Wednesday, September 5, 2007

REPRINT: The Resnick/Malzberg Dialogues - AGENTS

This is the complete text of a SWFA Bulletin piece done by Mike Resnick and Barry Malzberg. The article, according to Mike Resnick "(Is) about 9 years old, but nothing's changed", so the information here should still be valid.

Thanks very much to Mike for allowing me to reprint it here, and I hope this proves valuable to writers and readers of this blog.


The Resnick/Malzberg Dialogues

IV: Agents

Mike: There are a lot of misconceptions about agents.

One is that you can't sell without one. This is demonstrably

false; I think most of us sold our first novels without an agent.

Another is that an agent can sell an inferior book. Also

false. An agent can get your manuscript read faster, and can

probably negotiate a better advance (though you should remember

that if it's only 10% or 15% better, it's going right into the

agent's pocket), but no agent can make an editor buy an inferior


(Well, yes, they can -- but only if it's "You buy Joe

Phan's first novel or you don't get the new Stephen King/Tom

Clancy/Danielle Steele book." But while it's theoretically

possible, consider the reaction of King/Clancy/Steele when this

gets out -- and it always gets out -- and ask yourself just how

long Mr. or Mrs. Eight-Figure Advance would stay with such an


Still, an agent's a handy thing to have. They usually know

who's buying what, they can get you a faster read, the good ones

can spot little killer clauses in contracts that slip by a lot of

writers, they act as a buffer between the author and the editor,

they harass the publisher and his accountant for your money, they

make your foreign sales, some of them make your movie/tv sales,

some of them make your short fiction sales. The good ones are

worth their weight in gold; the bad ones can destroy a writer's

career so fast you wouldn't believe it.

And I'm on the outside looking in. You have worked for a

literary agency for the past couple of decades. What particular

insights can you bring to the subject of agents that most writers

don't know but really should know?


Barry: It's more than a couple of decades, Mike. With some

time off for good behavior (i.e., the fiction of "full-time"

freelancing), I've been affiliated with the Scott Meredith

Literary Agency, man and boy, for 33 years. I walked into the

place on 6/2/65 and with distraction and interruptions,

Presidential impeachment and resignations, the excitement

surrounding the Gulf of Tonkin resolution and the American flight

from Saigon, I've been here since. It has been interesting, as you

know. It is my theory that the arc of the Scott Meredith Literary

Agency, open for business on 6/29/46 and continuously under Scott

Meredith's aegis until his death on 2/11/93, is an arc which has

become a paradigm for the course of publishing in this country

from the end of World War II through the end of the century. That

course has involved every aspect of how the delivery system has

changed, and it's a remarkable story, still misunderstood or (in

the main) not understood at all. Someday I am going to attempt the

True History of the Scott Meredith Literary Agency, and it will

amaze and divert the multitudes (or so I would like to believe.)

In the meantime, pending that guided tour of the cemetery of

so many possibilities, you ask for "particular insights...that

most writers don't know but really should know." That's a large

question whose generality somewhat terrifies. These past years,

when I'm asked "How you doing?" or "What's going on?" or "What's

the big problem in your life as you see it?", I've been

responding, "These questions are too large for me. I cannot deal

with them. Ask me if Bruckner or Mahler is the better composer and

I can say some interesting things; ask me why Walter Tevis's

Mockingbird, although better written, sardonic, and altogether a

more mature work than The Man Who Fell To Earth, is not a better

novel and I'll suggest why that is the case." But what writers

"don't know but really should know" makes me kind of shudder.

What's your opinion of dogs? What's the real significance of pari-

mutual horse racing? You get the idea.

But here are a couple of facts that most writers should know

if they don't:

1) Agents are like divorce lawyers or medical practitioners.

