On Agents

You hear a lot these days about whether or not you need an agent in the exciting new world of publishing. Well, the paradigm's shifted a lot since my day, and I can only report my own experience. I'm personally still of the opinion that the best way to achieve optimum success is via traditional publishing, primarily and simply because it helps sort out the wheat from the chaff.

The vast majority of times I've glanced at self-published books (by my specific and personal definition, that's distinct from 'indie' publishing, which to me means work either produced by someone with an existing and proven prior professional publishing track record, or which undergoes some kind of editorial process separate from the author), I've been severely disappointed. Usually, that disappointment arises within the first page, if not the first paragraph. Very often, that disappointment arises regardless of whether the author concerned has sold six copies of their self-published book, or six million. 

Late last year I had an opportunity to experience life without an agent. To my frank horror, I discovered my then-agent, Dorothy Lumley, was seriously ill. How ill wasn't clear until a few weeks later, when I received the news she had passed away. Her agency then entered, and for the moment remains in, a kind of legal twilight zone. 

After that, I was, for the first time in my professional writing life, without an agent. Well, that's not necessarily a problem. I knew authors who dealt directly with Tor, my publisher, without an agent being involved. Tor - and their parent publisher, Pan Macmillan - have a deserved reputation for professionalism, and I had no reason to doubt that, then or since. Even so, I rapidly found myself floundering in certain respects. 

For instance, I found myself having to think about and deal with things I normally didn't have to deal with. Lots of people in different departments had perfectly good reasons to question why the money might be going directly to me instead of to my (now deceased) agent. Sometimes that required the writing of actual, physical letters sent by actual, physical means in order to meet certain legal requirements. That meant taking time out from work I didn't really feel like taking. 

Moving over to the Far East for a while then brought in its own share of complications, ones I don't even begin to want to get into. Nothing, it must be said, that was anyone's fault; it was just stuff people in publishing would know about, and thereby be able to anticipate without necessarily (say) finding themselves having panic attacks because some new and startling spanner had unexpectedly been thrown in the works of the creative process.

People, say, like agents.

One particular mini-crisis in January, while I was in the midst of preparations of a major house-move (well, in the end it wasn't really a crisis, but at first glance it sure as hell felt like it) pushed me into making a clear decision. Two hours after that decision, and an exchange of emails, I had an agent: John Jarrold. 

Having an agent again, to deal with all that crap I otherwise was having to deal with, felt like - literally felt like - a weight had been lifted off my shoulders. I could relax again - or relax as much as anyone can when their life is to some extent ruled by a variety of deadlines. Based on my own personal experience, I would have to say that, yes, agents are very, very useful. In fact, there all kinds of ways agents are useful outside of the obvious stuff (assuming, that is, they're good agents, and in that respect I have so far been singularly blessed). They work hard, because the better you do, the better they do, so it's in their interest to help you do as well as you possibly can. 

Given that, I think it's fair to say I'm biased in favour of the idea of having an agent. In fact, before I got myself a book deal, I remember the remarkable lengths Dorothy went to, in order to get me to where I am now. It's said that agents don't usually deal in short fiction, and while that's true, Dorothy made an exception for me, presumably because she believed I had something worth promoting. It took her five years to get me that first book deal, but after that, things worked out very well for both of us.