I am often asked about agents, whether you need one, who is mine, etc. I've had a jaded, colorful history with agents, and might not be the best person to answer this question, but I thought - at least - I'd share. Some of the top questions I get from new, and sometimes not-so-new, writers are:
“How do I get an agent?”
“Who is your agent, are they reading?”
“My agent won’t return my phone calls, what do I do?”
Here's my experience, for what it's worth. Let’s start back in the late 1980s. I was in the US Navy. I’d written about 2/3 of the first novel I’m willing to admit to, titled “Just To Kill Again,” the story of a televangelist who rose to fame on the purse strings of his father-in-law, but wanted free of the wife once he had what he desired. His plan was, through the assistance of a shady character he’d met in his past, to create a serial killer that never existed, each murder actually committed by a different person, but leaving a portion of the same poem to confound the police. He would, being a hands-on kind of guy, perform the last murder himself while out of town. His wife would be the second–to-last, killed while he had a good, solid alibi. In the market of the day, it was sound enough, and I was excited.
I had a friend at the time, Wendy Haley, who was a local author of dark romantic vampire novels. Wendy, sadly, passed away after only two novels, which is a tragedy for another time and place. Suffice it to say, Wendy had an agent, and she introduced me to her. I wish I could remember the woman’s name. She was, mostly, a romance agent. She lived in Virginia Beach, which in theory made her very accessible. She was branching out into horror, largely I believe because in those days there were slots and numbers associated with each genre, and almost anything could get plugged into those slots given sufficient luck and timing. I remember no reaction to my writing at all from this woman, but I do remember coming in from a cruise to learn that, while I was out at sea, a “slot” had opened, and had I been around to send her a completed manuscript (which I didn’t have) I would have been published. That might have changed the face of my career, but let’s skip on over this.
I never did sell a novel through this agent. She had a few manuscripts before all was said and done, and submitted them, I suppose, but before things could reach the point of consummating a sale, we parted ways. I don’t even remember WHY we parted ways, but we did. Shortly thereafter, I went to sea again. When I came back, I learned that I’d made my first good decision as a professional writer. My ex-agent had been arrested and was on trial for embezzling from her clients! She ended up in prison, and I went on, agent less, for a long time.
Next enter Stanislaus Tal, AKA S. Darnbrook Colson, AKA Stanton D. Colson, AKA TAL. Tal was an odd duck. He came onto the small press publishing scene like gangbusters. He started with some chapbooks, and then his annual, or semi-annual (I don’t remember) publication “Bizarre Bazaar.” He was into extreme horror. I was not - but I did then (and still do) write dark fantasy, horror, and a lot of things treading shadowed paths. I was, at the time, an author on the move. I'd sold my novel, “This Is My Blood,” to Transylvania Press, and then to Terminal Frights Press. I also sold my Star Trek Voyager novel, “Chrysalis,” and had contracts to write books for White Wolf. About this time, Stan branched out into independent film, and agenting. He opened the “Tal Literary Agency,” and like a fool I cajoled him into taking me on as a client, even though our taste in fiction was very different. Stan kept good spreadsheets. He sent updates and showed you exactly who had what, when it was sent, when it was updated. He was fairly available on the phone, and he seemed to have boundless energy. Then things got wonky.
Stan got hard to find. Stan’s clients started calling me, wondering about him. Stan tried to steal the screenplay and all the rights, not to mention the money he’d gathered in investments for his “independent film company.” Stan stole six figures worth of advance money from one author, and another author received a copy of a foreign edition of his book in the mail that he knew absolutely nothing about selling. This all happened very quickly. Then we got e-mail and mail (all of us) saying he’d disbanded, but that our “contracts” were sold to some other enterprise that never turned out to exist. For myself, I learned that he had called Pocket Books and tried to change my royalty payments from his literary agency to his name – a name he’d claimed all along was not his… Stanton D. Colson (or S. Darnbrook Colson, the “Bad Boy of Horror, affectionately re-named by all with any sort of taste the “Boy of Bad Horror for his absolute lack of ability (in my opinion). Tal disappeared. I got my royalties fixed both at White Wolf and Pocket. Others tried police and FBI, only to find out that the amounts involved weren’t enough to cause an interstate search.
