A Success Story

Over the holidays I had dinner with a friend from Vermont who asked me what it was like to sell a novel. He’s interested in writing fiction and I think he was looking for some inspiration. So I told him one of my favorite stories: “The Day I Got The Call From My Agent.”
It happened seven-and-a-half years ago. By that point in my life I’d been a journalist for twenty-three years, and for nineteen of those years I’d written novels on the side. Over those two decades I’d finished four novels that hadn’t sold. The first was a literary thriller about a Southern governor similar to George Wallace; the second was a satire about a New Hampshire farmer who starts a new religion; the third was a romantic comedy about a beautiful con artist; and the fourth was a murder mystery set in the porn industry. I’d had particularly high hopes for that last book. I thought, “It has sex and violence! It’s got to sell!” But it didn’t. Some of the publishers who saw it were perplexed. Others were appalled.
In 2005, though, I got a new agent, and that turned out to be my lucky break. He advised me to write a strictly genre novel rather than the weird hybrids I was producing. At the time, I was a staff editor at Scientific American and we’d just put out a special issue on Albert Einstein, so I decided to write a thriller about a secret Theory of Everything that Einstein refused to publish because he knew it would lead to weapons even worse than nuclear bombs. I finished the novel two years later — it was eventually titled Final Theory — and my agent sent it out to publishers in the summer of 2007.
Although this book was more commercial than my earlier efforts, I was still anxious. And my anxieties multiplied as the weeks went by and I didn’t hear anything from my agent. By the time I went with my family on our annual vacation to northern Michigan I was quite morose. At one family dinner my brother-in-law asked, “So, any news about your novel?” and I launched into a bitter rant in which I predicted that no one would buy the book and it would end up in the same cardboard box where the dusty manuscripts of all my other unpublished novels lay a-moldering.
The next day was a particularly beautiful one on Lake Michigan. My in-laws took my wife and son sailing while I stayed at the cottage with my five-year-old daughter, who loved to dig holes in the sand at the lakeshore and throw rocks into the water. That afternoon we noticed some unusual activity on the lawn of the neighboring cottage, where a pack of young grandkids had just arrived. A teenage babysitter was setting up an inflatable Bouncy Castle playhouse from somewhere similar to JungleJumps on the grass. I could tell that my daughter was dying to try it out, so I approached the babysitter and chatted her up. While she was distracted my daughter slipped into the Bouncy Castle and started jumping around.
Then, as I silently congratulated myself for this clever ploy, my cellphone rang. It was my agent.
Are there any words in the English language better than “We got an offer”? There’s “I love you” of course — that’s good too — but sometimes people say those words without really meaning anything. But there’s no doubt about the meaning of “We got an offer.” It means they want you. There’s money on the table.  
And it was more money than I ever expected to make from writing fiction. My first reaction was simple: TAKE IT! But my agent said he thought we could do even better, and after a day of negotiation he got the publisher to triple the offer. I was flabbergasted.

My friend from Vermont liked the story, and I think it had the desired effect of inspiring him to finish his own novel. And it made me happy to remember that July afternoon by the Bouncy Castle. The writing life can be lonely and frustrating, but if you keep at it long enough there are occasional moments of bliss.

Agents – the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

Recently Nathan Bransford posted a piece entitled “8 ways to know if you have a good agent” (if you want to read it, here’s the link). Given Jodie’s post last week on unethical freelance editors, I thought it might be timely to re-examine what makes a good (and bad) agent.

Nathan provides a list of things to consider when choosing an agent (or, if you have concerns about your current agent, a list to consider when evaluating whether these are justified). Basically he says that your agent should:

  • Have a proven track record of sales and/or works for a reputable agency
  • Be a good communicator (meaning he/she should reply in a reasonable time to emails and doesn’t dodge or hide)
  • Either live in New York or visit on a regular basis
  • Be able to explain every question you have about your contract or your royalty statements
  • Be completely ethical in how they approach their job (and they should advise you to behave ethically)
  • Pay you on time and send you contracts in a timely fashion
  • Charge you a commission of 15% on domestic contracts, 20% on foreign contracts and deduct very transparently for reasonable expenses like postage and copying
  • Be someone you feel comfortable with (i.e. you should be able to trust and feel good about your agent – going with your gut is key).