There are good lawyers (I hope) and not-so-good lawyers, but all

of them in the State of New Jersey have to deal with the rules and

statutes of divorce in the State. Lawyer A can't find a whole new

set of statutes or conditions unknown to Lawyer B, Lawyer C can't

change the custody or division-of-property laws. Some lawyers are

better than others at working around the system or making the

system less onerous; none of them, however, can shift the system


And whether I'm represented by the Virginia Kidd Agency,

Curtis Brown, Robert Gottlieb of William Morris, your own Eleanor

Wood, or the Scott Meredith Literary Agency, my agent is

confronted by the same editors, the same publishers, the same

marketing conditions. No agent can create a new editor or series

of markets. Once in a great while, a new agent might market a

science fiction novel out of genre and obtain a better outcome

(placement or advance or both) than might have been the case in

genre, but this is rare and almost all agents and publishers know

one another's tricks now. You can't sneak science fiction into

mainstream markets under a disguise and you cannot, as an agent,

turn a $5,000 deal into a $100,000 sale to someone who doesn't

know what's going on. Not any more.

This occasionally happened decades ago. John Cristopher's No

Blade of Grass was rejected in the mid-1950s by many science

fiction markets who found this post-nuclear novel familiar,

predictable, the same old stuff. Scott Meredith's inspiration was

to market it to The Saturday Evening Post as a "controversial

Cold War novel". The Post fell upon the work as if it were a

true tour of the Kremlin's plans. The magazine paid $80,000 and

ran it serially; there was a movie sale for more than that. Then a

Reader's Digest condensed book. The novel rejected by Ballantine

and Ace became a best seller.

So this kind of thing could happen in the old days, but these

are newer days and the Post doesn't exist anymore. If your agent

can't sell your novel, it's not likely that a new agent can find a

different outcome, and a prospective new agent would be inclined

to reject the novel unread anyway and ask for something new;

agents hate to take on work which has already been through its

logical range of markets.

2) Agents are something like symphonic conductors; it's a

profession which is open to fraudulence and incompetence because

the audience cannot really tell a good one from a bad one or

(Orpheus Chamber orchestra) from no conductor at all. Many agents

appear "better" than others because they represent more successful

writers, success goes to success, it was easy for Joe Torre to

look intelligent managing the New York Yankees but he's the same

guy who, when managing the Mets and Cardinals, was thought of as

being pretty dumb. Give me Stephen King and I'll do better than

Stephen King's agent would do with me. In fact, you or I could do

just about as well with the King account as any of the agents

I've named above. And King's agent -- as you suggest -- can't sell

a bad novel by an unknown writer. You rise or sink to your


But, as with symphonic conductors, when a great one does come

along, the audience (not to say every musician in the orchestra)

can tell the difference. Bernstein could gets sounds out of Mahler

than Mitropoulos or Mehta (good conductors both, you understand)

couldn't. There are writers who owe their very careers to

brilliant agenting. I just know of no systematic way in which a

writer in early or even mid-career can find such an agent. And of

course -- this is a cliche -- one agent may be terrible for X and

very good for Y. There is no agent about whom disgruntled ex-

clients cannot tell unhappy stories; there is none among these

agents who cannot elicit testimonials. It all depends. It is a

highly subjective business.

But I wouldn't look for an agent to get a career started, and

I wouldn't have undue expectation of any agent; a writer's career

rests largely on her own efforts. Agents are ancillary. They can

make it easier, and they can also make it a lot worse. (You're

quite right in saying there are agents who "can destroy a writer's

career so fast you wouldn't believe it.")

All that being said, it's still worth trying to get a good

agent, just as the orchestra board, cynical as it may be, knows

that it's worth making a real effort to get a good conductor. How

would you recommend that writers conduct such a search?


Mike: Let me begin by reiterating that I think an agent can

make an enormous difference. The one I got rid of in 1983 had sold

maybe a dozen novels for me -- but always to the same publisher;

it was easy for her to do, much easier than shopping around for

better offers, and of course I had no idea that any other

publisher had any interest in me -- so as long as _my_ publisher

was buying I was happy. I didn't know much about the foreign

market, so I didn't object to not making any foreign sales until

1983, when I made my first two -- and came away with twice the

money I'd been paid in America ($1,000 more from Japan, $1,000

less from Germany), which made me realize what I'd been missing.

