Contrary to Popular Belief, We Don’t Bite: Demystifying the Agent

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This article was contributed by YPG member Anthony Mattero. If you are a YPG member and would like to contribute articles on publishing-related topics for our site, please contact Tara Powers at tpowers@wwnorton.com.

Ari Gold, Jerry Maguire, Stevie Grant—over and over, pop culture has conditioned the general population to run for the hills and hide when an agent calls. The need for high drama in TV and movies—drama that doesn’t involve crooked cops, unfaithful politicians, or emotionally damaged doctors—has caused the stereotype of the cutthroat agent to go too far. In fact, some great projects in the publishing business don’t get off the ground simply because editors are afraid of working with agents to get what they want out of an author—saying “no” may just feel easier. As a young agent addressing junior-level editors in the book business, I’m making it my personal mission to debunk the more persistent agent myths, assuage some concerns, and ensure editors out there of one thing: agents are people too, and we love books as much as you do! We also want a great book and want to do our best to help a project get there.

Now that we’ve cleared that up, here are a few key facts to remember about agents.

1. We’re Bloodhounds, Not Pit Bulls

When you’re an agent, particularly a young agent, you’re dying to make every sale you can and represent a hit. When you’re an editor, especially a young editor, you’re dying to acquire a fresh voice and edit a hit—yet all too often these goals run parallel to each other without intersecting. The way to balance this equation seems simple, yet doesn’t happen nearly as often as it should: Let’s work together! Instead of looking at agents as those snappy pit bulls that refuse to play nice on deal points, look at us as willful bloodhounds dying for a new scent to track. If there’s an idea, an author, or an unexplored subject that truly interests you as an editor, one that you think would work in the marketplace, call an agent and say, “Hey—go fetch!” One thing agents like almost as much as earning commissions is hunting down potential clients who haven’t thought about their publishing opportunities and holding their hands throughout the process. To do this with the knowledge that an editor may already be interested in the project makes it all the more fun.

2. We’re Reasonable

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve pitched projects and received passes that sounded something like this: “We all really loved this proposal, the writing is great, and the idea is fresh, but I don’t think we can pay what the author is looking for and thus must pass.” Now, while many A-list celebrities and writers with massive built-in audiences may have a hard number in their heads as to what level of advance they’re going to accept, such demands are much more the exception than the rule. For the most part (even with some of the bigger celebrity-driven books I’ve worked on), authors are trying to sell a book because they want to be published, not because they need a quick buck. There are many creative ways to ensure authors are compensated justly for their work and time and that publishers aren’t taking on too much of a financial risk. Plenty of book deals have incorporated bonuses tied to sales, bestseller status, or certain publicity bookings coming through, among many other creative deal points. Such outside-the-box ideas allow publishers to sleep soundly knowing they aren’t overpaying and allow authors to know the better their work is, the more money they could potentially make. It’s a win-win situation, and no one is missing out on potentially great books because the publisher wasn’t sure an author would accept less than six figures. If you like a project enough to want to make an offer on it, be honest with us about the parameters and let the agents do the job of getting the deals/clients in order.

3. We’re Hungry

When I lived and worked in LA, taking business lunches was much easier, and that’s due to one thing and one thing only—the agent always pays in Hollywood. As an agent, it’s easier to be proactive about getting meetings on books if it doesn’t seem like you’re asking someone to buy you a lunch or take you out for drinks. There are plenty of great editors always looking to take agents out and I’m thankful for them, but there are many more I’d love to meet who, for whatever reason, have no idea that I want to sit down with them. The answer to this conundrum lies in agents’ balancing lunches with new editors and being sure to attend networking events through websites like YPG’s. Especially for younger agents and editors, neutrally meeting someone at a book to film event or a BEA happy hour will lead to longer-lasting and more lucrative relationships down the line.

Anthony Mattero is an agent with Vigliano Associates. His areas of interest include narrative non-fiction, memoir, pop culture, sports, and humor. You can follow him on Twitter (@ajmattero) or email him at am@viglianoassociates.net.

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