Sunday, January 18, 2015

My Cautionary Tale [or Ten Questions to Ask a Prospective Agent].

Agents with an Ulterior Motive.
For those who haven't read all of my blogs, you may have the impression that I am a New Englander.  Although I have lived in New Hampshire for almost 13 years, I have only called it my true home for the last four years, and had a previous life growing up in Ohio and the suburbs of Los Angeles. Most of my wonderful siblings live in southern California, and my dearly departed grandmother (she passed away at 104 in 2013) lived there, too. She was always a catalyst for my calling California home.

When I decided to leave the security of my employment as an attorney, in Washington, D.C., I took a vow of poverty. After doing my Peace Corps stint in the Philippines on an island village where there was no running water or electricity, I understood that living well is a relative term.  My older sister and her doting husband let me live in their home in the South Bay area of Los Angeles so that I could pursue a television writing career.   My belongings were in storage in DC, still, but I had my hybrid bicycle, clothes, and a nice comfy bed, and virtual hegemony over their home office while they worked.  In exchange for their largesse, all I had to do was wash dishes, and run errands for them.  I had my computer, that I had bought from a Writers Guild of America East Foundation screenwriting competition that had garnered me $4000 many years earlier.  Mind you, I wasn't the only winner. There were 11 of us. Although we were supposed to receive an established screenwriting mentor to assist us in our screenwriting pursuits, mine never materialized. But I was busy as an attorney then, and had developed an interest in making my own film. But I digress.

While in Los Angeles, I wrote a spec script for a television series, and a television pilot named, "CON LAW," a proposed series about new law school students matriculating at the same time one of their professors is killed.

Over a decade later, after moving to New Hampshire, I would receive a notice in the mail that I was potentially a member of a class of writers who had been discriminated against by the industry, meaning, "Hollywood," as, apparently, I was an older writer who had been thrown in the dustbin with other more successful writers.  Considering that my attempts to enter the industry were unsuccessful, I was flummoxed as to how I could even belong to the class of writers.  I was not successful, so how could I be getting the letter?  Then it dawned on me.

I had an agent. Once.

How could I forget that I had an agent? I couldn't even remember the agency's name. I had to look up my records to be reminded that I had signed a contract to potentially write for a very popular television series dealing with Washington, D.C., where I had hailed for 11 years as an international criminal attorney for the US government. The contract was for one already successful television series. The agency didn't plan to represent me for any other potential writing gig.  When I called the Writers Guild of America, West, the union for writers, to ask them about how usual that practice was for one to be represented for one show only, they said that they had never heard of such a thing.  The literary agency that sought to represent me for the one project was a boutique agency with lots of established writers, but no big names from what I could gather (although, truth be told, I was interested in #screenwriting, not literature, so most writers' names would fall on my deaf ears). I would place this agency in the second or third tier of literary agencies; but they had nice offices, and seemed quite legitimate.  And, apparently, the agency was one of the defendants, among others in the lawsuit. Mind you, some of those plaintiffs were already established writers, whose sell-by date had passed.  It's no secret that Hollywood wants nubile, impregnable youth, not seasoned adults running around a set, hence the colossal lawsuit by the elder statesmen #writers, to which I haphazardly belonged because I had an agent for all of -- not even six months.

Fanfare for the Uncommon Agent, Jerry Maguire
I severed ties with the agency after querying about the progress of my entree into writing for the already-established television series, once I learned that the writer of the successful series had used my work.  It was the type of show that hinged upon the lead writer finishing his or her writing so that the show could immediately go into production and air two weeks later. I saw my work in three or four episodes of the then current season, and into the next season.  When I returned to the agency to ask what happened, an Englishman, with a decidedly stuffy voice, whom I'd never met before said, "We never gave it to them."

Welcome to the whoring world of agents.  I don't know anyone besides the football player in Jerry Maguire who had a good relationship with one (and, well, you know how truthful that is). 

