There’s a spirited conversation on Wiley publisher Joe Wikert’s blog about whether computer book authors benefit from using an agent. David Rogelberg and Claudette Moore have chimed in, and so have I. Here’s my post, though it’s probably worth visiting the link and reading what the other agents have to say:

I posted something about this in a response to a question about agency commissions this morning and I’ll repeat it here, though admittedly it duplicates much of what Claudette and David say —

“A better question might be “where does an agent earn his 15%?” In the tech book world this is a fair question as we’re in a relatively small industry and there are plenty of author listservs, lots of contract info that’s readily available, and easy access to acquisition editors.

“I earn my money in prospecting for titles the author might not have found on his or her own, managing schedules and publisher expectations to ensure that my author has very little down time between projects, working out conflicts in the editorial and production process, helping to find a co-author or contributor when we’re in a jam, and packaging new ideas for publishers. On this basis on some projects I’m probably overpaid and on others I am most certainly underpaid.”

Joe, your post is great for igniting passions but I’d like to add to this discussion the fact that I, as an agent, and probably the others who have posted here, have often come up with authors to help un-agented authors bailing on their own un-agented Wiley projects. I’ve worked with every group at Wiley from the trade group, computer group and business group, so you might imagine I would also take some offense. That said, the agents have stated their case quite well.

The bigger question (as far I’m concerned) is do my authors need Wiley? Can we get a better deal, or find more ownership, or more timely advance payments elsewhere? And ultimately, in some emerging markets, do they need an agent or publisher at all? And what can I do to help them deal with this changing landscape?

I have about 5 books in development with various Wiley groups as I speak so I won’t pretend that I’ve made this decision. But you’ve been with several companies Joe, and you know that as publishers become bigger and more hide-bound they often become arrogant, less creative, and tighter-fisted. In that case it’s good to work with someone keeping an eye out for greener pastures. That’s what an agent does, and some authors might manage it quite well on their own, ala Mr. Mike Miller, and others definitely benefit from the advice, and counsel of an agent.

On the trade side of things there’s no doubt that an agent is almost an essential accessory to help cut through the signal to noise ratio, but even that’s changing as editors become more wired.

  2 Responses to “Do you need an agent in the tech book market?”

  1. Right now I have a completed manuscript at a publisher, and it’s been in production for two months, and they still haven’t paid me my second advance. I’m getting really annoyed (it’s been 3 months) and I have just told the editor that I may not participate in the book’s production if they don’t pay up soon.

    This is not good. Presumably an agent is better at threatening publishers than writers are.

    On the other hand, there is that story I tell of the agent that went crazy and stole between $100K and $200K from his authors. Which is why I always have the publisher split the payment between the agent and me and send out two checks; it’s easier than relying on the agent to forward the money.

  2. Hi Simson,

    I can’t guarantee that agents always get paid faster — check requests seem to disappear on the publisher’s end with such frequency that authors often feel it must be on purpose — but the larger agencies such as Waterside and Studio B have accounting managers who work closely with their accounts payable cohorts at the publisher and they can often resolve problems more quickly than an independent author. This goes for errors and omissions on royalty statements as well.

    As for the smaller agencies, now that I’m on my own I will make it my mission to know ever last person I can in accounting.

    I have found that as publishers are acquired or merge, they tout the great benefits that the new economy of scale will bring to their back office functions: and inevitably, you see their accounting systems moved lock, stock and barrel to New Jersey. So, where once you had an editor you could call to find a check and that editor would walk down the halls to accounts payable to get you an answer, you now have a huge system of folks who are twice removed, people your editor doesn’t even know, and you’re waiting at their behest. These great economies of scale, to me, mean vastly slower payments.

    I know this is even a problem for the editors at these houses, as they have to wait months themselves to be reimbursed for their expenses.

    Regarding crooked or just plain insane agents, I’ve heard plenty of horror stories. It ‘s always been standard industry practice that agents receive monies on their author’s behalf, and that we invoice and chase those monies as well.

    It’s critical that author funds are placed in a separate author account and not co-mingled with general agency funds. I know that in the past I did books with you both ways and I’m not against being open to various scenarios, but I think that agents distrust anything that might limit their involvement with a book, and we also want to be in the thick of things when checks and statements arrive.

    Some books need help, and advance and royalty scenarios might change a great number of times before we know what the various authors are ultimately paid. In that situation my authors had always trusted the agency to disburse funds as agreed, appropriately and quickly.

    Waterside shoots for 48 hours on check turnaround, but it’s most usually 24. I’ll shoot for the same. The AAR allows for ten days in their canon of ethics. I think that the only time a check should ever take ten days is perhaps during royalty periods where agencies are inundated (hopefully) with hundreds of statements.

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