Thursday, February 15, 2007

Even I don't have an agent

The difficulty in securing an agent is not confined to those writers just starting out. I tried to get a theatrical agent when I wrote my play a few years ago and hit a brick wall, even with my resume. And I didn’t list AfterMASH so I know it’s not that.

The Hollywood literary agency that represented me did not have a theater department so when I wrote my play a few years ago I decided to get a second agent to handle that facet of my career. Unlike these major conglomerates with three letters that handle screenwriters, theatrical agencies are all boutique. Going down the list it seemed every Jewish girl who wouldn’t go out with me now has an agency.

I made a few calls and found no one was interested. The fact that (a) I wasn’t 25, and (b) they couldn’t cash in on movie rights made me persona non representita. And this was before anyone even bothered to read my play.

Through a playwright friend, I was referred to one agent – we’ll call her Beth B. I had a nice conversation with her, she said she really wasn’t looking to take on new clients but wanted to read my play. So I sent it along with a resume. Two weeks later I get a letter from her. The first sentence was “Ohmygod, I had no idea you co-created ALMOST PERFECT!” She went on to say it was her favorite show, the writing was brilliant, she wrote a letter to CBS complaining when they cancelled it, it was like we were in her bedroom, and she was often confused for our star, Nancy Travis. I thought – I am IN!

Next paragraph – pass. Okay. Whatever.

A few months later I was in New York and decided to call her again. Sometimes when people meet they click and who knows? Maybe she’d have a change of heart. She agreed to meet with me.

It took three trains to get down to her agency. Every other agency was in mid-town, in the theatre district. This one was in the land of discount sneakers and checks cashed while you wait. Once there, after waiting a good half hour, Beth B. finally appeared and ushered me back to her office. My first thought upon seeing her was – Nancy Travis? The only thing she had in common with Nancy Travis was that they both breathed air. Beth B. was large, horn rimmed glasses, and had giant frizzy Carole King hair.

After the pleasantries, she explained that she liked to represent hot young playwrights who lived in New York. The key to her was they’d be able to go to openings and readings and be seen in all the right places.

I said, “what if I produced my play in LA and it got good reviews?” She said that would be disastrous for it ever getting mounted in New York. I suggested that maybe the New York theatre scene was a tad elitist, fully expecting her to back off and say “No, no, not at all.” Instead, she said proclaimed, “Yes, that’s right.” I was a little thrown and wondered if New York had the theatre to support it. “Suessical? Thousand Clowns with Tom Sellick? Annie Get Your Gun with Crystal Bernard? There weren’t exactly new Arthur Miller or Tennessee Williams pieces starring Brando or Burton coming in this season.”

It was clear we were not “clicking”. So finally, I asked Beth B. what advice she could give me? She thought for a moment and finally said, “Write”. I said, “Excuse me?” She repeated it. “Write. I find that the first play is an introduction, the second gets a reading, the third gets a workshop, and the fourth maybe gets a production. So just keep writing.”

I nodded and finally said, “Beth, that’s great advice. In fact, it’s the same advice I’ve been giving young writers… for THIRTY YEARS. But since I’ve had more of my work produced on a national level than all your clients combined times ten I think I can SKIP A STEP.”

Beth B. was not on the invite list for my reading last Monday.

I know it’s discouraging when an agent doesn’t want you, but always remember, there are plenty of agents out there that YOU don’t want. If it takes more time to find a better match it’s worth it.


Malachy Walsh said...

The theatre scene is absurd, isn't it?

It only gets more absurd when you discover which theatre writers actually have agents. And what they write. As a reader for the Public Theatre and a TONY winning Broadway producer for over three years, I found it completely bewildering.

Nevermind the ones who get produced.

A few months ago I went into more detail about this on my own blog -- the entry is at -- but it gives me hope that I'm not crazy when I read that even YOU are having trouble.

Which is not to say that agents for theatre writers really help anybody anyway. Most of the represented theatre writers I know say that they have never gotten a gig through an agent's help.

In fact, while getting an MFA in playwriting at Columbia I was told flatly by some of the faculty that efforts to get an agent were worthless since they had no power whatsoever with Artistic Directors and producers. (The days of Tennessee Williams are long gone, dude.)

