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.
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?
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.
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?
“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.”
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.
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.
- 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!
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.
- 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…
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?