Writing tip: agent or no agent?

Writing tip
Writing tip

Authors are divided about whether to work with an agent. Here are the bullet points of my own history with agents:

  • Offered representation by an editor who had decided to switch to being a sole agent. Before she got as far as us signing the Agreement, she thought better of being an agent and vanished from my life.
  • Got a fab London agent from a big agency. She sold me into a couple of modestly sized publishers and also large print and audio. We had a couple of near-misses with big publishers but a miss is as good as a mile. After a bereavement, I decided I would no longer be able to write novels and left her flock. We parted friends and are still.
  • Unagented, I sold seven novels to publisher Choc Lit. Some were those my former agent had had near misses with so she checked the contract for me and advised but didn’t negotiate. Later, a contract for an as-yet-unwritten novel was offered and I found I could write new novels after all. Choc Lit sold me into large print, audio and a few modest translation deals. I taught creative writing and wrote short stories, serials, columns and just about anything else to do with writing to augment my income from my novels.
  • Got different fab London agent, Juliet Pickering of Blake Friedmann. We gelled immediately. She placed me with the fantastic Avon HarperCollins who subsequently got me into audio, supermarkets, #1 on UK Kindle, Top 100 in US Kindle, and made me a SundayTimes bestseller. Blake Friedmann got many translation deals for these novels. I now make a living from my novels alone.

I view Juliet as made of gold dust and adept with her magic wand. Authors who choose not to work with an agent sometimes say they don’t see why they should pay a commission (commonly 15%+VAT for home market sales, 20%+VAT for translation) and they get their contracts vetted by the Society of Authors. But, oh, a good agent does more than check the legalese!

  • Pitching. An agent knows exactly who to send your work to and makes it her or his business to maintain relationships with likely editors. S/he will present your work in the best light, too.
  • Negotiation. Some publishers have standard terms … except when they don’t. An agent can negotiate hard, not just in terms of advances but also royalties, escalators, sub-rights and all kinds of other items that I, for one, would be completely foxed by. And, yes, they do check the legalese.
  • In your corner. An agent is likely to be a constant in your career, even should you change publishers five times.
  • Aware of the market. An agent will be interacting with publishing professionals all the time. S/he will be aware if/when better opportunities come up.
  • Intermediary. Author/editor relationships are precious. If there’s a bump in the road your agent can pop up and smooth it out before you and your editor collide head-on over it.
  • Support. I often talk things over with Juliet: the future; an offer; an idea for a book (even though my editor takes the lead on this); a problem with the current book (ditto); one of those little bumps in the road I mentioned. These conversations are via email or phone, usually, but pre-pandemic she frequently took me out for publication day lunch too. (Told you she was gold dust.)
  • Honesty. I sometimes say to Juliet, ‘Am I being a diva?’ She would never be rude enough to agree but she is transparent if she thinks a view could be better expressed. I value the honesty.
  • Foreign sales. Authors can sell global rights to publishers so the publisher then takes on the task of selling translation rights. In my case it’s a mixture: Avon acquires World English Rights so they bring me out in the UK, US and Canada. Blake Friedmann’s highly successful rights team handles the rest for me.

In my view and in my experience, a good agent is a huge asset. NB If you decide on an agent rather than selling directly to a publisher I do think it’s important to get the right agent for you. It’s the kind of relationship that prospers if you like each other and share aims and philosophies.

I sometimes joke that Juliet helps me avoid snakes and climb ladders. In truth, I never encounter snakes … but she’s certainly helped me climb the ladders. I’m now the main breadwinner in my household.

Summer on a Sunny Island is my sixteenth novel, my ninth with Avon. Two more are contracted to them. Juliet does a wonderful job and proved to be exactly the right agent for me.

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22 Comments

Filed under Sue Moorcroft

22 responses to “Writing tip: agent or no agent?

  1. Saskia Walker

    Thanks so much for sharing your agent story, Sue. Great tips, fascinating and informative.

    A throw in from my own experience: I had a US agent when I was writing for US publishers, (Penguin Berkley and Harlequin Spice & HQN.) In that situation it would be ideal for a British writer to have an agent (ie working with an overseas publisher) whether it be a UK or US agent. I knew I needed help with legalese, and being in a different country to the publisher made it feel all the more necessary. We became great friends and that was a big part of it, as you say.

    Like you, I had time away due to ‘real life’ and thought I’d never write again. For that reason I (very sadly) parted ways with my agent and publisher. I’m coming back to writing after a long break, dabbling in self publishing, testing my stamina. I do miss working with a publisher and having an agent, though.

    Thanks again for sharing! It’s also really encouraging to read about someone who had a major upheaval in their life and came back to writing with such success. (PS I love your books!)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks so much, Saskia. I’m sorry real-life hit you hard enough to stop you writing and hope that better stuff is around the corner. I never actually stopped writing but I didn’t feel I had enough in the well for novels. I wrote a writing guide and a load of short stories, columns and serials until the new contract tempted me to try a novel again. Good luck resuming your career.

      Like

  2. Sue McDonagh

    Some very useful advice, Sue. A very informative piece, thank you. x

    Liked by 1 person

  3. margaretskea Author of prize winning historical novel Turn of the Tide

    Thanks for sharing your story, Sue – I did try for an agent at one time, but through a mix of impatience and a couple of mistakes on my part (didn’t get right postage on submissions and they came back to me 3 months later unopened – understandably!) I signed directly with a publisher. Now am hybrid some published traditionally , some self-published, but if I start a completely new project I might look for an agent again – and do it right this time – at least I wouldn’t have to worry about postage!!I do recognise their value and knowledge of the narketplace.

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  4. Thank you, Sue, for sharing this great article.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Thanks for a great piece that provides lots of food for thought. I was published for six years before getting an agent (Hattie Grunewald at The Blair Partnership) and would not be without her. She’s ambitious and savvy, and keeps my feet firmly on the ground, along with giving me lots of invaluable information/advice.

    Nikki xx

    Liked by 1 person

    • As you know, Hattie kindly looked after me during maternity leave and I have a high opinion of her. I’m delighted you’re dealing so well together. World domination beckons! xx

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  6. Reblogged this on and commented:
    Another great writing tip blog post from Sue Moorcroft, this time about being unagented vs agented…

    Liked by 1 person

  7. What a brilliantly honest and open blog, Sue. Thanks so much for sharing your story. You are like a beacon of light for other authors planning to follow in your footsteps!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. How wonderful to read a success story for once! Long may you continue, Sue!

    Like

  9. Lucky you!
    My own works, as it turns out, “aren’t commercially viable,” as one agent said of their earlier incarnations. Self-publishing has been a welcome alternative, though the marketing steps are time-consuming — something even commercially published authors bewail.
    Thanks for sharing your story. Younger writers, especially, may benefit.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. An excellent post Sue, thank you. I’ve always enjoyed your books. I attended a few of your classes in the past and learnt a huge amount from them. I’ve also had experiences with two agents and recently decided to part ways with my last one. Your agent sounds amazing and I think the key is finding the right agent, which you seem to have done.

    Like

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