There are many reasons theatre is in trouble as an economic enterprise - as well as an art form. Unfortunately, this is only one of them.

Anonymous said...

But to be honest, you really handed it over to her to think she has some equality in terms of something, because you went to seek her out, not the other way around. She starts by knowing she did nothing, and you did not have other interested agents.

And basically, the "write" part is sort of what I would have expected, the equivalent of "nice personality" comments and such.

What is she going to say? "OH - you want to get your work HERE on Broadway? In that case, here's what you do, just follow these instructions..."

Glad you got your reading your way. But you could have invited her anyway, it's NYC, and nothing would surprise me less than if she went to the reading and offered to rep you.

Ken Levine said...

Nothing would have pleased me more than to turn her down if she did ask to represent me.

The advice I was hoping for was who to contact, how to maybe get my script in the right hands, etc.

You give the advice to "write" to people who are reluctant to write. As evidenced by this overblown blog of mine, that is not my problem.

Seymour said...

Ah agents. My last literary agent, after actually succeeding in getting my book published, was DEPORTED last year. (to Canada! Did you know people could get deported to Canada? Seh wasn't Canadian either. She was German!)

It seems that she tried to run down her mother with an automobile, and crushed her pelvis. Oh, and she had scammed a bunch of people out of roughly $100,000 through various internet literary scams, and she'd been banned from eBay for eBay fraud. And the name I knew her by was an alias, one of several, because she was on the lam from the cops for ducking out of her trial for running down her mother. Her agency was her cover.

She hadn't cheated or defrauded me out of a penny, and HAD sold my book for publication. In other words, she was a GOOD literary agent. (Just a very bad wizard?)

Imagine what a BAD literary agent is like.

You got off easy.

chris soth said...

Hear hear.

Will Teullive said...

If you don't have Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane (they travel as a pair like Siamese twins) already attached to a project whats' the point?

Joshua James said...

Hah! I was hoping you would share that story . . . you left out the part where she tells you how great and funny she thought the play was . . . but she was only looking for gay plays, something like that . . .

I know this agent, she's mean and foolish . . . though I thought she was only condenscending to writers who haven't made it yet, not award-winning writers!

thethirdcoast said...

The woman's an ass. And I thought Hollywood had cornered age-obsessed superficiality. If New York doesn't work out for you, Ken, you might want to try Chicago--a respected and creative theater scene that I imagine involves a lot less BS than you find in New York.

Tom Quigley said...

The list of horror (or comedic ) stories about writers trying to secure an agent can go on forever... One agent I was referred to when I first moved out to LA worked out of a creaky office upstairs from Musso & Frank's on Hollywood Blvd. He was considering representing me for TV... The kicker was (and I didn't find this out until I actually met with him) he was blind!... I couldn't exactly piece together the incongruity of having a man represent you who couldn't watch the medium for which your work was meant... His computer would talk back to him as if he were carrying on a conversation with Stephen Hawking... I think he closed his doors soon afterwards when he couldn't keep up the rent on the creaky office...

Another agent (who was with a fairly well respected agency in town, if there can be such a thing) told me he hadn't gotten around to reading my spec yet when I called him a couple of weeks after submitting it. That very same afternoon I received a letter in the mail signed by him telling me they were passing on representing me... I called him back to ask what the story was and he told me "Oh, you know what I think happened? One of my assistants read it, and decided it wasn't what we were looking for, so he signed my name to that letter and sent it..."

Trying to get an agent -- probably the most distasteful part of the whole writing business...

Rob said...

1. Good for you Ken!
2. Is this a case where you need an agent? Could an entertainment lawyer (and/or publicist)do the job?

I know Stephen King went with a lawyer for his work so he's only have to pay the guy once...but then that's King, who's in a different area. As for the agent you spoke to, she's on a different planet and I hope she's exploring new opportunities in multi-level marketing by now.

Ken Levine said...

I've since learned I DON'T need a theatrical agent and am happily moving along without one.

andrew said...

ken, always enjoyed reading your blog. Congrats on getting your play read. But please don't forget to tell us more tv anecdotes.

