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So You Wanna Be a Writer—Part 6 by Adam Rocke

close up of a handshake over a desk

For me, writing is a solitary endeavor. I just can’t “get my scribe on” in a Starbucks. I need a (reasonably) quiet place, preferably with chill background music (Steely Dan anyone?) and a tumbler of single malt scotch and I’m good to go. Then, it’s all about seat time. Like racing an automobile, you have to log hours to perfect your craft. But not every aspect of the literary profession boils down to just you against the world. Because while writing doesn’t take a village, there are occasions where some outside assistance is more than a little helpful.

In the last installment I talked about the importance (necessity!) of having a solid working relationship with an editor. For material that’s going to be published, a good editor can be your best friend. Ditto for a good publisher.

A talented publicist/PR person is another piece of your literary career puzzle worth exploring, but we’ll save that for future discussion. This installment is dedicated to agents and managers.

Friendly vultures, ten-percenters, writers’ bullet-proof vests, blood-sucking leeches… Agents and managers have been given many monikers over the years, some flattering, some not so much. And depending on the state of your literary career, an agent or manager could very well be the final ingredient in your recipe of success. But there are many aspects of the agent/manager equation, and I’ll try to walk you through some of them using examples from my own literary adventures.

Agents Trump Quality — FALSE!

A good friend of mine—currently the PR director for a Fortune 500 company—attempted to begin his literary career writing feature film screenplays on spec (no money up front; you write it and hopefully sell it). His ideas were awesome, but his script execution was terrible. Yet he was convinced that if his scripts were pushed by a big name agent, he’d ink a deal immediately.

So we bet dinner at a pricey L.A. restaurant if a top tier agent took his script to market and failed to option or sell it. Just one problem… No agents in Tinseltown wanted to rep his work.

Dealing from the bottom, we found an agent willing to rep his script for an under-the-table fee. The script went out on the spec market, submitted to over a dozen producers with first-look studio deals or the discretionary funds to make the purchase themselves. Cutting to the chase, less than a month later I enjoyed a sumptuous meal gratis at The Palm in Beverly Hills.

“Is my writing really that bad?” my friend asked.

“Yes,” I replied without sugar-coating.

The point I’m trying to make is that while agents and managers can help you secure a deal, they are NOT miracle workers. Even in the hands of an amazing rep, a piece of coal doesn’t shine like a diamond. Invest your energies (and your money, if you believe writing classes and industry feedback are worthy expenditures) in making your work the best it can possibly be, then concentrate on finding representation.

Not Having an Agent is Better Than Having a “Bad” Agent – TRUE!

Over a decade ago I was seeking representation for a nonfiction book project. I pitched more than twenty reps—small one-agent shops, mid-sized boutique agencies, and the highest profile agencies in the biz. Within two weeks, more than half my queries yielded positive responses; only one agent wasn’t interested. I narrowed my decision to two agents—an up-and-coming “lone wolf,” and an industry veteran at a well regarded boutique agency. No matter which agent I selected, the project would be in great hands. And then came the phone call that changed everything.

One of the biggest book agents in the biz, fresh off securing a record advance deal for one of his celebrity clients, wanted to rep my project. This agent was so far above my pay grade, it was like a C-student applying to an Ivy League school and not only getting accepted but being awarded a full scholarship! Just one problem: I knew in my gut that he was the WRONG agent for me. But the fancy building, fancy office, numerous assistants, and his previous humongous deals… So I inked a representation deal, firmly believing I had “arrived” as a writer.

Well, the agent didn’t disappoint. The book proposal went to market and almost immediately I received a “preemptive strike” offer—the biggest advance I’d ever received… Much bigger than I thought a project like that would generate.

Cue the rainbows and unicorns, right?

If only.

Three weeks later I still hadn’t received the publishing contract, which means I hadn’t received the first chunk of the advance (broken down into three equal payments: 1/3 upon signing the contract, 1/3 upon delivery of the finished manuscript, 1/3 upon publication). So I called my agent—and got one of his many assistants. She said she’d look into it. THREE WEEKS LATER I received the contract, which it turns out my agent had in his email in-box all along.

Then I did something stupid—in the eyes of my super agent, anyway: I READ the contract. While I’m no attorney, I immediately noticed some language that presented a problem. Super agent didn’t agree.

“Adam, sign the contract, get your money, and start writing.”

I was quickly reminded that, while this was a BIG deal for me, it was a MICRO deal for my agent. So I signed the contract, got the first chunk of my advance, and all was good in the world, right?


Midway through writing the manuscript, the acquiring publisher made some in-house changes, including a personnel swap; the editor who championed my book was moved to another division. My book now had a new editor, and the new editor wanted a new tone. Now this is where an agent goes to bat for his client, but my agent was too busy dealing with his celeb clients to deal with this “insignificant non-issue.”

So I rewrote the existing material, wrote the new material in the “new tone,” and delivered the manuscript. Time for the next chunk of my advance, right?


Apparently, my original vision of the manuscript was the “right” way to go after all. The new tone just didn’t work for this book, and I was asked to redo the material yet again. Once again, this situation should have been handled by my agent, but his plate was full with: 1) celebrity clients, 2) bigger deals, and 3) getting fired—although there was a discrepancy about him getting fired vs. him leaving of his own volition. Long story short: my agent left the agency, my new editor left the publishing company, and the publisher changed their mind on the book entirely. Thus, my deal was dead.

So you see, having the WRONG AGENT is worse than having NO AGENT. That’s not me poo-pooing agents. Agents are awesome. And if you’re lucky enough to be rep’d, your career can really skyrocket. Just don’t get blinded by the bright lights. Trust your gut. A good client-agent relationship is everything. And when you find yourself interviewing potential reps, don’t make your decision based on their previous deals or fanciness of their office. Select your agent based on how you and he/she relate. Or, perhaps more importantly, how you both see your project. Are you on the same page? Do you share the same long-term vision?

In the next installment, I’ll talk about query letters and book proposals. Until then, happy writing!

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