How To Get A Literary Agent

Do you want to know how to get a literary agent? You might be interested to know exactly what literary agents are looking for in new clients in scripted TV, reality TV, and feature film (hint: each area is a little different…).

Chad Gervich author How To Manage Your Agent

Chad Gervich, veteran TV producer/writer and author of How To Manage Your Agent: A Writer’s Guide To Hollywood Representation, interviewed dozens of agents and managers. Chad asked them to rank the most important factors that led them to sign new clients (or not) and the results are revealed in this post.

I was nodding my head in agreement so many times when reading How To Manage Your Agent and I’ve given this book as a gift to many people.  I think this is an invaluable resource for navigating the literary agent relationship and for getting a literary agent in the first place.

I asked Chad if I could excerpt one of the most important sections about what representatives look for and need in new clients and he agreed. Take it away, Chad!

Excerpted from How To Manage Your Agent: A Writer’s Guide to Hollywood Representation

By Chad Gervich

So you’re ready for reLiterary Agents book How To Manage Your Agent Chad Gervichpresentation. You’ve got four great scripts under your belt, a desk full of brilliant ideas, and—most importantly—youve read this book, so you understand how agents and managers function: when they staff, how they find assignments, where they sell pitches and projects.

You could not be more ready . . . or could you? Before spending time, energy, and possibly money hunting for representation, it may be helpful to ask yourself: “am I really ready for a literary agent or manager?

This is different than asking: “do I want a literary agent or manager?” Lots of people want a literary agent or manager, but that doesn’t mean they’re ready, career-wise, to attract or have a literary agent or manager. And if you’re not ready to actually have representation, to participate fully in an agent-client relationship, your time is better spent gathering or building the tools, resources, and credits necessary to eventually attract and use representation, rather than pursuing it prematurely.

The question to ask, then, is: “what do representatives look for and need in new clients . . . and how can I fit the bill?” Because television and film are such different industries, TV and film literary agents often look for slightly different things in potential clients.

What Television Literary Agents And Managers Look For In New Clients

While TV literary agents and managers are almost always open to signing new clients, they’re not always open to signing any type of new client. Namely, “baby writers.” In fact, many TV literary agents and managers won’t sign baby writers at all. Not because they don’t like finding and nurturing new talent, but because “breaking a baby,” or getting a first-time writer his first TV job, is a near-impossible task, with very little payoff.

Michael Pelmont mananger New Wave Entertainment“It’s very, very tough to represent someone who has never worked in this business before,” says agent-cum-manager Michael Pelmont of New Wave Entertainment. “To get them that first break, to put in all that work, to trust they’re going to appreciate that and not walk away—there’s a huge risk you take on as a manager or an agent.”

Let’s break down what, exactly, makes a baby TV writer so risky.

 

They don’t have tons of relationships

Having a large network of professional relationships is essential—especially in television—for young writers hoping to work. Showrunners tend to hire or promote friends and colleagues they already know; execs and producers recommend writers they’ve met and enjoyed. Unfortunately, baby writers may come brimming with talent, but they rarely come with a deep Rolodex of contacts.

Even those who have been working as assistants or P.A.s come with only limited connections—and while these connections are helpful, it takes as many relationships as possible, with almost every network and studio, to really “break” a baby writer.

This means agents must begin introducing writers to all the relevant producers and executives around Hollywood. This not only takes time, but one quick meeting with an exec or producer isn’t usually enough to lock down a staff job. So while agents and managers can make introductions, or plant the seeds of relationships, it’s up to writers to nurture those seeds, turning them into bona fide relationships, which takes even longer.

The focus is staffing, not selling

NS Bienstock agent Ra KumarIn television, most writers’ work comes from staffing, but the biggest paydays, especially for agents, come from selling or packaging original ideas that make it to air. Unfortunately, most baby writers, even those that are extremely talented, don’t have the experience or skills necessary to sell a show.

So while a good literary agent or manager may believe a baby writer has the talent to eventually pitch and sell a series, it often takes years of work before a client can actually sell her own show. “If I have a kid [with a show idea] right out of college, I can’t go to a network because he’s never produced,” says N.S. Bienstock agent Ra Kumar. “That’s like going to an architectural firm with a drawing of a house and saying, ‘Okay, now we can start construction!’ You have to have people that know what they’re doing and have done it before.”

