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Category : Agents
Since Chip is trying to keep his tan from fading and bleaching his hair to make us all think he's gone blond, it's probably time for me to offer a few additional thoughts.
David wrote to say, "At a conference last year, you told me you liked my writing but couldn't represent me because the timing was bad. What does that actually mean? I hear a lot of people talk about timing in publishing, but I have to admit I'm not sure what they're referencing."
David, I think I remember your submission. I think I even remember seeing your eyes glaze over when I uttered the dreaded "timing" phrase. Sorry. Rejecting material that shows promise is one of the hardest parts of this business — especially when Chip and I rail on about how important good writing is. I must have thought your writing showed promise or I wouldn't have said so. Take whatever encouragement you can from those words and keep at it.
Here's the deal regarding the "timing" comment: I only have so many hours in the day, and I simply can't take on too many projects which I know will take an extraordinary amount of time to sell. So sometimes I'm already working with a similar project, and it's the wrong time to take on another. Other times I like a project, but it smacks of something that is already out there, so the timing is all wrong. There are many facets of the job of agenting, but when it comes down to it, selling my authors' manuscripts is how I make my living, how I serve my clients, and how I keep Chip happy (well… that and occasionally telling him how young he looks).
Let me offer an example… I've been working with an author whose story is unique and haunting and charming, and who I think has a great future. I've been showing her proposal
Wow. My last post seems to have upset some people.
I had eleven authors write and ask a form of this: "You mean when the agent said to me, 'We like this, but we want you to talk with our editorial department in order to get your manuscript in shape,' he was scamming me?"
My response: If the agent was selling you editorial services that he gets a commission from, then yes. At best the agent was violating the Association of Author Representatives' code of ethics. At worst he was trying to make money off you when he knew he wouldn't be able to sell your manuscript. There's also been a slew of literaryagents who charge authors for media training, marketing efforts, and all sorts of other stuff. It's wrong — but these agents don't belong to AAR, they don't have any training from an experienced agent, so they don't even realize what they're doing is improper.
Look, in recent years we've seen an explosion of people calling themselves "literary agents," though many don't have any sort of formal or informal training, nor were they mentored by a successful agent. They don't really understand the role of a literary agent. But the growth of certain genres (and Christian fiction in particular) over the past five or six years motivated them to hang out a shingle and announce they were now "agents." In other words, they saw it as easy money. And a lot of authors, who were looking for an agent to help them, signed on. Some even got their books published. But I'll tell you something: these folks don't know what they're doing. When I see a manuscript that is a good idea but not quite ready for prime time, I might send them to an editor — but I won't be making money off the deal. If they need marketing help, I'll either provide it or introduce them to a good publicist – but it won't be someone who
Recently I've had a number of questions come to me about literary agents…
Diane wrote to ask, "Where can an author find out about good and bad agents?"
I can suggest an author do several things, Diane. Check out the information at AgentQuery.com. You'll find facts and details about agents, as well as good writer resources. The folks at TheWritersWorkshop and the blog at GuideToLiteraryAgents.com are also helpful, and try to keep writers up to date on problem literary agencies. Every year Chuck Sambuchino does his Guide to Literary Agents with Writers Digest Books, and the 2009 version is filled with great information (including an article I wrote on the new directions in Christian fiction). There are several books that list agents by genre, and the online "Publishers Marketplace" tracks which agents are actually doing deals. That should give you some real-world perspective. Finally, Bill Martin runs AgentResearch.com, which tries to track agents, deals, and any insider information he can find.
One site you really should visit is Preditors & Editors (you'll find them at anotherrealm.com/ prededitors) . I'm always surprised to discover writers don't know about this site, but it tracks the scam artists in this business. A second site that tries to weed out the bad agents is Write Beware (go to sfwa.org/beware/agents). Both of these grew out of speculative fiction authors getting scammed, and both do a good job of naming names and offering real world advice. And, of course, you can always go to a writing conference and ask around. You can glean a lot of information by talking with an editor about who they do repeat business with, and who they have decided to not pursue.
