WRITERS AT WORK, Pros & Cons of Having an Agent (Part 4)

REMINDER: Tonight at 10:00 CST is your last chance to post a poem for February’s Word of the Month Challenge.

Hi everyone,

Sandy Asher and I have had a good converstion about this month’s topic on WRITERS AT WORK: Pros and cons of having an agent. Jane Yolen also posted her own take on the subject, which we appreciated so much that we invited Jane to choose the next topic and go first. As a result, the March subject for WRITERS AT WORK will be Wrestling with Endings. Jane’s remarks will be posted next Tuesday, March 1.

Now it’s Sandy’s turn to finish out February so I’ll turn the floor over to her. Sandy, it’s all yours.

Response 4: Sandy
February 22, 2011

David, I remain in awe of your perfectly matched skills as writer and businessman. I had to smile at your admitting to your lifelong numbering of things. You always know exactly how many topics we’ve covered and which response we’re up to. My number set consists of one, a couple, a few, quite a few, a whole lot, and a gazillion. Not really useful for negotiating purposes.

True story: Some years ago, the artistic director of what was then the Emmy Gifford Theatre in Omaha, NE, took me out to dinner. He’d produced a couple of my plays and had invited me to town to see one of them, “A Woman Called Truth.” A lovely, totally professional production. The restaurant was lovely, too. After our meal, this gentleman informed me that he wanted to commission a new play for his company. “What would you like to write about?” he asked.

Now this is not a common occurrence, at least not for me. Most of the time, I write and then hope I can find someone who wants to produce or publish what I’ve written. Here was the highly respected artistic director of a first rate professional theater telling me he was hiring me to create whatever I liked – before I’d even thought of it, let alone written a single word! In an attempt to slow my racing heart, I looked down – and happened to see the medallion on my necklace, a wolf howling at the moon. I’ve been a wolf enthusiast ever since reading Jean Craighead George’s JULIE OF THE WOLVES, a book that also influenced my future as a YA novelist. “Wolves,” I said. “I’d like to write a play about wolves.”

“Fine,” came the reply. “How much do you think you’ll need?”

Brace yourselves, David and friends. You’re about to be bowled over by my incredibly poor business acumen. “Um. I don’t know,” I said. (Wait. It gets worse.)

“Well,” he said, “my dream is to support playwrights so they can do their best work without worrying about money. So how about $8,000?”

Eight? Thousand? Dollars? That was a lot of money in those days; in playwriting terms, it’s still a lot of money. My response? (Here it comes, folks.) “Why would you pay me so much money to do something I’d be happy to do for free?”

Clearly, I need an agent to protect me from myself. If this tale isn’t enough to convince you, just ask my husband. I do what I do because I love doing it, because I can’t NOT do it. After 40+ years in this business, it’s still hard for me to believe others are supposed to pay me to do it, are EXPECTING to pay me, even ENJOY paying me. After 40+ years of marriage, it’s still hard for my husband to believe I’m wired this way. He doesn’t seem to find it endearing.
So having an agent is as important to my marriage as it is to my career. I’m free to write; someone else worries about the money. Someone else bugs publishers when checks don’t show up. Someone else untangles snafus about subsidiary rights. Someone else keep an eye on which editors are looking for what I do best, and which will never be interested in anything I do. Someone else keeps track of the numbers.

Yes, she takes a percentage of what I earn. She’s well worth it. And, yes, she’s not a guarantee of eternal success. There have been manuscripts she’s felt weren’t ready to submit and therefore would not submit. She has a reputation to protect, too. And there have been manuscripts she hasn’t been able to sell, even when we’ve both believed in them.

There have also been times when she’s successfully placed a book with a publisher I’ve found myself and suggested to her. And there have been times when I’ve sold books myself, directly to an editor. That was the case when I approached Benchmark about writing for a non-fiction series. When either of those scenarios occur, I still want her handling the contract. I owe her that, for all the good she’s done me and for all the hard knocks she’s weathered with me. And also because . . . well, see the true story above for another good reason.

On more true story: On a later trip to Omaha, I gave a copy of my first picture book, PRINCESS BEE AND THE ROYAL GOODNIGHT STORY, to the young daughter of the above-mentioned artistic director. When I came back for the premiere of “The Wolf and Its Shadows,” exactly one year later, he greeted me with the report that he’d read that book 365 times since last we’d met. “She’s asked for it every single night,” he said.

Really, people, can you believe we get paid money for this, too?


2 comments on “WRITERS AT WORK, Pros & Cons of Having an Agent (Part 4)

    • Hello, Jane —

      That’s probably why a lot of us have agents.

      Yes, I got the $8000. But I later learned the artistic director received a scolding from his board, and I think that was the last time he got to support a playwright quite that generously.

      The production of “The Wolf and its Shadows” was gorgeous.

      Thanks for stopping by. I look forward to “Wrestling with Endings’ with you.


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