Sandy Asher and David Harrison

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Topic 6: Pros and Cons of Having an Agent

Response 1: David

Sandy, I know that writers with agents are asked why they have one and writers without are asked why they don’t. I don’t so I’ll go first.

That’s not quite accurate. I share a fine agent—Wendy Schmalz—when I work with you. Wendy has represented you, and therefore me, on Dude, the collection of stories, plays, and poems for boy readers that we did with Dutton.

Nor can I say I’ve never had an agent of my own because somewhere in the dim past, twenty-five or thirty years ago, I tried an agent for about a year. We weren’t a good mix and went our separate ways. More about that shortly.

There are certainly pros to having a good agent. Many publishers don’t want to look at manuscripts from authors they don’t know. Dealing with agents cuts down on the mass of unsolicited submissions to read and in these days of bare bones staffing, an agent who sends quality material might be more of an asset than ever. So yes, an agent can open doors.

But I’m pretty sure an agent can’t sell pap. I still shake my head remembering some of my early manuscripts. I was writing short stories still so protoplasmic they sort of flopped about from page to page in search of a backbone, a beginning, an ending. I didn’t get that, of course. I was in my twenties, convinced that each story was original and issued from my soul.

I don’t remember why I didn’t seek an agent in the beginning. I’m not sure I knew to consider the idea. I wonder if most writers these days automatically start the search for an agent before they’ve written more than one or two manuscripts. I’ve heard that finding a good agent is roughly the equivalent of getting published without one, but maybe that’s because agents have to plow through a lot of unpolished manuscripts. Again, I’m guessing.

On my own I soon developed the habit of grinding out one masterpiece after another and setting them off in all directions like cheap roman candles. By the time I sold my first story, I had been winging it for six years, the no-agent habit was established, and I had managed to acquire a modicum of writing skills the hard way.

Years and books later, my muse took early retirement. Nothing for the ages was emanating from my trusty soul. Obviously, I needed an agent! Given that I was well published, I found one soon enough. The problem was that in a twelve-month period he placed one manuscript, a picture book that I had presold before we met.

Bad agent? Maybe, but probably not. I wasn’t writing well and knew it. I didn’t blame the guy for being unable to place stories that weren’t my best work. We split ways, I coaxed my muse out of retirement, and I’ve been placing my own work ever since.

Sandy, you have far more experience with agents than I do so I look forward to your comments. I hope we’ll hear from agents and authors willing to share their own thoughts and experiences.

Back to you.


Response 2: Sandy

Experience with agents? Yessiree! I’ve had six of them over the years, including, most recently, the aforementioned and mighty fine Wendy Schmalz. And the dear, departed Claire M. Smith, whom I’ve quoted more than once. And Craig Tenney, who took over my contracts at Harold Ober and Associates when Wendy left to form her own agency. And three others, who shall remain nameless.

But more about that in a moment.

Like you, David, I’ve placed a lot of my work on my own—all of my plays as well as the articles, short stories, and poems that have appeared in magazines. Back in the day, there wasn’t the pressure for children’s authors to get an agent that writers feel now. Children’s book editors were open to reading unsolicited manuscripts, advances weren’t big enough to attract many agents, and contracts were maybe a single generation away from a trustworthy handshake. There were no corporate lawyers involved; no electronic rights, either. I think my first book contract was maybe four or five pages long. Contracts for a three-page picture book these days might easily run to twenty single-spaced pages of legal gobbledygook, including references to means of communication not yet invented. (Books by telepathic distribution, anyone? Buy your subscription now!)

My first agent, later quite successful, was at the time of our meeting as much a beginner as I was. A friend of mine had published an adult novel and found an agent for himself. That agent had a new associate who wanted to handle books for young readers. That new associate took me on, on the strength of my magazine and play publications. For a year she tried to sell early drafts of Daughters of the Law and various incarnations of my picture book ideas and failed. Finally, she informed me—gently, but honestly—that we were not doing one another any good, and she recommended a more experienced agent.

That one also took me on—and placed me in the very last stall of her very large stable of authors, some of them impressively rich and famous. She rarely visited my stall. She rarely answered my phone calls or my letters. No e-mail in those days, but I strongly suspect she would not have answered my e-mails, either. Looking back, I suppose her theory was that I showed promise and eventually I'd send her something she could easily sell. No hurry. When that time came, she'd trot me out to the starting gate.