And when she tried to sell a sequel to Birthright: The Book of

Man, a novel in which I had killed off the entire human race,

without first asking me if I would or could write it, I decided it

was a good time to part company.

My new agent put my next novel up for auction, which scared

the hell out of me. After all, my previous agent had convinced me

that no one else wanted me, and I was sure this was bound to

offend my current publisher, possibly to the point I would be cut

loose. (I was very naive.) Within weeks three different

publishers were bidding, and all had offered me at least 300% more

than I'd been getting. My new agent also made 27 foreign sales in

the first 18 months we were together (and 16 years later, we're

still together). And she's never tried to sell a sequel that

couldn't possibly be written without invalidating the original


So yeah, an agent can make a difference.

A good agent also knows that clients are not interchangeable,

that each requires special handling. You can't market an Anne

McCaffrey, who lives on the New York Times bestseller list, the

way you market Nancy Kress or Connie Willis, who don't show up on

the New York Times list (no shame there; hardly any of us do) but

win more than their share of Hugos and Nebulas. And you can't

market Nancy and Connie the same way, because while both are

brilliant they don't write the same kind of stories. And neither

of them can be marketed like Ann Crispin, who can't be marketed

like Michael Bishop, who can't be marketed like Lois McMaster

Bujold, who can't be marketed like me. The agent who doesn't

realize this, who assumes that because it's all called science

fiction it must all be sold and promoted in the same way, is doing

her entire stable a disservice.

Okay, so how do you find the agent who's right for you?

Step one: get your hands on a SFWA Directory and turn to the

back, where every agent and his/her stable of SFWA writers is

listed. See where you think you'd be most comfortable. Are you

happier with a new agent, who lacks experience and some clout, but

who doesn't have 27 writers who outearn you? Are you happier with

an established agent, who will perhaps have less time for you, but

may bring more expertise to the table?

Step two: contact some of the writers in the stable and ask

them for pros and cons about the agent. And since most of them

will have nothing but favorable comments -- those who don't will

have left -- try to find some writers who did leave and find out


Then it's a matter of deciding what's important to you,


For example: Does the agent have a good foreign desk? They're

not all interchangeable, you know.

For example: Does the agent return phone calls promptly? And

is this important to you?

For example: Does the agent charge 10% or 15%? And if it's

15%, what do you get that other writers don't get for 10%?

For example: What incidental expenses will he bill you for?

(This can run the gamut from postage and phone calls to copying

and use of personal couriers for in-city delivery of manuscripts.)

For example: Does the agent deal with Hollywood (including

TV) himself, or does he have a media specialist agent? And if so,

is the media agent any good? Who does the media agent handle and

what has he sold?

For example: Can the agent receive e-mail? (If not, and if

you like to keep in constant touch, you're probably looking at

some hefty phone bills.)

For example: Does the agent attend Worldcon, World Fantasy

Con, and/or the Nebula Banquet? (If not, it means every time you

want a face-to-face with the agent, you're going to have to fly to

New York, with its attendant planefares, hotel and restaurant


For example: Does the agent pay you the instant the check

arrives, or does he wait until his bank clears it? (This can be a

couple of weeks on some foreign checks. Will this make a

difference in your ability to pay your bills on time?)

For example: Does the agent handle short fiction, or does he

want you to do it yourself? (And do you want an agent to handle

short fiction? Most agents prefer not to, and most writers are

perfectly happy that way -- but a few agents insist upon it.)

For example: Will the agent handle your career personally, or

is his stable so large that you'll be given to some skilled (or

perhaps unskilled) assistant?

For example: Does the agent's expertise extend beyond science

fiction and fantasy, and if so, does it cover areas in which you

might wish to write in the future?