Most of the items on the list are pretty self-explanatory (though I’ve included clarifications where needed) but they also underscore the need for writers to research an agent before agreeing to receive representation. Given the number of issues regarding unethical freelance editors highlighted by Jodie in her post last Monday, I wonder how many writers are now falling prey to more unethical agent behaviour. 

To the last item on Nathan’s list (feeling comfortable with your agent), I would add that this doesn’t necessarily mean feeling warm and fuzzy all the time. I feel like trusting and being comfortable with your agent means that you not only know that they will champion you and your work but that they will also be your  best (and sometimes harshest) critic. I don’t want an agent who is happy to send out just any old material – I want someone who keeps me on the top of my game and who provides editorial input on how to make a manuscript the very best it can be, before it goes out to publishers.

Just as Jodie pointed out when looking for a freelance editor, there are similar pitfalls when searching for an agent. I can’t stress enough that you have to do your homework. As with anything, there are many predators out there more than willing to take your money for very little in return (and who can easily hang out their shingle on the internet based on fraudulent claims/testimonials).

So what do you think of Nathan’s list? Is there anything you would take issue with, or add? How have you approached the issue of researching agents? Have you discovered any further pitfalls that we may not have discussed?

The Scoop on Agents

By John Gilstrap

Last week, our friend and frequent-poster Terri Lynn Coop posted the following comment:

“You’ve talked about becoming agented and querying. However, what happens once your novel or non-fic is sold to the publisher.
What kind of deadlines are there? How firm are those deadlines? What role does your agent play after the publishing contract is signed? What sort of public face does your agent and publisher expect you to maintain from contract to release (is there a difference between fiction and non-fiction)? When do you see your advance?”

It’s a great bunch of questions. I’m going to take a shot at some answers.  The underlying assumption of my answers is that this is a first published book we’re talking about.  The rules don’t change a lot after you have a chip in the game, but they do change a little.  I’m also going to juggle the order of the questions a little:

What role does your agent play after the publishing contract is signed? 

Understand that a lot of negotiation goes into what a publishing contract looks like.  What rights will be sold?  More importantly, what rights will be retained by the author?  Is this a one-book contract, or a multi-book contract?  What will the pay-out schedule be?  If it’s a multi-book contract, will they be individually accounted or jointly accounted?  (Joint accounting means that Book #1 would have to earn back its advances before you could start earning advances on Book #2.  It’s by far the least preferable method, but first-timers often don’t have a lot of heft there.)

The agent is the go-between for all uncomfortable transactions.  For example, in fifteen years, I have never discussed money issues with an editor, and no editor has had to tell me to my face that I wasn’t worth the money I was asking for.  The agent keeps the creative relationship pure.  Beyond that, if everything goes well, the agent doesn’t have a lot to do after the contract is negotiated.

But things rarely go well.  What happens if your editor quits or gets fired?  What happens if you really hate the cover, or if the editor is getting carried away with his editorial pen?  On a more positive note, the agent will continue to pursue foreign publishing contracts, movie deals, etc.

What kind of deadlines are there? How firm are those deadlines? 

Deadlines are part of the negotiation process.  You’ll have to agree to respond to your editorial letter by a certain date with a corrected manuscript, and then you’ll have copyedits and page proofs, all while making your commitment to deliver the next book in the contract if it’s a multi-book deal.  I consider deadlines to be inviolable.  I’ve had to push the delivery date by a couple of weeks once, but I hated doing it because it inconveniences so many people, and it makes me look unprofessional.  Here is another instance where a track record of performance keeps people from losing faith in the author.  For first-timers, blowing a deadline can kill a career.  Remember, by blowing the deadline, you technically violate the contract, which the publisher would have the authority to void.

Writers need to understand that publishing calendars are set 12 to 18 months ahead.  Working backwards from those dates are the in-house deadlines for the production side of things (cover design, copyedits, publicity, ARCs, reviews, and a thousand other details).  If a deadline is blown by as little as a month, publishers may pull the author’s book from the calendar and replace it with another, thus potentially adding months to the publication date.

