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Category : Questions from Beginners
Someone wrote to ask, “Can you tell me what a good author/agent relationship should look like?”
I can try. Keep in mind that there’s no “perfect agent style” that suits everyone. One writer needs an agent who is a strong editor-and-story-idea person, another writer needs an agent who is a contracts-and-negotiation person, and a third writer needs an agent who is counselor-and-chief-supporter. It’s why I always encourage authors to think carefully about what they need in a literary agent. I consider myself a good agent, having done this job for a long time, contracted a lot of books, and developed a good track record of success. But I’ll be the first to say I’m not the agent for everybody. My style doesn’t fit every author, nor can I provide everything each author needs. So sometimes I’ll meet a writer whose work I like, but we’ll both feel the vibe is wrong. We have to get along personally as well as professionally. Other times the author has expectations I know I can’t meet (such as wanting me to edit their entire manuscript). So finding a good agent is like finding a good friend — what works for you might not work for your neighbor.
A good author/agent relationship is usually one in which expectations are clear, and the agent helps the author succeed in those areas they’ve decided to focus on. It might be story development, or editing and fine-tuning a manuscript, or support and encouragement, or career management, or contract advice, or… the list is as varied as authors want to make it. If you don’t really know what you need, you’ll find yourself just going with someone you like, or someone your friends like.
Keep in mind that most working literary agents come from one of four backgrounds. They are either (1) a former editor, so they have strong words skills, or (2) a former writer, so they
Someone wrote to ask, “When is it appropriate to inquire on the status of a submission to an editor or agent? I sent something in to an agent four months ago, but have yet to hear. How long should it take?”
Every agent has his or her own system. I try to get to submissions once every other week, but sometimes I go four or five weeks between looking. And that’s just for a quick look — if I like something, I have to read it through, and that means I could have it for a month or two before I can give the author a firm response. In my experience, most agents would like to have two or three months to consider a proposal before they render a “yes” or “no.” During busy times (like Christmas, summer vacation, and stints in rehab), it may take longer. So if you sent a project to an agent four months ago, and she hasn’t responded to you, it might be appropriate just to drop a friendly note — something like, “Hello, I’m just checking back with you on that proposal I sent you a few months back. I was wondering if you’ve had a chance to look it over yet, and if there’s anything more you need. I know you’re busy, so thanks very much for giving it your consideration.” No need to whine, beg, or wheedle. Just check in, and be polite.
On a related note, one writer sent me a note to complain that an agent hadn’t responded to his proposal in a year… but when I checked with that author, he noted that he’d never actually met the agent, nor had he queried via email or letter. In other words, he had just sent in a proposal cold. And that leads me to ask,“Where is it written that an agent must respond to you just because you
Someone wrote me to say, “I was just offered a contract on my novel. Since I don’t have an agent, should I seek one at this point? Would it be better to have the agent simply review the contract for a fee?”
There’s quite a debate about this issue. I know several agents who would say, “If you already have an offer — call me!” I mean, they’d be happy to get 15% for a deal they’ve done no work on. But I have some doubts about the value in that type of situation. Let’s say you got a contract offer featuring a $10,000 advance. If the agent steps in, he or she takes $1500. Is the value of their work worth that? You can ask a contract service to review your contract for around $500. (But be careful… there are good and bad authors, good and bad agents, and good and bad contract review services. Make sure to ask questions, so you get someone who knows what they’re doing and has done it before.) A contract service won’t negotiate for you or improve the deal — they simply evaluate and report back to you. So if you have a bunch to negotiate this may not be your best choice.
You can also talk with an intellectual property rights attorney, but be cautious — they’re generally paid by the increment, usually by the six-minute increment for every phone call, email, conversation, or reading you ask them to do. It can add up fast. A good attorney can certainly help, and should be able to strengthen the contract. But in my experience you want to be careful who you’re working with — I’ve had too many situations where the goal of the attorney seemed to be nothing more than to keep the clock moving (though expect some attorney to come onto the comments to claim that never happens). The longer it
A friend wrote to say, “You’ve said several times that an author should ask a prospective agent some questions in order to get to know him (or her). I’m going to a conference in a couple months — what sort of questions should I ask?”
I’ve talked about this question a couple of times, and I think the answer keeps changing as the industry evolves. Here are some thoughts to get you started…
-How long have you been doing this?
-How many contracts have you negotiated for authors?
-Who do you represent?
-What publishing houses have you worked with in the past year?
-Which editorial personnel have you done deals with?
-How many deals have you done in the past year?
-What sort of authors and projects do you represent?
-What do you like to read? (Ask for titles.)
