The John Scalzi Agent FAQ

I’m getting a lot of questions about agents recently, so to avoid having to repeat myself multiple times I’m going to create this entry so I can point people to it when they ask me agentorial questions. Hopefully this will cover most of the basic questions, but if there are questions I don’t cover that you have, go ahead and drop them into the comment thread.

(Note that this document assumes you know what an agent is, and that you know the basics between a good one and a bad one. If you’re hazy about that stuff, go here and then come back.)

1. So, Scalzi, do you have an agent?
I have two, actually. For non-fiction, I am represented by Robert Shepard of the Robert Shepard Agency, located in Berkeley, California. For fiction, I am represented by Ethan Ellenberg, of New York’s Ethan Ellenberg Literary Agency.

2. Why do you have two agents?
Primarily because I’ve been with Robert longer, and he represents non-fiction only, and I wasn’t going to throw him aside because I wrote fiction as well. When I was in the market for a fiction agent, I did speak to a couple of agents who said to me that they’d be happy to represent me, but they had to represent my non-fiction work as well. These people did not become my agent. Both my agents know the other exists and knows it’s my intention to continue writing both fiction and non-fiction, and are happy to let the other handle the stuff they don’t.

If one does write both fiction and non-fiction, I don’t think it’s necessary to have two agents, but personally I find it helpful. Robert’s focus on non-fiction means he’s got that side of the book industry wired and he knows its quirks and its terrain; Ethan handles both fiction and non-fiction but as far as I can tell the majority of his work goes into the fiction market, and he is similarly wired into its tics and idiosyncrasies. They can both find the best homes for my work, fiction and non-fiction, because their depth of knowledge of their particular field.

3. What do you think of your agents?
I like them both very much, both as business associates and as human beings. Both have been very proactive in strategizing my career and in not only fielding ideas I bring to them but for keeping an ear out for projects publishers are interested in for which I might be a good fit. For example, I wrote my very first book, The Rough Guide to Money Online, because Robert was speaking to the Rough Guides people and they mentioned they were looking for someone to write an Internet finance book for them. Robert knew I worked for AOL and remembered that some of the very first things I wrote for AOL were personal finance columns, so he suggested me and we all moved forward. On Ethan’s side, he’s been very helpful in terms of advice about projects that have been offered to me in fiction and the advantages and disadvantages each bring, not only in terms of money but in terms of my fiction career over the long term.

In the case of both my agents, I feel comfortable that they and I are on the same wavelength, which is: Writing is my career, and the intent is to make the career last and grow. At times this means sacrificing a short-term opportunity (and the financial gains thereof) for long-term growth. In all, I’m happy to say that both my agents have been a good fit for me.

4. How did you get your agents?
Both in unusual ways. Robert solicited me back in 1994 — he had read a column I had written and followed up on it to see if I was represented by anyone. Now, generally speaking it’s not a good sign when agents solicit you — most reputable agents are so flooded by submissions they simply don’t need to look for clients. However, Robert was just starting out his agency, and I, while young, was not stupid; I did due diligence on him and came to the conclusion that he was indeed not a scam artist. I signed up with him and immediately started banging out book proposals. It was five years, however, before we sold a book together. Moral to that story: Selling books takes time. All that time, however, Robert was banging down the doors and presenting the work, and keeping me in the loop with what was going on; if we weren’t selling it’s not because he wasn’t trying to sell the product.

With Ethan, I had the advantage of having already sold the properties I wanted to have represented: Tor had already bought Old Man’s War from me as well as a second book (which would become The Android’s Dream). It’s much easier to get an agent when you’ve already done the work of getting bought, because then the agent knows that not only can you write salable prose, there’s also a publisher who is likely to be interested in your next work as well.

(But even then it’s not a lock — before I went to Ethan, I hit up another agency that is well-known in science fiction circles and they turned me down, despite sales in hand, because the work they saw, including OMW, just wasn’t clicking with them. I hope that in retrospect they’re kicking themselves now, just because I’m that way. But to be clear this agency did me a favor; it makes an agent’s job harder if the work they’re trying to sell is work they don’t actually enjoy. Not impossible — agents are pros, and pros don’t let their personal taste get in the way of doing the best for their clients — just harder. And anyway, now I’m with an agent my work clicks with, so that’s even better.)

In the case of both Ethan and Robert, I am the first to say that how I got them was not the way most people will get their agents — most novice writers aren’t solicited by reputable agents, and most novice writers won’t have sales in hand when they go looking for an agent. In short, in both cases, I was ridiculously lucky, and I know it. Most writers have a rather more difficult time of it.