When do you see your advance? 

This is another  negotiated deal point.  Advances are paid out in pieces.  There’s always one piece on signing.  After that, the milestones vary from author to author, often depending on the horsepower of the agent, and on the “importance” of the author.  Other payment milestones can include: submission of edited manuscript (this is the “D&A payment–Delivery & Acceptance); hard cover pub date; softcover pub date; and even, in some cases, some period of time after the pub date.  If there’s a second book in the contract, there’ll likely be a payment milestone for the submission of an outline for the second book, followed by submission of an acceptable manuscript.

Meanwhile, if you’re happy at the publishing house, sometime while writing the second book of a two-book deal, your editor and agent will start negotiating the next deal.

What sort of public face does your agent and publisher expect you to maintain from contract to release (is there a difference between fiction and non-fiction)? 

This is where the issue of an author’s platform comes in.  If you’re a celebrity writing your autobiography, the pressure will be high to be out there to flog it.  Similarly, if you’ve written a book about a presidential candidate during an election year, the publisher will press hard for you to have media face time.

On the other hand, if you’ve written a novel featuring a feline crime solver (or about a freelance hostage rescue specialist), chances are that you couldn’t buy publicity outside of your local newspaper.  In that regard, an author’s public face is only as public as the author wants it to be.

I think that’s all of it.  Okay, Killzone comrades, let’s hear from you.

Literary Agents in the Digital Age

Gray-eyed Athena sent them a favorable breeze, a fresh west wind, singing over the wine-dark sea. – Homer, The Odyssey
My friend, literary agent Wendy Lawton, recently wrote an intriguing post wondering about her own obsolescence. It is an honest and open look at the current state of affairs in traditional publishing and what that could mean for agents in the future.
This prompted a few musings of my own, from a writer’s point of view. To begin, I dip into the realm of myth.
The traditional publishing industry has long been a Forbidden Kingdom. Writers on their journey toward publication had almost no hope of entering the gates alone. They had to find someone willing to show them the way, someone with influence within the walls.
Enter the agent as mentor. That word comes from a character in The Odyssey who guides Telemachus through the dark world. It turns out later that Mentor is really the goddess Athena in disguise. She has special powers to help, and so do agents seeking to get writers their own set of keys to the Kingdom.
But here is the question: what if a new kingdom is discovered by Telemachus? And what if access to this kingdom is open to all? Does Telemachus need his Mentor anymore?
If he still wishes to enter the Forbidden Kingdom, the answer is yes. But there have been reports flown out via carrier pigeon that this Kingdom is in turmoil. There is chaos and infighting and confusion and bonfires. At the same time, word is that in the new kingdom a revolution is underway. It has no walls or gatekeepers. Writers are dancing through tulips and earning gold sovereigns all by themselves.
Why should Telemachus tarry outside the forbidden walls when he can join that dance on the other side of the river?
This is the question of the moment for writers: pursue the “forbidden kingdom” of traditional publication? Or go join the rebels?
If the former, which is certainly a free and legitimate choice, you need a mentor, a guide. You need someone who: knows who is buying what, can brainstorm a project with you, can negotiate a contract, can collect your money, can buck you up when you’re down, can feed you valuable information about the industry.
If you decide to go solo, you will need to fill your own gaps in “quality control,” and believe me, you’ll have them. You’re on your own, and not every adventure into the forest ends happily. Start the journey with your eyes wide open.
As e-books continue toward becoming the primary delivery system (you no doubt saw that Amazon sold four times the number of Kindles on Black Friday this year than they did last year). agents become crucially important in the negotiation of contracts. For example, the agent should fight against draconian option and non-compete clauses. There should be real give and take with a publisher, keeping the long view and the writer’s best interests in mind.
But as we all know the traditional publishing industry faces challenges of major proportions, and that has affected agents. Advances are low and not as many deals are being struck. Thus, some agents have become de facto publishers, which has raised concerns about conflict of interest. Others are actively seeking to secure the best e-rights options for their clients.
Agents are human. Not all of them are good. I’m fortunate in that my own agent, and the agents I know personally, are superb professionals. But there are lemons out there, so know this: having no agent is better than having a bad agent. And the best agents will see the value in the author having a platform-building presence on the indie publishing side of the valley.
Like everyone else in the publishing game, agents are going to have to explore ways to adapt to the increasing rate of change. But they will continue to have a role to play because traditional publishing still exists.
What do you think the future holds for agents? 

