The following article written by Natasha Kern appeared
in RWR (Jan-Feb '92) ...
Does It Really Matter Where Your Agent Is Located?
0f course, this question always implies that it could matter if your agent isn't located in New York. However, the real question is, why do writers think a New York address is so important? This belief seems to be based on several erroneous assumptions: Publishing is in New York; book rights are the only rights that matter; fabulous deals are made at lunch; New York agents see editors more frequently than do out-of-town agents; editors buy properties based on the proximity of the agent; all New York agents hand-deliver manuscripts; and agents outside of New York charge more for their services.
Since my agency is located in Portland, Oregon, I am frequently asked whether location poses difficulties for me. When I respond, I'm never sure whether revealing my eight years of working and living in New York is an asset or a liability.
The best answer I've heard to this question came from Barbara Alpert, a senior editor at Bantam, who answered it when we were on a panel at the Santa Barbara Writers' Conference. She said that there were agents in New York with offices less than two blocks from hers whom she had never met, and agents from out of town whom she saw several times a year. What really mattered to her was getting good properties and good deals. She didn't care where agents or, for that matter, writers were located.
Many successful agents work outside of New York and many best-selling writers like Harvey MacKay or Amy Tan have chosen agents located elsewhere. Moreover, the ranks of agents in the hinterlands are swelling as more relocate. Clearly, agents like Oscar Collier and Andrea Brown did not lose their contacts or competence when they moved away from the Big Apple.
In these days of overnight mail service, fax machines, and cellular phones, an agent can be successful anywhere. Reputable agents like Joyce Flaherty in Missouri, Pat Teal in California, and Jane Jordan Browne in Chicago had successful agencies long before these modern conveniences were available. It is also clear that New York agents sell properties to Harlequin, Little Brown, Contemporary Books, Harcourt Brace, HarperCollinsSF, and other publishers outside of New York without traveling to do it.
For some properties, book rights may be all that matters, but, increasingly, audio, video, computer, CDROM, and movie rights matter. In this respect, New York agents have traditionally been at a disadvantage. The companies buying these rights are not in New York. Yet, a July issue of Publishers' Weekly quoted a New York agent who stated that he no longer needed representation on the West Coast because fax and overnight mail enabled him to now market movie rights himself. Presumably, this will save his clients the additional 10 percent of their income paid to Hollywood sub-agents.
Nevertheless, it is more difficult to market screen properties
from a distance than book properties. Here,
agents like Sherry Robb and Sandy Watt, who have strong Hollywood connections, have had an edge. On the other hand, New York agents have an advantage when it comes to representing stage plays and some magazine articles. An agent, wherever she is located, must be able to make sales in all media worldwide to effectively represent her clients. And competence in this area is not measured by where the phone call or submission originates.
Certainly, working in New York has benefits like conveniently attending SAR or ILAA meetings and the many publishing events that take place there. And, yes, there are those wonderful lunches that I enjoy so much when I am in New York, or, for that matter, when I meet with editors at conferences. It is important to know the editors personally and to understand their interests and work styles. However, there are more than five hundred agents. Simple arithmetic shows that even if an editor diligently lunches with an agent every day, she cannot see them all even once a year. Her calendar would already be crowded just to occasionally see the agents who handle properties the editor has already acquired or would like to see.
And, of course, there are dozens of editors an agent needs to stay in touch with as well, and it is impossible to see them all in person. Fortunately, all agents spend most of their days talking on the phone with editors, making deals, handling problems, and keeping up to date on everything concerning the houses they submit to. Some see editors at conferences, ABA, and social functions. But even those agents who never go to New York and never attend conferences will not have good properties rejected for that reason.
Most out-of-town agents do periodically travel to New York to maintain personal contact. An agent once commented to me that this was like visiting your in-laws. You have to do it once in a while, but it won't make or break your marriage. Important properties may warrant a special trip: Sandy Dijkstra did fly to Manhattan to talk to editors personally about The Joy Luck Club, just as I made an extra trip to pitch my property, Who Loves Brian? The Inside Story of the Beach Boys, which sold to St. Martin's. But neither Sandy nor I sold our properties at lunch.