In the meantime, I sent her manuscripts—revisions of Daughters of the Law and a string of those ever-hopeful picture books. As far as I know, she never submitted a single one of them to publishers. Two years passed. I grew so angry, frustrated, and sick at heart, I stopped writing. The woman was, for some of her clients, wildly successful, and for others, like me, toxic. I finally called her secretary and said, "Gather up everything you can find and mail it back to me. Whatever this relationship is, it's over."

At about that time, my brother-in-law had hopped onto a low rung of the publishing ladder as an editorial assistant. He had also written a novel. He decided he could be an agent on the side and peddle both of our manuscripts. A year passed, he rose quickly through the publishing ranks as an editor, but couldn't sell either of our books, disproving once and for all the myth that it helps to know someone in the business. He knew himself in the business, and it didn't make a bit of difference!

If a manuscript is not marketable, it's not marketable.

But he did meet Claire Smith, and finally suggested he send both of our books to her. A few months later, Claire accepted me as a client and eventually sold my first novel, not Daughters of the Law—that was still one draft away from ready—but Summer Begins—after five or six revisions and the same number of rejections.

As you supposed, David, an agent cannot sell a book before it’s ready. Even with an agent—and a good one; she was Judy Blume's agent as well—there are still rejections.

Lesson learned: Finding an agent does not mean living happily ever after. Any more than getting married means living happily ever after. Neither relationship is guaranteed to solve all your problems. In fact, each can present you with a whole new set of problems! And both work out most happily when you're really ready and you find someone you can respect and work with comfortably.

Next time, I’ll talk about why I’m glad I have an agent and how we’ve worked together. But now, David, I’m eager to hear more about how you’ve managed so beautifully on your own!


Ten years ago—maybe even five years ago—I was still telling my students that a GOOD agent was wonderful to have but not necessary. Now I am saying just the opposite, all due to the change in the marketplace.

Unlike Sandy, I have had the same agency (though two agents since my last agent died and her assistant took over) for all but my first five books. I bless the day I joined forces with Curtis Brown Ltd. I couldn’t possibly have produced as many books as I have without them. I can concentrate (mostly) on writing and they on the business side of things, especially in this ever-changing market. Though I am still very aware of changes, always read my contracts, and ask a lot of questions.

That’s the important thing to remember. Having an agent is like having a doctor. You still have to take responsibility for keeping up on what is affecting your health—personally and professionally.


Response 3: David

If you read Sandy’s response last week, she ended by asking me to describe how I’ve gotten along without an agent all these years. Jane Yolen supplied her position, which is that having an agent has played a key role in her ability to stay on task writing and not have to worry as much about placing her work. Good points well made.

Gulp. Where do I start? I’m going to start with the way I started. I was a pharmacologist working in a laboratory. My job was science. I brought home journals to read at night. I published and presented at conferences years before I knew what NCTE or IRA or ALA stood for. When I sat down to work on a fiction story, it always came late in a long day. I was nearly always tired and sleepy.

I was young, uninformed about writing, and knew no one who could mentor me. I read in a Writer’s Market how to write query and cover letters, how to type a manuscript, how to submit a story. That was my education. I almost stumbled into a vanity press offer on a novel I wrote and couldn’t place. I agonized over the pros and cons of spending the $1,200 it would cost me to see my book in print. This at a time when my salary with a master’s degree was under $6,000.

Could I have used an agent? Probably. Could I have obtained one? Probably not. I didn’t try. Sandy and Jane, I bet you were better writers at an early stage than I was in the infancy of mine. I went on sending out stories. I’ve always been a record keeper. I count things. As I write this, four crows in our hackberry tree are eyeing the fresh birdseed in our feeders. Part of my job in the lab was to keep records. By night at my desk in the bedroom I kept records about my fruitless writing efforts—word count, where submitted, cost of postage.

My first story, “From Day to Day,” was 5,600 words long and cost 16 cents to mail to Atlantic Monthly in 1959. I also sent it to The Virginia Quarterly Review and Arizona Quarterly, both in 1961, before I gave up on it.