5. How much to you pay your agents?
Both Robert and Ethan get 15% of sales and royalties. 15% is the industry standard now — it bumped up from 10% just as I was getting started, and from what I understand there are some agents who are now trying to get their cut bumped up to 20%. I wouldn’t allow myself to be represented by such types, personally.

However, I don’t find 15% to be unreasonable. In exchange for 15% my agents handle a lot of backend crap I just don’t have time for, including hounding publishers for payment and managing things like foreign and movie sales. The 85% I get with both of my agents is indisputably more than the 100% I would get without them; therefore they are worth their cut.

6. What’s this about foreign and movie sales?
Well, in addition to schlepping my work to domestic book publishers, my agents also (depending on the property) try to make sales to publishers in other countries and to TV and movie makers. In both cases, the cut they take is slightly higher — 20% — but that’s because generally they subcontract work to agents in those other countries or in Hollywood (they usually split the percentage 50/50). Now, to be clear, these “sub-agents” aren’t my agents, they’re my agent’s agents — right now, for example, my novels are being shopped around to movie studios by a fellow named Joel Gotler, but that’s because Gotler has an arrangement with Ethan, not with me. This is fine by me for two reasons: first, less work for me, and second, Mr. Gotler seems to sell a lot of stuff, which speaks both well of him, and of Ethan for working with quality associates. Aside from foreign and movie sales, both Robert and Ethan represent me for other types of sales as well. Because their job is selling my properties.

7. What happens if you ever become disenchanted with your agents?
I suppose I would get new agents — writers do that from time to time. This is a business, and ultimately agents are business partners, and sometimes people change business partners. How quickly one may disentangle one’s self depends on what contractual obligations one has with one’s agent. In the case of both Ethan and Robert, it would be relatively easy for me to break with them and shop new books with new agents — but my old books would stay with them, because I’ve agreed to that contractually. As long as the contracts stay in force, Ethan will always be the agent for The Ghost Brigades; Robert will always be the agent for The Rough Guide to the Universe, unless they die and/or commit unspeakable agentorial malfeasance, in which case I’m pretty sure the books come back to me (I’d have to check contracts). However, in both cases I’m confident I am being represented fairly and I sure hope these guys don’t die, because I like them. So I’m in no rush to swap representation.

8. So, can I ask your agents to represent me?
I don’t see why not. As far as I know they are both seeking new authors. But if you do, please do the following:
a) Visit their Web sites. That way you’ll get a good idea of what (and who) the two of them represent and, also, what they have no interest in representing. The latter is incredibly important. If you send Robert a novel, you’re guaranteed to annoy him and to waste your own time; the same if you send Ethan some poetry.
b) Read their submission guidelines and follow them to the letter. This is no joke. The two of them get a huge number of submissions, and they don’t need a whole lot of reason to dump a “thanks but no thanks” form letter on your ass; not following submission guidelines is a fine way to significantly decrease your chances of being represented.
c) Re-read points a) and b) until you finally believe that, yes, they actually do apply to you. People like to live under the delusion that they are special and they don’t have to follow guidelines thereby. Guess what? You’re not, and you do. Believe it.

9. When I hit up your agents, can I say that you sent me?
You’d better ask me directly for that, actually. It will help significantly if I actually know you (in the “real world” sense, not in the free-floating “Intarrweeb buddies” sense) and if I’ve actually had some acquaintance with your written work aside from Web sites, blogs and the like. No offense, but if you’re not actually a person I know whose writing I like, I’m hard-pressed to put my personal credibility on the line with my agents. For one thing, too much of that and a recommendation from me would be entirely useless.

If you’re not one of these people (and — again, no offense — chances are very good that you’re not), what you can still do is let Ethan/Robert know that you learned of their existence via the site, and that I said I thought of him highly, so you thought you’d give him a shot at your work. That’s entirely legit and useful, I think.

10. Yeah, okay, but seriously, Scalzi, do people really need an agent? After all, you did sell your novels without one.
And as it happens I’ve also sold a couple of non-fiction books without one either (although to be very clear those books were sold under exceptional circumstances).

But, look, whether an agent is useful is not just about selling books. It’s also about negotiating contracts once you’ve agreed to sell the books, and it’s about extending the profitable life of a book for as long as possible once they are sold. Now, let’s look at each of these in turn.

a) Selling: Yes, I’ve sold books without an agent. However, I’ve also sold books with an agent, and you know what? Generally speaking, I’ve gotten more for those books, because selling is my agent’s job (whereas my job is writing).

