3 Tips on How To Manage Literary Agents

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Writer/agent relationships are weird.  On one hand, we trust our livelihoods to them; on the other, we want our agents to see us as invincible rock stars, talented artists they can count on.  We look to our agents to find us work and steer our careers… but we also pay them only 10 percent, so 90 percent of the steerage should, in theory, fall to us.  We need to believe our agents have our best interests at heart; but we also know they have other clients and agendas.

So it is — by its very nature — a confounding and contradictory relationship.  Which is not good for non-confrontational wimps like me.  And which is probably why most of the questions I get, when speaking to or consulting with writers, are about agents:

How do I get an agent?”  “Do I need an agent?”  “This one agent said he’d represent me, but now he never calls. What do I do?”

chad book

This is why I wrote How To Manage Your Agent: A Writer’s Guide to Hollywood Representation.  To give myself — and all the other confused writers out there — a guide to navigating one of the most important relationships of their career.  Think of it as a writer-to-agent dictionary, a Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus… for clients and their representation.

Writing this book, I learned an immense amount about how agents think, how they operate behind the scenes, how their own agendas affect your career, what kinds of clients they look for, and what you need to do in order to maintain an effective and productive relationship with your representation.

Unfortunately, I can’t fit all that info into this one piece for Script Magazine.

I can, however, fit in three essential tips, and I hope these are helpful.  For the rest of the story — to learn how agents work, allocate their time and energy, sell scripts and projects, take on new clients, and even decide which clients to let go — please check out the entire book.  Granted, I’m biased — but I think you’ll find it helpful.  (And my mom swears it’s the best book she’s read since The Firm.)

In the mean time, here are…

3 Tips on How To Manage Your Agent

1) Communicate.  This seems like a no-brainer, but most client/agent frustrations arise from breakdowns in communication.  I know, I know — I can hear all you writers screaming, “Yeah — my agent never calls me back! He’s the one who refuses to communicate!”  But the truth is: we, as writers, fail to communicate effectively as well.

Here are four things we need to constantly be communicating to our representation:

• Expectations.  Clients often wind up disappointed with agents because their expectations fail to be met. Maybe the client expected their agent to get them a certain job, sell a particular project, get a special piece of information, or arrange a meeting with a specific producer — and the agent failed.  The client’s expectations may or may not be realistic, but it’s the client’s job to articulate these expectations to the agent up front; no client should just assume he and the agent are on the same page.  This doesn’t mean the client’s expectations are right or fair, but it allows the agent to say, “Okay, I’ll try to do that,” or, “Those are unrealistic expectations; here’s what you should expect.”

Also, this is not a one-time conversation.  At the beginning of the relationship, both sides should voice their expectations of how the relationship should work; then, throughout the relationship, express your hopes or expectations about various plans or projects.

• What you want to write. One of agents’ biggest gripes about clients is they don’t tell their agents what they want to write — before they write it.  This is a huge mistake.  First of all, part of your agent’s job is to know what’s hot, what’s selling, what buyers are looking for.  It does you no good to spend six months writing your brilliant alien invasion script, only to learn afterwards that there are four alien invasion scripts already in development and studios are now hungry for historical epics.

agent Also, a good agent can determine the right script for you to write right now.  A few years ago, for example, I wrote a spec pilot; I knew it couldn’t be sold or produced, I simply wrote it to have a funny, outrageous, “noisy” sample to help get me work.  It did its job; it helped me get a development deal with 20th Century Fox and has since gotten me several jobs and meetings.  Shortly after I wrote it, however, I had another idea for a funny sample I wanted to write: again, something that wasn’t produce-able, but was an outrageous and funny sample. I was excited about it, but my agent — smartly — said, “Don’t write it. You don’t need another outrageous sample; you already have that and it works for you. Now you need something more grounded, something actually produce-able, so buyers can see your range and that you can deliver something practical.”  Had I not told my agent ahead of time what I wanted to write, I would’ve written a script that wouldn’t have have served me well; it might have been a fun read, but it would have been redundant and would not have expanded my body of work in an effective way.

• Priorities.  When negotiating deals for clients, agents typically try to get as much money as possible — and they’re likely to push you toward taking deals that offer the most money.  But money may not be always be the most important thing to you.  For example, maybe one show doesn’t pay as much, but it’s about something you’ve always been passion about — rock music or horses or outer space — and you’re willing to give up some money to write for that show.  Maybe another project pays less, but offers a longer, steadier paycheck.  Or gets you onto a new type of show — like a drama or a talk show — that expands your skill set and makes you more hire-able down the road.  Or gives you the opportunity to work for a showrunner you’ve long admired.  Or gets you to a bigger, more prestigious network or studio.  Or allows you to travel… or not travel… or spend a few months in a city you’ve always wanted to visit.

