Why You Need an Agent, Foreign Edition

What you see before you, in no particular order, are the UK contract for Zoe’s Tale, the German contract for Zoe, the Portuguese contract for Old Man’s War, and the Japanese contract for The Last Colony. Combined, these contracts have a value worth slightly more than what I made working at a newspaper the first year I left college. And it’s free money, since I already did the work (i.e., writing the novels for US release).

But more importantly, it’s free money I could not obtain myself, because what I know about foreign markets could barely fill a thimble, and my interest in learning about said markets comprises an even smaller volume. My fiction agent, however, is apparently endlessly fascinated by foreign markets and is equally adept at convincing people in those markets to buy my books, since I’ve sold into fifteen of them so far, many of them more than once. He retrieves free money for me. He takes a bit off the top, to be sure. But considering I would not be getting this free money otherwise, that seems entirely fair.

I mention these contracts not necessarily to brag, but to offer up an object example for the writers I know who have wondered why they need an agent (if they’re new) or (if they’re already established) what an agent could do for them that they could not do for themselves. Well, they do this, for example. Admittedly, it’s theoretically possible that I myself could have chased down a lead for a publisher in, say, Estonia. It’s also theoretically possible that I could pilot myself across the United States in a Piper Cub aircraft, but all things considered it’s easier, cheaper and faster to let someone else fly. Equally, it’s easier, smarter and more convenient to let someone else chase down all these markets, leaving me time to, well, write. Which is what I’m good at.

Getting an agent is, of course, a real pain in the ass, so I entirely sympathize with the desire to skip that step if at all possible. However, I do suggest sticking to the process. The payoff won’t necessarily be immediate. On the other hand, when one day you’re looking at a contract that means within a year someone in Brazil could be enjoying your work in their own language — and you’re getting paid for it — you’ll giggle madly with glee and realize it was worth the trouble.

27 Comments on “Why You Need an Agent, Foreign Edition”

  1. It might be worth noting that if you get to a point when you’re looking at such a contract from Brazil, it’d probably be extraordinarily easy to get an agent then. Some writers I know have skipped the agent step to begin and and gone directly to editors, then gone back to agents when an offer is on the table; just like these contracts are free money for you, that would kind of be free money for the agents, which makes rejection a bit less unlikely (though not completely, because a low offer might not impress an uber-agent).

    I’m smack in this process myself, seeking representation for a novel I wrote (mostly) at USC, so I appreciated this post, especially because I’ve gone back and forth about what I want to do with regard to a big commercial publisher, or one smaller, or even just independent. It can be frustrating, because didn’t Tom Petty say the waiting is the hardest part?

    (sometimes I think it really isn’t, and that’s kind of scary, too)

  2. Will Entrekin:

    “It might be worth noting that if you get to a point when you’re looking at such a contract from Brazil, it’d probably be extraordinarily easy to get an agent then.”

    The number of people who are looking at a contract from Brazil without an agent is, I’d wager, astoundingly small.

    But you are right that it’s possible to sell a book and then get the agent; it’s what I did in the case of Old Man’s War. The odd thing is that even then it’s not a done deal; I was actually turned down by an agent after I had sold OMW, and even though they knew the sale had been made. I’m still puzzled by this, but since I like the agent I have very much, I’m not going to complain too much.

  3. Hm. My publisher handles my foreign rights sales, doesn’t yours? Does a publisher take a substantially bigger cut than an agent would?

  4. I’m not in the business but I remember Steven King saying that he didn’t have an agent at first which resulted in him signing a contract that gave 50% of the paperback money to his hardcover publisher. Can you imagine how much money that should have gone to King went to his publisher instead.

  5. Hope:

    “My publisher handles my foreign rights sales, doesn’t yours?”

    No. I retain all foreign language rights (and, after OMW, all non-North American English rights as well). Without knowing your contract I can’t say whether my agent takes a smaller or larger cut than your publisher.

  6. Sorry, that was too general a question — one that would require you to know not just what all the publishers in the world charge, but what all the agents do. I shouldn’t be surprised that you couldn’t answer, but I’m shocked, shocked, to find that you don’t know everything. Didn’t you go to the University of Chicago?

  7. Hehe, I know your Portuguese publisher. I remember he told me in last year’s Book Fair in Lisbon (or was it this year?) that he had just bought the rights of Scalzi’s “Old Man’s War”. He was quite excited about it!

    You’ll probably be happy to learn that you’ll be published by one of the biggies in Portugal (half of the biggest Portuguese publishing houses were recently bought by one of the richest men in town, turning the industry upside down). I liked the marketing they did with “Air” by Geoff Ryman, but I still think they’re way too much focused on selling Paolini and the rest of the same old epic fantasy stuff that just doesn’t go away, argh… Well, they bring euros with them, and that’s what matters most in the long run.

    As for the agents, not all is praise. Sometimes they can turn everything into a mess and make the whole negotiating process more difficult. They will try to sell a book to a (non-english) publisher for ridiculous high sums, with no knowledge of whatever sort of the publishing market in question. I could tell you endless stories of negotiations gone wrong because the agent is just too daft to see that what works in the US or UK, WILL NOT WORK SO WELL in other countries, especially in the SF field.

