Happens that some ten years ago Bill and I had pretty close connections to the early days of the net becoming the ubiquitous force in all our lives that it is today. I remember in particular an article titled “Living With a Teenager.” Well look who’s all grown up and going to a party.
To prove the point there’s an article in the New York Times of 10/25 reporting on the new Internet divisions established by the top Hollywood agency, United Talent, whom we know because they are very active as dramatic rights agents in selling books to movie-makers. The Times story, however, is about the premise that “web video is on a growth curve similar to that of cable television a generation ago.” (And I know I’m supposed to insert a hot link here but I don’t know how. I’ll get a lesson from MtWW asap.)
UTA is making a pretty modest bet, three twenty-somethings run the division called UTA Online, but they’re reported to have cut a number of six figure deals with what are called “major media portals,” so probably they mean outfits like Yahoo and AOL. (Or perhaps YouTube says a small voice… keep reading.) Representing, remember, the creators of content. That’s what this is about. Who finds and represents the folks who are going to write and produce whatever it is that will fuel that growth curve? Which incidentally looks to me like combos of artists, some with writing skills and some with techie skills, but that’s getting way ahead of the story. We’re still considering whether there’s a place for agents on a medium as wild and unscripted as the current Internet video scene. Particularly since agents venturing into this territory have been burned before.
Back at the height of the dot.com boom CAA, an agency that has a hefty number of NYC literary agents as clients (as in they look for the movie buys for the books of the agent’s clients because - trust me - only in the rarest of instances do literary agents do this on their own) had an online division. It crashed when the boom did, and so far CAA says they’ve no plans to revisit the scene of the crime. Neither do we hear any rumbles at ICM or Wm Morris. But there’s an obvious issue here:
If YouTube sells for almost two billion bucks, and it gets its desirability by virtue of the content put up FOR FREE by the creators, and those creators do not see a penny of the two billion any way any how any ever… Whassup with that? Put as succinctly as possible, it sucks.
Enter the agent. As sure as God made little green apples. Later or probably sooner.
And wearing my writer’s hat I’ve got some things to say about using the net to promote a book, because God knows the publishers do not… I’ll have to blog on that at beverlyswerling.com pretty soon.
Recently a client e-mailed to say that a writer friend wanted to know how we do what we do - more particularly how I do it, if I do not read clients’ mss - which I certainly cannot afford to do at the rate we charge for a Customized Fingerprint (that’s mentoring and it’s a whole n’other story available in a very limited edition).
Okay, here’s what I said, with all the names changed to protect the innocent. Except mine, of course.
Hi X, to answer your friend’s question: When we get back the answers to her questionnaire we put that info together with Bill’s three thousand strong database of agents. And remember that he’s been collecting this data since 1980. Whittling down that large universe to those who are in the right country (i.e. the US, UK, or Canada), are primary rights agents rather than specialists in other kinds of rights (author’s need primary rights agent; the others sell for different aspects of the market - other agents, publishers, etc.), and have a track record of selling material that’s not a million miles away immediately reduces the pool of possible agents. At that point my experience in the business (send her to beverlyswerling.com) and what I know of the writer and her/his project kicks in. So it’s part research and part gut-instinct, honed by a good many years and books. In moments of megalomania I might call it art. But bear in mind that the key to your friend’s success, indeed that of any client, is the quality of the ms and how well it slots into whatever genre it is meant for. Whether it’s porn - and yes there are some agents who do that better than others - or a candidate for literary prizes, that’s the essential element. And it has to be provided by the author. If I knew how to bottle it, I’d have retired with my millions years ago.
Far be it for a part-time blogger like me to get in a pissing contest with the wildly popular, always readable, usually right, daily blogger, Miss Snark. But sometimes she’s wrong. All right, I will be more specific: A while back I saw a post that was off the mark, and I’ve been meaning to say so here when I had a chance. As in now.
