Agents, And Why You Need Them

In a café in North London, my screen agent leaned across the table and gave me his first – and probably most important – piece of advice. He said it to every single new client who signed with him.

“Nobody in this business is going to do you any favours.”

That stands true for every area in which you might be trying to sell your writing, not just the film and TV industries. Publishing. Comics. Games. Journalism. No one will give you any chances. No one will give you a shot because you’re plucky, or because you had a beer with someone they know, or because you’ve worked really, really hard and you feel you deserve an opportunity for your efforts.

Every single opening has to be made by you, and earned by the quality of your writing.

It’s a great piece of advice that may not be obvious when you’re starting out (it’s very clear when you’ve been doing it a while). But it also shows the value of having experienced people around you.

If you want to maximize your earnings from your writing, you need to develop a good team who can take all your hard work and run with it. Agents are the key part (and we’ll get to the other members – your network – in a future post). It’s entirely possible to sell novels and short stories without an agent, but it’s a huge mistake because you won’t make a fraction of what you could be earning. Even if you’re self-publishing, Amazon offers better terms for work submitted through an agent. (Didn’t know that? One reason why you need an agent.)

And if you’re hoping to work in film and TV, you won’t get anywhere without an agent. Nobody will read your work. And if they do, by chance, scan the first few pages, they won’t take you seriously.

More importantly, as we crash towards the third decade of the 21st century, everything has changed. Media is converging, the opportunities are endless, and a good agent will help you navigate the labyrinth to that pot of riches.

Back in the bad old days of the last century, writers generally did one thing. They’d have a book agent, say, who sold that great opus to a local publisher, maybe a few foreign publishers. And that was it.

Nowadays your book can be sold in multiple territories across the world, with an advance in each one. And then books become films, TV, comics, video games, board games, virtual reality experiences, and all those things become all the other things. If you don’t have a good team with expertise and contacts in all those areas, you’ll miss out on the gold rush.

One of the questions I often get asked is why this or that book hasn’t been made into TV or film.  “It’s brilliant!” “Better than XXX!” It’s not been made because the author hasn’t employed a good screen agent who can get that book on to the desks of producers and sell it hard. That’s how it works. If no one sells it, it doesn’t get made. (Usually. There are one or two exceptions that prove the rule). Producers haven’t got the time to find you.

RULE # 4: Build your team.

I have two agents, both based in London – one for books, one for screen. My books agent is Euan Thorneycroft at the long-established agency, A M Heath. Euan pitches book ideas to editors on my behalf, negotiates my contracts with Random House, mainly in the UK, but sometimes in the US depending on the project. Euan is widely connected in the industry, so he picks up intelligence about who is looking for what, what’s been bought, what sells, what’s the likely next trend.

But here’s the thing: because A M Heath is a big agency, they have other departments and a wider range of contacts to get your work earning. There’s a dedicated Foreign Rights department with a wonderfully multilingual staff, who know the editors at publishing houses everywhere else in the world. In the last few months they’ve sold, among other things, my novel Hereward to a big German publisher, and my novel Pendragon to Italy.

My screen agent is Conrad Williams at Blake Friedmann. Conrad sells my screenplays and my two-page pitches. He also suggests me for projects that he hears about where a writer is needed. Producers come to his office to tell him what they’re looking for, and he regularly meets with the movers and shakers of the UK and US TV and film industry on their home turf. His contacts are impeccable. Conrad also makes sure my novels, short stories, novellas and comics are optioned for film and TV. Even if they don’t get made, there’s always a fee for optioning. And once an option expires, usually in a year or two, the option can be re-sold. Some writers make a good living merely from having their work optioned, without it getting anywhere near a screen.

Euan and Conrad are in regular contact to exchange intelligence and to make sure my work is getting out there to all possible outlets.

In my experience, the bigger the agency you can land, the better. They’ve got more contacts, more clout, and departments of experts in different areas. In screen, they can package you with directors and stars to make a better ‘offer’.

That’s going to put a lot of noses out of joint. One-person bands will tell you their contacts and clout are just as good, and they can give a personal service. There’s some truth in that. But see what kind of personal service you get from a big agency if they start making any money out of you. But really, just get the best agent – with the most experience, and the most contacts – that you can. It’s hard to land on the books of bigger agencies, and you’ll need to prove they’re not wasting their time with you.

But: not all agents are equal.

Some people decide one night they’re going to be an agent and set up a website the next day. Poor writers get excited they’ve got an ‘agent’. But these people have no contacts and no clout. The writer would be better served sending out their work themselves. In fact, these kinds of agents can damage careers from the get-go. Remember, you sign with an agent – there is a contractual agreement. They have rights to your work that they’ve, allegedly, marketed during that period, and can hang on to the agenting rights so no other agent can touch it. If they were hopeless at the start, they’re not going to get any better. That book or script is essentially dead, unless you can get them to null and void their rights.

Other agents – usually in the one-person band group – don’t keep up with industry standards. Some still operate as if it’s a 20th century business. They haven’t developed contacts in film or TV, games, whatever. Others are simply unaware of the advances in digital. One agent told an author to give up his entire ebook rights for his backlist to his publisher, because ‘at least they’ll be earning’. No advance or at least only a nominal one. Those ebooks now sit on the company server, not marketed, earning a tiny royalty, and they’ll sit there forever. The author could have made a fortune self-publishing them. The agent had no idea.

Find good people you get on with. Clever people. Connected people with a track record. With a team like that, you’re out there punching hard, and you’re not doing it on your own.