One of the major crossroads for both screenwriters and authors is figuring out when they need representation. In both the traditional publishing and film industries, agents are the people who get your pages to buyers. Often, producers, studio execs and publishers won’t read your work unless it’s submitted through a reputable literary agency (this, for legal and gatekeeper reasons.)
So how can you know when you’re ready to start looking for an agent?
FICTION AND MEMOIR WRITERS
If you’re self-publishing, you don’t need an agent, because you’re bypassing the whole standard publishing process.
But for fiction writers who want to traditionally publish, an agent is key. And you are ready to start searching for one when you have a completed manuscript that you have gotten feedback on, revised several times, polished, and proofread. Send out only your best work. If an agent reads your query letter and decides to ask for a partial submission (usually one to three chapters,) the pages better be awesome!
Usually, nonfiction authors write a book proposal first, and send this out to potential agents. And by the way, it pays to learn how to write a proper book proposal– there’s a very specific format and strategy. Memoirists tend to be treated like fiction writers, because the quality of the book so often depends on writing style and execution. They usually write the whole manuscript before querying. That said, memoirs have been sold just on a proposal. So sorry about that. It’s a little like the wild west!
If you are a nonfiction writer, another thing you should have in place before querying agents is a platform. This is a group of people who follow you (on social media, etc.) Writing a blog is a good way to build such a community. The bottom line is publishers want to know that there are lots of people who will buy your book.
For screenwriters, gauging when to look for an agent is slightly different. First, I want to differentiate between agents and managers. An agent is a person licensed by law to procure work (writing assignments) for a client for a fee. A manager is not governed by labor laws and can’t procure work for a fee. However, managers can do lots of other things– including selling your treatments and pitches and screenplays, facilitating meetings, and helping you shape your career. It’s kind of tricky because managers can get your pages to buyers as well. Agents tend to be oriented toward making “deals,” managers are all about making “careers.” Just as a side note, as an emerging writer, it’s easier to get a manager than an agent. So this may be the place you start.
To explain all the intricacies of what you need to approach agents/managers, I reached out to my hubby Ryan Rowe, who has been a working screenwriter for over twenty years.
He said, “I think the best answer is… are you ready to start your professional writing career? In the feature world, do you have at least two or three feature scripts that you have written and re-written that you feel represent who you are as a writer, and that people other than your mother or your besties have read and said are good? Do you have a handful of new ideas that you can tell people about, perhaps original ideas, or perhaps books or comics or old movies you love that could be made or re-made into films? Have you digested these ideas into “elevator pitches” that you can easily talk about if asked, “So what do you want to do next?”
If you’re a TV writer, do you have a few samples of the type of TV writing that you want to do (hour drama or half hour comedy?) They could be original “spec teleplays” (i.e. the pilot of a show you have created), or samples of your favorite TV shows. Perhaps you also have ideas for TV shows that you would like to create. Can you talk about those cogently and coherently, if asked?
If you can answer these questions in the affirmative, then I would say you are ready. You’re at the point where you need an agent to get you and your work into the offices of people who produce content. That’s a lovely place to be. Feel good that you’ve worked hard to get yourself there.
There’s also the case where you might need or want an agent because you have a deal to be made. Say a script you wrote found its way through a friend into the hands of a producer who wants to option it. Yay, right? You would want someone to negotiate that deal for you, and most agents would be happy to have that dropped into their lap. A client who has written something a producer wants to option, who is already generating income, is attractive to an agent, and as you can imagine, this makes it easier to get a decent one.
I would add, if you are debating whether you want an agent in your life right now, think about it for a moment from the agent’s perspective. Do they want you in their professional life? Are you a client who will make them money, or bring them prestige (a writer of peculiar quality or distinction may not sell projects for tons of money, but if people admire their work, they will admire the agent who represents it.) Are you a client who knows who they are and what they want from their career, and puts in consistent effort to make that happen? Are you someone who is not a pain in the ass to deal with, and garners positive feedback when you are sent out on meetings? That’s what an agent wants from a client. Can they get that from you?
But please don’t dwell on what an agent wants. I only brought that into the conversation to give you a different perspective on the whole thing. Remember, client-agent relations are a transaction between two professionals, not “a gift from someone on the inside of show business to someone on the outside.” Don’t look to an agent to do you a favor. Do not allow yourself to be the person sitting somewhere saying, “How can I get an agent?” You want an agent sitting somewhere saying, “How can I get that writer as a client”? To make that happen, write good stuff. Write your heart out, find your original voice. Start your career as a writer NOW, and you’ll add an agent to your professional life when you need one.”
Take action! If you write books and feel you are at the point where you need representation, ask yourself, “Have I gotten smart feedback and rewritten multiple drafts of my manuscript or book proposal so it’s the best it can be?” If you’re a screenwriter, have you amassed several feature or TV scripts that reveal who you are as a writer? Do you have other ideas lined up that you can pitch?
Here’s the thing– don’t wait for an agent to sign you. Keep writing, keep sending out your work, and keep getting better at your craft.
Trust me, if you’re doing good work, they will come.
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