Pub Rants

A Very Nice Literary Agent Indulges in Polite Rants About Queries, Writers, and the Publishing Industry

Category: editors

The Power of Persistence By Danielle Burby

We are in the season of hot chocolate, sweaters, and storytelling late into the night. Because of that, and because this is the last NLA newsletter of 2017, I wanted to share a story of authorly hard work, hope, and, ultimately, perseverance with you. If you have gotten nothing but rejections for your query, or you haven’t landed that agent, or your full manuscript has gotten nothing but passes, DON’T GIVE UP!

I met Jillian Boehme when I landed my first agency job in 2013. I was an assistant and she was my boss’s client. At that time, she had already spent eight years working toward a book contract. She’d written several manuscripts before landing an agent and been on submission to editors at every reputable publishing house with three additional manuscripts that had gotten nothing but passes. In 2007, she had also started a popular (and, at the time, anonymous) writing advice blog called Miss Snark’s First Victim, which boasted many success stories by connecting numerous authors with agents who went on to sell their books. And yet, despite her hard work, despite her industry connections, despite continuing to write and building her platform, despite having an agent, despite her persistence, she could not seem to sell a novel.

The thing about Jill is that she has an unrelenting work ethic mixed with a deep core need to create art. Every time she was knocked down (and it happened many more times than either of us wanted), she shook it off and approached her writing with a renewed sense of determination. When she submitted her fourth novel, a YA sci-fi, my boss and I gave her a massive revision that, among other things, included eliminating a love triangle by changing the gender of a character, throwing away an entire central plot line, and replacing it with an entirely new one. She got the edit letter, took a breath, and pulled it off beautifully, improving the manuscript by miles in the process. Sadly, that book didn’t sell either, but it did do something important. It pushed her to be a better writer.

By the time Jillian wrote her fifth book for submission to publishers, she had switched to YA fantasy, which my boss at the time didn’t represent, but happens to be one of my favorite genres. I was building my own client list and she and I had been working together for almost three years. We had developed a relationship built on trust, jokes, a love of chocolate, and mutual admiration. Neither of us knew for sure whether she’d ever land a book deal, but I had never seen any author work harder, bounce back from rejection more completely, or improve so drastically in skill and technique with each project. She approached her career with a dogged determination and kept trying even when she had every reason to give up. I loved her fifth book; it was the strongest thing she’d ever written. My boss stepped aside, we formalized our agent/author relationship, edited together, pushed it to be even better, and enthusiastically submitted to editors. We got so close. Every rejection was a heartbreaker, glowing and filled with praise. It still didn’t sell.

Now, twelve years in to Jillian’s journey to publication, five years in to my own relationship with her, and six publisher-submitted manuscripts later, all that hope and hard work has finally paid off. In November, we announced a deal with one of NYC’s major publishers. Jillian’s debut YA fantasy, Gathering Storm, sold to the brilliant and insightful Elayne Becker at Tor Teen in a two-book deal and will be published in Summer 2019. It is already generating film interest.

It is my personal philosophy as an agent that I need to be my clients’ biggest fan and cheerleader. We are a team. There were times when Jillian felt discouraged and couldn’t find hope; in those moments, I told her I’d take care of hoping for the both of us. I have read each of her books upwards of five times and we’ve had endless (and wonderful) editorial and strategic conversations. The agent/author relationship is a special one of shared enthusiasm and dedication to art and business. Through each rejection, we looked to the future and strategized about the next step. This was a very meaningful win. When the offer from Elayne came in, Jillian and I both cried a lot of happy tears.

Whether you are querying agents, waiting for that first book deal, or already published and working to climb higher, you can look to Jillian and her journey for inspiration. Remember that rejections are a badge of honor. It means you are in the game; people in the industry are reading your work. No matter how many no’s you get, all you need is one yes. And, most importantly, there is no such thing as overnight success. To move forward in this business (or in any business), you must constantly learn, grow, and improve. Work hard and don’t ever give up. You are reading this because you are a writer; keep writing and keep getting better. The rest will follow.

