Tuesday, 25 October 2011

The Business of Getting an Agent

I was listening to the UK Scriptwriters' Podcast the other day and was interested in their discussion about agents. It was very interesting and I recommend downloading it and having a listen. I realised this is something I'd never mentioned on this blog before. So, briefly, here are a few thoughts on agents with sitcom specifically in mind.

How I Got An Agent
Firstly, I got an agent via a very odd route. I was a temp at the agency, filling in for someone and typing letters. I was writing bits and pieces for radio shows and a bit of TV (Smack the Pony and Rory Bremner) and had, unwittingly, built up a CV that was interesting to an agent. When they asked if I, as a writer, wanted representation, I was genuinely surprised and agreed pretty much on the spot.

The reason I was so happy to get an agent was not primarily because it made me look and feel like a proper writer (although it did), but because I hate talking about money and asking for more of it. I am quite capable of getting angry about not being paid properly (see here) but when confronted with the issue face-to-face, I immediately say everything's fine and that I don't really need the money right now. I'll say anything to make that conversation end.

Having an agent was brilliant because I had someone on my side who would ask for more money, chase it up and pore over contracts - and understand them. An agent, then, is a wonderful ally in a lonely business; someone who is looking out for your interests. And I've stuck with the same agent for my whole career as I like being represented by her - and I like the way she operates on my behalf. Sometimes people can use their agents to be unpleasant and unreasonable so that they themselves don't have to be, hiding behind them to get more money in a rather nasty way. I'm not into that at all - and want my agent to be my genuine representative in discussions about money, rights and conditions.

Why do you want an agent?

For those trying to break into the industry, it's worth asking yourself why you want an agent. I understand that it's very hard to get a novel published without an agent. Publishers, it seems, now use agents to sift manuscripts and do not take unsolicited work. I couldn't comment on movies and drama.

But sitcom and comedy generally doesn't work like that. Agents are not the key to getting work or getting noticed. If you want to break into the industry, there are plenty of routes. Write for open-door shows on Radio 4 (eg Newsjack) or television. Send sketches to producers who make sketch shows. Put on comedy shows, make them good and then put them on in Edinburgh, and try and get them noticed. Write a really good sitcom script - and keep rewriting it until you're really happy with it, and then send it to producer who makes programmes you like. If the production company says they don't accept unsolicited scripts, I would ignore that. But don't plague them with calls either. In short, write funny and show it to people.

You'll notice an agent doesn't feature in any of the above. And the fact is that if you're a really good comedy writer, it is only a matter of time before you will succeed. Good sitcom scripts are rare. If you write a good one, you will get meetings and some interest, although it make take ages to come anything. When it does, an agent will be a great help, in terms of taking care of money and contracts. They will also be much easier to get by that stage. They may also be able to set up introductions to new producers or contacts. But pinning your hopes on getting an agent as the 'way in' is misguided when it comes to writing comedy for TV and radio.

Finding You Work
Some agents get their writers short-term jobs on panel games and entertainment shows - mine doesn't, but then I've never asked her to because I'm hopeless at that sort of comedy writing. I'm a narrative guy. And my agent understands that and is always on the look-out for opportunities in that area. And that's what an agent will do for you - help you. But they don't make or break you. You and your jokes will do that.

That's my take on agents. I'd be very interested to hear the views of others.


  1. Would you also recommend sending it to BBC Writersroom? Thanks.

  2. Excellent post, James. And thanks for the podcast shout-out, too!