Competition is high

There are thousands of baby television writers clattering on keyboards across America, and only a handful of entry-level jobs. In 2012, broadcast networks aired only ninety-six scripted shows, and not all of them offered staff writer positions. While cable shows also offer other opportunities, there are fewer scripted opportunities on cable than on broadcast. And because cable shows have smaller budgets, many staffs don’t staff writers at all. So these thousands of writers are competing for—in all of television—less than 200 openings a year!

Not to mention, most shows get canceled early or don’t last past a first season. So staffing a baby doesn’t mean a literary agent’s job is done. The odds are that writer will be unemployed again in a few months, and the agent will have to start all over again.

Baby writers take a lot of time and earn little money

TV writers room- breaking bad“I’ve heard of [writers] taking seven years to get their first job,” says one entertainment lawyer, and all that time, “you don’t know if you’ll ever get paid as a representative. Ever!”

Plus, when a baby writer does get his first job, it’s fairly low-paying. Let’s say a lucky staff writer makes $100,000 during his first year on a TV staff. $100,000 may not be spare change, but that writer’s literary agent or manager only pockets $10,000—which certainly isn’t enough to sustain business or put food on an agent’s family’s table.

Even if that agent or manager staffed four baby writers, that’s only $40,000 in commission; but let’s say that literary agent staffs four upper-level writers, each making close to $500,000 per year. Now that agent’s bringing home $200,000 in annual commission—and seasoned upper-level writers are much easier to staff than inexperienced babies.

Baby writers don’t earn agents or managers a promotion

While literary agents and managers love and promote their clients, they also have their own careers to manage; they want to get their own promotions and raises. “The more invaluable [to the company] you become, the higher you go up,” says Pelmont, “whether it’s by raising more money, increasing the company’s profile in the marketplace, [or] running things internally.”

Yet while breaking a baby may be personally gratifying, it usually generates little money—or press—for an agent or manager’s company, which means it does little to further an agent or manager’s career. For all of these reasons, literary agents and managers think carefully before signing a baby writer.

richard weitz“We’ll take on someone that’s really special,” says WME TV agent Richard Weitz, “but we’re not going to take on a ton of people who will collide against each other. Maybe one or two or three. Not more than that.” Thus, most writers need to have more going for them than just phenomenal writing samples.

In fact, “they actually don’t have to be great [writers],” says manager Jeff Holland of The Cartel. “[I won’t sign] a bad writer, but I will sign someone who is solid [if they’re] working for an individual, a showrunner, who is known to promote from within. If they’re on a show like Justified, which is going to go a couple more seasons, or a comedy like How I Met Your Mother, and you know they’re going to get promoted from within . . . sometimes you’re willing to work with somebody who you don’t feel has material as good as somebody you already represent, but they have connections and networking.”

What, then, are the most important elements for a TV writer to have in place in order to attract representation?

To find out, I asked feature lit agents and managers, scripted TV agents/managers, and reality agents/managers how they would rank 9 qualities they might find in prospective clients.

What Literary Agents Want In Scripted TV Writers
  • Great writing samples
  • Good in a room (personality/attitude)
  • Professional TV writing credits
  • Well-positioned to get their own work
  • Interesting life experience
  • Professional accomplishments in a related field
  • Professional connections
  • Living in Los Angeles
  • Professional TV experience (non-writing)
What Literary Agents Want In Reality TV Producers
  • Professional reality TV producing credits
  • Good in a room (personality/attitude)
  • Professional connections
  • Living in Los Angeles
  • Well-positioned to get their own work
  • Interesting life experience
  • Great reality producing samples (demo reels, etc.)
  • Professional accomplishments in a related field
  • Professional TV experience (non-producing)

What do the results tell you about TV literary agents and managers’ priorities and values as they hunt for new clients? Does this surprise you? Do the results change your feeling about whether or not you’re actually ready for representation?

What Feature Literary Agents and Managers Look For In New Clients

The world of feature screenwriting is just as competitive as television. While movie executives aren’t filling positions on staffs like TV execs and producers, there are thousands of aspiring scribes clamoring to make the next big sale. One feature agent estimated he received 4,000 unsolicited queries per year.

