A Note about Literary Agents

(for novels, short stories, poems, non-fiction, and screenplays)


Most “new” writers have explored the world of literary agents and pondered how they submit their material. I am no exception.


First, understand that agents are normally necessary of one wants to submit material to be published by a large or medium size trade publisher, on some particular imprint of that publisher. Generally they are not needed for self-publishers and cooperative publishers (as for print-on-demand), although editors may be helpful in evaluating material before publication. 


Literary agents can be found all over the country, with many of them concentrated in New York and California, but many others in other centers of literary activity (Florida, Texas, Minnesota, Colorado, etc.)   Some encourage submitting complete manuscripts (or sample chapters and synopsis) for a reading fee for evaluation; this practice is controversial. Many do not. Today, most reputable literary agents will insist on very detailed information packages from authors, including resumes, in specific formats, with detailed answers to certain questions about the author’s standing with respect to the issues in his or her work. Most packages are submitted in hardcopy paper, neatly printed in a simple typeface, double-spaced. Agents are just beginning to explore electronic submission. (On the other hand cooperative publishers often have very sophisticated Internet-based submission systems.)


There is a saying, “You don’t send books to publishers.”  That sounds like an oxymoron, but it is true. Most major publishers get all of their new material through agents. Generally, a new author will need to find a good agent to submit him or her to several publishers.


A similar infrastructure exists for submitting screenplays. Many major motion picture studios and production companies will not consider direct submissions from the public. Typically, they will return submissions to the sender, unopened, even loglines. They say that this is for their legal protection. They do not want to be exposed to litigating frivolous claims of copyright infringement.  Therefore, many production companies that work with major movie studios or media companies acquire scripts through agents, although they often have their own script-readers (sometimes these are recent college graduates with backgrounds in theater or film) to evaluate them first. All of this means that generally a writer with a screenplay to sell needs to go through an agent or at least a “third party.”


Typically submissions start with a logline and a three-to-ten page printed narrative treatment, to be followed by a full screenplay submission in hard-copy. Screenplays must be laser-printed (otherwise typed) in industry-standard screenplay format, usually in Courier, which several software packages (such as FinalDraft) prepare very well for applicants.  Usually they must fall within certain length parameters. Typically one page of a screenplay is assumed to equate to about one minute of motion picture length.


Many companies and organizations sponsor screenplay contests, with a production budget from a company for the winner. Usually submissions for these contests are in paper, but a few companies (most notably Project Greenlight, associated with Liveplanet and Miramax pictures) have developed very sophisticated automated submission systems which must be used (screenplay documents are converted to PDF format and uploaded).


All of this brings us to the subject of computer technology, and the potential “power” that the Internet could give “newbies” to enter the market or at least put together their own financing for projects.  Anyone can write and post a screenplay on the web, and anyone else could find it through a search engine. Already, some agents say that they are willing to work with writers who want to manage some of their material on their own websites, but writers still must follow their procedures. Ideas can often be circulated quickly by word-of-mouth, or even as a result of shopping mall appearances by various celebrities (in large regional retail facilities like the Mall of America or the King of Prussia mall), where the public can meet and chat with the celebrities with very little difficulty. Another communication vehicle is the Web message boards run by media companies, especially for television series (as by TheWB). New story ideas are often suggested by customers. Of course, the media companies have “terms of service” disclaimers that protect their ownership of content suggested this way.


The “third party” rule may seem silly to many new writers. For one thing, only complete works can be copyrighted; ideas alone cannot be. Works must be substantially similar to create infringement. However, in the motion picture world, “substantial similarity” could be a nebulous concept. Major studio releases tend to follow established “formulas” and often use characters, comic-book material, or other franchised content which has specific protections (for the revenue stream that the content has produced in the past). Independent films tend to use material which is much more original (and much less likely to create risk of infringement claims). The distinction between major studio and independent films is becoming blurred, however. Major studios often use separate imprint brands for independent releases, but sometimes release independent films under their own name when financing was arranged by well-known producers and directors (an example is Clint Eastwood’s “Million Dollar Baby,” or Oliver Stone’s “Alexander,” both from Warner Brothers).


Agents will not go away because of the Internet, but it is likely that their jobs will change and become more technical, as companies feel pressure to switch to more automated methods of working with new writers who, after all, generate many of the new ideas that they need now.


I have thought about setting up an agency myself, and I am working on that possibility. There are other questions to work out, too.  Would there be a conflict of interest between operating an agency and submitting my own materials through still another agent?  May I leave my materials up on this site while I submit them through an agent? Would my movie reviews (now offered freely, but I am considering trying to find advertisers) create a conflict? I don’t know the answers to these yet.  But there are many roads to Rome.


©Copyright 2005 by Bill Boushka, subject to fair use. (Date Aug. 14, 2005)    Contact me


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