All of the above are valid considerations, but they're not

necessarily equal considerations. You have to decide which are

more important to you, and which are less so.

Do you want an agent who molds your career, tells you what to

write, and acts as a first reader -- or do you want one who will

take what you offer without question and send it out immediately?

Do you want one who reports every rejection, or do you want to use

your agent as a buffer from rejection and only be told the good


Another consideration: is your agent solvent? I don't mean,

do his checks bounce...but is he making a decent living? Not only

does it show some competence on his part, but it avoids a pitfall

that has hamstrung more than one writer. Which is to say, when you

get a call that a publisher has just offered $6,000 for your

masterpiece and you'd better take it because it's been turned down

everywhere else, can you trust what your agent says -- or could it

be that this is only the first or second publisher to see it but

your agent has got to get his hands on a quick $600 for rent or

child support or whatever? As everyone says, your relationship

with your agent is very much like a marriage -- and marriages

built on trust tend to last the longest.

Now Barry, since you've spent 33 years, more or less, in a

literary agency -- and how you sold 90+ books and 300+ stories

during just the first decade of that time remains a mystery to me

-- perhaps you'd care to tell us how different sales strategies

are developed, and how they work? And you might even address fee



Barry: "You might address fee reading," the man says as an

afterthought. Ever so shyly. "You might want to address those

remarks on Jews we heard on the tape transcripts, Mr. President."

"Mr. President, one little question about that female intern."

Something like that. Talk about backing into the horned beast.

Anyway, and all right, let's address the issue of fee

reading. As you and most of the membership know, the Scott

Meredith Agency, since its inception, has offered to read the

work of unpublished or unestablished writers for money, with the

understanding that saleable work would be represented by the

agency, potentially saleable work would be directed through

revision by the agency, and that unsaleable work would -- well, it

would be kindly declined. Over this very long periods of time --

the Agency opened its doors on 6/29/46 and fee reading was always

a constituent -- the program has had its successes and its

problems. Many prominent or not-so-prominent one-time clients of

the agency originally came through the fee department, including

several present SFWA members; I won't mention their names but

will note that Richard S. Prather, John Farris, Bruce Douglas

Reeves (who he?), Bill Pronzini, and Jeffrey M. Wallman are all

important novelists who showed up at the beginning with $25 or $35

in hand, a hopeful expression, and a manuscript.

What's even more interesting than a list of fee-paying

writers who became agency clients is a list of fee-paying writers

who did not become clients -- whose works were declined by the

agency or unsuccessfully marketed. Here are just a few, and in no

particular order: Stephen King, Even S. Connell, Jr., Robert

Parker, Raymond Carver, John Barth. The novel on which Gus von

Sant's first screenplay and film were based was rejected by the

agency. This all goes to prove something, although what that

something might be is not entirely clear.

Another interesting list would be those who have worked for

the fee department -- writing responses in Scott Meredith's name.

Here are a few (and again, in no particular order): myself. Donald

E. Westlake. Lawrence Block. Lester del Rey. Lawrence M. Jannifer.

Damon Knight. Allen Ginsberg. Donald A. Fine. Phil Klass (better

known as "William Tenn"). Talk about the true unwritten history!

My own position on fee reading is that like almost everything

else in this world -- marriage, love, happiness, the effects of

wealth or poverty -- is that it's all contextual, it all depends.

Depends upon the acuity of the person reading the manuscript,

depends upon the ability or potential of the author. (Hopeless is

almost always hopeless.) I've never endorsed the system, I've

never condemned it. (Would be hypocrisy certainly to condemn.)

There are better ways to get an agent and a publisher but

unconnected writers have always had a problem with access and most

publishers won't even screen unsolicited materials any more. So if

you're out there in the provinces (and for an unpublished writer

West 29th Street can be a province) you've got to try something.