Randall sent this: "I sent in a proposal to a literary agency I had met at a conference. I got back a letter stating that my proposal 'isn't ready for representation,' but the letter also encouraged me to
Over the past couple of months, I've received a boatload of personal questions about agenting in general, and my agency in particular. Instead of taking each one separately, I'm going to clump them together and try to answer as many as possible. But be warned: Some of this reads like a commercial. I'm sorry about that — my intention on this blog is to answer the questions that come in. But since I've had so many questions like this, I decided it was best to try and answer a bunch of them at once, rather than routinely sprinkle self-serving questions throughout my posts. Here goes…
David, Tracy, and several others asked, "How long have you been an agent, and how did you get your start?"I used to make my living as a collaborative writer, and about 20 years ago I decided I needed to educate myself regarding the industry. So I became the writer at conferences who could talk to authors about contracts and negotiations, about what makes a good proposal, and about who is buying what. Soon I had authors asking me to look over contracts, help them shape proposals, then help them talk with the right people. Eventually I figured out I was working as an agent (without actually getting paid for it). I spent three years as the Senior Editor for Harvest House Publishers, then Alive Communications came calling and asked if I was interested in becoming an agent. It took me a nanosecond: "Yes!" I joined them, and spent six years working as a literary agent at Alive, which at the time was the 800-pound gorilla of Christian agents. I learned a lot from experienced agents Rick Christian and Greg Johnson, and we were representing all the major properties at that time: the Left Behind series, the Thoenes, Karen Kingsbury, Terri Blackstock, the Every Man's Battle series, etc. A huge list of hits. I got into the agenting business early,
Okay, so the new People Magazine is out on store shelves… The one promoting "The Sexiest Men in America." I'd just like to point out that they list 25 guys in that issue, and they failed to mention me.
How can this sort of thing happen, you ask? Beats me. A clerical error, perhaps. Or a vast, right wing conspiracy. However, my sources tell me this, like everything else in this country, is the work of George W. Bush.
All right — I just had to get that off my chest before my lawyer contacts them. Now let me get to some of the more general queries people have sent my way recently…
Ashley wrote to ask, "How many queries do you get each day, and how many of those do you accept? How many times in a month do you ask to see the full manuscript?"
In 2008, I've received an average of about 175 queried proposals per month. Of those, I'll ask maybe 10 to send me the full manuscript. Of those, I might choose to represent one or two.
Gwen asked, "As an agent, do you value the full person and relationship as much as the person's writing? For example, if you agreed to represent an author, and they didn't make you any money, would you remain friends with that person? Would you keep them as a client and encourage them in ways to be successful?"
There's no way to answer that question without sounding self-aggrandizing, so get ready… Yes, I value the person as much as the person's writing. Most of the authors I represent become personal friends, and we work together for a long time. I try to represent people for the long haul — not just for the current book. And we're creating books together, not just locating money sources. In many ways, a good agent is a business partner with an author, offering writing
Ben wants to know, "Are there any genres that are hot right now? If a new writer is trying to break into the market, is there any merit to ignoring the type of books he or she would normally like to write, and focusing on books that are in a hot genre, in hopes of being more likely to get published?"
Sure, there are genres that are hot right now. In Christian fiction, it seems like all you have to do is to put an Amish person on the cover of the novel and it will sell. In general market circles, there seems to be a huge growth in vampires (also Obama, Sarah Palin, Batman, and Eckhart Tolle). And that goes to show the silliness (in my view) of chasing trends. I suppose you could try writing a book in which Eckhart Tolle becomes a vampire and attacks Sarah Palin, who tried to escape the media attacks on her family by fleeing with Obama to an Amish community, where they are saved by Batman, but… I don't know. The idea of Obama becoming Amish seems far-fetched.
I rarely see authors achieve success by chasing the market, Ben. It always seems that by the time we've all recognized a trend, it's too late to contract another book on the subject. That may not always prove true (certainly there are plenty of Christian novelists who have sold books based on little more than having an Amish setting), but as a rule, I don't see authors breaking out with this sort of thinking.
Carolyn wants to know, "How does a writer find out how many copies of a book sold? Someone told me recently that an author had sold 'millions of books.' How can I find out for sure?"