Seven years later I sold something (to The Young Crusader). I put a star by the title in my record book (“Jule Learns to Ride”), the amount I received ($5.03), and went on with the business of representing myself.

One year later I sold my first picture book, The Boy with a Drum.

A year after that Random House accepted Little Turtle, which was read on national television (Captain Kangaroo).

When an editor in Chicago expressed interest in a nonfiction book I proposed, I bought a plane ticket to Chicago. The meeting resulted in The Book of American Caves.

The following year I flew to New York for the first time to meet with an editor at American Heritage Press. We agreed that I would write a picture book with three stories about giants. The Book of Giant Stories was out in 1972 and won a Christopher Award.

Over the 39 years since then I’ve made numerous trips to New York City to meet with editors with whom I’ve worked or hope to work. I spend part of nearly every day exchanging e-notes with editors. These are generally business-related exchanges. Editors know I won’t waste time, theirs or mine. When I have questions about a contract, I ask for clarification. If I don’t like something, I point it out and we discuss it. Sometimes I win the point, but not always. On occasion I’ve negotiated bigger advances, higher royalty percentages, and improved escalation clauses.

Am I better off representing myself? I don’t know. I don’t begrudge what an agent earns for his or her efforts on a writer’s behalf. Undoubtedly an agent can open doors and a good one can reach hard-to-reach editors at major houses. I know that Jane is right. Doing it on my own takes time away from my work. My way is just my way. It’s how I got started. It feels natural. I keep doing it. Now I have confessed all.

Sandy my friend, back to you.


Response 4: Sandy

David, I remain in awe of your perfectly matched skills as writer and businessman. I had to smile at your admitting to your lifelong numbering of things. You always know exactly how many topics we’ve covered and which response we’re up to. My number set consists of one, a couple, a few, quite a few, a whole lot, and a gazillion. Not really useful for negotiating purposes.

True story: Some years ago, the artistic director of what was then the Emmy Gifford Theatre in Omaha, NE, took me out to dinner. He’d produced a couple of my plays and had invited me to town to see one of them, A Woman Called Truth. A lovely, totally professional production. The restaurant was lovely, too. After our meal, this gentleman informed me that he wanted to commission a new play for his company. “What would you like to write about?” he asked.

Now this is not a common occurrence, at least not for me. Most of the time, I write and then hope I can find someone who wants to produce or publish what I’ve written. Here was the highly respected artistic director of a first-rate professional theater telling me he was hiring me to create whatever I liked—before I’d even thought of it, let alone written a single word! In an attempt to slow my racing heart, I looked down—and happened to see the medallion on my necklace, a wolf howling at the moon. I’ve been a wolf enthusiast ever since reading Jean Craighead George’s Julie of the Wolves, a book that also influenced my future as a YA novelist. “Wolves,” I said. “I’d like to write a play about wolves.”

“Fine,” came the reply. “How much do you think you’ll need?”

Brace yourselves, David and friends. You’re about to be bowled over by my incredibly poor business acumen. “Um. I don’t know,” I said. (Wait. It gets worse.)

“Well,” he said, “my dream is to support playwrights so they can do their best work without worrying about money. So how about $8,000?”

Eight? Thousand? Dollars? That was a lot of money in those days; in playwriting terms, it’s still a lot of money. My response? (Here it comes, folks.) “Why would you pay me so much money to do something I’d be happy to do for free?”

Clearly, I need an agent to protect me from myself. If this tale isn’t enough to convince you, just ask my husband. I do what I do because I love doing it, because I can’t NOT do it. After 40+ years in this business, it’s still hard for me to believe others are supposed to pay me to do it, are EXPECTING to pay me, even ENJOY paying me. After 40+ years of marriage, it’s still hard for my husband to believe I’m wired this way. He doesn’t seem to find it endearing.

So having an agent is as important to my marriage as it is to my career. I’m free to write; someone else worries about the money. Someone else bugs publishers when checks don’t show up. Someone else untangles snafus about subsidiary rights. Someone else keeps an eye on which editors are looking for what I do best, and which will never be interested in anything I do. Someone else keeps track of the numbers.

Yes, she takes a percentage of what I earn. She’s well worth it. And, yes, she’s not a guarantee of eternal success. There have been manuscripts she’s felt weren’t ready to submit and therefore would not submit. She has a reputation to protect, too. And there have been manuscripts she hasn’t been able to sell, even when we’ve both believed in them.