-Can you give me a couple book titles you sold that you loved?
-Can you give me a couple book ideas you sold that you loved?
-Do you offer editorial input to authors?
-How often will we be in touch?
-What would you say are your best skills?
-What’s unique about your agency?
-What percentage do you earn on a book deal?
-Are there any hidden fees or charges? Any up-front costs?
-Do you charge back your expenses?
-How do you handle legal or accounting issues?
-In what ways do you get involved in marketing?
-Have you ever worked in publishing or done any editing or writing?
-How do you approach career planning?
-Do you work by yourself?
-Are you full time?
-Are you a member of AAR?
-How long have you been in business?
-How many people work at your agency?
-About how many books do you contract in a year?
-Will you be handling my work, or will someone else?
-What are your expectations of me as a client?
-Can you help me if I want to self-publish?
I had several people send in marketing questions recently…
“In publishing, which comes first — the chicken or the egg? Do we need to have a book published before we start building a platform? Or do we start building a platform before we have a book to push?”
If the platform is the chicken, it’s definitely the chicken that comes first. If I walk into a publisher’s office with your nonfiction book, the FIRST question he or she will ask is, “What’s her platform?” I can sell good writing and a good idea from an author with a great platform. But it’s tough to sell even great nonfiction writing that comes from an author with no platform. So that’s easy — start building your platform NOW.
“In laymen’s terms, can you tell me what a marketing platform is?”
Your platform is a number. In simplest terms, your platform is the number of people you can influence to buy your book — and these days your publisher is going to expect the author to be responsible for about half the overall number of copies sold of your nonfiction book. So add up the people you can influence — the number of people you speak to at conferences, the number who read your blog, the number who get your newspaper column, the number of people in your organization, the number who listen to you on the radio or watch you on TV. All those media contacts you have can be turned into a number — and that’s the number the publisher will look to when they think about selling your book. If it’s a smaller house, they might be hoping to sell four-to-eight-thousand books. (That means you’d have to sell between two-and-four-thousand copies — which is a lot of books.) If it’s a medium sized publisher, they’re looking to sell twelve-to-twenty. If it’s a large publisher, they may only be interested in
A handful of leftover questions from our month of “sitting down with a literary agent” series…
Can a person who does not aspire to fame be a successful writer?
Of course. Some writers are looking for fame, but in my experience most get into writing because they have a story to tell. By the same token, some writers embrace the “fame” aspect of getting published, and love the attention it creates, while others hate it, and just want to write and maintain their privacy. There are plenty of examples of both. Perhaps this is getting skewed today because of social media, which can sometimes make it seem like every author is required to be an extrovert. But my feeling is that there are a lot of introverted writers, who don’t seek to be everywhere, all the time, commenting on everything.
If I have a really well-written book, how can I meet literary agents?
You can go to conferences and meet some agents face to face. You can go to a book show or industry event and get in touch with agents. You can talk to published authors about their current agent. You can look at Chuck Sambucino’s Guide to Literary Agents, or Jeff Herman’s Guide to Book Publishers, Editors, and Literary Agents. You can go to the Association of Author Representatives website, or to AgentResearch.com. You can find out who the busiest agents are, or which agents tend to work in your genre by joining Publishers Marketplace and researching their database. Or I suppose you could do it the old fashioned way and try to get a face-to-face meeting by sending them a fabulous proposal and showing up to talk. No matter what you do, spend some time researching the agent to make sure he or she is a fit, what they require in a proposal, and how they work with authors. You can also go to Predators & Editors
Okay, so all month I’ve been having readers send in questions they would ask if they could just sit down and be face to face with a literary agent. Here’s the most recent batch of questions I’ve received…
Is it standard for most debut authors to have their manuscripts read by an outside copy-editor before submitting to a publisher? I’ve heard this is now common practice, but with the low advances publishers are now paying, it seems unfair to insist on the author funding the cost of an outside edit.
I think it’s an exaggeration to say publishers “insist” on an outside copyedit. The author is best protected when a manuscript comes in clean, since they’re not relying on some minimum wage, entry-level person to do the edit. And as the business has gotten harder, publishers seem to be doing less editing, and they love having their costs cut by having manuscripts come in as clean as possible. But I don’t believe we can say that’s any sort of official standard, except perhaps with mom-and-pop ebook publishers who can’t afford a good copy editor.
When it comes to book proposals, should a narrative non-fiction proposal follow the rules for a novel, or for a nonfiction book?
It’s a nonfiction book, so it should basically follow a nonfiction proposal format. But this is a great question, since narrative nonfiction is really a blend of the two. Still, you’ll find the core of a narrative book is telling a nonfiction story, so stick with the nonfiction proposal model.