Stan lives near me, somewhere in Elizabeth City, NC. I haven’t seen him, thus I haven’t punched him, but the day will come. We crossed paths at a local book signing - he pretended not to know me, but he's never gone back to that book store. He is teaching kids to write (OH MY GOD) and is part of the arts league, or some such thing. He is still being sought by several authors, and he is now self-publishing his own lousy books and even did an interview recently about his writing and his past with a local web site that no one in the universe will ever read… If you see this, Stan, stay clear of me.
Back to the subject at hand. Agents. After Stan I was, understandably gun-shy. I went on without an agent for some time, writing primarily for White Wolf, where an agent isn’t really necessary as it is work for hire with pretty much boiler-plate contracts. Eventually, I knew I had to get out of that work and into writing for someone in NYC…so I went agent hunting again. I hate the agent hunting.
I ended up with a lady who was recommended to me. She’d been the agent of several pulp-era authors near the end of their careers, and handled a couple of other people I knew, so I sent her my work. We signed a contract. She assured me things were underway. The weirdness started not long after. Apparently this agent had serious personal issues, as well as some health problems (this not her fault, but still…) Editors started saying “Huh?” when I happened to have a chance to talk to them and ask about books they were supposed to have. Manuscripts never arrived, were never sent, no one – in short – apparently even saw my work during the period with this agent except when they didn’t outright blame her for not sending, and claimed to have LOST the manuscript. At these times I would personally rush them a “second” copy, and things would progress (as long as I either called myself, or bugged the agent ceaselessly). After two years, and during a time of pretty serious depression, I dropped this agent.
Again, agent less, I went into the world. I found ANOTHER agent through some author friends. I sent her proposal after proposal. Her deal was that she needed the first fifty pages, synopsis and outline before moving ahead with something. After five such submissions, none of which “did anything for her” and all of which kept my name off the desks of editors for a full year, I parted ways again, this time thoroughly depressed. About that time my flagging ego was saved by the sale of my novel, Deep Blue, to Five Star / Gale. Not a big house, but a sale...and shortly after that I met my current agent, Robert Fleck, through ex HWA President and author Janet Berliner.
Robert is my “agent for life,” as far as I’m concerned. He answers calls. He reads everything I send him, comments on it, assists with edits, and is on top of multiple submissions to multiple houses – on the phone all day to NYC – and in every way has been a blessing. He's gotten me opportunities like an upcoming novel follow-up to the movie The Spirit, and he's fixed contracts on everything from limited editions to the in-progress Stargate Atlantis novel Trish and I are writing together. We secured an Italian agency that handled Italian Rights to This is My Blood - which came out in Rome in 2007, and have actually been approached by several NYC editors for packages of my material. For the first time in my career, I have an agent I feel I can trust, and that I feel actually believes I am more than a name and a pile of manuscript pages.
It’s a start.
The bottom line is, and here is the advice I sort of hinted at in the beginning, it is not as important that you have an agent as it is that you have an agent who actually is an agent, wants to market your work, believes in your abilities, and knows where New York City is located. You can’t just say “I’m an agent,” you have to know how to be an agent. An unknown agent no one has heard of is probably less likely to sell your work than you are, unless they are remarkably talented, and if that is the case it won’t be long before everyone DOES know them. It should cost you nothing to have your work read. There should NEVER be a word about a book doctor. It is NOT okay to ignore your phone calls for extended periods of time, or to never answer your e-mail. I won’t say that the agent works FOR the author, but there is a partnership, and for a partnership to be successful, both partners have to believe in the enterprise and give it a hundred percent.
Don’t obsess over getting an agent. Obsess over your writing, keep your eyes open, and find the agent in your own time. If you are good, it will happen. If you are lucky, you’ll find someone like Robert. Don’t follow my example, though. I think taking twenty years of your career to find proper representation is probably a pretty bad example… and keep in mind, throughout my experiences I was signing contracts and selling novels. On my own. Don’t let people convince you it can’t be done, I know better. I’ll talk about that process one day soon… for now,