Never in the annals of moneymaking has there been a more bloodsucking species of human being than a Hollywood agent or manager.  They manage the careers of people who do all the work, have all the talent, but who are indebted to the agent--for doing what?  Talking about them in passing with their friends. Because that's all that happens. Most agents are struggling to be seen, or have their calls returned by anyone; and more often than not, they are more interested in establishing relationships with "Hollywood" or the publishing houses, themselves, than helping you, an upstart, to get your foot in the door.  Two other literary agents whom I approached (about this blog posts novel, yet to reach Amazon virtual shelves), one in NYC--who asked for my work, the other, in the UK to whom I sent my novel's synopsis--gave my work to already established writers, to review, who, rejecting my work, instead incorporated it into their own. You can purchase their versions of my novel on shelves to this day.

I know there are people who swear that their agents are a godsend. However, everyone I know seems to get their work on their own, and they do all the hustling to be known, to create a buzz, to get attention.  Think about it: agents have many clients, not just one, so how can you expect them to be singing your praises at all times?  And then you pay them 15%? For me that's like charging the New England Patriots a fee for liking them.  I know that some agents do much more. But, for the life of me, most people that I know bemoan the difficulties of getting their agent to pay any attention to them, or they chafe when an agent says that s/he was responsible for getting the agent a gig--that the client had told them about.

Agents usually want you when you're famous and a known commodity who, unequivocally, can add income to their wallet because you've earned the money already.  So, think twice about signing on the dotted line to give away your hard-earned money to somebody who merely "likes you" because they think you have promise (at making money on your own that you can then give to them).  If you are going to look for an agent, ask your prospect or consider the following questions:

You'll Have a Devil of a Time finding a Good Agent
1. Do you work out of your home, and if so, how frequently do you visit potential contacts, such as publishers, editors, book designers?

2. Ask for a look at the telephone directory on their smartphone or tablet. If there aren't hundreds of names in it, don't use that agent. You want an agent with contacts.

3. Name 10 people whom you know (not just that you've met) who are influential in your field. 

4. Who won't return your phone calls? If they can't list names, run for the hills. They are lying.

5. What role does social media play in your life as an agent? Is s/he a dinosaur, or contemporary?

6. How does the agent dress? Is s/he stylish, or frumpy, with bread crumbs all over her clothing? Is his tie stained?

7. Does the agent have an opinion about any other agencies that s/he respects or reviles?

8. Has the agent committed to the Association of Author Representative's Canon of Ethics? If s/he answers yes, s/he's likely a liar; (at least 2/3rds of agents don't belong to it).

9. What does the agent really do to earn income? Is he or she moonlighting, hoping to make it big?

10. Get a list of the clients the agent wishes s/he represented. That will tell you about where you fit in. 

People bemoan lawyers. I bemoan #agents.  If someone has an agent that s/he truly respects, share his or her name with others (I don't need to know them), and spread the word. There are too many bad ones out there making it hard for the good ones to get any screen time, as it were.

The members of the TV writers' age discrimination class action lawsuit were given a time period to pick up their settlement check(s). Of course, one of the conditions was that anyone receiving the checks could not talk about the terms of the settlement or the lawsuit.  I didn't sign online to receive the check, which in my case was only a couple of thousand dollars, and let the time lapse, as the strictly worded acceptance instructions provided.  However, someone actually called me to confirm that I wasn't accepting the check.

I didn't want to accept the settlement amount, not because it wasn't a large amount, but, because my voice means too much to me.  I'm older now. I don't care. I do what I want to, say what I want to, and as I'm not running for office, have no filter on my opinions. I didn't want their hush money.

I'm writing this missive about agents tongue-in-cheek, of course, because if a big agent approached me and said, "we want to represent you...." I'd likely say:

"No. I mean, maybe."

"Let me think about it."

Naaaa. Here's my answer: "Go to hell."

Oops? Am I burning bridges?

To hell?

I'll take the long walk, any day.

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