This myth about lunch ignores the fact that properties are submitted when they are ready for submission, not according to luncheon schedules. Most properties are on multiple submission, and no agent could meet with every editor for each submission. Also, these days, editors rarely have the authority to make offers solely on their own initiative. And, even if an editor has received a property she likes, has presented it to her board, and can make me an offer, the most that I can say in response is, "I'm delighted you are interested in this project." I cannot accept her offer without discussing it with my client. The editor, of course, cannot respond effectively to changes in the terms of the offer without consulting others in her house. If an auction is in progress, the other publishers must be notified and given an opportunity to make their offers. Negotiations are not conducted at lunch. Furthermore, after the initial offer, many details-including the payout, the manuscript due date, subsidiary rights, and even the royalties-are often handled by the contracts department and not the editor. A lunching editor may not be able to comment on whether or not certain terms will be approved.
However, lunches and meetings are particularly helpful in selling
nonfiction because the personal relationship is enhanced. If an
editor is expecting her first child, enduring a bitter divorce,
or coping with an illness, she may be more open to looking at proposals
on those subjects because she is more personally interested in them.
Editors, like the rest of us, like to read about subjects they
can relate to, and it helps them to be better champions for the manuscript.
It is important to keep in mind that editors know each agent's clients. They want to communicate with us about changes in policies. They will call or write to us to find out about properties we represent. When I worked in New York, I knew more publishing gossip: i.e. who was seeing whom, who was having her apartment redecorated, or who wanted to start a family-than I do now, but not more publishing information.
Some agents charge for expenses and some do not, regardless of location. I don't charge for overhead, so rent, postage, phone bills, etc., have no effect on my clients. For most agents, it probably evens out-rents are lower out of town and secretaries and corporate taxes are less expensive, while phone bills and travel are a bit higher.
One advantage of being on the West Coast is that it is easier to spot potential trends. There is a good deal of truth in the saying that "as California goes, so goes the nation." When I go to New York, I spend a lot of time talking about what life is like on the other side of the Hudson and what the rest of America is interested in. There is an insularity about New Yorkers who read The New Yorker and the New York Times and wonder what the next trend will be after oat bran, co-dependency, and the men's movement. In California, the next trend is already here.
Another interesting factor is that many writers have called me because they feel that having an agent who is nearby will be helpful. Maybe that's true, but not if I don't represent the kind of material they write. Some writers have a prejudice against being represented by an agent in another time zone. That prejudice is probably reflected in the fact that I represent biographies of movie or music celebrities, whereas one New York agent commented to me she rarely gets those clients.
A surprising number of writers subscribe to another myth: that New York agents are difficult, snobbish, distant, and inconsiderate. Agents like Denise Marcil, Evan Marshall, Maureen Walters, and Meredith Bernstein are personable, supportive, enthusiastic representatives for their clients. As a former New Yorker myself, I didn't have a personality transplant when I left. At least a third of my clients, including several best-selling authors and some writers who do live in New York, decided to work with me after having an agent in New York. None of them based this decision on the personality of their former agent.
This suggests that the reasons for selecting a first agent, or for changing agents, are complex, and are tied to the needs of the writer and how well the agent or agency meets those needs. A recent article in a newsletter for professional writers discussed the reasons writers leave their agents. There was a long list of reasons, but not a single writer mentioned her agent's location as a problem.
This article really opens the door to the larger issue that I would like to address in a future column: what ARE the important questions to ask an agent if you are thinking of working with her? I believe it is absolutely essential to take a number of things into consideration prior to making a commitment to an agency. Certainly competency, type of work handled, fees, commission, contract, the agent's background, the writer's needs and goals, and many other things are important. Many writers prefer personal service and accessibility in their agent. The location of the agency is probably the least significant criterion in the selection process.
The important thing to conclude is that it is the responsibility
of each writer to assess what she wants from an agent and to learn
as much as she can about the agents she is considering. Or she can
use the criterion of last resort, which one local fiction writer
expressed to me by saying, "I want a local agent so I have
a throat I can easily get my hands around when things go wrong."
If location is a primary factor in your decision-making process,
perhaps you are not asking the right questions to make sure you
have the best agent for your needs and for the development of your
writing career. There are excellent agents in New York and excellent
agents elsewhere. With a good checklist and a bit of research, you
can find them.