Pub Rants

No Prize For An Unblemished Record

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STATUS: Tomorrow I head to Hawaii for the Hawaii Writers Conference. It’s a tough job and somebody has to do it and I’m always happier doing it in Hawaii. Grin.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? FAMILY AFFAIR by Mary J. Blige (now that I’ve learned how to code it down to a small playbox, I’m going to try putting it right under the iPod song–just in case you want to listen while reading.)

I’ve actually been mulling in my head how to write this entry. The reason? I don’t agent the same as all other agents so it’s hard to talk about percentage.

For example, in comparison to a lot of other agents, I don’t sell a lot of books in any given year. I’ve never have—even when I started seven years ago. I’m very selective about the projects I take on.

Earlier in my career when I was still feeling out my tastes and what I really wanted to represent, I had a much higher percentage of books that didn’t sell (especially when I was doing nonfiction titles—which I’m hopeless at and hence why I just rep fiction).

When I became more comfortable in the fiction realm and knew exactly what works for me and what works for the editors, my percentage of projects sold drastically increased. I’m going to assume that what is of most interest to blog readers is the percentage of projects sold for new clients (or debut authors) who haven’t been previously published.

For me, I’m looking back on the last two years and my percentage is almost 100% of what I took on sold. Now this sounds like I’m tooting my horn and other agents aren’t good as I am but that’s not what I’m trying to say (although it could be true, I really don’t know). There may be another way to look at this. Maybe I’m not taking as many risks. I don’t perceive it that way as I only take on the stuff I love but maybe that’s it.

Maybe other agents take on a higher percentage of projects because they are at bigger agencies and have to meet sales quotas. Maybe other agents take on more because they get paid on commission only and bills need to be paid (so the higher percentage they take on, the more likelihood that % number of projects will sell). Maybe other agents take on more simply because they love more stuff then I do (have a broader range in their tastes) and not all of it can sell. Maybe other agents are newer to agenting and still feeling out their tastes and what works best for them to sell.

I haven’t got a definitive answer here.

But what I can say because of yesterday’s entry, my record is not a 100% this year!

Now what’s interesting is that when I took on this author, I knew it wasn’t going to be a slam dunk sale. It’s a work that genre blends so didn’t fit squarely into one place or the other (always harder to sell). Also, this work was something very different for me to rep; it was going outside my “box” so to speak (although I like to think I don’t have a box and I’m open to anything as long as the voice is there). And, to top it off, an earlier version of this work had been shopped previously by another agent. We did a major revision and took it out again. Both the author and I knew what we were up against. If I don’t challenge myself now and again, what’s the point? This work is good; it deserves to sell. This week, we were “this close” to selling it before getting shot down in the agony of defeat.

And if I can’t sell this one, chances are really good I’m going to be selling a future work from this client. The author has a great way of nailing characters who are gray-area bad guys but end up being perversely likable. That’s mastery. I’m patient—as is the author.

So no unblemished record for me this year. C’est la vie!

29 Responses

  1. nkrell said:

    I understand the ‘agony of defeat’. (I cringe just thinking about that clip.) Rejection is no fun, but I like your attitude when you say that chances are really good you’ll be selling a future work from this client. You’re great at what you do and you’re successful for a reason.

    Remember, the Pessimist complains about the wind, the Optimist expects it to change and the REALIST adjusts his sails.

    Go adjust your ‘sales’. 🙂

  2. Mike said:

    Isn’t it possible that you’ll sell this novel in the future, after some other work is published and done well?

    Perhaps you should score the year optimistically, as 99% plus one pending

  3. Malanie said:

    It’s exciting to see an agent willing to step outside the box and so passionate about your projects. I wish you and this author the best!

  4. Anonymous said:

    Your voice has defeat these last two posts. It will affect your performance if you don’t shake it. What happens if the excitement dims just a little when presenting other work to editors? Get mad, scream, whatever is necessary; then get focused. You have a lot of clients counting on you.

    I think you should count all the good thing you’ve accomplished, rather than letting this rule several days of your life. You served this client well and sound like you will continue doing so. You have several authors with bestsellers. And don’t forget us folks out here that check in on a regular basis, gleaning nuggets of wisdom from an insider. I think your balance sheet is top heavy on assets and owner’s equity. Short-term liabilities should be paid off so you can move forward.

    A lot’a folks are counting on you; most you have never met. Sounds like the actions of a remarkable person to me.

  5. terripatrick said:

    Cool post, thanks for sharing!
    I love your willingness to champion projects and your dedication to embrace a challenge.