    Things are a little better though. And there are truly some top notch agents out there.

  8. Just attended a seminar that covered foreign rights. It can be a deal breaker in some cases as far as the major U.S. houses go. One editor said they insisted on foreign rights for one book and made three times the advance they paid the author. The book didn’t sell well in the U.S. markets, but did great in the international markets. If it hadn’t been for them buying the international rights, they would have lost money on the deal, and probably never worked with the author again. As it is, they resigned him to a two book deal.

    On another occasion, the house lost a deal because they refused to take only U.S. rights. The agent wanted to keep international rights (including Canada). Another publisher went for the deal, and is now on the hook to cover a seven figure deal using U.S. markets only.

    I can see both sides of the argument (keeping or parting with International rights). I am so glad I have an agent who will deal with this crap for me. I’m sure I would do the wrong thing.

  9. “You’re getting translated into Brazilese? Cool!”

    HAH! The implications and complexity of what you have just said…

    He was already translated to the language spoken in Brazil which is Portuguese. However, European Portuguese is not the same as Brazilian Portuguese, although both countries can understand and read each other. They would have to translate again the book specifically for the Brazilian readers (besides, most of the European Portuguese editions are restricted to Portugal).

    So I don’t really understand why Brazil keeps saying it speaks Portuguese, when in reality it is “brazilese”, though there is no such thing.

    To make matters worse, the Portuguese government is trying to force its people to change the orthographic rules in order to adapt mostly to the Brazilian standard, thus, creating a uniform Portuguese language. A logical step considering the population numbers of both countries; the outnumbered should abide by the rules of the majority. BUT IT JUST PLAIN SUCKS! Imagine a new law in which all the American people would have to start writing English according to the British orthographic rules, or vice-versa. I’m sure it wouldn’t be a popular measure.

    Sorry for the rant.

  10. John,
    As a Brazilian reader of yours, makes me glad to know you are going to be published in portuguese.
    Would be great if you could show up here to promote them
    Grande abraço,

  11. Hey S.
    just to let you know, people in Brazil are not that happy either about the ongoing forced ‘standardization’ of the language for Portugal, Brazil and the African countries.
    But please, in the same manner Americans still refer to their tongue as English, let us keep calling ours (Brazilian) Portuguese as well…

  12. Seconded. I have two contracts for foreign rights on my new book currently, and I cannot stress enough that it’s free money. I *never* begrudge an agent the percentage they ask for; because without them I make 0.

  13. The philosopher John Locke has a passage in one of his works about a super-intelligent parrot which could speak Brazilian. I have always been a bit puzzled about what this means.

  14. “The number of people who are looking at a contract from Brazil without an agent is, I’d wager, astoundingly small.”

    True. But given that the most oft-cited stat is that most agents reject more than 95% of the material they receive, and many more besides are content enough with their current client lists that they are not open to new ones . . . well, those chances seem astoundingly small, too.

    But then again, as you further point out, it’s all subject to the vagaries of subjectivity and timing, anyway.

  15. How about a publisher in Elbonia? :)

    An unfortunate mind worm – any time I see “Estonia”, I have flashbacks to Elbonia. Want to take third class there?

    ps: As a long time lurker, first time poster I’ve gotta put my obligatory gush about how much I love the Scalzi works and how I preordered ZT and The Sagan Diaries months and months in advance for my boyfriend’s birthday.. then proceeded to be unable to wait when they arrived and gave them to him early so *I* could read them! :)

  16. I’m curious, how powerful would you consider the bragging rights of having a non-English braille version of your book?

    Like, if there was a braille Chinese copy of “Old Man’s War” that would be a definite “I kick ass” moment, would it not?

  17. Ahaha Flasher T beat me to the punch on the Estonian market.

    You aren’t published there yet, are you? If so I’ll be sure to pick something up while I’m there next summer.

  18. Seriously, if you’d like a Braille copy of any book, I’d recommend getting in touch with The Braille Institute.


    In my (limited, I admit) experience, they have been great about responding to requests for Braille versions of books. If I understand it correctly, they do not have to buy subrights to make a Braille edition, which speeds up the process immensely. They will also provide audio versions of books, but they are usually manufactured to be played on an atypical playback system. They aren’t for commercial use.

    If you know someone who could use this information, please pass it on.

  19. “Why you need an agent.”

    Um… Well, because I didn’t have an agent, my first novel was (“allegedly” as I now put it) published by someone in his garage with a lot of good intentions, very little business acumen, and NO CASH!

    In short, an agent sells your shit, gets you paid for it, and takes a paltry 15% for his/her trouble.

    Plus, I now have an agent whose whole business is built around foreign rights.

  20. I lost at least a hundred thousand dollars on the first book I edited (Aqua Erotica), because I didn’t have an agent.

    I was thrilled by the paltry flat $6000 they paid me to edit the book. No royalties. I was young and just so flattered that someone would actually pay me real money for something writing-related. And $6000 was like a third of a year’s rent! Score!

    The book went on to four printings and over a hundred thousand copies sold in just the first six months and is still going strong several years later. I try not to think about it too much, or I want to cry.