Books on agents and more about the minimum wage for writers debate

By Katharine Swan On Monday, February 05, 2007 At 6:02 PM

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iconI just finished a book called How to Be Your Own Literary Agent, by Richard Curtis. Although I reviewed the book on my Reading For Writers blog, I thought it was worth making some comments here, too.

As a little background, after my article How Society Supports Low-Paying Writing Jobs ran in Writers Weekly I had (as some of you already know) a lot of questions from readers. Although a few of the emails I got were from delusional wannabe writers, I also got a good many kudos, congratulations, and legitimate questions.

Several of the legitimate questions had to do with finding agents. Since I've never published a traditional book myself (only an ebook, and self-published at that), I had to admit I had no idea how to answer them. Inspired, I decided to check out a few books on finding a literary agent.

One of the most intriguing books I found at the library was Curtis's How to Be Your Own Literary Agent. I am an eternal do-it-yourselfer, so anything that tells me how I can do something myself is worth reading. It's not only about the money, either - it's about 1) not getting screwed by being ignorant and expecting someone else to do it all for me, and 2) being able to feel really, really good about myself.

I learned to work on my own car so that I could get it done when I wanted to, know what was done, and not be taken advantage of by mechanics who see fair game when a woman walks in the door of their shop. When it comes time for me to seek a publisher for my first book, I intend to handle the submissions and sales negotiations myself for virtually the same set of reasons.

Interestingly, an ongoing theme throughout the book is that publishers are out to take advantage of writers. They want to maximize their profits, of course, so the writer who doesn't know what his or her contract means could be losing out on their rightful portion of the book's income. With all of these dire warnings ringing in my head, I'm thinking that publishing with Angela and Richard Hoy's Booklocker sounds better than ever. At least I'd know I could trust my publisher.

The usefulness of this book aside, I found it extremely interesting that Curtis included a chapter about writers and organizing. The passage harkens back to the ongoing debate about whether writers deserve a minimum wage.

Curtis says writer unionization - true unionization, that is - is virtually impossible for the following reasons:

1) Freelance writers aren't employees.

2) Because of the nature of the business, freelance writers can live and work virtually anywhere, making one of the union's favorite last-ditch efforts - protesting - highly unlikely.

3) Writers do a wide variety of work, making it more difficult to establish a reasonable minimum wage that would apply to everyone.

4) Perhaps most importantly, the National Labor Relations Act of 1933 excludes independent contractors - i.e. freelance writers - from the right to strike.

Curtis has some extremely good points here, and basically what they mean is that we're on our own here. He does point out, though, that a good agent can act in lieu of writer organization - your own personal negotiator. Additionally, he cites the National Writers Union as having made a major impact in the way book, newspaper, and magazine publishers treat their writers.

With all of this in mind, I urge all writers to do the best they can to promote living wages for writers - but to remember that, for us, the most important battles are often those we wage in our own careers.

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Katharine Swan is a full-time freelance writer with more than 5 years of professional writing experience. In addition to maintaining several personal blogs, she writes a variety of online marketing materials for clients, including company blogs, articles, and press releases. In her free time, she spends time with her horse, reads, and writes fiction.

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