Like what it was like to direct EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND..and did you ever tried to write for that show?

and was there friction on the cheers set when kelsey grammer started getting more exposure? i think kelsey has such a great voice for comedy.

The Curmudgeon said...

Mr. Levine said, "And I didn’t list AfterMASH so I know it’s not that."

You know... some of them might have Googled you and found out.

Helena Handbasket said...

Agents of all kinds are a mystery to me. In the end, I had to conclude they can't possibly be that mysterious and they are probably quite simple, in actuality. And I mean SIMPLE. They aren't the insightful, creative geniuses we think they must be to work with all those insightful creative genius writers. If agents were actually insightful creative geniuses they'd be writing and making plays and movies themselves--surely a lot more rewarding work. No, agents are business people in the business of selling things people already think they want. Unless someone is already asking for it, they're not interested in selling it. That's up to the artists. To sell what people don't even know they want yet because they've never seen anything quite like it before.

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Sam Thornton said...

Retired now and toying with idea of becoming agent for playwrights. Experience: once thought I'd like to write a play, couldn't figure out the plot thing. But, did have daydream about the cast party which started out OK but wound up with me eating a bad shrimp followed by ugly scene in hospital ER. You could be my first client.

Tom Dougherty said...

That's golden advice.

I love this blog.

D. McEwan said...

Helena (BTW, you have the name of a fictional character in my first published novel), you are so right.

One agent I recently submitted my second novel to replied that he had LOVED my first book, that it was on the bookshelves of most of his friends and was considered a must-read by his circle of social associates. Oh, and he was passing on representing the sequel because "No one's buying satirical comic novels."

Another agent kept the manuscript for 8 months before passing on it, ("I can't sell a satirical, comic novel." again.) and suggesting that I write a Gay Romance Novel. Now no one on earth could have read my manuscript, which is cynical and and about as anti-romantic as you can get, and think I could even stand to read, let alone write, a romance novel. She hadn't read my manuscript at all. One of her assistants had.

From agent after agent I got the same message: we are only interested in representing books we can sell without effort. If we actually have to EARN our commissions, if we have to WORK to sell a book, no thanks.

But the first time I tried submitting it to a publisher without an agent, although they passed on buying it, they did say, "We love your writing. Would you write such-and-such for us?" I did, and that book comes out in September, sans agent.

I might add that I've had a play produced in Los Angeles a few years back, also sans agent, and this wasn't just a reading; it was a full production.

Alison Croggon said...


I LOVE my agent. I guess I'm really lucky. I contacted her when I already had a novel contract, and we talked and got on (mutually agreeing to leave the poetry out of it - like she said, "we don't do poetry"), and she took me on.

She means I never have to have those nasty conversations with publishers about getting more money. She gets me more money. She looks after me. She represents my interests with the tenacity of a bull terrier. Life would be hell without her. What more can I say?

Murph said...

I just turned 26. Do I... do I go ahead and buy a gun?

Ger Apeldoorn said...

Do what all american writers do, who can't get produced at home: try and get a british agent and get the play produced in London. You must have got friends who can help you out?

Anonymous said...

My experience looking for an agent was extremely enjoyable. It went like this:

I had recently been selected as a Top Ten director for Project Greenlight and thought, "Hey, I'll give this cold call agent thing a shot". The first agent I spoke with was someone I had a distant working relationship with so it couldn't possibly go wrong.

I asked if she knew anyone I could talk with that was geared towards people at my stage (nonexistent career stage). "No." After a little back and forth, the conversation finally ended with, "top 10 in project greenlight ain't getting the greenlight. Bye bye." And then she hung up.

I felt very good after that call and still don't have an agent. And my career is at the same stage it was a few years back. Sweet!

JP said...

One of my favourite theater blogs is this one:

Anonymous said...


the hell with beth b. and abrams a. aren't you with icm for film and tv since they merged with broder? they have (very small but still) a theater dept. who rep playwrights in ny. perhaps you already knew this and explored that avenue, but if you haven't, take it up with your people out here and maybe see what they have to say.

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