First: I have no idea who she/he/they is/are and it doesn’t matter. Fun speculation, but not important. Except to say that obviously - I must admit - I’ve been longer in the business. Miss Snark does not remember the agent wars. I have at least heard about them from people who were there. Time was when agents were expected to submit to one editor at a time and wait for a yea or nay before going on to the next, or risk being black-listed. As you have no doubt noticed, that time is no more. A number of agents, however, have been trying to force writers to play by those old rules.
Snark defends exclusives requested for a reasonable period of time based on the assumption that the agent will reciprocate by moving the ms or the partial to the top of the new-stuff-to-be-read pile. Fair enough, as long as you and the agent agree on what’s reasonable. Open ended is not reasonable. Six months is not reasonable. Thirteen weeks is not reasonable. (For some reason we’ve seen that figure a few times; like they’re colluding.) Get down into the month to six weeks spread and you’re in the territory where a deal may be possible. Which in this instance probably means you agree to the agent’s terms.
So far so good and no gauntlet is thrown.
But that the agent should have the guaranteed right to represent the book if after reading it on this claimed-to-be-expedited schedule, she/he wishes to do so? Not if you’ve got any brains at all.
An agent making this demand is trying to insulate herself/himself from competition. Which is just what the editors of old were trying to do with their one-editor-at-a-time policy. The agent suspects you have a good and a saleable book of a sort that she/he can sell. She/he wants the time to examine that assumption and lock down the deal without worrying about another agent breathing down her/his neck. Well, that would be nice, but does the agent deserve that security? Does anyone? If you call in a plumber for an estimate, do you have to hire that plumber? Can your doctor forbid you to get a second opinion? Are all agents equal? Much less equally likely to get you the best possible deal?
If you do not know that the answer to these questions is no, stop writing with the goal of publishing. You are far too naieve to succeed in this very tough business, no matter who represents you.
And maybe you will be. Hell, it happens to some authors all the time. It isn’t however, about who your agent is. At least not if you’re with a legitimate, full time agent who actually sells books to royalty-paying publishers for a living. Meaning that he/she has an active client list of regularly published writers. As in the only kind of agent I would ever recommend when I do a Customized Fingerprint report.
I’d think that was perfectly clear from everything else on this site and the length of time we’ve been in business, etc. But apparently it isn’t. As in I get told all the time by clients filling in the questionnaire they get after they order a CFP that what they’re looking for is an agent with good connections in Hollywood. Trust me on this, with a professional agent - whether an independent or with one of the hydra-heads like Morris or ICM - they all have good connections in Hollywood. Once you know how it’s done, a monkey with a briefcase can get a script read in la-la land. How it works will be the Basics column in the October Talking Agents, so I won’t go into it here. Except to say that getting the deal done is another matter. As in getting an option or an outright buy once the script is read.
That, my friends and colleagues, depends more on you than on your agent.
My own agent, for instance, sells stuff to Hollywood all the time. Never my stuff. (It’s no secret - I’ve been represented by Henry Morrison for over twenty years and some dozen books.)
I don’t write the kind of thing that people can easily see as a big Hollywood movie. Historicals are notoriously disappointing at the box office. Even when they’re not supposed to be. Did Master and Commander do anything like as well as the latest date whatever? Doesn’t Russel Crowe open a movie? You bet he does. Except when he doesn’t. Or that American patriot thing with Mel Gibson? Before we found out he’s really an anti-semitic nutcase? Still didn’t do one of those gazillion dollar opening weekends.
See, I know that. But I go on writing the great big wide-canvas historical fiction for which I’m known. Those are the voices I hear in my head, at least for now. So no movie deal. That’s not Henry’s fault, it’s mine. If fault it is. (But hey, guy, a mini-series? Here you are doing yet another Bob Ludlum Jason Bourne movie with Matt Damon and you can’t even get me an HBO mini-series? Showtime? The History Channel forgawdsake?)
Point made. Wearing my novelist’s hat I’m as crazy as all the rest of you. I just know I’m writing stuff that will translate to the screen. But I also know that a this level, if the movie moguls say no, it’s my fault, not that of my agent.