Wannabes are fueled by stories like that of Brad Ingelsby, who, in 2008, was living with his parents in Pennsylvania, working at his dad’s furniture company, when Relativity purchased his spec screenplay The Low Dweller (later renamed Out of the Furnace) for $650,000 against $1.1 million. Inglesby has since gone on to become one of Hollywood’s top screenwriters.

screenwriter Brad Inglesby

In 2012, he sold The All-Nighter to Warner Brothers, The Signal to Indian Paintbrush, and was hired to rewrite Gareth Evans’ award-winning Indonesian martial arts film, The Raid: Redemption, for Screen Gems.

Yet while stories like Ingelsby’s are inspirational, they’re anomalies. The vast majority of writers don’t sell million-dollar screenplays while living hundreds of miles from Hollywood. Most screenwriters get their start by slaving away in Los Angeles and selling their first screenplay for something closer to WGA minimum—about $125,000 on the high end (on the low end, about $35,000).

Sure, $125,000 is nothing to sneeze at for a writer, but for a feature agent commissioning ten percent, it’s less than $13,000 (or, if you sold a low-budget, non-original script, about $3,500). Again, like with baby television writers, this hardly sustains an agent’s business. So do feature agents look for the same factors as TV literary agents? Yes, although not necessarily in the same order of importance.

Here’s Verve agent Zach Carlisle: “Staffing and development on the TV side is very much about getting into the club. There are a lot of fantastic writers out there, but getting into that first room or getting that first piece of development is hard without the relationship. On the feature side, if you have a great script you can gain a lot of heat quickly. One executive reads, two executives read, they start to pass it around, it makes its way to a studio [or] studio president; [suddenly] everyone wants to sit down with this person.”

What Literary Agents Want In Feature Writers
  • Great screenwriting samples
  • Good in a room (personality/attitude)
  • Interesting life experience
  • Professional screenwriting credits
  • Living in Los Angeles
  • Professional accomplishments in a related field
  • Professional connections
  • Well-positioned to get their own work
  • Professional film experience (non-writing)

Of course, literary agents and managers don’t actually use a quantifiable test like this to determine whether someone is worth representing. Much of it is instinct, gut reflexes, and personal connection. If an agent is blown away by a brilliant script from a first-time writer living in Houston, will he sign her? Maybe—if he truly believes he can sell the script.

LA Story film LA wants to help you

Will a manager sign a baby writer who’s a bit raw, but works for a great showrunner and has tons of industry friends? Perhaps, if he thinks that writer can mature and has a viable opportunity to staff. The problem, unfortunately, if you don’t have enough of these qualities working in your favor, is even getting representatives to look at you.

So what do you do? You have talent, and you have some (presumably) terrific scripts, but you don’t live in L.A., or you have no Hollywood connections, or you’ve never had any writing published or produced. Does this mean you can’t attract representation? Not necessarily. There are two other ways you can garner the attention of an agent or manager:

1) Make something. Write, publish, or produce something fantastic that forces people to sit up and take notice. Stage an original play at your local theater and work hard to get positive press and reviews. Shoot an indie film and submit it to festivals, or rent out your local theater and screen it for your community. Publish (or self-publish) a best-selling novel! Put together a sketch group and perform at local comedy clubs or community functions — then shoot your material and post it online! Make a music video!

2) Move. If you already live in L.A. (or, to a lesser degree, New York City), ignore this one… but if you don’t, I’ll say it again: Move. If you’re serious about pursuing a writing career in Hollywood, it’s a career transition you’re going to have to make.

Thanks Chad, for sharing your research and experience with us! 

How To Manage Your Agent is full of excellent advice for established writers who want to have a better relationship with their representatives and aspiring writers who want to find representation.

. . . . . . . .

Have more tips? Would love to hear your thoughts. Sound off in the comments below. To read more from Stephanie Palmer, click here. Also, if you want to learn the best screenplays, software, websites, grants, and other resources to kickstart your writing career, click here to get the free eBook Screenwriter Starter Kit.

Stephanie Palmer

Stephanie Palmer helps film and TV writers pitch and sell their work. She was a studio executive at MGM and is the author of Good in a Room. She has been featured on the Today Show, NPR, and the LA Times. Find out more at goodinaroom.com.

This Post Has 5 Comments

  1. Jeff Taplin

    “…sometimes you’re willing to work with somebody who you don’t feel has material as good as somebody you already represent, but they have connections and networking.”

