Agents of Change

Paul Kupperberg

Things I’ve Learned Along the Way
By Paul Kupperberg
© Paul Kupperberg

I’ve never had an agent. The idea of using representation in the Work-Made-For-Hire* comic book biz is really ridiculous unless you’re in a position of some of our “superstars” and there’s something more than page-rate at stake. It doesn’t stop some people from using agents. There are a handful who specialize in the industry, but most are not really necessary. Any work I did outside of comics was usually landed through personal contacts, so an agent was unnecessary, and wouldn’t have found that the 10% of whatever I was earning was worth their time.

Now I have reached a point where I need an agent. I’ve got novels, young adult novel series, art books, gift books, coffee table books — I could start a mid-sized publishing house based just on the proposals I’ve got sitting here looking for publishers. A few years ago, I might have stood a chance of cracking a publisher; today, none. Even editors I know, who I have met and with whom I share mutual friends, say, “Sorry, we can’t look at unrepresented manuscripts.”

I know how to sell to the work-made-for-hire market, the licensed properties that fill most of my workweek. My few originals — short stories, mainly — were written when I was approached or pitched to an editor for a specific anthology. As I consequence, I know zippo about selling to the originals market.

It’s everywhere. No one wants to look at unrepresented manuscripts. It’s not worth the risk and, frankly (and I speak from experience with almost two decades of editorial experience behind me), most unsolicited material is really bad. Sure, a few competent talents are mixed in, but not many. In my entire career as an editor, I successfully found and hired unknowns exactly four times from the slush pile. There were three artists who, I’m proud to say, have gone on to superstar status, and a writer who never gained a toehold and disappeared from the field as far as I know.

As much slush as I received (three or four pieces a day on average), it’s nothing compared to what a book publishing house editor sees. The odds of finding that needle of a publishable work in the haystack of unsolicited crap ranges somewhere between slim and none. It’s a great story when it does happen, but that’s only because it happens so infrequently.

I was lucky. In thirty-plus years in publishing, I was bound to have made some contacts and, as I’ve said, I can always reach out to someone, somewhere to get my foot in the door. Sure, the editor I worked with at Simon & Schuster three years ago may be gone, but I can still use his name to get me to whoever is doing his job now. I can call a pal in the IT department of another major publisher and get the inside on what’s coming up and perhaps have him go into the editor or HR department in question and talk me up.

But even when I know someone in the originals market, I’m S.O.L.** because company policy prohibits them looking at unsolicited manuscripts. Even if they loved it, they couldn’t buy it because they’re not supposed to be looking at it in the first place.

But, as I said, I’ve got a slight advantage: I’ve been around, I know folks, and I never throw away a business card. I know an editor who works for a publisher who will look at unrepresented submissions and she even handles some mysteries herself. She agreed to take my manuscript and read it.

But that’s it. My advantage is one free shot. If she passes, I’m back to square one, trying to find an agent who can get the manuscript into the right editorial hands.

And I’ve been doing this too long to count on luck to sell my book. As a freelancer, you fling one hundred things against the wall and consider yourself a success when one of them sticks. I only need one or two of my dozen possible projects to stick and do moderately well start opening doors for still other projects.

Until I do find one I am suitable for, the search for an agent goes on. There are a few other names on my e-mail list to speak to for leads or advice. Let’s see if perseverance and sweat can do the things my little bit of luck hasn’t been able to accomplish yet.

* Work-made-for-hire is a copyright law thing; it means that a corporation pays a talent for the work, but the talent agrees that he or she is acting as an agent of the corporation and therefore all rights to the work belong to the corporation. Anything featuring corporate-owned properties—from Superman to Mickey Mouse—is going to be work-made-for-hire.

**Sorry, Outta Luck

Paul Kupperberg is a freelance writer who began his career at Charlton Comics in 1975 and has never looked back. At DC Comics, he’s written a little of everybody, from Arion to Zatanna. He is the author of several books, numerous short stories and novellas, young adult non-fiction books on subjects ranging from pop culture to hard science, online animation and syndicated newspaper comic strips. He has also been an editor for DC Comics, Executive Editor of Weekly World News and Senior Editor of WWE Kids Magazine. His latest work can be seen in the humor book Jew-Jitsu: The Hebrew Hands of Fury (Citadel Books, 2008), a short story in The Avenger Chronicles (Moonstone Books, 2008), back-up stories in every issue of Captain Action comics (Moonstone Comics), and sundry issues of DC Comics’ Cartoon Network titles and Bongo Comics’ Bart Simpson Comics. Visit him at his blog, www.kupperberg.blogspot.com.

Leave a Reply