    A few times, in my career as a writer, I’ve considered focusing more on being an agent. I assume I would be a lot like you – an agent with determination and dignity for the cause of the story. I have little doubt my professional skills would benefit the clients I chose, but, instead, chose the road more traveled, as a writer, with the intent to leave clear footprints on the writers path.

    The world of publishing is in another transition, and you’re blazing trails for the truth and importance of STORY. Enjoy Hawaii! There’s something about those tropical breezes that nurtures the soul with a new sense of – life is good.

  6. Joe Bruno said:

    If so many professionals, including you, are in favour of this book being published – and if the reasons for its non-publication are to do with the particular business views of the publishers concerned rather than with inherent defects in the work – is this a case for self-publication?

    Given the shape of the publishing industry, there are many books in the situation you’ve described. I’d be very interested to hear your views on this. As I see it:

    In favour: Borrow one of the publisher’s cover designers on a freelance basis, get a recommendation for a good printer that can switch seamlessly between short-run digital and long-run litho, set up a special-purpose company and imprint, and the result will be indistinguishable in the bookshops from any other published book.

    In favour: Setup (including 200 APCs & initial sale copies) will cost, say, $3000.

    In favour: Invaluable feedback from the market, from real people willing to spend their own money: will help the novelist see whether this particular genre blend has a future.

    Against: It probably won’t make money. BUT – the feedback and exposure may be worth it.

    Against: Author’s reputation: “He was so unwanted he had to pay people to read his book”.

    Against: The novel’s reputation: all self-publishing smells of Lulu.

  7. Anonymous said:

    Joe Bruno — how many self-published books have you read last year?

    I’ve read none. I don’t even have money to buy the published books I want to buy, there’s no way I’d waste precious cash on something that didn’t have professional editing and copyediting, etc…

    Perhaps this author can sell a different book and then maybe sell this one at a later date — that’s my hope for this author.

    But why is self-publishing always the default setting every time someone experiences dissapointment in this business?

    I don’t even know of ONE person who has EVER read a self-published book, and I hang out with writers, for pete’s sake.

    Per the OP, I’d say Kristin doesn’t take “any” risks at all. She reps too few clients for there to be a risk — all of her clients with the exception of Jamie Ford write very commercial stuff. It’s not like you’re repping a thousand page novel by an unkown (a new David Foster Wallace), or any other innovative, hard-to-place fare. You rep commercial fiction!

  8. Anonymous said:

    ANON @ 9:22 — Dude, you are reading WAY too much into these last two posts. She isn’t teetering on a ledge or something, she simply stated there was one book she didn’t sell. Then, she stated she usually sells everything. Do you think she would’ve posted about it at all if she couldn’t add at the end — by the way, I usually sell everthing?

    Save your sympathy for someone who needs it — the person’s book that remains unsold.

  9. Anonymous said:

    Dudeman Anon:

    I want my agent is a good frame of mind when presenting my novel, not wallowing in self-doubt. That is keeping the author in mind.

  10. Anonymous said:

    Dudeman Anon here — I don’t see any wallowing, frankly. I see an informative blog post with a bit of an added plug for her skills — Bummer, I didn’t sell THIS book, but hey, I USUALLY sell everything… nod, nod, wink, wink.

    You say you “want your agent in a good frame of mind when representing your book?”

    I’m unsure how to respond to that except to say that if you honestly think you can regulate an agents’ behavior to conform to how “happy” you need them to be at any given moment, you are mistaken.

  11. Penelope said:

    “And if I can’t sell this one, chances are really good I’m going to be selling a future work from this client.”

    This is the important thing. I’m going to be querying soon, and if my agent doesn’t sell my book, it will be disappointing. However, if they’re willing to move onto the next book with me, I can handle the disappointment. It’s more important to me that I find an agent interested in my career, and not just in the particular project.

  12. Mystery Robin said:

    Kristin – I’d actually really love to read a post about what happens when a client, whose work you’ve previously sold, stumbles. If you can’t sell the next book – or the series peters out. Do you work with them on ideas for future books? Do you just wait and see what they have next? Do you give them the boot?

    I’d love to see a little farther down the path. 😉

    Thanks! Robin

  13. Christy Pinheiro, EA ABA said:

    You’re going to the Hawaii writer’s conference– I’m so jealous.

    Please make sure you have lots of delicious drinks with little pineapple chunks and umbrellas. I promised myself I would go this year, but I have a wedding to attend. Such a bummer.

    It is going to be so much fun– you’re going to come back bright-eyes and bushy-tailed.

  14. Anonymous said:

    Mystery Robin,

    Take a look at Paula Reed. Kristin sold her first three romances to Kensington. Kensington didn’t pick up the option. (no slam on Paula; Kensington is *notorious* for not picking up options on their debut romance series.)