Let me re-emphasize that in the cases where I have sold books without my agents, there have generally been some extraordinary circumstances involved — for example, in the case of Old Man’s War, I got an offer for the book without actually submitting it to the publisher first — which generally speaking are not going to apply to most book sales. It is possible to make traditional book sales without agents, but it’s generally far more difficult, since your work will have to sit in the slush pile, probably for months, while you wait to hear of its fate. A good agent can get your work read faster and either sold or (sorry, more likely) rejected faster so you can get it out to the next publisher. An agent also opens more doors because some publishers won’t bother with an unagented manuscript. For selling, you’re better off with an agent than not.

b) Negotiating: All right, all you would-be first-time authors: How many of you have negotiated a book contract before? Let’s see a show of hands. Hmmm… not many hands there, I’d say. Whereas your average agent has done dozens if not hundreds of them over the course of a career. Even the new ones tend to have some contract experience, either by doing an internship at another agency or (in the case of Robert, my non-fiction agent) having worked contracts from the other side of the table by working in publishing proper.

Two things you must engrave on your brain: First, contracts are legal documents. Once you sign one, you’re pretty much stuck with it until and unless the revolution comes. Second, the publisher is not going to do you any favors. Even if your publisher is a good and decent publisher which doesn’t egregiously screw the author at every opportunity, it will still nevertheless attempt to retain as many useful permissions to itself as possible. Your publisher is in business to make money. It is not going to leave money on the table. Unless you know your way around a book contract, not only won’t know you whether your contract is a good one, you probably won’t even be able to tell whether your publisher is a decent one, or one that will egregiously screw with you.

A good agent will help you get a contract that is fair to you as well as good for your publisher. They will do this because that’s their job — to know what is fair, and to work through contracts. This leaves you largely free to do your job, which is to write things your agent can sell.

c) Extending: Another show of hands — how many of you know how to sell to foreign publishers (and what a good sale price is in, say, Russia or France)? Do you know how to get in the door of movie and TV production companies? Do you have the first clue as to how to talk to a video game company about adapting your book into a shoot-’em-up format? Again, there’s a really excellent chance I’m not going to see a whole lot of hands here. Well, an agent does — or should — or knows people who do. Selling a book to a publisher doesn’t have to be the only sale your book has. There are lots of other ways to make money, and a good agent knows how to find them… and to keep finding them.

Those are the reasons to get an agent. Not just for the first sale, but for everything after.

Okay, now the floor is open to questions that I haven’t answered so far. Drop them into the comment thread.

28 thoughts on “The John Scalzi Agent FAQ

  1. Fantastic! Really a great guide.

    Ethan Ellenberg was on my short list for agents but for some reason I never queried him. I might do so in the future. As far as the selling before you get an agent I think that rule should be ubiquitous. There is no greater mark of a writer than saleability.

    If I ever make it big enough to actually point anyone in the right direction, I will definitely link to this post.

  2. Chiming in on the general wonderfulness of Robert Shepard. I can think of at least two clauses he negotiated into my contract that turned out to be crucial additions. And he’s a true mensch.

    John, I think you and I owe Robert a nice dinner, since his slush file is about to grow enormously.

  3. For folks who think that an agent isn’t all that important, check out the trials and tribulations that the guys at Penny Arcade went through when they attempted to get their first book published. Details are at this transcript of their speaking engagement at MIT. Do a search on the phrase “We’ll call it “P-K”.” and you should get to the section.

  4. Yeah, screwing up your copyright or your rights is a dangerous thing. I am very glad the agent who screwed me didn’t do a more thorough job or else I probably would have owed her my firstborn.

  5. What is the going price for a novel in Russia and France?(By way of suggesting the level of generality of answer I’m looking for, here’s what I think I know about the novel business in the U.S., and feel free to correct this if I am wrong:1. My understanding is that novelists publishing with mainstream publishers in the US take in probably $10K to $250K depending on sales, with the majority not getting into six figures. Assuming the novel gets published, writing a novel is typically about as remunerative on an hourly basis as working at the post office. The Tom Clancys and Stephen Kings of the world operate on a different plane that is not relevant to most writers.2. I understand that film rights work roughly as follows: Very few movies are ever made from books because very few movies are made period. I think there were about 100 or so films in wide release in the US in 2005. As a practical matter, then, most business in movie rights is in selling options, i.e., selling a right to make a film from a book that expires if the film is not made in a certain amount of time, most of which expire unused. A friend who was lucky enough to sell a book of Meaningful and Personal Short Stories to a major publisher was offered something in the low five figures for an option on one of those stories. He noted that selling film rights on something you’ve already written is so lucrative compared to trying to write something new that he was quite willing to take the risk that it would be made into a new Police Academy sequel starring Pauly Shore.)