    Exhibit A for why so much of TV, cable and network, is awful to mediocre.

  2. Andrew Hall

    If I find the time I may write a book titled, “How to Succeed in Hollywood WITHOUT an Agent.” Whether the book will actually be helpful to writers I don’t know, but I’m certain it will outsell “How to Manage Your Agent,” because the potential readership is far greater.

    I’ve made a pretty good living as a writer in radio, in TV, on Madison Avenue and in features and 90% of my income came through my own efforts without any agents. I have found too many dumb agents who are generally difficult people – whether seeking their representation or trying to buy talent.

    I had a bushy tailed young agent at Wm. Morris and then I realized that he just kept chasing his own bushy tail. A major director whom I had contacted directly had asked me to send him a script through his agent at ICM. They lost the script before it was forwarded to him. I sent a second script and then learned the agent or his assistant had quit and had taken the second script with him. I sent the third copy to the director’s manager.

    A manager of musical talent introduced me to an independent agent who signed me immediately, then married someone in Arizona and moved, leaving her agency in the hands of an autistic moron. The agreement had a six month escape clause which, of course, I used.

    I met an agent from one of the top ten at a seminar where they worked on fixing faulty screenplays. He confided that he had never before bothered reading anything but dialogue and was surprised by how much more perspective he got by reading the action as well.

    I once went for a ride with an agent buddy who was delivering a script to a production company. I asked, “What’s the story?” He asked, “What story?” I said, “The story in the script that you’re delivering.” He shrugged, “Who knows, I don’t read this shit. If I didn’t like it then I’d have a harder time selling it. So I just bullshit and hope for the best.” He had actually sold a book once that became a major TV series. I don’t know if he ever read the book or not.

    Selling your own output is work and often a pain in the ass, but far less frustrating than dealing with agents.

  3. Andrew Hall

    P.S. Just remembered, going back to the mid-Sixties when I toiled on Madison Avenue, I got an idea for a TV series but knew no one in the industry, so I wrote to the president of ABC-TV outlining the story plus an idea of making a different type of pilot which would have cost a quarter of what they were then spending on pilots. ABC had moved up the street and I had sent my letter to their old address but it still reached him and two days later I got a call from a program exec asking if we could have lunch or drinks, etc. Since I had no idea about what sort of deals one could make in TV I called a lawyer to have someone on my side at our meeting. The lawyer asked who my agent was. I told him I’d never had an agent in my life. I figured with an agent it would have taken weeks or months to get as far as I had.

    The lawyer was shocked. “You may be starting a whole new thing,” he said. He felt it would be better for me to have the first meeting on my own but make no commitments. He would come along once they put something on the table. The project never got off the ground and I realized later that I was nuts to propose it for TV. It involved a whole menagerie of animals which could have bankrupted a network, but the experience proved that eliminating middle men in most undertakings is a practical route.

    1. marc

      Thanks so much for that post. Great inspiration! I’ve worked in publishing for many years, selling a dozen books, including an international bestseller, without an agent. I’ve even auctioned a manuscript between two publishers. In one sale, I got the highest advance in the publisher’s history. Agents have never given me the time of day, and they still don’t. It’s amazing.

      I switched to script-writing, have finished as high as second in international script contests, have earned several RECOMMENDS from leading coverage companies, but still agents can’t be bothered to answer my queries. This in spite of the fact that one of my books was once ranked #5 on BOMC’s bestseller list, two notches above the latest Stephen King title! So I really LOVE the fact that you’ve done this on you’re own, and that’s it’s even possible. I’m going to use your post as jet fuel to take me in another direction. :)

      Maybe YOU should write a book on how you’ve succeeded without an agent?

  4. gordon

    Thank you Andrew Hall.
    Your story seems to have a ring of truth for me.
    I had a career in management in a national newspaper and have had life experience that is more than most at a guess. So I’m not stupid, nor naive, nor a teenage scribbler.
    A professor at a ‘writing’ university liked my story that I’m trying to peddle and my style. (He is a feared entity in LA.)
    I get no responses from agents.
    I’ve written to studio heads – I get a response at least from most but with the proviso they will only deal with an agent.
    The Hollywood model sucks. My knowledge of innovative business tells me the model needs fixing. The soccer clubs in UK have for long had policies of seeking out new talent. European clubs now do the same.
    I urge you to write your book!

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