Why It’s Dangerous To Think That “Diverse Books” is the Latest Hot Trend

Just recently, PW published an article in which agents shared their thoughts on children’s books and YA trends. Although I’m quite tickled that so many agents are seeing lots of submissions featuring diverse characters, it’s dangerous to consider diversity the latest YA trend.

I’m sure I’m not the only agent who can say they’ve been repping diverse authors/books since day one. It certainly didn’t take a trend for me to sign those books and authors (for example, Kelly Parra’s awesome MTV Book Graffiti Girl in 2007, Kim Reid’s memoir No Place Safe in 2007, and Simone Elkeles’s Perfect Chemistry in 2008). But I can say this: unequivocally, before #WeNeedDiverseBooks became a rallying cry in April 2014, selling in a diverse author/book was tons harder to do. I have my submission logs to prove it. It often took me about 12 to 16 months of grim determination to find a diverse book a home.

If diversity is now hot enough to make the selling-in part a lot of easier, trust me, I’m all for it. Yay! Finally! But I absolutely do not want diversity to be considered a trend in young-adult literature, and here is why: If something is a trend, then it can go out of fashion just as quickly as it came in. And quite frankly, that would be a travesty.

The blunt truth is that selling a diverse book is a perfectly normal thing to do in publishing. So my rallying cry? Agents, new and old, even when diverse books become harder to sell, as they inevitably will (in publishing, trends of every kind have always come and gone), keep on keeping on.

Diversity is not a trend. It’s simply here to stay. This is the new normal.

Photo Credit: Ahmed Alkaisi

Writer Conference Pitch Pro Tips

It’s springtime! That means the Writer Conference season is upon us. And you know what that means, pitch appoints with agents and editors.

I do think yoga breathing exercises are essential to do pre-pitch so you might want to brush up with some practice before you go.

And just in case you’d like a few more tips to help you through, I put together my quick and dirty list:

1. For a 10-minute pitch appointment, plan to spend about 2 minutes talking about your book and 8 minutes interacting with the agent.

2. Nail your pitch in two succinct sentences. Three at most. If you can’t do that, you’ll be in trouble during your pitch.

3. Include one thing about yourself that will make you memorable (but in a good way, LOL). Maybe you have an interesting job that plays a factor in what you write. A funny conference story that is safe to share. A hobby passion that is interesting.

4.. Be prepared to talk about what inspired you. What made you excited to write this book?

5. Come intending to pitch only one book. If, however, the agent asks what else you’ve written or what you’re working on, be prepared to answer that question.

6. Know that this pitch appointment is not a make or break it moment. Not for you as a writer, not for your career, and not for your book; it all comes down to the quality of your writing.

The pitch is simply one stepping stone to getting you read. And if it doesn’t go well, plenty of opportunities to simply query agents the old-fashion way through email. Plenty of authors landed their agent doing just that.

Last but not least, smile and breathe. Most agents and editors are lovely people and they want you to succeed in the pitch appointment.

Scout’s honor!

Pic Credit: Dan Govan

Your Writing Should Not Be Your Main Source of Validation For Who You Are as a Person

I think this can be the most debilitating mistake an aspiring writer can make. There be dragons if you start down this mental path.

I recently gave a talk to Regis University’s MFA in Creative Writing students. In the fifteen-minute Q&A, one participant asked why it was so hard to get a literary agent to even look at her project. I could hear the frustration in her voice. I didn’t have a ready reply because the truth is that there is no good answer.

Writing is personal business. And any response and/or rejection can definitely feel like a commentary on your talent and who you are as a person.

But here is the reason you need to start thinking like an agent and less like a writer when it comes to submitting your material. If someone passes on your work, that rejection is not a commentary on your qualities as a human being. In a lot of instances, it’s not even a commentary on your ability or talent as a writer!