It's hard to get a firm number. If you have a connection to the author, you can ask him or her. If you have
Here's how this blog works: You send in publishing questions, and I give you a straightforward answer. Nearly all of the recent questions relate to agents…
Rita wrote to ask, "I've been offered a contract on my novel… When an author is offered a deal and they don't yet have an agent, should they seek one at that point? And if an agent accepts, should the agent still get 15% of the royalties, even though he or she didn't market that book or secure the deal for them?"
Ten agents might give you ten different answers to this, Rita. Here's mine: Unless you know publishing, contracts, negotiations, and what's considered standard in the industry, you'd probably benefit from having an agent. So yes, I'd seek out an agent to help you, in most cases. However, I wouldn't feel right about taking the full 15% commission unless I somehow improved the deal for you. If I didn't sell it or find you the deal, it would seem unfair for me to take a full commission. Not every agent agrees with that perspective, so be aware as you talk to people.
Julie wrote regarding a related question: "If I already have an offer from a publisher, will an agent negotiate the contract for a fee?"
Negotiate it for a fee? No. But some will do a contract reading or contract evaluation for you for a fee. Or you could pay a lawyer to review the contract and make notes (be prepared to pay a good sum of money), OR you could pay someone who specializes in contract evaluations to look it over and make suggestions. When someone does an evaluation, they go through the contract, mark it up, tell you what's fair, and suggest things you can ask for in order to improve the deal. But that requires you to actually do some negotiation — so if you're really not comfortable negotiating,
Jacob wrote to me and said, "I submitted to one of those compilation books, and the company requested I put my social security number on all my submissions. I wrote to ask them about the practice, since my submission had not yet been accepted, and was told by one of the people who helps with the project that he ‘puts his SSN on everything’ he submits. What’s your advice on this subject?"
My advice is clear: DO NOT PUT YOUR SSN ON YOUR PROPOSALS. In fact, my guess is that anybody who routinely sticks that sort of confidential information on all his proposals is a dipstick. Don’t take career advice from that individual. Yikes.
Belinda wrote and noted, "I have been accepted into a compilation book, but their contract has an endless non-compete. When I asked them about it, I was told they ‘don’t mean it like that.’ What should I do?"
Sticking with the dipstick theme, if the editor said to you, "I know the contract only calls for you to make a 2% royalty, but we don’t mean it — we’ll pay you 15%," would you agree to sign? No way. The reason you have a written contract is to clarify exactly what the deal is. If they want to offer a broader non-complete clause, get it written down, or suggest some wording for them to insert into the contract. Basically a non-compete is there to protect a publisher from an unscrupulous author writing a book with one house, then writing a very similar book and producing it with another house, thereby cannibalizing sales. An author who regularly writes and speaks on a particular topic needs to gain some freedom, so as not to be prohibited from ever writing on that topic again. A good contract strikes a balance between the publisher’s protection and the author’s calling to speak to a certain issue.
Timothy asked, "How long
I’ve been sent some tough questions lately — questions that you might have been wondering about in your own writing career. It seems like there are some difficult publishing questions that frequently get ignored, so I’ll try to tackle a couple of them today…
Donna wrote to say, "It seems like there are a ton of books that have sold a million copies lately. Can you tell me what the top books last year sold?"
I can, but prepare to be surprised. There were only four books last year that sold more than a million copies — Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (which sold more than 7 million); The Secret (just shy of 3 million); Eat, Pray, Love (just shy of 2M); and A Thousand Splendid Suns (sold 1M). That’s it. Four books.
There were another 15 titles that sold between a half-million and a million copies: The Dangerous Book for Boys, Kite Runner, Water for Elephants, and The Memory Keeper’s Daughter all sold just under a million. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Jessica Seinfeld’s Deceptively Delicious, Stephen Colbert’s I Am America, Sidney Poitier’s The Measure of a Man, John Grisham’s Playing for Pizza, Bob Greene’s The Best Life Diet, the two You titles (You: On a Diet and You: Staying Young), The Glass Castle, Eclipse, and Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince all sold more than 500,000 copies. And that’s it. There were 250,000 new books printed last year in this country. 19 of them hit the big time. Yikes.
John wrote to ask, "Do you have ethical problems with ghostwriting?"
I hate this question, because too many people are quick to say "YES!" without understanding the terms. I used to make my living as a collaborative writer. A well-known speaker would send me his notes and his seminar on tape, and I’d turn it into a book for him. It was all his material — I was