At the least, most fee correspondence from at least this

agency has been competent, lucid and to the point, and over the

years the agency readers have passed on little work which has

subsequently proven to be saleable. The record isn't terrific but

it's probably been acceptable. I can't talk to the practices of

any other agencies.

Sales strategies? "How are different sales strategies

developed?" If it's Dean Koontz or Stephen King you don't need a

sales strategy, you just need an open phone line. If it's a Mike

Resnick at this point in his career you don't need much of a sales

strategy either; the agent and the publishers have a pretty good

assessment of the writer's audience, ability and potential and

it's just a question of how much a publisher wants to risk and

whether the publisher wants to try to change the equation. Sales

strategy comes more into play in the case of a writer at the very

beginning of a career or perhaps coming off a hot first book which

has sold or been reviewed beyond all expectations and which makes

possible a leap in advance and possibilities. But is the largest

advance necessarily the best offer in its totality? Is the largest

publisher the best publisher? These are questions which can only

be answered on an ad hoc basis and I suppose that it is here --

and here more than in any other area -- where the differential

abilities of the agents and their sympatico with the client can

make a real difference.

I think, overall, the role of an agent is overrated. John

Updike has never had one. Neither did John O'Hara. Nabakov had

representation for some foreign language rights but, after he left

Cornell to write full-time in 1958, had no agent for his

manuscripts. Dean R. Koontz has had four agents, each of which did

better for him than the last, but this was because Koontz was

doing better and Agent #1 might have done as well for the present-

day Koontz as is Agent #4. You or I could do pretty well for

Stephen King, I suspect, while the William Morris Agency would

have a hard time promoting ancillary and subsidiary rights to the

work of Ray Cummings. No agent can be better than the work

represented (some can be worse), no agent can as I've said find a

new set of markets.

But tell me how and through whose efforts you've made your

movie sales (did Eleanor Wood or a cooperating agent manage those

as well?) and I will be content and fully informed.


Mike: My first couple of movie options came through a

cooperating Hollywood-based agent. But, possibly because he

represented literally hundreds of category writers, he never

followed up on them. He seemed content to make option money and

let it go at that, so finally I let him go.

Now, over the years, we saw one talented writer after another

go out to Hollywood to conquer the movie world...and we saw one

talented writer after another vanish from sight or wind up writing

Saturday morning cartoon shows for television. We spent the better

part of 25 years observing them and trying to learn from their

mistakes, and when we thought we'd figured most of it out, we

decided it was time to take a fling at Hollywood ourselves. (I say

"we" because Carol, my wife and collaborator, is a far better and

more visual screenwriter than I am. One of the things I discovered

is that you have to chuck almost everything you learned as a prose

writer before you can become even a mildly competent screenwriter,

and since she hadn't been writing prose professionally for a

quarter of a century she had a lot less to unlearn.)

The first thing we realized was that you can't market a

script the way you market a manuscript. Studio script departments

are just enormous slush buildings.

The second thing was that the easiest way to sell a script

was not to market it yourself -- writers are pretty unimportant

cogs in the movie machine -- but to package it with a hot director

and a hungry producer. (How you find them is another story, and

has almost nothing to do with agents.)

The third thing was that this is a business of personal

contact and cachet, far more than the prose writing business, and

you use your contacts to make more contacts. In the past three

years we've sold two screenplays and optioned seven books and two

stories -- and every single deal, every contact we've made, can

all be traced back to the first producer and director who optioned

Santiago years ago. They introduced us to their friends, who

introduced us to their friends, and it became a geometric


Now, one of the interesting things we learned along the way

is that, unless you're planning to make Hollywood a full-time

career, you don't actually need an agent.