How you like to communicate.  Knowing that communication breakdowns are a primary cause of client/agent frustrations, it’s usually helpful — at the beginning of the relationship — to discuss how you each like to communicate.  After all, maybe the reason your agent doesn’t call you back is he doesn’t like to use the phone!  Maybe he’s faster with email or text — and if you would simply text or email him, he’d be more responsive.  Or maybe your agent — instead of fielding random calls from clients whenever they come in — would rather set up a weekly 15-minute call, when you can update each other on the status of projects, new connections you’ve made, etc.  You may find you and your agent have totally different communication styles and preferences.  This is okay… but by exposing and discussing it, you can determine how to navigate it, rather than letting it confuse and consume you.

2) Don’t stop writing.  A few weeks ago, I was the guest on ScriptChat, talking about agents, and someone asked how many pieces of original work an aspiring writer should write a year.  I said many agents I know say they want at least three pieces of original work a year.  One angry chatter immediately piped up, saying this was unrealistic and unfair — he couldn’t possibly write that much, and it’s better to produce one great piece of work a year than three crappy pieces.  When I disagreed, saying this was what should be expected of a professional writer — or someone aiming to be professional — he got really upset.

Now, obviously, no agent wants three pieces of junk.  And writing three gems a year is no easy feat.  But as a professional writer, it’s your job to write.  Constantly.  Not just to produce better, stronger work, but because for an agent to properly represent you, they need a steady stream of product.  Most scripts don’t sell… but they generate interest in and enthusiasm for the writer, paving the way for selling the next script.  So when your agent goes out with your new screenplay — sure, she hopes to make a sale — but she also hopes to get you a bunch of new fans at various companies.  That way, when she goes out with your next script… and the script after that… and the script after that… she’s sending it to eager people who are already primed to want it.

Enthusiasm, however, has a shelf life.  Execs and producers read thousands of scripts and writers each year.  If you can only get your agent one new script every twelve or fifteen months, chances are the execs and producers who once liked you will have forgotten about or cooled on you.  Which means your agent is starting from scratch each time you send her a script.  That makes her job harder… and it makes you less desirable as a client.

Agents need clients who can provide them with a constant pipeline of new work.  This way, when execs say, “This isn’t right for us, but I like it; what else does your writer have?” agents can immediately send over something else… or say, “He’s just finishing a new horror script; I’ll send it as soon as I have it.”  Or when going out with a script, agents can call producers and execs and say, “Remember Joe Writer you read — and loved — a couple months ago?  He’s got a new comedy… and it’s perfect for you.  I’m sending it right over.” And since you’re fresh in the exec’s mind, he’s already excited.

Having a career as a professional writer isn’t about making sales whenever you happen to finish work; it’s about building a career.  And careers are only built by allowing your agent to generate interest… and then continually capitalize on it.

3) Pay your agent.  One of the most common complaints I hear from working writers is: “I got this job on my own, and now my agent’s taking 10 percent!”

Well, yeah — as he should.

It always seems naive to me when writers think they’re only paying their agents to get them work. Sure, agents help you get jobs. But first of all — agents own only 10 percent of your business; you own the other 90 percent — and, therefore, 90 percent of the responsibility.  So I figure for every opportunity my agent digs up for me — I should be digging up nine others.

agent

But more importantly — you’re not paying your agent simply to get you work.  Maybe you did get this job on your own.  But did it come out of a relationship your agent facilitated many years ago?  Did your agent give you creative notes on the script that landed you the job?  And while you may have gotten the job on your own, through your own connections, did your agent look over your contract?  Negotiate your deal?  Fight for you to get more money?

Perhaps the answer to all those is a resounding “no.”  Maybe you did all the heavy lifting entirely by yourself.  Fine — but in nine months, when you’re sick of this job and want to do something else, who’s going to get you out of your contract?  Your agent.  When you’ve been there a year and your boss says he can’t give you a raise, who’s going to fight for your money?  Your agent.  Or when you get fired unfairly and early, who’s going to protect you to make sure your boss pays out your contract?  Your agent.

Good agents do much more than simply find us immediate employment: they protect us,  counsel us, fight for us, and negotiate for us at every step of the way.  So just because they may not have landed you this job… or your next job… or the one after that… does not mean they’re not pulling their weight.  In other words — pay your agent.  One way or another, they’re probably earning it.

(FYI — this isn’t to say every agent is earning it.  If yours is truly contributing nothing to your career, it’s time for new representation.  Just don’t be naive and think every job should come through your agent.  Most won’t; most will come through your own connections and relationships.  But this doesn’t mean your agent isn’t valuable; your job is to be aware of what they’re doing for you… and pay them.)

literary agent manager 3Learn how to find a literary agent in our FREE download, Screenwriters’ Guide to Navigating the World of Literary Agents and Managers!

One thought on “3 Tips on How To Manage Literary Agents

  1. writergirl

    Great post. Hooray for agents — at least the ones who actually do work hard for their money! I hope to get myself one of those real soon. 🙂

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