Let me repeat that: A rejection is often not a commentary on your writing talent.

I can cite a bundle of different reasons why an agent or publisher may pass on your work, reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with your writing ability. Don’t believe me? Here are a few (and in no particular order):

  • The agent/publisher has seen two-dozen concepts just like that one in the last four weeks.
  • That concept trend was hot, so now the Publisher has bought too many similar projects for their list and will not be acquiring any more.
  • The agent has an aversion to that type of story. I know a well-respected literary agent who personally cannot handle any story in which a child is in danger, and so will pass on any submission containing such scenes.
  • The editor could not get support in-house from the sales/marketing team to acquire the novel.
  • An agent read the story and thought the writer was talented, but for whatever reason, just didn’t connect with it enough to offer representation.
  • Bad timing. The agent was on vacation or at a conference, or just back to the office, and is simply swamped. It’s hard to be excited about taking on someone new if you are buried in work that can’t be accomplished in a 40-hour work week. And, LOL, no good agent works only 40 hours. It’s more like 60+ a week.
  • There’s talent on the page, but the editor or agent might think a significant revision is necessary, and taking the hour to write up an editorial letter isn’t going to happen.
  • The novel just has an element the agent is never enthusiastic about. For example, some agents are never going to take on a fairy-tale retelling or superhero story. It’s just not his or her thing.

I could go on. There are so many reasons that when I spoke at Regis, the best advice I could offer is this: Do not use writing as a means of validating who you are as a person.

No matter what an industry person’s response is to your written work, your writing is only one facet of who you are as a human being. Don’t make it everything, or you may lose your joy of writing and find the whole business very depressing indeed.

Photo Credit: BK

Because Agents Are Human Too – Article 2


August’s topic might be the most controversial. At the very least, I imagine opinions will vary widely, and I welcome any conversation this might spark.

For an agent to be successful, she has to build trust with editors. Editors have very little free time, so they have to trust that what an agent submits to them will be worth reading. To that end, agents build relationships with editors to create that trust. Publishing, in this sense, isn’t the same as selling widgets. It’s rather an intimate industry.

And there is a narrow balance beam an agent has to walk between creating a good relationship with the editor and advocating for the author client.

With this in mind: Good Agents are friendly with editors but not friends with editors.

This is a very important distinction. It’s OK to be friendly in a professional relationship, but being friends poses a potential conflict of interest that might affect the agent’s ability to represent a client.

Quite simply it comes down to this. If an agent has to address a complicated or difficult issue with an editor (an issue that might lead to a split between the author and the publisher), whose side does the agent need to be on? The client’s of course.

But if an agent is good friends with an editor, the agent might not be willing to jeopardize that friendship to be the author’s champion.

At the very least, the agent might hesitate, and that is a real concern. If your agent has committed to representing you, he or she should never put personal priorities over yours.

Even though 95% of the time, it’s peaches and cream with the publisher and author, and a chummy editor relationship won’t be an issue, there will always be that other 5% where a big issue arises. It’s inevitable during a writer’s career.

As a lot of agents and editors are based in New York, where professional functions provide many opportunities for socializing, the line can blur more often than not. That’s something to keep in mind, and one reason being based outside the Big Apple can actually work in an agent’s favor—geographic distance helps create the “friendly with” versus “friends with” dynamic.

Even if an agent strongly believes she can wear two hats and be in agent mode rather than friend mode when the situation calls for it, keep in mind that agents are humans too and, therefore, fallible when it comes to managing the many types of relationships they maintain in their professional and personal lives.

The best agents, even those in New York, are mindful and respect the boundary between “friendly” and “friends.”


Summary of article series: Just as the title suggests, because agents are also human beings, they are going to embody both good and bad traits found in human nature. No one is perfect. And as some authors have discovered, some agents are more imperfect than others!

Your job as an author is to objectively recognize those human attributes or failings in your agent and decide whether they impact your career. Hopefully they don’t. To this end, Karen Dionne of Backspace and I have put together a whole list of topics to tackle for “Because Agents Are Human Too.”

