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‘Outside of a dog, a book is a man's best friend. Inside of a dog, it's too dark to read.’ – Groucho Marx

Ask Inky: Agents

Time for our first Ask Inky question! I was chuffed to see so many of you had questions for me to dig up the answers to. The first one we are going to tackle today came from an anonymous member. They would like to know:

What exactly is an agent? Do you need one to get a book published? How do you get to be an agent?

I turned to Danielle Binks to answer these questions for us.

Danielle is a writer, reviewer, book blogger and Youth Literature Advocate. In 2016 she joined literary agency, Jacinta di Mase Management, as an agent – seeking Australian authors of Young Adult (YA) and Middle Grade (MG) fiction works. She’s also the editor of Begin, End, Begin: A #LoveOzYA Anthology which is a 2018 Inky Awards longlist title.

Here’s what she had to say:

A literary agent represents writers and their written works to publishers, theatrical producers, film producers, and film studios, and helps in the sale and deal negotiations. There’s lots of contracts and legal work involved when a book is sold, for instance – making sure that the author gets something called an ‘advance’ , which is a signing bonus that’s negotiated and paid to the author before the book is published. Also making sure that an audiobook will be made of the book, or that if it sells really well the author will get a bigger cut of profits made etc. All of that can be quite overwhelming if your background isn’t in publishing and contract work, so an agent is someone who comes in and makes sure their author is getting a fair deal for their work. As such, agents also take a small cut of the author’s profits and earnings to pay for all this legal work we do for them.

A partnership also exists between writers and their agent. Indeed, one of the benefits of being agented is having someone else in your corner who is as invested in your career as you are, and can offer some say in your next move and helping you to reach your career goals. It’s up to agents to know an author’s strengths and weaknesses, as well as where the market is at and any holes that might exist that you can write to. Oftentimes, agents are also first-readers of a rough draft and the first amateur editors who come in and make suggested changes. This initial process of creative collaboration is vital, and could stop an author from spending six months and one-hundred- thousand words in the wrong direction of an unsalable story.

Not all authors need agents – and many successful authors have done just fine without one. We’re also very lucky in Australia that there are so many ‘Unpublished Manuscript Prizes’, where you could get a publishing contract based on the strength of your story and with no need of an agent. Lots of publishers also have certain days, weeks or months of the year when they’ll accept what’s called ‘unsolicited manuscripts’ by authors who don’t have agents – they’ll read, and consider if they want to acquire them for publication. No agent required!

But some publishers prefer to only read manuscripts that come from agents. We build up a relationship with editors and publishers, where agents come to understand the sorts of stories they’re more likely to publish, look for and like, so they trust us when we come to them with our author’s work for consideration.

There are lots of ways to get an agent – sometimes they’ll be open to receiving work from authors to consider. You can look up all different agents on the Australian Literary Agents’ Association website and see which one best suits your story and who you could try and contact – because agents tend to specialise in different readerships. I, for instance, only represent authors of middle grade (for 8-12 year-olds) and young adult fiction works. Another agent might specialise in true-crime stories, or picture books. Book publishing is such a big industry, so to do a good job we tend to focus on one area that we’re really passionate about and understand really well. Another good way to find agents is to look in the back of books at the ‘acknowledgements’ pages and see if an author thanks their agent!

Most states in Australia also have their own Writers’ Centre – so the Victoria Writers Centre, for instance – and if you become a member, they’ll often hold events where authors can “pitch” their stories and manuscripts to agents for consideration.

Thanks Danielle, that was a great explanation of literary agents and how to consider if you need one for your work.

Digging through our archives I also noticed some previous posts we’ve had that shed light literary agents. Amarlie wrote a great article on deciding if a literary agent is right for you:

Though terms like ‘contract’, ‘advances’, ‘royalties’ and ‘film rights’ can be intimidating, there’s nothing to say you can’t figure it out by yourself. Many authors do, and do so successfully!

Lucy Christopher interviewed her agent Linda Davis back in 2010:

Linda is the lady who will often talk to my publisher about the nitty gritty things like rights and royalties issues, advance monies, and she will be on my side if ever there’s an issue there is to discuss with the publisher.

Alex Adsett did this interview with Dog’s Advisory Board member Thegreengirl late last year and offered great advice on what she looks for as an agent:

I want to disappear into the story and to be so involved that I forget that I’m reading. I am very much drawn to a strong narrative. So, beautiful writing and a lovely character description will not get my attention, unless there is a great story to go with it.

I hope this helped to answer all your questions about agents!

You can submit your own Ask Inky question any time and I’ll hunt down the answers for you.