That's right. Unlike literary agents, what Hollywood agents

primarily do is put you together with people who might be

interested in buying your services. They set up meetings. They

arrange lunches. But once an offer is actually on the table, your

Hollywood agent steps aside and your Hollywood lawyer takes over

the negotiation -- and Hollywood lawyers eat Hollywood agents for


(Yeah, I know: you have a friend who sells screenplays and

doesn't have a lawyer, just an agent. Right. But if that's the

case, then his agency has one or more lawyers to handle the


Now, if you want full-time work, as I said, you want an

agent. And full-time work entails getting rewrite jobs (80% of all

the contract writing in Hollywood, maybe a little more, is

rewriting). It entails hawking scripts that you've written on whim

or on spec. It entails endless business lunches and meetings, and

in most of them you'll know three minutes into them that you're

not getting hired today.

Hollywood is so eccentric, so alien to Carol's and my values

and lifestyle, that we're willing to give them only ten weeks a

year. And since we've reached the point where they call us with

offers at least once a year, frequently two and three times, we

have more work that we can handle, and hence have never hired a

Hollywood agent. (We do have Quentin Tarrantino's lawyer. And

no, we didn't just walk in off the street to get her. Again, it

was a matter of contacts.)

Most prose writers look upon Hollywood with some contempt. It

shows in their attitudes, and it shows in their writing, and

that's why Hollywood is so loathe to hire prose writers.

Screenwriting is a totally different discipline from prose

writing, but it's every bit as demanding and precise, and until

one masters the art -- and you can't go into it saying, "Hell,

what's so hard about writing Porky's #8 or Halloween #17?" --

I wouldn't advise anyone to quit their day job or back out of

their book contracts...and if you're not going into it full-

time, I also wouldn't advise getting a Hollywood agent.

Another thing to consider: Hollywood rewrites everything.

There are a lot of reasons for this. One is that they're trying to

create art by committee, and hence a lot of people have input into

the script. Another is that sometimes scripts, like books, need

revising. There are other reasons, dozens of them. But there are

two primary reasons, neither of them known to the general public:

first, it gives executives cover (if the movie flops, they can

blame it on the half-dozen writers, whereas if they go with the

first script, it's their fault for showing such poor judgment);

and second, while most Hollywood execs are brilliant men in their

fields, their fields are marketing and making deals, and since

they do not know the intracacies of screenplay construction, all

they can do is voice a vague dissatisfaction when a screenplay

doesn't meet their expectations. They are not writers, and hence

cannot tell a writer how to fix or change it; so they flit from

one writer or writing team to another until finally someone

intuits what they want and delivers it to them.

And since rewriting is part of the culture, what this means

-- and I've talked to a number of SFWAns who have experienced this

-- is that if you do get an agent, he'll almost certainly have you

rewrite your treatment or your screenplay endlessly, without

pay, until he thinks he can sell it. But he has no more knowledge

about what will sell than you do; if he did, he'd have one of his

better-paid and better-credentialed journeyman writers script it.

If, after all this, you still feel you must get a Hollywood

agent, then there are two ways to go: you can join a major agency

that handles actors, directors, writers, the whole nine yards.

(The advantage is that such agencies often package entire movies,

and you certainly have a better chance of selling your screenplay

if Mel Gibson and Meg Ryan and Ivan Reitman are attached to it.

The disadvantage is that such an agency probably has 50 or more

writers who make more money than you, have been with the agency

longer than you, and would also like to be packaged with the

agency's Name actors and directors.) The other way is to join what

is called a boutique agency, a small house dealing (in this case)

exclusively with writers; your screenplay will be given more

respect, more time, more attention -- and will be far more

difficult to sell since it won't come packaged with anything else.

The one other thing I can tell you about Hollywood agents and

agencies is that they invariably try to steer their clients into

television, where one makes smaller but far more regular

paychecks. The loyalty of most agents is to their agencies first

and their clients second -- and their agencies need cash flow. The

problem is that there is a very definite social and economic

ladder in Hollywood, and movies are at the top of it; if you write

enough television, you'll be tagged as someone who couldn't make

it in movies, and you'll have a much harder time getting off the

small screen and onto the big one. Now, if you're Joe Straczynski

you're making zillions and doing just what you want and you

needn't give a damn about that, but most people aren't Joe

Straczynski, and it bears mentioning.