Photo Credit: Tinou Bao

Article 3: Fearless Negotiation: An Agent’s Most Important Role for an Author


Article #3: Fearless Negotiation: An Agent’s Most Important Role for an Author

Of all the skills a literary agent is required to have, the most important is the ability to negotiate well on behalf of the author client. Authors hire agents to protect their business interests in publishing. In my mind, and other folks may disagree with me, all other skills are kind of moot without this one.

This is why a literary agent has a job.

To say this another way, your agent might be a great communicator or team builder, give great marketing feedback, have good relationships with editors, have good taste in picking projects (all wonderful skills to have), but if they aren’t also a good negotiator, then just how valuable are these other skills to you and your career? A good agent will have the complete skill set.

All this begs the question: How do you know if your agent is a good negotiator? Here’s how:

1.) Good agents negotiate all deals. Sounds simple enough. Doesn’t that always happen? Not necessarily. 

Good agents don’t accept the initial offer from the editor. There is always something that can be negotiated. A higher advance, a better escalator in the royalty break, two books instead of one, restricting the rights, holding or giving audio. The list goes on and on. I share with my authors the original offer and then the final offer before accepting. Does your agent? They should.

Good agents negotiate the deal even if an author brings the publisher offer to the agent. Where the offer comes from doesn’t matter. Every deal and every contract is negotiable. Always. There are no exceptions.

Good agents are willing to walk away from an offer if the terms aren’t favorable enough for the author. If you are interviewing agents, ask if that person has ever walked away from an offer and why. Every good agent will have a story.

Here’s mine. There is a small but well-known publisher that doesn’t include an actual out-of-print clause in their contract. Instead, they include a clause that says the Publisher will hold a meeting once a year and determine, in good faith, whether the rights should revert to the author.

Well, isn’t that nice and vague? Why have a contract at all then? Why don’t we just shake hands on a deal and the whole publishing endeavor and go from there?

In my view, the contract exists so that crucial items like this are clearly spelled out. After much back and forth, during which the publisher asked why I thought I was so special when the editor could cite dozens of other agents who had allowed their clients to sign the contract with this vague language (uh, why?), I counseled the author to walk away. Ultimately the author makes the final choice. It was devastating and super hard for the client, but said client did walk away. That publishing entity is now defunct.

Talk about dodging a bullet in the long run…

2.) Good contract negotiation takes time. Literally. 

Even with a basic boilerplate for my agency in place, most contracts take 6 to 12 weeks to negotiate fully. Every author is unique. Every deal is unique. So every contract negotiation is unique. There are many rounds of back and forth for the requested changes, as publishers are always introducing new clauses or making tweaks to their house contracts. In addition, there may be unique elements negotiated for your specific deal that necessitate changes to several contract clauses that won’t be true for any other author at that particular house.

The contract belongs to the author, so the author has a right to know all the details about what was negotiated on his/her behalf. When I complete a negotiation, I send on the final contract to the author along with the master redline that shows all the incorporated changes. I also send along the requested changes documentation with all my notes and responses from the publisher so the author can read the entire communication chain. They see what was given, what was let go, and why.  In ad nauseam detail.

The contract is legally binding, and you, the author, are going to sign it. Don’t you want to know and understand what your agent has negotiated on your behalf? If I were an author, I certainly would! I don’t share this info just to “be nice.” It’s rightfully yours.

Does your agent share these details with you? If not, why? Ask for it. Read your contract in its entirety. If there’s anything you don’t understand (and it’s OK if that’s the entire contract!), schedule a phone call with your agent to discuss.

It wouldn’t surprise me if the number is around 50% for agents who don’t fully understand a publishing contract or have the ability to explain the meaning and importance of the clauses there in detail.

Do you really want that person representing you?

