's the risk we take.

2. Not appropriately reviewing the latest contract. It may not take the agent long to look at contracts - those of us who have seen a lot of them tend to hone in on particular clauses and, therefore, don't give the same scrutiny to all clauses (e.g. the 'governing law' clause doesn't get reviewed as closely as the 'subsidiary rights' clause). But in light of your earlier experience with missing clauses, it's not great - especially as you picked up on those unfavourable clauses. 

3. Lack of engagement with your writing. Even if your agent is primarily a deal-making type of agent - and each agent is different - writers still want to feel as though their work is appreciated by their agent or, at the very least, that the agent is paying attention. I don't always give my clients a gold star - sometimes they're asked (nicely, of course) to do an amount of work or even to start again. And when I say 'asked', I mean I make a suggestion, not give a directive. So they may not like what I have to say, but they do know that I'm paying attention. Most agents pay attention to the work - the work, after all, is the reason for the agent-client relationship to exist. If your agent was doing everything else right apart from paying closer attention to your work, perhaps you'd be prepared to overlook that omission. But in light of everything else, it all seems to add up to a situation where you don't feel as though you have an agent who is as supportive of you as she or he could be. 

In short: you're not expecting too much to want to have your contracts scrutinised or to have attention paid to your work. These are standard services to expect from your agent. But I would suggest that you give the agent a chance to either redeem or explain him- or herself, just because you do have a relationship and it's good to end things nicely, if they're going to end. Ask a direct question: 'It's been good to work with you but I have the feeling that you're not wild about my writing - is that the case? I haven't ever received feedback from you when I've sent scripts to you.' The agent may say that they do love your writing but don't personally feel qualified to give feedback - they just might not have wanted to admit that to you. You may still think that they're not properly supportive anyway, in which case you need to leave. If, however, you think there's hope there, perhaps you want to try to work out the contract-reviewing issues. If you don't, though, it's quite okay to change. Just make it clear it's a business decision - you're not the right client-agent fit. Wish them well, if only because you want them to wish you well. Also because they may turn up at the next agency you go to ... 

Monday, July 28, 2014

Appraise to appease?

I have written a fantasy, and I want it to be a series. I had sent it for appraisal and the response has been rather good, regarding plot structure, conflict, description and character. Negatives were punctuation, alignment and grammar at some places, along with suggestions to 'plump up and explore' the events. I am working on incorporating the suggestions. I have two questions here.

 1) I have heard that sending the appraisal along with the manuscript helps. However, my appraisal has the negatives. So should I send this appraisal while sending the draft to the agent? Should I get a re-appraisal done after corrections? Or should I just mention that it has been reviewed by a professional agency? I am afraid that the negatives in the appraisal, however minimum, will create a bad impression.

2) Since the negatives are mostly about punctuation, I reckon it can addressed by help of a copy editor. But most people suggest copy editing after appraisal. If you suggest re-appraisal, should I copy-edit it before sending it the second time?

Well, I can save you the trouble of sending your appraisal (also known as a 'manuscript assessment' in these here parts) as part of your submission: the agents and publishers I know don't pay any attention to them.

Appraisals/assessments are meant to be a useful tool to help a writer work out what needs to be done to their manuscript before it's sent to an agent or publisher. It's not a tool for the agent or publisher, though, and consequently they won't pay much, or any, attention to it. We've also all been burnt by the number of appraisals we've seen that say, 'This book should be published!!!!!!' even though it's clear that the accompanying manuscript is nowhere near publishable standard. But the fundamental reason why we don't need to read the appraisal is this: we do our own appraising. I don't care what someone else's opinion of your manuscript is - I want to establish my own opinion. Sending someone else's opinion just makes it look as though you're worried about what my opinion will be - and that means at some subterranean level of your consciousness you're worried your work isn't up to scratch. So get it up to scratch and then send it to an agent or publisher who will make up their own mind.

In this case: it sounds as though the appraisal you had done has actually been beneficial in pointing out some work you need to do. Unless the punctuation errors are egregious, don't worry too much about them. We all make errors. If your writing is otherwise great, we can overlook them. But if those errors are sufficient to make me not be able to read your writing the way you intend, you should fix them. 

Regarding freelance editors: they are an increasingly popular option for writers and for good reason, as they look only at whether or not your manuscript is working and they won't offer an assessment of whether or not it's publishable. They're not affordable for everyone, though, in which case a manuscript assessment service could be useful. 

As I'm often asked to recommend editors, this is as far as I'll go: http://www.fen.net.au/ - the editors I know in this network are excellent but I'm not going to single out just one!