Writers Tackle the Future – Agents as Publishers?

Writers Tackle the FutureJust as publishing houses are trying to capitalize on the “new frontier” of ebook publishing and redefine their business models, so too are agents. Most recently, Bookends announced its intention to offer ebook services, following suit with Dystel & Goderich Literary Management. Undoubtedly more literary agencies will follow.
Can a literary agent who represents the author (in theory) also be that author’s publisher? Is there a conflict of interest in this arrangement? If you read Bookends and DGLM’s announcements (see links above), they present their case as simply a value added service their agency would offer. Existing clients who wish to navigate the new frontier (without doing it themselves) can delegate the details to their agency for their backlists, short stories to promote upcoming releases or epub works that might not be as marketable. They offer their expertise in editing, marketing, and packaging for their usual 15% fee.
Yes, that’s 15% of all book/unit sales. And since there is no “print run” on a digital novel, this could mean 15% forever if that’s not defined by contract. Authors who have looked into self-publishing know that an author can hire one or more contractors to coordinate the effort of packaging their book with formatting, editing, cover art, and uploading said book into the retail outlets who will offer the work online. They don’t have to do it themselves. (I’ve heard cost figures of $1000 – 2000 per book, but since some of you have gone through this process, please weigh in and share your experiences on costs, level of difficulty, and what you “farmed out.”) If advertising is involved, that’s something an author always has the ability to pay for and do on their own.
If that’s one alternative, that an author hires the work done by third parties, what specifically does the agent bring new to the table in this regard? Arguably, an author can hope their agency brings years of industry experience to package the best product, but beyond their opinion (which they would bring if they represented the author as agent anyway), what value can they add to improve sales without the promo dollars of a publisher’s budget (traditionally only offered to a select few authors or book projects)? What kind of promo is required for ebook sales outside what’s already made available through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Smashwords, etc.? Yes, it would be nice to have the promo budget of James Patterson, but how realistic is that for the average author?
On top of the question of value derived for an agent’s 15% fee, who retains the rights for the work? Yes, typically the publisher would retain rights for a specified time, but if the agent is the publisher, who would be the advocate for the author if the agent representing their interest is now the publisher? And with no print run to determine when an author can ask for their rights back, how will the author ever reclaim their work? Who is protecting the rights of a new author who may not be aware of the pitfalls? Normally that might be the agent, but if they are now the publisher, who then?
Anyone can have an opinion about this. Realtor’s have laws regarding their representation conduct, for example. I worked in the energy industry where third party energy marketing arms had to be totally separate on paper and physically housed apart from its affiliate, the regulated utility. Operating practices had to be auditable and employees had to sign ethics agreements annually that could be grounds for termination if this code of conduct was violated. Enron became the prime example of conflict of interest that defined many of the laws that are in place today.
If this trend continues where agents become publishers, I see much harder issues ahead on contract terms, sub-rights negotiations, fiduciary obligations, and better conflict of interest policies where ebooks are concerned—and AAR must weigh in with specifics since it’s obviously not clear. In the ever evolving world of ebooks, agents becoming publishers is another strange twist. Is this the shape of things to come—another nail in the coffin of traditional publishers—or merely literary agencies struggling to be relevant in a new age?
I’ve had talks with my agent and we’ve addressed strategies going forward. We both see ebooks as a new opportunity for authors, but we recognize that the way deals are negotiated now, that will most likely change. New questions must be explored open-mindedly—for example:

1.) What’s a fair ebook royalty rate? Is 50% a more acceptable industry standard or should it be subject to negotiation deal to deal?