If a new boilerplate from a publishing house is introduced, then it can take 6 to 9 months to get a new agency boilerplate in place that is reasonable for an author to sign. In the last 6 years, both HarperCollins and Macmillan introduced entirely new contracts. Rumor has it that later this year Random House and Penguin will merge their contract forms into a new Penguin Random House contract boilerplate. I haven’t seen it yet but it’s probably coming in the not-so-distant future.

Contracts turned around quickly or that take less time than what I’ve mentioned above = the agent is not negotiating or is not standing firm on key items until a compromise is found. And compromise can always be struck so both publisher and author are happy. But that takes time and several rounds of negotiation.

You don’t want agents pushing through a contract quickly simply because they need the money, or can’t be bothered, or don’t understand the clauses.

By the way, most agents are not lawyers (although some are). I’m not, nor do I think it absolutely necessary for an agent to also be a lawyer. An agent just has to be good at publishing contracts—which often necessitates thinking like a lawyer. None of the publishers’ in-house contracts managers I work with are lawyers either, and yet they do the negotiation. However, lawyers are often consulted on points of intellectual-property law if necessary.

By the way, lots of smaller agencies work with freelance professional contract managers (who once worked in-house for the big publishers) to assist in contract negotiation. This is a good thing, and I highly recommend it so that the author benefits from the contract manager’s savvy and gets a level of protection if the agent sucks at negotiation.

But it’s still essential for an agent to be a good negotiator. Why? Because it’s the agent who negotiates the initial offer (that’s what you’re paying them for!), not some hired contract professional. And often that necessitates some savvy pre-negotiating skills during the offer stage—before a contract is even generated. For authors further along in their careers, this is a given; they know it needs to be done. It’s not a maybe. And if your agent is not a good negotiator, you can see pretty clearly how that is going to impact your level of success and your longterm writing career. Your agent might not know how to do this.

Next month, Karen and I will tackle The Negotiating Tactics of Good Agents.


The genesis: In January 2015, Backspace co-founder Karen Dionne and I had a conversation in which she mentioned that writers sometimes want representation so badly they are willing to sign with an average or even a below-average agent. Trust me, not all agents are equal. I replied, “Well, writers don’t know what they don’t know.”

In that moment, a lightbulb went on for both of us. Writers don’t know what a good agent does. How could you if (1) you’ve never experienced it and (2) you’ve only ever had one agent and no way to assess just how strong he or she might be at the job?

Thus, this series of articles was born.



February 2015 Newsletter – Article #1: Agent As Savvy Business Manager

March 2015 Newsletter – Article #2: Commanding Authority: An Agent’s Negotiation Edge.

Article 3 – Good Agents Geek Out About Contracts by Karen Dionne

To prepare for this month’s topic, I watched a video from the 2011 Backspace Writers Conference in which Kristin, Scott Hoffman of Folio Literary Management, Suzie Townsend (then of Fineprint  Literary Management, now with New Leaf Literary), and Diana Fox of Fox Literary discussed the nuances of publishing contracts.

One of the things I learned is that publishers often change their contracts to give themselves more favorable terms. Agents who are paying attention pick up on the differences and understand the ramifications. Agents who aren’t, don’t.

As an example, the agents explained how a few year ago Simon & Schuster removed four sentences from the end of the rights reversion clause. These sentences defined the sales threshold, which states that rights will revert to the author if the number of sales drops under a specified amount. Removing these sentences meant that if the publisher also bought digital rights, the book would in effect never go out of print, and the publisher would own the rights to the work in perpetuity.

This created a furor among agents who were paying attention. But not every agent caught the change. Some even let their clients sign the contract, then had to negate that contract and start over again. And some didn’t catch the change at all, which left their authors with no possibility of ever getting the rights to these novels back.

I also learned that agents “geek out” over contracts, as one agent put it. It’s a good thing they do, because as I listened to these agents enthuse over the finer points of contract details, my eyes glazed over. Not that the panel wasn’t interesting and enlightening—it was. Rather, I quickly realized that the nuances of contracts were so not my thing—like signing up for a study course and finding out two weeks in that you have zero interest in the subject.