There have also been times when she’s successfully placed a book with a publisher I’ve found myself and suggested to her. And there have been times when I’ve sold books myself, directly to an editor. That was the case when I approached Benchmark about writing for a nonfiction series. When either of those scenarios occur, I still want her handling the contract. I owe her that, for all the good she’s done me and for all the hard knocks she’s weathered with me. And also because...well, see the true story above for another good reason.

On more true story: On a later trip to Omaha, I gave a copy of my first picture book, Princess Bee and the Royal Goodnight Story, to the young daughter of the above-mentioned artistic director. When I came back for the premiere of The Wolf and Its Shadows, exactly one year later, he greeted me with the report that he’d read that book 365 times since last we’d met. “She’s asked for it every single night,” he said.

Really, people, can you believe we get paid money for this, too? 

And here’s a flashback to our first topic, “The Care and Feeding of Ideas,” from our friend and colleague Patricia Hermes. We hope this serves as a reminder to other authors to feel free to jump in at any time with your personal thoughts on topics old and new, including those we haven’t even thought of yet!

Where do you get your ideas? I think kids ask me that more often than any other question: Where do your ideas come from? Well, my honest answer is this: I don’t know!  It just happens. But I know this: I have to be quiet. I have to listen for the voices inside my head. Some people think hearing voices is a sign of insanity, but for authors, it is not. It is, rather, a crucial part of our lives. So I’m quiet, and I hear the voice of a character speaking to me. It’s most often a girl, probably because I am a girl, but sometimes my main character is a boy. (I have one daughter, but I also have four sons, so I know quite a bit of what boys are all about.) And so the character in my head begins to come to life for me. You might find me, during my writing time, staring out a window. I do that a lot! But I am not simply staring. I am creating, writing, or maybe it’s better called “pre-writing.” I daydream. I listen for that voice. What is she trying to tell me? What’s she concerned about? What kind of kid is she? Because you see, you can’t write a story with plot, until you know what the characters are like. If she’s spunky and noisy, then the plot probably won’t concern a kid who lives quietly in an attic reading books, or talking to her pet mouse. 

And now, as I am writing this, I think: There’s an idea for a story! It just came to me. Maybe I should write about a kid with a pet mouse. Now what will I call her?  Why does she have a pet mouse? Does the mouse have a name? Does she have any other friends besides her pet mouse? Where does she live? Does she really live in an attic? Why? Hmm. Does she have a mom, a dad, any siblings?  Maybe she’s poor. Or maybe she’s sickly. 

Ah! Now comes a little bit of truth to the story: When I was a child, I was sick frequently. I had something wrong with my heart, and I spent a long time in a hospital. Maybe my child with the mouse has been sick and isn’t allowed to run and play. (I wasn’t allowed to run and play because of my weak heart.) So I know how sad my pretend character feels at times. 

Hmm. Good start. 

But now, I’m thinking: Now that, is a stupid story line. Who wants to read about a sick kid with a pet mouse? Forget that idea, that voice.

But I can’t. I’m stuck with her. Every time I sit down at the computer—and yes, I write on the computer—she comes back to me. I can even begin to see her now.  I think she’s wearing white, a long white dress, or maybe it’s a nightgown. She always wears white, and . . .

So do you see how story ideas develop? My newest venture is a series of books called Emma Dilemma. Emma gets into all sorts of mischief and trouble, though she’s a good kid at heart. Emma is very much like I was as a child. She loves animals. She has a gazillion pets. And sometimes those pets cause trouble. Sometimes, Emma causes trouble, too! My newest book will be called Emma Dilemma and the Best Horse Ever—because Emma is trying to persuade her parents to buy her a horse. They won’t. But Emma has her own plans for getting this wonderful horse Rooney. 


Patricia Hermes is the author of almost fifty books for readers from early middle grades through young adult, as well as two nonfiction books for adults. Her books have won many awards and recognitions: American Library Association Best Book, Smithsonian Notable Book, C.S. Lewis Honor Book, IRA Children’s Choice, as well as many state awards, four of them for the novel You Shouldn’t Have to Say Goodbye.

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