Let’s start with book agents. Unfortunately, here I’m not as helpful as I might be. I know that some genres and some publishers are much less reliant on agents than others, but I’m not entirely clear on who’s who. I can answer within a narrow range, though.
First, it doesn’t hurt in either book publishing or in film to have a calling card precede you; which means, to either come recommended, or to recommend yourself. What do I mean by the latter? Suppose, for example, you wrote a science fiction story. To the best of my knowledge (and I know there are people reading this who will correct me if I’m wrong) you do not need an agent to submit a story to, say, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Or to other sf magazines. You can get an idea of sf magazines by picking up one of the Year’s Best anthologies and checking to see where the stories in it originally appeared.
If you get your story published in a high-profile enough magazine, you may catch the fancy of an editor without even needing an agent. In any case, you’ll have a good leg up on the competition if you can begin your letter to an agent with, “My stories have appeared in…” and name a magazine or two. The best way to get a good agent is to have already demonstrated you have career potential.
It’s worth bearing in mind, too, that all agents are not equal. First, and to get this out of the way, if an agent asks you for money upfront it’s almost certainly a scam. Run away. However, let’s assume you’re dealing with a reputable agent — they still specialize, and there are some agents whose contacts are very much weighted toward a particular genre. And that genre may not be yours. So how do you know what agent to write to?
Research. Still in the realm of sf (because that’s where I have most of my experience), you could subscribe to Locus or SF Chronicle. Note the news sections; see who sold what books to whom. You’ll start to become familiar with the names of agents and publishers.
I’ve given you examples here from the world of sf, and you’ll need to translate into whatever markets seem appropriate for what you want to write. If you like New Yorker type stories, find out how the New Yorker works — do they solicit most of their pieces, do they accept nonagented submissions, do they truly read their slush pile? If you can’t find out any other way, you could call and ask. They probably won’t thank me for saying that, but still — better to waste the time of one receptionist for two minutes than to waste your time and an editor’s time by sending something utterly inappropriate that then requires a letter back to you.
Research — that holds for publishing houses as well. See who’s written things that are tonally similar to what you want to do, and who published them. I gather from editor friends that there are a shocking number of people who send handwritten cookbooks to mystery publishers, and vice versa.
And on the other coast…
Film agents. Unlike book agents, there’s no shilly-shallying here; you need a film agent, no two ways about it.
And in film, the demarcation line is easy to see. Most film agents can’t do a damned thing for you; as far as I can tell, they couldn’t set up a meeting if their lives depended on it. There are only six or seven agencies in Hollywood who seem able to help their clients get work. I don’t know why this is, and I don’t know how the other agencies generate any income; I simply accept it as one of the great mysteries. (I’m sure the agents from those other agencies would disagree with me strongly; I’m just giving you my view.)
If you have an agent from one of the lower-tier agencies, they will explain to you how you have to get out there and hustle, hustle, hustle; having an agent is no excuse to settle down. You should be making contacts and finding work, they’ll tell you. I believe this is because they are incapable of finding you work themselves; they’ll simply help negotiate any contract you bring them.
If you have an agent from one of the upper-tier agencies, he’ll tell you to concentrate on your writing — that he’s here to worry about the contacts and meetings and such. Upper-level agents and managers will do their best, in fact, to cushion you from the whole process, which is one reason writers love and need them and are willing to shell out ten percent off the top.
So how do you get an upper-level agent? In the classic catch-22, you can’t, until you’ve proven yourself. And you can’t prove yourself without a good agent.
The usual pattern seems to be that you enter the system with a lower-tier agent, get your first job somehow, and then leave that agency and go to a better one. At least, this is a pattern I’ve seen over and over again.
You may recall that my manager got me my first job. Once on staff, I happened to be having dinner at the season-opening party, and another staffwriter asked an executive why her friend, who’d directed several episodes of a prestigious show, couldn’t seem to get any work with this studio. He implied the director’s agent had handled things badly. As it happened, the director’s agent was mine, and he turned to me and asked, “Do you like your agent?” I said, “You answer me first. Has she ever gotten anyone work that you know of?” (A conversation I’d already had with that director some weeks ago, as a matter of fact, as we both tried to figure out if we were with the wrong person.) He said, “We need to talk.”
We never did talk about it. But two weeks later my manager called me from the beach where he was on vacation, to ask why agents kept phoning him to say they heard I might be looking for representation. “Do they know something I don’t?” I repeated the conversation from the dinner, and he laughed. “He’s looking out for you.” Apparently the executive told several top agencies that I was someone to “watch out for,” and once the blood was in the water — well, I found myself choosing between three.
When you’re on staff, your options are suddenly wide open.
That’s all very well for you, you’re thinking, but at this stage of the game I can’t seem to get any agent.
It’s frustrating, there’s no doubt about it. You need a recommendation — someone who’s already a client, or someone with some other tie to an agent, to speak for you. Thus we return to my earlier post about making contacts, and Hollywood being like LJ.
My agent is a WGA signatory, but he’s based in New York. Is that okay?
It’s okay if you’re okay with it, but I don’t think he’s ever going to find you Hollywood work.
Can’t I just write a query letter to one of these top agencies, and get them to read me?
Hahahahahahaha. Oh, wait, you were serious. No.
That brings back memories, though. I remember, years ago, when I still lived on the east coast and was charmingly naïve about all this, getting a reply from CAA — which I opened to find my own envelope inside, still sealed, with a letter explaining that they didn’t take unsolicited queries.
Oh, I’d heard of places that didn’t take unsolicited submissions. I mean, that’s why I was writing, right? To see if I could interest them in soliciting me?
But no. They didn’t take questions. If you’re famous enough for us to have heard of you, we’ll solicit you, assuming we care. Otherwise, don’t contact us.
There was an arrogance about it so breathtaking that even today, years later, with CAA under new management and me enjoying a Hollywood career, it’s hard for me to see those three letters in an unprejudiced light.
Aren’t you generalizing?
Yes, I am. There have been people who got representation through query letters — though in the very few stories I’ve heard, they weren’t querying wildly successful agents, and they were living in LA. For what it’s worth — however you hook up with an agent or manager, and whatever agency they represent, you will usually find yourself with someone who’s about on the same rung of the ladder as you. I found my manager when he was younger and hungrier, and now his client list is almost scary. My present agent had only just moved to his agency from a less prestigious one, and was looking for a new client base.
This is actually a good thing, because your career growth will feed their career growth.
Let me say this, too.
IT IS POSSIBLE TO FIND AN AGENT. I’m being as realistic as possible, because I remember how badly I could have used someone telling me these things when I was starting out. But despite the hurdles, listen to this: EVERYONE I KNOW HERE WHO WANTED AN AGENT, FOUND ONE.
Every single one.
I know it’s an assbackwards system, I know it’s tough. It’s not as tough as you think, though, and I don’t want to give you the wrong impression. If you love the idea of writing scripts, it means you’ll jump through enough hoops that an agent will catch you, somewhere along the line. If you write well enough, every new contact you make will light fuses in all directions, and people you’ve never heard of will know your name and what you’ve written.
All I ever heard, back in New York, was how long the odds were — but I work with men and women who’ve seen the success of the improbable every day. The world must be peopled, as Benedick says, right? And TV staffs have to come from somewhere. Baby writers don’t just fall out of the sky — they sit at home in Cedar Rapids, trying out specs for size, and wondering what the traffic in LA is like.