2.) Can a book deal be done where an author retains ebook rights to be leveraged by an agent? Would 15% agent fee be warranted then?

3.) When can an author get rights back in a digital world—from a publisher or an agent?

4.) Should any publisher get only a limited time period to said rights? If so, what royalty value would that have and is the term of the arrangement variable and negotiable?

With the future changing as fast as it is, agents can still add value and provide a real service with regard to foreign sales, audio, film and negotiating print rights on ebooks. I’ve never been much of an advocate for an agent editing a book before an editor gets their input. I hire an agent to be my advocate and negotiator. I don’t want their attention focused on a multitude of revisions with their clients that dilutes their effectiveness in the marketplace, which should be their primary concern. Some agents give editing advice as part of their representation deal, without charging a fee. Below is article 8 of the Association of Author’s Representatives (AAR) Canon of Ethics.

“The AAR believes that the practice of literary agents charging clients or potential clients for reading and evaluating literary works (including outlines, proposals, and partial or complete manuscripts) is subject to serious abuse that reflects adversely on our profession. For that reason, members may not charge clients or potential clients for reading and evaluating literary works and may not benefit, directly or indirectly, from the charging for such services by any other person or entity. The term ‘charge’ in the previous sentence includes any request for payment other than to cover the actual cost of returning materials.”

According to their announcement, Bookends explains that their 15% fee provides their editing expertise as a part of the package. “For the work we are doing with them we are getting paid a 15% commission… we also provide revisions and edits for those books that might not have been published before.” How is this different than a vanity press? And how is this in keeping with AAR’s Canon of Ethics as stated above?

Bookends and DGLM’s announcements justify their 15% agent fee with a list of services that can easily be obtained elsewhere by third parties who aren’t also charged with advocacy on the author’s behalf. In an effort to sound forward thinking, these agencies are ignoring the potential for conflict of interest and undermining the relationships they already have with publishers by competing with them.
Another concern I have are the people querying agent/publishers who are desperate to be represented. If Bookends, DGLM or other agents, find a marginal book that would be a tough sale to a traditional house, they can “offer their services” and take money from people who don’t know better. The countless folks in a slush pile become a gold mine, the gift that keeps on giving. And if there is no a delineation in who offers these services—with a definitive separation of companies—an agent’s existing author clients could get ignored because an agent is too busy cashing in on people bent on being “represented” by a real agent.
On the subject of conflict of interest, agent Jessica Faust in a comment to her Bookends blog post stated, “My feeling is that whether or not it truly is a conflict of interest comes down to how a situation is handled by the agent, and in many ways, that’s for the agent and the agent’s clients to determine.”
What do you think? Should a conflict of interest be done by consensus between an agent and client? Or should more definitive guidelines be established by more objective parties, without a personal stake in the answer?

Is a Higher Profile Agent Better?

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

So I few of my writing friends are in the process of changing agents and agonizing over who to approach. Most have references from other writers which (in my opinion) is a good way to proceed but they are also weighing up their options based on the status of the agents involved. This reminded me of a conversation I had at a writers conference a few years ago where a young would-be author quizzed me on the merits of getting a ‘high profile’ New York agent versus a local California agent (something I was totally unqualified to help her with!).

When I was looking for an agent this was the last concern on my mind (hey, I was amazed anyone would want to represent me at all!) – what I really wanted was an agent that felt like a good fit for my work and who would champion my books.

Still, I wonder whether the perception continues that having a higher profile, ‘status’ agent is better. Does it perhaps help when it comes to landing a book deal (?), does it make an author feel more important to have an agent who represents a whole heap of bestsellers (?), does it, in short, matter (?)

So what do you think? Does a higher profile agent make a difference?