I’ve seen contradicting opinions on using blog content in books… If I write a blog, does a publisher consider all content “published,” and therefore unusable in a future book?
If you write a blog post and stick it on your website, it has, in fact, been “published.” But no, that doesn’t preclude you from using that material in a future book, assuming you own
A guest blog from Holly Lorincz –
Many of you know me as the newest agent at MacGregor Literary but I’m writing today from behind my Editor Desk. I was originally hired by the agency as an editing and publishing consultant, having run an editing service for years. Now that I’ve dealt with the publishing industry from a number of angles — from that of a reader, to a writing instructor, to an editor, to a novelist, to an agent — I believe I have some insight that may be helpful to writers at various stages in their career.
WHY YOU SHOULD HIRE A PROFESSIONAL EDITOR
I wish with all my heart I had taken my own advice and hired a professional to do a line edit on my first novel before I published. I’ve learned the hard way I can spot errors, typos, awkward sentences and developmental issues in anyone else’s text but my own. When I read back over my own novels, I know what I meant to say . . . and that’s what my mind sees. So, I’ve relied on my beta readers to help me catch errors. But the problem is, while amazing at feedback, they are not trained, tried-by-fire professionals, paid to dissect my every word and thought. I was cocky when I decided to independently publish without hiring someone else. I’m not saying the book was a mess but there were a handful of homonym errors any paid professional would have spotted in a second. Soooo, yeah. “His voice a horse whisper.” That’s embarrassing. Edit much?
Over the last two years, I have focused on editing novels. My best clients recognize their job is to tell a good story and my job is to help polish that story. There is no ego involved (or, at least, it’s hidden). They recognize that typing out 80,000 words in a short time will lead to typos
Imagine this: You get to sit down to have dinner with the literary agent of your choosing. You can ask anything you want? So… what would you ask? I’ve been taking the entire month of April to let people send in the questions they’ve always wanted to ask a literary agent. Recent questions include…
A friend of mine in our writers’ group asked me if she can be sued if she uses the name of a real town — i.e., Witch Hazel, Oregon, in her novel. Is that true?
Okay– I’m not a lawyer, so I’m not giving you legal advice. If you need legal advice, go talk to an attorney. What you’re getting is my take as an agent… Sued? For what? No. You can be sued for defaming or libeling someone, but you can’t be sued for simply using the name of a town. Does she think she can’t say, “The plane flew to New York”? (But thanks for the call-out to my hometown of Witch Hazel!)
It’s my understanding that publishers will often pay higher royalties for hardcover than softcover. Why is this?
It’s true. The standard book contracts pays 10% of the retail price on the first 5000 hardcopies sold, 12.5% on the next 5000 copies, and 15% thereafter. A trade paper pays a flat 7.5%. The cost of the hardcover is higher, the production costs are a bit higher, people are willing to pay more, so there is more money to divide. Thus the royalties are higher. (By the way, most CBA publishers pay on net contracts, so it’s a bit different.)
I’d like to know what goes on in a Pub Board meeting, and why does it sometimes take so long for them to make a decision on a book?
The pub board is where a decision is made to publish or not publish a book. Usually it includes the editor presenting the project,
Okay, so this month I’ve invited writers to send in the question they’d love to ask a literary agent, if only they could sit down over, say, a martini. Pretend the two of you are face to face. Relax. Take a deep breath. What would you ask? Here are several of the questions people sent…
When a contract with a publisher expires, I assume the rights to the book revert back to the author. Does the author then have to get a new cover, ISBN number, etc, to put the book out as an e-book or POD? And is that something usually covered in a contract?
Great question. First, with most publishing contracts these days, the rights do NOT automatically revert to the author when the book goes out of print. Instead, the book stays with that publisher as an e-book, and they’ll want to keep it as long as it’s selling some copies and making money. Even when it’s not, you’ll have to write and request your rights back. So let’s say the publisher does indeed revert rights — all that gets reverted to you is your text. You’ll need to create a new cover (unless it’s the rare instance where you own the cover art or can buy it from the publisher), get a new ISBN (since this is a new edition of the book), probably re-edit the book (to make it clean and up to date), then load it to Amazon, Smashwords, etc. And no, your current publishing contract won’t say much of anything about this process, other than to offer some confusing, multi-step process to try and get your rights back.
Is there any chance of getting an agent when you DON’T have a platform? And if I’m just starting, how long do you feel it will take for me to build a platform?
Sure there is. It’s just easier when you have a platform —