Why do we put up with it? Because once you get your foot in

the door, you'll find that your check for each draft of your

screenplay dwarfs anything you ever saw from your novels.

In sum, this is an incredibly idiosyncratic field. Everything

I've said is true, based on our experience -- but if there's a

successful SFWA screenwriter whose experience is diametrically

opposed to ours, I wouldn't be surprised.

So much for what I know about Hollywood. Now, very briefly,

how do you know when a literary agent is about to become a major

force in the field, and how do you know when a literary agent is

over the hill?


Barry: Well, that's another of those questions. "How long

should a novel be? How much money is good money for a novel? What

defines a 'professional writing career'?"

But addressing this one I think of the collected sayings of

the sainted or soon-to-be-sainted Yogi Berra discussing a

restaurant: "It's become too popular. No one goes there anymore."

Thus with agents. By the time an agent acquires a reputation

as a hot, talked-about, promising agent-on-the-rise who has done

some really good things on behalf of writers at a relatively early

career stage, well, it's already too late. At least for similarly

unestablished writers. The agent has made deals, found larger

quarters, been besieged by potential clients, has hired or

expanded a staff and has focussed her attention on the present

client list. You might be able to sign on but it's already too

late, at least for an unestablished writer. Unless you're a real

acquisition for the agent, you're going to be passed onto a new

assistant or sloughed off altogether.

In sum, it is the same problem with agents as with, say,

romance the time the word gets out to the provinces

that romances are what is selling now, by the time you read it in

Writer's Digest or even Publisher's Weekly, publishers are

stocked five years ahead. You can't follow a trend, you have to

be a trend, at least if you're trying to get something started

outside of New York, away from fast access,

And, not so ironically (because it can be powerfully damaging

to those caught in the trap) the signs of an agent or agency in

decline are very similar to those of a "hot agent" addressed a

little too late...disdain, assistants, long gaps in response, a

clear inattentiveness, a willingness to take a lower offer for the

work of an unestablished writer "becaue it's not important

enough" (or, the other face of the syndrome, an unwillingness to

even represent work not seen as "breakthrough" or "crossover" or

"major market"). If your agent won't return or have someone return

your phone calls within two days, or if your editor or an editor

you query says that she has not been able to connect with the

agent...these are, as they say, signs that you've got a problem.

Not all agents are on the rise or in decline, of course;

there are many who have beeen at a stable and reliable level of

function for a long time and will continue to be. But it's a

business no less volatile than publishing, and I can think of four

agents or agencies, very important 10-20 years ago, which are

obliterated or might as well be. No substitute for vigilance, and

ultimately the career of a writer is in her own hands. An agent

can't take that responsibility and shouldn't be asked. Depend

first and last on your own resources; anything beyond that is a


Unestablished writers tend to overvalue the role of agents

the way high school students overvalue the role of sex in a

relationship. Important, yes; to die for, yes -- but ancillary,

Mike, and the earlier this is understood, the better.


Mike: The only thing I can add to that is that it's harder to

pinpoint an agent's tastes than you think. Virginia Kidd, for

example, handles Gene Wolfe, Anne McCaffrey, Alan Dean Foster, and

the estate of James Tiptree, Jr. It would be hard to find four

more different writers. Which does she prefer? I've no idea, and

since she's an ethical agent, I'm sure she'll never tell you.

Ralph Vicinanza handles James Patrick Kelly, Julian May,

Jerry Pournelle, and Connie Willis. Again, what does that tell you

about his taste? Zip.

So I suggest that when selecting an agent, you don't try to

determine what he or she likes, because that's really not very

important (beyond the fact they they don't out-and-out loathe your

work). Look at their accomplishments, and if their accomplisments

meet with your approval, the rest will take care of itself.


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