Garlic Breath, or What Not to Do on Your Opening Page

“If you cannot write a compelling opening scene, from the opening sentence, I’m not going to finish your proposal.”
– Agent, speaking at a recent writers conference

The opening page of your novel is your big introduction. It’s what an agent will read with most interest, to see if you can write (which is why page 1 is often the first thing read in your proposal. You may have spent 100 hours on a killer synopsis, 50 on an irresistible query, but if the writing itself is not up to snuff, the busy agent can save time by tossing the whole thing aside without reading the rest of the proposal).
Think of it this way. You are at a party and the man or woman of your dreams is across the room. The host offers to introduce you. You walk over. There is great anticipation, even from Dreamboat, who is there to meet people, too. So Dreamboat extends a hand, you take it, and say, “Nice to meet you.”
Only you have a horrendous case of garlic breath. Dreamboat winces, whips out a phone and walks quickly away, muttering, “I have to take this.”
Well, that’s what it’s like for an agent reading your first page. He or she wants to like you, but if you’ve got garlic breath, it’s all over. Bad first impression. See you later.
I taught at a writers conference recently, where attendees were invited to submit the opening page of their manuscripts – anonymously. We then put these on two transparencies. The first one as is, the second I had marked up as a tough editor might.
It was quite educational. I got 12 first pages in all, and none were ready for prime time. There were several items that should be avoided at all costs on the first page. Here they are, in no particular order:
Characters Alone, Thinking
This was in the majority of the first pages I reviewed. We did not get a scene, which is a character in conflict with others in order to advance an agenda. We got, instead, the ruminations of the character as he/she reflects on something that just happened, or the state of his/her life at the moment, or some strong emotion. The author, in a mistaken attempt to establish reader sympathy with the character, gave us static information.
Such a page is DOA, even if the character is “doing” something innocuous, like preparing breakfast:
Marge Inersha tried to mix the pancake batter, but thoughts of Carl kept swirling in her head, taking her mind off breakfast and back to Tuesday, horrible Tuesday when the sheriff had served her with the divorce papers. Tears fell into the batter, but Marge was powerless to stop them. She put the mixing bowl on the counter and wiped her eyes. How much more could she take? With two kids sleeping upstairs?
Marge is certainly hurting, but you know what? I don’t care. I hate to be piggy about this, but I really don’t care that Marge is crying into her pancake batter. The mistake writers make is in thinking that readers will have immediate sympathy for a person who is upset.
They won’t. It’s like sitting at a bar and guy next to you grabs your sleeve and immediately starts pouring out his troubles to you.
Sorry, buddy, I don’t care. We all got troubles. What else is new?
Don’t give us a character like that on page 1.
Agents and editors hate it when you open with a dream. And so do most readers. Because if they get invested in a cool opening, and then discover it’s all been a dream, they feel cheated. So you may have a gripping first page, but you’ll ruin the effect when the character awakens.
Yes, I know some bestselling authors have done this. When you start selling a gazillion copies, you can do it, too. Until then, you can’t.
Exposition Dump
In most of the first pages I reviewed there was entirely too much exposition. The author thinks that this is information the reader has to know in order to understand the character and the scene.
In truth, readers need to know very little to get into the story. They will wait a long time for explanations and backstory if the action is gripping, essential, tense or disturbing. My rule, ever since I began writing and teaching, is act first, explain later.
This rule will serve you amazingly well your entire writing career.
Weather Without Character
Another complaint you’ll hear from editors and agents is about “weather openings.” This is a catch all phrase for generic description. Chip MacGregor, agent, described his opening pet peeve this way: “The [adjective] [adjective] sun rose in the [adjective] [adjective] sky, shedding its [adjective] light across the [adjective] [adjective] [adjective] land.”
If you’re gong to describe weather on the opening page, make sure you’ve established a character on whom the weather is acting. And make sure that character is not alone, thinking.
Point of View Confusion
Another big error was a confusion about Point of View. This comes in several guises.
1. We don’t have a strong POV character. Who does this scene belong to?
2. We “head hop” between different characters on the same page, losing focus.
3. We have the terrible sin of “collective POV.” That is, we get a description of two or more characters who think or perceive the same thing at the same time.
John and Mary ran from the gang, wondering where they were going to go next.
The 300 Spartans turned and saw the Persians approaching.
4. We have First Person narration without a compelling voice. First Person needs attitude.
5. We don’t have a POV at all until the second or third paragraph. We have description, but no idea who is perceiving it. We need that information right away.
So these are some very big don’t’ on your first page. Care to add more to the list?
And next week, I’ll tell you how to write an opening page that works . . .every time . . .in any genre . . .