    Years go by. Paula writes and writes. (all this is chronicled on her blog; I don’t even know Paula.) Kristin finally sells her historical fiction at auction, for hardcover release.

    So yeah, I think you can see that Kristin sticks by her authors. I know this because I am a research stalker.

    Small wonder I want Kristin as an agent.

  15. tc-anderson said:

    I think this says a lot about Ms. Nelson; not only does she have the courage to love something unconventional, but the conviction to stand by it.
    We should all be so lucky to snag an agent this good.

  16. Anonymous said:

    When you say “couldn’t sell it,” are you including small presses too?

    NOBODY wanted it? If that’s the case, then pick someone else! You’re in business, not charity, right?

    If you haven’t tried small presses, why not? Some $ is better than none while you wait for this writer to try again.

  17. Kim Rossi Stagliano said:

    My agent did not sell my first book. It was also genre straddling and my very first book. He learned from editors that they wanted to see another type of book from me. And that’s what he sold, two + years after he signed me. Patience and relationship building are two attributes for which I am grateful, and I’m sure Kristin’s client is too. Nice guys do NOT finish last!

  18. Patience-please said:

    To Anonymous 7:35. Never read a self published book, eh?
    What Color Is Your Parachute? by Richard N. Bolles, was on the NY Times best-seller list periodically for more than a decade; originally self-published, the Ten Speed Press edition has sold more than three million copies

    Rich Dad, Poor Dad by Robert Kiyosaki and Sharon Lechter, a bazillion copies sole

    The Christmas Box by Rick Evans originally self published, then sold to Simon & Schuster for $4.2 million

    The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr.and his student E. B. White – a personal favorite –
    originally self-published for his classes at Cornell University in 1918. Now selling some 300,000 copies each year.

    When I Am an Old Woman I Shall Wear Purple has more than 1.5 million in print. It allowed Sanda Haldeman Martz to build Paper Mâché Press

    Twelve Golden Threads by Aliske Webb was rejected by 150 publishers. After
    self-publishing she signed a four book contract with HarperCollins

    Red Sky in Mourning by Tami Oldham Ashcraft and Susea McGearhart was self-published and then sold to Hyperion for an estimated $500,000

    The Lace Reader by Brunonia Barry. After self-publishing, three major publishing houses were bidding on the book. Barry signed with William Morrow, for a deal that is reportedly worth more than $2 million.

    And then there’s Stephen Crane, E. E. Cummings, Deepak Chopra, Benjamin Franklin, Zane Grey, Rudyard Kipling, D. H. Lawrence, Thomas Paine, Edgar Allan Poe, Ezra Pound, Carl Sandburg, George Bernard Shaw, Upton Sinclair, Gertrude Stein, Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, and Mark Twain.

    That’s all from a quick Google search.

  19. Anonymous said:

    Forgive me, but do you think there’s any possibility this might have been an unfortunate case of the wrong agent at the wrong time…?

    I’m wondering because a friend of mine (really a friend, not me!) was in the same position as this writer. She bagged a great agent with a fabulous track record, who was ‘branching out to a new genre’ and was very enthusiastic about the potential of my friend’s book – at least at first. But it quickly turned out the agent’s lack of experience in this genre was a major hindrance. Understandably, the agent used her own connections and tried to adapt her own experience to the new genre; but alas, every genre has its own particular publishing ‘scene’ and there are subtleties involved that aren’t obvious at first sight. An editor might be the perfect fit for a book on paper, but nothing really compensates for the lack of that personal touch that comes from an agent knowing the ‘scene’ and its players through and through. My friend’s agent sent the book to a number of people – editors in houses that indeed looked like the right fit on paper – but after a long wait, the rejections started pouring in.

    I’m not just being a biased friend when I say my friend’s book was wonderful; many of my friends are writers, and I can see most of them are not very good. This one, however, was compelling and unusual and beautifully written, and to this day I remain convinced the book would have been published if the agent had sent it to exactly the right people and pitched it the right way. (I was a bit sceptical when my friend told me about her agent’s approach, because it seemed to me the agent was giving the book a bit too ‘commercialised’ a slant and trying to fit it into a pre-existing slot, which hid the very things that made it so special.) Probably even more important would have been to *know* the editors personally, which she didn’t. I’m not an agent, but I know this genre perhaps better than my friend’s (now former) agent, and off the top of my head even I could have named a few editors who might have been more interested than the ones she submitted to. Only other editors in the same houses had already rejected the book, so there was no possibility of re-submitting it. And so this excellent book was dead to the mainstream publishers before my friend even understood what had happened… and then her agent lost interest, too.

    Not saying this case is exactly the same (if at all), but there are definitely good reasons for agents to be careful about taking on a project outside their comfort zone.