Friday, July 16, 2010

Agents: An Editor's First Line of Defense

Now please don't take this the wrong way, dear authors, but without agents I would look like that cartoon of a body being pushed down a hallway by a mass of paper. When I worked for Honor Books, we did a study once on the cost of reading unsolicited proposals, writing a decline letter (I hate the word rejection), and dropping it in the mail. We included the salary and time for our editorial assistant to read the proposals and craft the letter. In 1999, the total cost to send back all the paper that had been sent to us was more than $30,000. In all the years I've been in publishing, I don't think I've ever published a proposal from the slush pile.

Agents are an editor's best friends. Because of their years of experience, they look at your work first and can tell you whether it stands up to the test of quality demanded by publishers. If they think you have potential, they will work with you to lift the bar on your writing. It might mean rewriting your sample chapters or your proposal, but their advice is solid. They know what editors are looking for (most of the time. Editors change their minds a lot.) and can keep you updated on publishing trends.

They earn their 15% when it comes to contract time. If for no other reason than they can get your proposal to an editor's desk and can help negotiate your contract, they are worth what you pay them. Contract language is confusing, and I read it all the time. Why is it confusing? It was written by attorneys. They are trained to make the language confusing. The advance and royalty are negotiable as are some of the sub-rights clauses. Some clauses and percentages are non-negotiable. A good agent looks after your interests and can explain the contract to you. If they can't, you need another agent or an attorney.

I need to pause here and apologize to my dear friend and author Rick Acker, whose book When the Devil Whistles releases this fall from Abingdon Press. Rick works as an attorney for the Department of Justice in California, prosecuting corporate fraud cases, and writes fast-paced thrillers. Check out Rick's website at http://www.rickacker.com/ or his blog at http://rickacker.blogspot.com/. I meant no offense to you as an attorney, Rick.

How do you get an agent? Just like editors, they attend writers' conferences and are also looking for the next big author or that diamond in the rough that can be polished and sold. You can query them by e-mail or mail, and the agents I know have websites that list their submissions guidelines. Here's the deal. To sell a first-time author to a publisher, the agent requires that the author have written . . . a novel. Would you take a risk on someone who tells you they can write a novel when they've never done it before? Exactly.

I will never recommend an agent to you because the relationship between an agent and author is crucial to your success. If the two of you aren't in sync and can't communicate in the early stages, it will be a nightmare later. You need to trust your agent, and they need to be able to trust and depend on you.

Any questions?

21 comments:

  1. No questions madame Editor. I have a fabulously wonderful and awesome agent in Terry Burns. I know...I went a little overboard with the adjectives but he rocks!

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  2. Great post. I am currently looking for an agent and have queried a few with no response so far. But I know it will happen in time. Meanwhile, Im doing what I should do...write. You are right when you say it's hard to sell a writer who hasnt really written! Im on my second novel and second non fiction work, so I hope to have the experience an agent is looking for.

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  3. Great post! I love my agent! She's wonderful.

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  4. Absolutely! I love my agent, too! Bonnie and I are both with Terry Burns. He's been wonderful, and I've had other agent/author relationships to compare. Terry is a HUGE blessing!

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  5. Barbara, let me explain a little secret: If we wrote contracts and other documents so that ANYBODY could understand them, then EVERYBODY would and NOBODY would need lawyers. Our noble profession would wither away and the world would descend into a maelstrom of unlawyered chaos. You wouldn't want that, would you?

    Don't answer that.

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  6. LOL! Rick's comment makes me want to read his book. I wouldn't even want to try to understand all that lawyer-speak in contracts. But considering some current lawsuits going on, I suspect it's more necessary than Rick let on.

    Loving this blog, Barbara.

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  7. Barbara,

    Your Blog is soaring to the top of the charts. Well done.

    For me it was a revelation to learn how close the relationships are between ACK's and the top-tier agents. Originally, I imagined they would be antagonistic by nature.

    It's been so refreshing in the CBA to experience a genuine sense of family and collaboration.

    Michael K. Reynolds

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  8. Great to find you. I heard about you through Jessica Nelson's blog. Not even one from the slush pile, huh?

