Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Which Comes First: The Agent or The Article?

Question of the day: when I pitch a query to a magazine, is it helpful to have my agent do it for me? I.e., is it more likely to get accepted if it comes from her?

My immediate gut answer to this is a resounding "no." I've written probably somewhere in the hundreds of articles and never once has my agent pitched one for me. The reasons for this are several: 1) most magazine articles pay, at most, several thousand dollars (the bigger magazines usually pay about $2 a word, and few places assign more than 2000 words these days, and rarely do you even get 2000 words), so really, it's not worth your agent's time to nab a couple hundred dollars from these pieces. 2) There is absolutely no reason for your agent to be your go-between. Editors aren't interested in dealing with a middleman: they want to deal directly with a polished, professional, fun, breezy writer - adding your agent into the mix just complicates things. 3) As I alluded to in #2, agents are unnecessary in this process: what lands you an assignment is coming up with a unique, kick-ass idea, crafting that into a wonderful query, then emailing it to the appropriate editor. An agent can't help you do any of the above better than you can on your own.

That said, I *do* think an agent (and/or your publicist) can help open doors when it comes to the biggies: The New Yorker, The Atlantic, even something like Modern Love in the NY Times (though I know people who have been published in that column by simply emailing in their essay, and I also know others who succeeded with the help of their publicist). Unlike the service magazines like SELF or GLAMOUR or whatnot, these magazines are harder to break into than the toughest NYC private school (which these days, can be harder to get into than Harvard...seriously), and having an agent demonstrates (fairly or not) that you're already a cut above some other writers. (And I don't mean to imply that service magazines aren't hard to break into. They are. I tried for years to crack GLAMOUR and did a joy dance when I finally did. I only mean that there's a leap, in terms of exclusivity, from these huge national magazines to the even more upper-tier, more literary mags.)

So, for the most part, my long answer to your short question is that no, you don't need your agent to land you a gig. Save that 15% for a celebratory gift when your query gets accepted.

What say you, readers? Ever used an agent to land you an article?


Unknown said...

I totally agree w/you. You don't need an agent to pitch most mags on your behalf. I haven't found that agents are all that connected with magazine editors, anyway, and mine has told me that I should just do it myself and keep the 15%. I also agree with you re: going through a publicist occasionally, though, especially if you're pitching an idea that could be tied to your book. (Your publicist might also offer to do some sort of giveaway in conjunction with the piece.) I'm actually working on something like that right now!

Anonymous said...

For what it's worth: I met an agent last summer who said the converse... write the book and get an agent first, then go on to magazines. Her thinking wasn't necessarily that she would pitch the magazines for me but that editors I pitched would be more receptive because of the book deal... that the agent was essentially vetting my ability to write. I haven't finished the book yet though so I can't say whether that's true or not.

Allison Winn Scotch said...

Thanks for chiming in. FWIW, I think you got some crappy advice. Here's why - and I'll discuss this next week on the blog because I think it's REALLY important - in order to sell a non-fiction book, you absolutely must have a platform. You likely won't get a book deal without one, so waiting to land magazine assignments after you land the book deal...well, it's backwards because in order to land the book deal, you need to have magazine clips (or visibility on some level). While the same doesn't hold entirely true for fiction, you will likely get a bigger advance if you are well-connected and have magazine visibility.
We can chat about this more next week, but I just wanted to encourage you to consider this and not shy away from pitching in light of this agent's advice!