  6. “What is the going price for a novel in Russia and France?”

    Hey, what do I look like, an agent?

    In my case for each it’s the low four figures — a tidy little sum but not something to retire on. However, bear in mind that these figures also reflect on the fact I am very early in my fiction career; it’s possible the sums will go up the more I write (presuming I sell well).

    Re: movies — yes, one typically makes money from options if one makes money at all, which one usually does not.

  7. Well, I’ve always wanted to be in Cyrillic, so there’s that.

    I don’t actually think the numbers are bad, they’re merely small. If I were a Russian publisher, I’d’ve paid about as much for me as I got. So there it is.

  8. What is your opinion of agents who do not require you to “sign” with them? I was quite surprised when I was not asked to sign anything by the person who is now my agent. (For Young Adult, not Science Fiction — am I still allowed to ask questions?)

    I did my due diligence and he is clearly a man with a lot of experience, working with a well-known agency, and he has forwarded me his correspondence with editors at various name-brand publushing houses… so I’m pretty sure I’m in good hands and not in any danger of getting ripped off. But, you know, that little seed of surprise never did entirely go away. Are oral contracts unusual between writers and agents?

  9. I signed a contract with one agent but not the other and in both cases I was perfectly fine with it and have had no problems in either case. The contract I signed specified the agent had a right to represent me for a set amount of time (barring both of us agreeing to separate), but the amount of time was not onerous and given the pace of bookselling, was pretty much the bare minimum that would generally be required to position a new author. Naturally, I would tell authors who are asked to sign a contract with an agent to read that contract very carefully and make sure they understand what they are getting into.

    I’m not entirely sure I understand why you’re shocked that an agent wouldn’t ask you to sign something since it means if you feel things are going poorly you’d not then be obliged to stay with the fellow. The agent probably simply puts your contractual obligations to him into the book contract itself (for example, that both you and the book publisher recognize him as the agent for that particular book, etc).

  10. I found your poem “Poor” on the public defender blog and it led me here. I would like permission to use it. Reading your site has been helpful as everyone tells me I should write a book about my unusual life. I had owned three companies and then after waking from a coma with a traumatic brain injury and memory loss was homelesss, seeing a world from a poor mans perspective. I now want to bring value to the gift of life I have been given. Writing is a way I can do this

  11. Well, I wouldn’t say I was shocked… just surprised at the casualness of the operation, especially since for me it was a pretty Big Deal. (There was a part of me that wanted to sign something, dammit.) But whatever minor concern I might have had was diminished greatly when I saw how professional the guy was, and is further assuaged by your answer, and thanks.

  12. To clarify something in the original post: unless you have a very unconventional deal with Ethan, Ethan will be the agent for The Ghost Brigades, not “always,” but as long as the deal he negotiated stays in force. If you fire Ethan and later the book goes out of print and you get the rights reverted, the deal is now over and Ethan has nothing further to do with it.

  13. Actually that link goes to a site with a beta. You can’t use it to publish. It makes more sense to do something like lulu.com if one wishes to self-publish at this point.

  14. essential reading for aspiring writers from scalzi

    John Scalzi has a couple of must-read posts for aspiring writers that I meant to link to over the weekend: Writing Tips for Non-Writers Who Don’t Want To Work at Writing filters the best of On Writing through Strunk White,

  15. Mr. Scalzi,

    In reference to Item # 9 above, can I direct you to my website, http://www.authorseekingagent.com , or can I send you an electronic or hard copy of my manuscript, “The Fatal Nature of Life”? I’m sure you’re very busy, but I hope you’ll take a little time to consider my work…enough so that I might secure your endorsement to Ethan Ellenberg.

    Thanks!

  16. With reference to lulu.com and other self publishing approaches. What impact would this have on later having the work represented by an agent and sold to a traditional publisher? I’m considering a work which would have very definite limited market appeal, and an approach like lulu.com would allow me to see some immediate exposure with that market, but it could also appeal to a much broader market. Would I be giving up any later opportunities to release with a mass distribution publisher by self-publishing on lulu.com?

  17. I have a query into Ethan’s agency for a children’s story, but he’s taking a while to respond. I was just looking around the web at some of the comments about him. I like your site–very informative. I also like your photography. Can you enlighten your readers as to what kind of camera you use primarily? I recently upgraded to a Canon A-620, but only have on public image up from that camera as yet:

    http://home.earthlink.net/~karlerickson/writer/id25.html .

    It was taken on a trail winding through the heart of the Redwoods.

    Best Regards,

    Karl Erickson

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