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  9. Great post, Barb! It seems like I've been doing a lot of cheerleading for agents lately, but I'm not ready to put away my pom-poms yet! Signing with my agent (Sandra Bishop) was a career highlight. Not only do I like her as a person (which is more important than you might think) but she knows the industry far better than I ever could. And don't even get me started on contracts. Oye! Yep, Sandra earns every penny of that 15 percent.

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  10. Just want to mention that another great way to get your feet through the publishing portal is to meet the editor doing the acquiring. So, if you have an agent or don't have an agent it is important to begin building friendships with editors. What better way to do that than to attend a workshop with one. If you live near Philadelphia and want to spend a whole day with Barbara Scott at the Philadelphia Writing Intensive then contact, me, Joyce at jmagnin56(at)gmail(dot)com. This is an awesome opportunity. She's my editor and I don't think it gets any better.

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  11. I have to agree with Joyce. It doesn't get any better than Barbara Scott because she's a mentor at heart. And she has something that not all editors have: She really and truly LOVES writers. And it shows. You wouldn't want to marry a guy who didn't love and respect women, right? It's the same thing with an editor. And an agent, by the way. Rachelle Gardner reps me, and I think anyone who spends ten minutes with her or reading her blog knows that she really loves writers. Finding the right fit with an agent is, as Barbara says, "crucial to your success."

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  12. Thank you:) I learned a few years ago why an agent is a great idea--not if only one will think I'm a great idea too:)LOL

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  13. I appreciate your comments so much! It helps me know my blogs are connecting. If you ever have a suggestion or want to know something about how editors work behind the scenes, let me know. Otherwise, I'm following my "gut." ;-)

    Not even one, Kathy.

    And thanks to my author peeps. You're the best!!

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  14. I totally agree! (although, I must admit, it'd be pretty crazy of me to disagree with an editor on her blog ... LOL) I don't have an agent yet, but I can completely see the necessity. (Still have one full out to one though, but set aside querying this year until after baby is born.) It's not only for the legal reasons, but simply the foot in the door aspect as well as guidance in career planning, etc.

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  15. My agent is Diana Flegal with Hartline Literary Agency. She is worth her weight in gold. She works so hard for her clients, and not only is she business savvy, she is a great friend. I can always count on her advice, wisdom, and encouragement, as well as her prayers. She's a lot like my editor - Barbara Scott!

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  16. I'm really looking forward to having an agent someday who's a trusted partner as well. Maybe even friend, if I'm lucky. :-)
    Great post! Thank you.

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  17. Thanks, Teri. In truth, a loosely worded contract (e.g., most "plain English" forms promoted on the Web) are a litigator's best friends because those are the ones people usually fight about. And I hope you enjoy WHEN THE DEVIL WHISTLES. :-)

    BTW, nice blog post, Barbara. I couldn't agree more about the importance of a good agent. Our mutual friend and my agent, Lee Hough of Alive Communications, earns every penny of his commissions and more. He is an invaluable guide to the world of publishing.

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  18. What an encouraging post. I am very close to start agent hunting, a nerve wracking time.

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  19. Glynis, there's a great agent out there for everyone. Just smile and be yourself. As my daddy used to say, "Everybody puts on his pants the same way...one leg at a time." LOL That was his way of saying that we're all important in God's eyes.

    And I couldn't agree with you more about Lee, Rick. He's one of the best agents in the business because he cares so much about his clients.

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  20. I wish you had commented more, Barbara, about what agents do for their clients aside from screening submissions for editors, providing editorial insights, helping to develop proposals, submissions, communicating with editors and working on contracts. Beyond that we Work on cover changes, write blurbs, handle subsidiary rights sales including film, career development including writing for multiple houses, advice about publicity both in-house and outside; work with co-agents, provide position and market support, and perhaps most of all troubleshooting when things go wrong-- and publishing is a business in which something almost always does go wrong, from the writer being unable to deliver on time to an editor leaving or something just falling between the cracks. When I worked at Simon & Schuster only one book was bought from the "slush pile" and they figured it cost them over $20,000 to acquire it which is why they stopped accepting unsolicited material.
    Natasha Kern

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  21. I agree with Bonnie. After reading your post about praying with clients,etc. I can tell you, Terry is the same way. We all lift each other in prayer, cry with each other's sadness, and turn cartwheels for each other's joys. What a relationship between agent and clients. When it's right, you know it.

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