Why Use Submission Agents?

Terri Branson

By Terri Branson

Authors in old writing conclaves seem stuck in the 1980s, when the only way to get a publisher to read a manuscript was to send it through an agent. It’s just how it was done for decades. But do most writers know “why” it was done that way? My guess is not. 

Okay, here’s the why…. Basically, publishers who only worked through agents (and that used to constitute the bulk) did so in order to avoid reading slush piles. The agent did the manuscript cleaning and vetting behind the scenes, so only polished manuscripts were sent to the line editors for contract consideration. For this service, agents got paid both in signing fees and royalties (which were deducted from the author’s royalties). 

At first blush, that would seem to be a pretty good system, right? Well, it was good for the agent and great for the publisher, who saved a ton of money and lots of time. But was it good for the author? By and large, no. Authors did not benefit from agented submissions, unless there was a lot of money at stake. 

Do I have an aversion to agents? Nope. Almost signed with two very good ones in the late 90′s. So, no, I have nothing against agents, as long as it’s the right agent with the right services for the author and book(s) in question. 

AGENTS BY FUNCTION: Let’s look at agents by three different functions: 

* Contract Agents: Lawyers that specialize in publishing contract law. They receive a legal fee for brokering the contract between publisher and author, but do not receive a cut of the author’s royalties. 

* Submission Agents: Editors that deal up front with the publisher, handling submissions and sometimes also serving as contract lawyers. Submission agents almost always get both a signing fee and a percentage of the author’s royalties through the life of the contract in question. 

* Marketing Agents: Services that contract directly with the author to help with promotions and events. Authors should never sign a royalty deal with a marketing agent. Always negotiate marketing services for a fixed fee. Although not new to the publishing industry, marketing agents are the most viable agent services in the POD (print-on-demand) age. 

The reason is that most authors do not need an agent to broker a POD contract with a publisher of any size these days. Although a contract agent is necessary if there is a lot of money on the table (primary with TV/movies involved), generally speaking authors do not benefit from submission agents because too much of an author’s royalties are taken by the agent in question. It’s just not a good deal for the author. 

Therefore, if you are over your head on the contract phase, hire a contract agent (lawyer) who specializes in publishing contract law. If you need help with marketing, contract a marketing agent for a reasonable flat fee. If you have a multi-media deal (like Twilight or Harry Potter), then get a multi-media contract lawyer who can navigate the shark-infested waters of Hollywood and New York. 

Be very careful before jumping into those multi-media waters, though. I’ve heard so many first-person accounts of big publishers cheating authors (even well-known ones), and of movie companies running the gamut from refusing to pay royalties to outright stealing screenplays. As much as I would love to see one of my own books made into a movie, I’m just not sure I would be able to get through the contract process without ripping the beating heart out of some smarmy Hollywood-type and feeding the bloody thing to the crows in my back yard. <grrrr> But, heck yes, I would love to see one of my books made into a movie. That would be a hoot! :) 

PERSONAL EDITORS: There is one service I highly recommend for all authors, who are serious about contract publishing. Hire a personal editor. All bestselling authors employ personal editors. ALL OF THEM. 

Every author needs his/her own personal editor. It can be a formal agreement for services rendered, or it can be two or more authors agreeing to edit each other’s manuscripts for free. The point is that the “personal editor” now takes the place of the old “submissions agent.” IMHO (in my humble opinion): As POD/eBooks take over the publishing world, there just is no need for the old submissions agent model. Use contract agents as needed, and do hire a multi-media shark if you’re talking movies. For book publishing, however, all you need to do is get the best manuscript possible to the publisher, so either have a really good critique partner or hire a personal editor. 

Some of you may disagree with my thoughts regarding agents. And these things are subject to change, as the publishing industry continues to evolve at a rapid pace. As a publisher, most of what I said above cuts my own throat. But as an author, I think it’s solid advice. 

Terri Branson is an author, an editor, a graphics artist, and the publisher for Dragonfly Publishing, Inc.  After earning an associate degree in math and science, she turned to the study of creative writing.  She has sold articles on the craft of writing and conducted workshops for local writers groups. Her children’s picture book Brother Dragon was the EPPIE 2005 Best Children’s Book.  Her science fiction and fantasy collection Cosmic Sculpture was the EPPIE 2004 Best Anthology.  A member of EPIC, OWFI, SCBWI, and Web Writing Wonders, Terri lives in Oklahoma with her husband, David.