Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Agent's Corner: Canadian Agent vs. American Agent: Is One Better than the Other?

Share |
Samantha Haywood

This month's column addresses a question that occurs to many Canadian authors at some stage in their careers, although most likely after they’ve had their first taste of success: Should I have an American agent instead of a Canadian agent?

It’s a complicated question for me to answer because of my obvious bias as a Canadian agent. So I won’t argue for one over the other but instead suggest that authors base their decisions on how well their current agents are fulfilling their career needs. There are great Canadian agents and great American agents, so all writers need to be careful about being seduced by the notion that any American agent is better than a Canadian agent. This notion is often a mirage because some very talented Canadian agents can do a great job for your career at every stage, including the ever elusive stage of fame and fortune. After all, once you’re a famous author, it’s not very difficult to sell your books for large advances to big houses around the world, if your agent knows how to do his or her job.

In my opinion, the hard part of agenting is establishing careers and breaking out new voices. Just as difficult is the job of peddling foreign rights to books that haven’t broken out, or — the most common issue at hand — the job of helping authors weather the unpredictable highs and lows of their writing careers in the era of BookScan and BookNet, when publishers base their advances on sales records of an author’s last book. Publishers are now forced to take an author’s recent book sales into account when calculating an advance for a new book since major book chains do the same when deciding how many copies of a new book they want to order from the publisher. One of the repercussions is that authors are changing publishers more,often, which means you need to have an agent who can help you navigate those choppy waters and who will stick with you through the lean sales years when your present publisher might not.

Typically, however, as soon as a Canadian author hits the bestseller list they often start thinking about moving to an American agent/agency. But if you already have a Canadian agent who has been doing a great job for you in the past and has sold your books to the best publishers they could, then I'd argue against moving. For one thing, busy American agents may not be able to give the author the same time and attention that a good Canadian agent can. We’ve all heard plenty of stories about Canadian writers going to American agents only to find they don’t count after they’ve been signed-up. And, to be fair, there are ample success stories on the other side, since there are simply more top-of-their–game American agents out there than Canadian ones. But if you happen to be in this predicament, wondering whether to stay or to go, I've come up with a check list to help you determine, first and foremost, if you're happy where you are.

When deciding on an agent, the author should feel convinced of the agent’s passion and dedication to their work. A big part of publishing, especially sales, is about transmitting passion, and if your agent isn’t crazy passionate about your books then you’re likely not being served well. I’m certain that when I pitch my clients' books, the editor is listening first for my passion and second for the story. If I don’t feel crazy in love with what I’m working on, it shows, which is one of the reasons I wanted to become an agent after working as a rights manager at a publishing house (selling world rights to their acquired titles). I need to be able to choose my clients and mean it when I say to an editor, “You have to read this!!” That is everything to me. And I'd like to think it's also everything to my clients, to know their agent is also one of their biggest fans.

Along with passion, an agent’s network, track record and reputation are equally key. Clearly, all that passion isn’t going to do you any good if your agent isn’t connected to the right editors. A strong and extensive international network is even better, including contacts in New York and London (because I’m assuming your Canadian agent has a firm grasp on the Canadian publishing scene). And a good client list should also equal a track record of selling successfully into the US, UK and translation markets.

Also important is that your agent has a good reputation — do other industry professionals speak well of her? Is she known to be savvy at her job? The answers to these questions will also address these concerns: will publishers want to read your agent's submissions first? Will publishers listen when your agent gets involved in problems on your behalf? I strongly recommend doing some research if you’re concerned about these aspects of network, track record and reputation. I’d even venture so far as to say that it does help if publishers like working with your agent. Granted, there are powerful agents who are disliked and do a wonderful job for their authors. But in my experience, if a publisher really dislikes working with your agent that can be a strike against you and your book when problems arise (and trust me, problems always arise in publishing).

Experience and industry knowledge are also critically important. If you have a more junior agent, perhaps he is part of an established agency that offers insider industry information. It’s essential that your agent have great skills when it comes to deal negotiation (including but not limited to negotiating your advance, territories granted and royalties) and contract negotiation (which includes a wide range of issues from fluctuating subrights to Open Market issues, to the option clause and beyond). And how about bankruptcy and other legal issues? Is your agent set up to handle the truly big problems?

Also high on my checklist is communication. Do you hear from your agent? When problems arise are they explained? If your book is on submission and you’ve asked to be kept informed of the process, are you? Some writers want to see everything, some don’t, but your agent should keep you as informed as you wish to be. It’s your book and you might need that information at some point.

In general, you should feel that you can ask such questions and have them answered with openness and in a timely manner. If your agent acts as if he resents this level of communication, I think you are justified in feeling dissatisfied. It is an agent's job to be the conduit of information to the author and to offer strategy and insights and explanations. Without this mutual conversation, the relationship will eventually break down just as any relationship would.

Solid problem-solving skills are very much an agent’s purview. Can your agent fix what you throw at her in times of need? Does she do as much as possible to reach a successful conclusion? Sometimes agenting can feel like it’s more about problem-solving than deal-making! So as glorious as large advances are, it's the agent's day-in and day-out management of an author's career that will help determine how successful an author is. It's things like: talking with your publicist, or deciding when is the best time to submit your book abroad, or trying to combat a lack of your book’s availability in the chains, or finding out preliminary sales numbers, or dealing with the flood of ebook addendums for your backlist that demonstrate that a good problem-solver is not to be underestimated.

To end, I can’t help coming back to an obvious and tired fact: Canadian publishing is small and American publishing has huge resources in comparison. There aren’t that many Canadian agents out there and some are much more skilled than others. I would never want to suggest that Canadian authors stay with Canadian agents just because they are Canadian. Just be careful you don’t fall for the idea that greener pastures always exist in the US and do make sure your decision is based on the facts of the professional and the personalities involved, not on nationality.



* * *

Samantha Haywood is a literary agent who has been combining her love of Canadian literature with an eye to international publishing for over`a decade. She launched her client list with the Transatlantic Literary Agency in 2004, and represents adult trade authors of literary fiction and upmarket fiction, narrative nonfiction and graphic novels. Clients include: Martha Baillie, Dave Bidini, Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall, Michael Cho, Jane Christmas, Kristen den Hartog, Marni Jackson, Steve Murray, Ray Robertson, Rebecca Rosenblum, Claire Holden Rothman, Ian Weir and Zoe Whittall, among others. She splits her working year between Toronto and Amsterdam where she lives with her daughter and husband, Pieter Swinkels, Publisher of Cargo and Associate Publisher of De Bezige Bij. Find Samantha at www.tla1.com and @s_haywood on Twitter.

Any views or opinions presented in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Transatlantic Literary Agency.

Related item from our archives