The Business of Art: Where Will an Agent Take You?

The Business of Art: Where Will an Agent Take You?

As I thought about the friendly sounds of the words “representation” and “advocate,” words connected to the jobs of literary, dramatic, and talent agents, I opened the dictionary to look up the root meaning of “agent.” Middle English, Latin, and Greek have it as “drive,” but the Old Norse says it is “to travel in a vehicle.” And so, you have to ask yourself: where will an agent take me?

An agent is a different kind of vehicle in literary and performance disciplines, with different mileage and safety options to offer the client. In the best of all possible situations, an agent puts you on the highway with an OnStar Navigation System and introductions to the best editors, producers, and casting directors. Agents are ethically bound to take a commission from work sold or obtained for their client, and not to take any up-front fees. But what they can lay claim to differs according to artistic discipline. Other forms of representation and advocacy also exist for writers, artists, actors, dancers, and musicians: from personal and business managers, to lecture agents and art dealers. In any case, representation of this sort is usually necessary only when an artist has reached a professional level, rarely when she or he is just starting out. Below is the breakdown of different kinds of “vehicles to travel in,” and what to expect from them.

Literary and Dramatic Agents

Vehicle: a sports car with a trade-in option for a larger model

Literary and dramatic agents market the rights of literary properties and advocate on behalf of the authors of those books, plays, screenplays, and teleplays for the best possible publishing and production deals. The author owns the copyright to the work she or he writes, but the agent helps to sell that written work to editors at the big publishing houses, or else to theater, television, and film producers. Just because an agent represented your first novel or screenplay does not mean she or he will agree to represent you on every book or screenplay you write. The author may be the client, but the author is not the property, and agents usually have open-ended agreements rather than official contracts with their authors. It is important to initially establish a time period, often one year, during which the agent will try to sell the work. If it is not sold during that year, both parties have the opportunity to reassess the situation. An agent’s responsibilities include reading manuscripts, meeting with editors and producers, negotiating contracts, and collecting payment for their authors. Agents know the editors and producers they deal with and know how to argue effectively in the author’s favor. Once the manuscript is sold, they take a commission of 15% for literary works, 10% for dramatic works, by collecting the advance and subtracting their percentage.

Who should travel in this vehicle and how to get a ride: writers of almost every genre—from photography to literary fiction, architecture to musical theater, memoirs to graphic novels—who have book projects, full-length plays, and screenplays; poets who have won the Pulitzer Prize or become the U.S. Poet Laureate; writers who have a contract from a publisher already, and need help negotiating. Make a list of reputable agents interested in your kind of book, play, teleplay, or screenplay and send queries to all of them. Queries differ for different kinds of books, and some require proposals, but basically you need to pitch your project to a particular person you think would be interested, summarize the story, and include a short bio. If an agent likes the work, she or he will call or write and ask to read your full manuscript. If an agent asks to read it on an exclusive—meaning she or he is the only one reading it—give her or him a period of two to four weeks in which to reply.

Lecture Agent

Vehicle: Vespa motorbike

The lecture agent represents writers, poets, and performers who enjoy public speaking and can command a large sum to give readings of their work or lecture on various topics. They seek out speaking engagements, field offers, and negotiate terms, but do not have anything to do with shopping the rights of the written works. Depending on the specialty of the agency, their size and personal relationship with their clients, the commission will differ. Literary lecture agents take 10—20% of payment on each job.

Who should travel in this vehicle and how to get a ride: dynamic poets and fiction writers who can command at least a thousand dollars for a reading of their work and are in demand. This kind of agency is especially great for poets whose genre has an oral tradition that sometimes helps market their work better than a publisher does, thus giving them an opportunity to make a living. Query the agent with a letter, résumé, audio, or videotape.

Talent Agents

Vehicle: four-wheel drive truck for all terrain

Talent agents get bookings for actors, send pictures and résumés to casting directors, and either run centralized agencies or specialized ones: theatrical (stage and television), commercials, voiceovers, film, music, or legitimate (theater). Nevertheless, the property they represent is the performer herself or himself, and they take a 10% commission on each and every job, even those that come from contacts made before signing. But unlike literary and dramatic bookkeeping, the actor is usually responsible for paying her or his agent that 10%, though some theaters will subtract the commission from an actor’s pay. Try to be ethical and not forget to pay them. Some talent agents can be very understanding when it comes to hard financial times and let you pay in installments.

Who should travel in this vehicle and how to get a ride: actors, musicians, and commercial and voice-over artists who have actually acted in professional productions, played gigs, and received good notices in theater, film, radio, or on television. Make lists of talent agencies you want to target and send appropriate materials—8” x10” photo, audition or demo tapes/CDs, résumé, and a short, introductory letter. When you get a call to come in for an interview, go in with your hair and face looking like it is in your publicity photo, since that is what they wanted. Have a working phone that takes messages.