“I go over every contract with a fine-toothed comb,” Diana Fox said. She then writes a detailed memo and sends it to her contracts manager, who goes over the contract again. “If Random House puts a clause in their boilerplate, I’ll know it.”

I read my first contract carefully. All 11 legal-sized pages of fine print. Four times. I also asked my agent questions, because I wanted to be sure I understood what I was signing.

But agents drill down deeper. An author might not even see the earliest version of the contract their publisher offers. “There are very few things publishers aren’t willing to negotiate on,” Scott Hoffman told the audience. “Some are deal-breakers, and it’s up to the agent and author to decide if a contract clause is in the author’s interest.”

So thank God for agents who geek out over foreign rights, audio rights, boilerplate contracts, and out of print clauses. Good agents watch out for their clients in ways authors don’t even know.


Karen Dionne is an internationally published thriller author, co-founder of the online writers discussion forum Backspace, and organizer of the Salt Cay Writers Retreat and the Neverending Online Backspace Writers Conference.

She is represented by Jeff Kleinman of Folio Literary Management. This panel discussion along with the full Backspace Writers Conference video archives are available exclusively to Backspace subscribers and online conference registrants. 

Kristin’s Original Pitch Letter to Editors – Under A Painted Sky


And as further celebration, my original pitch letter to editors when this work was on submission. A couple of things to note:

1) As my letter reveals, UNDER A PAINTED SKY was not the original title. We have Stacey’s estimable editor Shauna to thank for that! It was a great suggestion and way more evocative than Golden Boys. LOL Titles can be tough. As an agent, I either come up with a terrific one right away for the submit or it doesn’t happen until after the book is sold etc. But editors trust me so I know they’ll read the manuscript even if the title isn’t 100% golden. Pun intended.

2) This novel has received a lot of accolades and two STARRED reviews from Publishers Weekly and Kirkus. Over the last two weeks,  several editors have reached out to me with congratulations and a request for me to keep them in mind for future stories like this. Given how wonderfully this title is coming out of the gate, it’s easy to assume this might have been a slam dunk of a sale when on submission.

It was not.

Putnam really took a chance and with Shauna’s (and Jen Besser’s) wonderful editorial guidance and vision, Stacey worked hard to perfect the story of Sammy and Andy for the novel you get to read today. My fingers are crossed that this is a sleeper hit in the making.



It was so lovely to see you while I was in New York. As promised after BEA, I’m sending along GOLDEN BOYS by Stacey Lee, a  young adult historical western a la True Grit.

After I had offered rep and Stacey accepted, I dug in to do the slow read. I was worried that my lack of sleep caused by staying up to read the manuscript had impaired by judgment when offering rep. *grin*

Lucky for me, it was just as good, if not better, than the first time I read it! I love love love it! Get ready to hold on to your saddle because I think you are going to love it as much as I do.

After a suspicious fire burns down her father’s dry goods store with him in it, newly orphaned Young San-Li, who goes by Samantha Young, confronts the landlord she suspects of setting the fire. When she accidentally kills him in self-defense, her only option is to hit the Oregon Trail. She knows the law in 1849 will not side with the daughter of a Chinaman.

With a whip-smart runaway house slave at her side, “Sammy” and “Andy” disguise themselves as boys and join a band of young seasoned cowboys headed for the California gold rush. Sammy must evade bounty hunters and hunt down Mr. Trask, the man entrusted with her dead mother’s treasured jade bracelet. When she also falls for West Pepper, a cowboy with no tolerance for greenhorn boys let alone girls, Sammy is convinced that the trail poses more hazards than a demure violinist can handle. 

When the wild West doesn’t prove big enough to hide her, Sammy must choose–avenge her father, forsake the memory of her mother, or embrace a new identity forged in the frontier and forever lose her history. 

