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On Writers and Agents

As a former long-time literary agent and as a writer, I've seen this vital relationship from both sides of the desk. Here, in Q and A form, are a few suggestions on the acquisition, care and feeding of the North American Literary Agent.

Q: Is it necessary to have an agent in order to sell your work?

Depends what sort of book you're writing and to whom you want to sell it. Scholarly works or those of interest to only a small, specific readership may be sold to university presses, which accept submissions directly from writers. Agents are interested only in commercial properties, books they can sell to publishers and publishers to the general public. When agents first came along, they were fiercely resisted by publishers, who preferred to work and negotiate directly with authors. But that relationship has evolved, and publishers have come to value agents as sieves, without whom they would be inundated with unsuitable material. In the U.S., most of the big commercial publishers will no longer accept unagented submissions, so if you consider your work to have serious commercial potential, your quest to be published should begin with a quest to find a literary agent to represent you.

Q: How do writers go about finding literary agents?

If you have friends who are writers or work in the publishing industry, ask if they would be willing to recommend some agents. Nothing gets agents' attention more than a referral from a client or publishing professional---but it's got to be real, because they will certainly check!
Use books and the internet. Invest in a guidebook. I like GUIDE TO LITERARY AGENTS, published by Writers Books, which lists not only contact information but also the agents' preferred genres and submission guidelines. Sign up for Publishers Lunch (the free version) on the internet, and read it daily. Start reading the magazine Publishers Weekly, especially their rights and new deals columns. Look for agents who are selling fiction, particularly for new writers. Keep an eye out for agents who have just left their old agencies to start one of their own - they're usually hungry for clients. Are there fiction writers you particularly admire? You can find out who their agents are (often the writers thank them in the acknowledgments, or look up the writer in WHO'S WHO OF AMERICAN WRITERS) and put those agents on your list. Use some of the many excellent websites designed to help writers find agents. (See my list of Resources for Writers.) Then check the agents' own websites for more information.
Go to writers' conferences and sign up for meetings with agents.
One way or another, you should come up with a list of at least 30 names and a reason why you want to submit to each. Make sure you check them all on the excellent Preditors and Editors website, Stick with agents who belong to the literary agents professional society, AAR, whose members must adhere to a strict code of ethics. (New agents may not yet be members, since they need to sell a certain number of books to join, but they should undertake voluntarily to adhere to those standards.) Anyone can call himself an agent, and there's a lot of sharks in them thar waters.
Write a great query letter (See Query Letters that Work), check what material each agent prefers to receive with query, and start submitting. Don't forget to enclose an SASE (self-addressed stamped envelope) with your queries. Keep five or six submissions going at all times. If you receive rejections, send out a new submission the same day.

Q: What sort of things can an author reasonably expect from one's literary agent?

A literary agent is the writer's business representative. The agent's primary responsibilities are to find an appropriate publisher for the writer's work, to negotiate the best possible deal for the writer with that publisher, to examine and if necessary make changes in contracts, and to follow through by representing the writer's interests during the entire publishing process. In many cases the agent retains and sells, through various subagents, subsidiary rights to the writer's work, including movie and foreign rights. The agent can also help by educating the writer about the realities of the publishing business.
Literary agents make their living through commissions, usually 15% of the writer's income. This means that their financial well-being hinges on that of their clients, which is as it should be. Agents who demand "reading fees" or offer to edit your work for a fee are considered unethical and should be shunned. For more on this topic, see this post on my blog, In Cold Ink.

Q: What are some DOs and DON'Ts in the author/agent relationship?

DON'T expect services outside the agent's scope. Sometimes friction in agent/writer relationships arises from the writer's misunderstanding the limits of the agent's job. A literary agent is not a publicity agent. There are publicity agents for hire (at rates far beyond what most writers can afford) and most publishing houses have their own staff of publicists. Nor is the agent a psychologist, social worker, marriage counselor or banker, which leads us to no-no

DON'T ask your agent to "advance" you money. That's the publisher's role, not the agent's.

DON'T negotiate or discuss terms with your editor. That is the agent's job.

DON'T be unrealistic. Agents aren't magicians, and they have no magic wands. They can't cast spells on editors to make them love your work. They can't control the ups and downs of the market. While they can and should advocate for your book during the entire publishing process, they don't control crucial decisions like print runs and promotional budgets.
DO respect your agent's greatest asset: his time. Keep emails and phone conversations short, infrequent and businesslike. Personally, I'd worry about an agent who had time for long, cozy chats on the phone. If you have larger issues to discuss, set up a meeting, either face-to-face or by phone.

DO deal openly and honestly with your agent. If issues arise, address them; don't let them fester.

DO expect the same openness and honesty from your agent. Busy agents can be hard to reach, but writers should expect to have their phone calls and emails returned in a timely fashion. Your agent should keep you informed of submissions and responses and should share editors' comments with you if you desire.

For more info on the etiquette of author--agent relationship, see this post on my blog.

Q: What is the process an agent goes through when submitting an author's manuscript to publishers, and how much input can/should an author have in that process?

Depends on the agent. Some will make editorial suggestions to the writer before submitting the work, to ensure that they're going out with the strongest possible manuscript. Others do no editing; they accept or decline a manuscript based on their ability to sell it as is. Once the book is ready to submit, the agent draws up a list of editors who he feels would be interested in the work and begins to contact the editors on the list. If he feels strongly that the book is a perfect fit for a particular editor or house, he may give that editor an early, exclusive look and the opportunity to make a preemptive bid. More often, the agent may decide to make multiple submissions.

Once the agent has an offer in hand, he conveys it to the writer and they discuss their response. The agent will also contact any other editors who are considering the book. Often the news that one publishing house has made an offer can induce others to follow suit. In the best of all possible cases, several offers come in and the agent is in a position to auction the book to the highest and/or best bidder. Without the leverage of additional offers, the agent must negotiate from a weaker position.

If the writer has any thoughts or suggestions on where the book should go, he should by all means share these with the agent. But the writer should also recognize the agent's expertise in dealing with the various publishing houses.

Q: What's the relationship/process during contract negotiations among agent, publisher, author?

This a period of high anxiety for writers, and it can last for weeks. Sometimes writers have exaggerated ideas about the terms they're likely to get for their work, but the more common scenario is that the writer, in his eagerness to be published, will settle for less than the publisher is actually willing to pay.
Smart writers keep their heads down during contract negotiations and let their agents earn their commissions.

I hope these notes are helpful. If you have other questions about either the business or the craft of writing, drop me a line and I'll try to address them here. You can also check out my blog, In Cold Ink, and use the Category widget on the right to find posts on whatever publishing topics interest you.


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