10 Things I Think You Need to Know About Agents

by James Scott Bell

1. Before you approach an agent, make sure your concept is killer. That means a) not shopworn (“We’ve seen this before”); or b) not so far off the map that anyone with a profit motive will run screaming from the room. It has to be fresh but not too weird. The characters have to jump off the page. There has to be enough at stake. Your opening pages have too move. Easy, right? Of course not, because if it was your Aunt Sally would be writing New York Times bestsellers. But here’s where you have to dig in if you want to interest an agent.

2. You are better off having no agent than having a bad agent. Anyone can print up business cards and call themselves “agent.” But what do they know about the business? Find out. A reputable agent should have a website with a list of their clients. Start there. What’s their background in the publishing biz? How long have they been agenting? There are some “watchdog” sites that issue warnings about certain names, so use your old pal Google.

3. You need to be businesslike about the relationship. Don’t jump at the first bite. Talk to the agent by phone. Ask some questions, see how you click personally. Be objective about this. From the agent’s side it’s business; it should be from your side, too.

4. You are probably unrealistic about what an agent can do for you. Having an agent doesn’t guarantee a contract. And just because an agent doesn’t get you a sale doesn’t mean he or she is the problem. It might be your writing, or your timing. A good agent will suggest ways to overcome market weaknesses, but ultimately you have to take charge of improving as a writer. And you’d better do it, because there are a bunch of other writers out there who are.

5. Your agent has many clients; you have only one agent. Don’t expect all the attention. Don’t expect immediate return of phone calls, unless it’s a publishing emergency. Don’t expect immediate return of emails unless it is an issue affecting your professional life, like, right now.

6. But agents aren’t mind readers, either. If you have a question or issue, contact them. Don’t let your frustrations build to the point where it affects your writing.

7. Agents are human beings. “Thank You” notes (real ones, made out of paper, sent with a stamp) do mean something. So do Starbucks cards and chocolate.

8. Agent Rachelle Gardner has a great post with her take on some “bad advice” she’s read regarding agents. Read it.

9. Read blogs by agents, but don’t let the plethora of information freak you out. Ultimately the most important thing is your writing, the thing you have most control over. Keep coming up with ideas and keep growing as a writer.

10. Fred Allen, the famous radio comedian, once said, “You can take all the sincerity in Hollywood and put it into a gnat’s navel, and still have room for two caraway seeds and an agent’s heart.” I get to tell that joke because I’m a former lawyer and had to put up with lawyer jokes all the time. But now the truth. The overwhelming majority of agents I’ve met at conferences love books and authors and want the best for both. So approach agents professionally. They want to like you. Show them what you’ve got. Don’t be dull and don’t be desperate. It’s a tough business out there right now and it’s not just writers feeling it, it’s agents, too. Everybody in this profession has to keep slugging.

When is it time to get a new agent?

By Clare Langley-Hawthorne

In recent weeks I’ve had a few friends of mine mention that they were seriously considering changing agents and this got me thinking – not about changing agents (if you’re reading this Brian, don’t worry!) but about how authors should approach this issue. How do you know when it’s time for a change and how, once you’ve made the decision, do you act on it?

First things first, how do you know when the agent you have isn’t really working out? This posed a quandary for me, for there could be many reasons:

  1. Your agent ceases to return calls or emails (the most egregious “my agent seems to have fallen off the planet” reason) – this one is a no-brainer, but I’m amazed at how many horror stories there are from authors who agents literally disappeared for months or who retired without even informing them!
  2. Your agent doesn’t like your latest manuscript or project – This is a tricky one…because a good agent may have legitimate concerns…or their lack of enthusiasm may be indicative of a poor fit and a justification for a parting of the ways.
  3. Your agent has failed to sell your work/get what you consider to be the best deal with a publisher – I’m sure if an agent fails to sell your work one option is to find another agent who thinks they can (a strategy that may or may not lead to an actual publishing deal) but I think it’s a trickier proposition when an author feels that their agent isn’t landing them the big deals with major publishers (because that just may be the way things are going to turn out regardless of the agent you have)…but I’m wondering how long should you wait to see if a deal emerges? How much time should you give an agent before you decide on a change?
  4. Your agent doesn’t appear to care about your career – I’ve heard this quite often: where an agent doesn’t seem that interested in discussing career strategies or discussing an author’s interest in branching out beyond their genre. I’ve heard from cozy mystery writers whose agents have no interest in their ideas for non-mystery books, and from authors who complain that their agents simply don’t seem interested enough in their work to care about the next career step.
  5. Your agent represents many, many authors and you’re at the bottom of the totem pole. This is a frequent lament, especially from authors with high profile agents who represent many more successful authors. I think there are pros and cons to having a high profile agent but if you aint feeling the love then…

It’s time for a change…

But how do you go about changing agents?

Although it’s not the done thing to actively seek representation when you already have an agent, obviously you should scope out other options before you take the plunge and call it quits with your current agent. I’m not sure what the etiquette is regarding this – perhaps my other bloggers can help me here – but I think first and foremost you should be professional and straight up with both parties. I don’t think any kind of underhand games should be played and, like in any business relationship, appropriate courtesies should be maintained. If there are any manuscripts currently out on submission then you should discuss how these will be handled – typically if these lead to publication then it is your former agent (who sent the manuscript out) who gets his or her commission. No doubt there are always grey areas but the lawyer in me tells me to steer clear of those!

I would be interested in hearing from my fellow bloggers and other agented (or agentless) authors on their views. When do you think it’s time to consider getting a new agent? How should you (or have you) gone about getting new representation? Do you have any stories from the trenches that could help others facing this (often) thorny issue?

Crafting The Synopsis

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

Last week I sent my agent a synopsis for my new WIP – a proposed YA novel that blends history, fantasy and suspense. I haven’t actually written it yet but I crafted a synopsis to achieve two things: First, to get feedback from my agent on my idea for the book and second, to focus my own mind.

The concept of writing a synopsis of a book that has yet to be written may seem strange to many people but I find it an invaluable first step. For me the synopsis precedes a more detailed chapter outline (as you can see I’m a planner) but also provides a global view that helps solidify in my mind the key elements for the novel: the tone, characters and setting for the book. Though my synopsis provides an overview of the plot it doesn’t go into any more detail than the summary you might find on the dust jacket of a book. In the case of my YA novel, I found I could craft the synopsis even though, as yet, I have no real idea how the problem presented is actually resolved.

In many ways I find writing a synopsis harder than writing the book itself – for it has to be a succinct encapsulation of all the facets of the story and should also be a vehicle for presenting the ‘hook’ or premise that will (hopefully!) generate excitement for the project. I spent many, many hours tearing my hair out over my first synopsis (for Consequences of Sin) which I was going to use at a (helpful but horrific) speed dating for agent session. I ended up handing it over at lunch to the woman who would go on to be my first agent and I truly think it was the synopsis that ‘sold’ her on the idea for the book. Though producing that first synopsis was a stressful experience it taught me the value of the exercise and now I prepare a synopsis before I write each book.

To me the value of the process is threefold:

  • It forces me to compress my ideas into one or two unifying themes that give an overall flavor for the tone of the book.
  • It provides me with the one to two line ‘hook’ that I can then use when pitching the idea and which my agent can also use when talking to editors and others about the project. I also send my agent multiple project synopses to get input on which is the best, strategically, to work on next.
  • It already starts me thinking about how I will frame the book – and by this I mean in marketing terms: What kind of book is it? How would a publisher categorize and market it? What other books is it likely to be compared to?

Now this may all sound very anal and weird but I find the exercise to be a critical first step for me. It comes after I’ve done my initial research and once the idea I have for the book has crystallized in my own mind, even if the details of plot still remain unknown.

So how about you? Does anyone else put together a synopsis at the beginning of a project? How difficult is it for you to distill down your book into a one page description? What elements do you think make a synopsis compelling?