Stacey Lee wrote her debut novel GOLDEN BOYS because her great great grandfather was one of the first Chinese to come to California at the time of the gold rush. She wondered how a Chinese girl born in the U.S. during its expansion west would have fared.  This novel won the 2012 Golden Gate award at SCBWI Asilomar Conference. This work is also a finalist in the Chicago North Romance Writers of America Fire and Ice Contest.


All Best,


Article 2: Commanding Authority: An Agent’s Negotiation Edge

Article #2: Commanding Authority: An Agent’s Negotiation Edge

in the series WHAT MAKES A GOOD AGENT? by Agent Kristin and Karen Dionne, co-founder of Backspace

In January, one my clients emailed me a great note to kick off the new year. She wrote:

“This is going to sound random, but I feel the need to do a bit of effusive gushing to you. As you probably know, authors eventually turn to gossip (about their contracts too) and I recently found out that several writers I know are stuck with joint accounting, one of them being a NYT bestseller. To say the least, I was agog. My next, immediate thought was that I have the best agent ever.”

Because my client knows that all our contracts here at NLA have separate accounting. I really appreciate when my authors recognize a good job well done because let me tell you, great contract negotiation is not the sexy part of agenting. But it’s the backbone of a great career for my authors.

First, let me explain what joint accounting is: A multi-book deal that grants joint accounting allows the publisher to apply all earnings for all books on that contract to the total advance granted; in other words, none of the books earns out until all of the books earn out.

Separate accounting, on the other hand, specifies that each book’s earnings apply only to that book’s advance; in other words, if book one earns out, the author begins to earn royalties, even if the subsequent books on that contract have yet to earn out. Yay! Royalties!

I decided early in my career that Nelson Literary Agency would only do multi-book deals if the contract granted separate accounting. I weighed the pros and cons, and I just couldn’t see an advantage to granting joint accounting. Since my job as agent is to advocate on behalf of my authors, I’ve held firm on this issue—even if it means we can only sell one book to an editor instead of two or three.

If editors know that joint accounting isn’t available, they don’t bother asking me for it. Why am I sharing this example? Because I want to discuss what could be considered a rather nebulous concept, and my #1 criteria for what makes a good agent:

Good agents command authority naturally.

What does it mean to command authority naturally? For one thing, it means that an editor has immediate respect for the agent. They view the agent as powerful, well informed, and fair yet tough. Especially when it comes to negotiation. So if the agent has established that she won’t grant XYZ in a deal, then editors don’t bother asking for it. In other words, the agent is not a pushover as a negotiator.

There are many agents who are absolutely lovely people but who don’t command authority naturally.

Why should you, as a writer, care about this?

Because it is the essence of this biz. Publishers (who are not evil, by the way) want the most they can get out of a contract (which is often not in the author’s favor), and the agent’s job is to grant only what won’t be detrimental or disadvantageous to the author so that the author gets the fairest contract possible.

The goal is to meet in the happy middle, where both the publisher and the author feel satisfied. And it’s simple: Authors with strong contracts have more successful careers.

So if an agent commands authority naturally, editors will respect that. Editors who know an agent is a negotiating pushover will ask for as much as possible, and since the agent won’t stand tough on key issues, writers get stuck with yucky stuff in their contracts, joint accounting being just one example.

In fact, I know of agents who simply accept the first offer an editor gives without any negotiation whatsoever. Yikes!

Agents who command authority naturally get their projects read more quickly.

Agents who command authority naturally get higher advances and better royalites for their authors’ work.

Agents who command authority naturally are granted more compromises during negotiation, making sure contracts are advantageous for the author.

Agents who command authority naturally get more leverage when dealing with conflict (for instance, over a cover image or something else in the author’s career).

By the way, this doesn’t mean that the agent will always get her way. But it does mean that the editor respects, values, and weighs seriously the agent’s opinion. And sometimes that translates into swaying the editor on the issue.