Personal Managers/Business Managers

Vehicle: Airstream mobile home

Personal managers are for when you actually have a career to manage, and are not organized to juggle all the offers and the tasks needed to achieve success. They help you with every aspect of your career: from physical presentation, to selecting the best roles for your career path, to publicity and promotion. Personal managers can be used in place of agents in some professions, and will either take a 15% commission or ask for a retainer. The people in the business of advocating for actors’ rights lean towards commissions rather than retainers as ethical business simply because it is easier to gauge how well the manager is managing your career. When you are making $100,000 or more a year, you can afford to hire a business manager to help you make investments, secure a retirement plan, and buy a house.

Who should travel in this vehicle and how to get a ride: Actors, musicians, singers, and dancer-choreographers who have begun to make a living from their talent and can benefit from strategists. Send queries to personal managers with your résumé. Ask your bank, friends, or union for references of ethical accountants and business managers.

Art Dealers/Galleries

Vehicle: trailer, parked

Visual artists usually do not have agents or personal managers, though they can benefit from business managers when they make a good living. Art dealers/galleries represent sculptors, painters, sketch artists, photographers, environmental artists, installation artists, and collagists, and take no less than 50% on the art they sell (not-for-profit art spaces are not set up to sell work). In the dawn of the art dealer, the percentage was half that, and in cutthroat times, they can try for 60%. More than one gallery can represent an artist’s work, so it is not like an agent who drives you to some place. It is like a temporary home to show your work, and if the gallery promotes its artists extremely well, and your work sells, it could lead to a self-supporting career.

Who should get in this vehicle and how to get a ride: visual artists with a portfolio of work ready to show the public. Galleries are to artists what publishers are to writers, the means by which their work gets shown to an audience, so it is essential to find the ones interested in your style and medium of art. Buy a guide to galleries and make lists of people to query and meet. Have good quality slides of your artwork to show.


Sometimes you can walk or take the bus to your destination. Many writers can have good careers without ever employing agents, because the small and independent publishers and the university presses accept unagented manuscripts. Most actors, however, need agents in order to get the attention of established casting directors. All beginning writers, performers, and artists need to spend time creating their work and finding their style and skills before they approach the marketplace. All agents need to be convinced that what you have to offer is work they want to support, and having talent and a résumé is essential, but so, too, is a knowledge of who they are and how the business is run. If you are serious about your career, join organizations that offer advice and protection against unethical business practices, along with information on jobs. Learn to be savvy, and don’t get into any strange cars.

List of Organizations

Actor’s Equity Association is the labor union for theater actors and stage managers. 165 West 46th Street, New York, NY 10036, 212.869.8530,

American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP) is a membership of composers, songwriters, and music publishers that protects the rights of its members by licensing and distributing royalties. One Lincoln Plaza, New York, NY 10023,

Association of Authors Representatives (AAR) has a Canon of Ethics to which it holds its members—literary and dramatic agents. Check them out at

Dramatists Guild is a membership organization for playwrights, composers, and lyricists and is open to all dramatic writers at any stage. 1501 Broadway, Suite 701, New York, NY 10036; 212.398.9366,

National Writers Union is a union for writers of all kinds and has samples of fair agent agreements available to their members. 212.254.0279,

Screen Actors Guild (SAG), a union for screen actors, has recently not been pleased with the General Service Agreements some talent agents are offering. Check out their FAQ’s on the website, and consider joining: Its New York office is at 360 Madison Ave, 12th floor, New York, NY 10017, and membership is at 212.944.6243.

College Art Association (CAA) includes among its members those who by vocation or avocation are concerned about and/or committed to the practice of art, teaching, and research of and about the visual arts and humanities. 275 Seventh Avenue, New York, New York 10001, 212.691.1051,

Amy Holman is a contributor to the publishing guide Pitch Craft, forthcoming from The Writer in 2004. For Poets & Writers, a national nonprofit, she edits A Directory of American Poets and Fiction Writers and directs the Publishing Seminars. As a poet, her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and selected for The Best American Poetry 1999. She is published in the animal-rights anthology And We the Creatures, from Dream Horse Press, and the print and online journals CrossConnect, Rattapallax, Del Sol Review, American Letters & Commentary and Van Gogh’s Ear. She is writing a novel, and has fiction in the new journals Night Train and Shade, and a personal essay in the unique anthology The History of Panty Hose in America, from Espresso Press. Amy Holman is also pursuing a new part-time career in voiceovers.

Amy Aronoff
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