Agents who command authority naturally are just better at the job of agenting. And in my mind, if the agent is better at agenting, the author is going to have a stronger, more successful career.

And since authors want to make a living writing, this becomes pretty important indeed!


The genesis: In January 2015, Backspace co-founder Karen Dionne and I had a conversation in which she mentioned that writers sometimes want representation so badly they are willing to sign with an average or even a below-average agent. Trust me, not all agents are equal. I replied, “Well, writers don’t know what they don’t know.”

In that moment, a lightbulb went on for both of us. Writers don’t know what a good agent does. How could you if (1) you’ve never experienced it and (2) you’ve only ever had one agent and no way to assess just how strong he or she might be at the job?

Thus, this series of articles was born.



February 2015 Newsletter – Article #1: Agent As Savvy Business Manager

Article 2 – When Agents & Editors Respect Respect Each Other by Karen Dionne


Guest Blogger: Karen Dionne

One of my favorite panels regularly offered at my Backspace Writers Conferences was one in which I invited an agent I respected to bring in an editor they’d worked with to discuss the process of selling and bringing out a book. Sometimes called “Agents and Editors, Working Together,” sometimes “The Business of Selling the Book,” these discussions were far more interesting than their titles. I loved how they pulled back the curtain on an aspect of the publishing business that authors generally don’t get to see: the relationship between agents and editors.

The conversations were always casual, engaging, and honest. It was easy to see that the agent and editor respected each other and enjoyed working together—even though they acknowledged their jobs often put them on opposite sides of the fence.

I thought about these panel discussions after I read Kristin’s article about how a good agent needs to command authority naturally. In one discussion, the editor lamented how hard it was to know if the agent pitching a manuscript was telling the truth.

Agents lie to editors? I remember thinking. Apparently, some do. Editors know it, and it makes their jobs harder. As an example, the editor said an agent might tell her they have “interest” in a manuscript. Normally this means another editor wants to acquire the book. But “interest” could mean as little as the agent and editor had waved to each other in the hallway. The editor was exaggerating for effect, but the truth beneath her comment was clear.

“I will never, ever lie to an editor,” the agent broke in. “I’m a salesperson, so naturally I’m going to portray the book in the best possible light. But I will never say anything that’s factually untrue.”

“I know that,” the editor replied. “And I trust you. Personal relationships are super important to figuring out what’s actually going on [in negotiations].”

Or as Kristin puts it: “For an agent to command authority naturally means that an editor has immediate respect for the agent. They view the agent as powerful, well informed, fair, yet tough.”

Kristin also says: “Agents who command authority naturally get their projects read more quickly.” 

In the same panel discussion, the agent told the audience that if he thinks a book will generate interest from multiple publishers, he likes to send the book to editors on a Thursday. Why Thursday? So the editors can read the manuscript that night, get their colleagues on board the next day so they in turn can read the book over the weekend, and the following week the agent can hopefully set up an auction.

“We hate when agents do that!” the editor said. Dropping everything she had planned and reading is the last thing she wants to do at the end of a busy week. But because she respects the agent, she trusts that when he says the manuscript is hot, it really is, and he’s not lying in order to get the project read quickly. So she reads the manuscript right away.

“Agents who command authority naturally are just better at the job of agenting,” Kristin says.

At another of my Backspace conferences, when I met the editor the agent brought in for this panel and told her who my agent was, she said, “You have a good agent. He’s tough.”

I found out later that my agent and this editor are friends. Yet their friendship doesn’t preclude my agent being a tough negotiator when the situation calls for it. More important, this editor respects my agent because he is.


Karen Dionne is an internationally published thriller author, co-founder of the online writers discussion forum Backspace, and organizer of the Salt Cay Writers Retreat and the Neverending Online Backspace Writers Conference.

She is represented by Jeff Kleinman of Folio Literary Management. This panel discussion along with the full Backspace Writers Conference video archives are available exclusively to Backspace subscribers and online conference registrants. 

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