Pub Rants

Category: Agents/Agenting

Newsletter readers, have you been checking your spam folder once a month wondering if you’ve missed the Nelson Literary Agency newsletter since July? The good news is that you haven’t missed an issue. There simply hasn’t been a newsletter since June, and here’s why. Warning: This is truly a “pub rant,” so if you are only in the mood for something positive, you might want to skip this read.

The reason there has been no newsletter for the last four months is straightforward: I had a major life event in mid July into August during which I unexpectedly lost my remaining parent. As the Executor/Trustee, I suddenly had a second full-time job handling the estate. Although my siblings did an amazing amount of work, too, there are a lot of tasks delegated solely to the Trustee. Because my current clients are my priority, I immediately shut down to queries and back-burnered other non-critical tasks (i.e., the newsletter) just so I could manage. All my clients have been so hugely supportive, it makes me tear up. 

What I wasn’t ready for was the response from the outside world—and here is where the publishing rant comes in, so feel free to step out now. I have dedicated two decades of my life to educating aspiring writers by writing the Pub Rants blog and then by creating and distributing this newsletter. All I ask is when I step away for a bit of time, please respect that. Yet I was stunned by how many folks called the office to ask when I would be open to queries. Twitter messages demanding to know when I would be open to queries. Queries sent to email addresses that don’t accept queries. Queries sent to my colleague, Joanna, asking her to please forward their query to me. Emails where one writer was insistent that he “couldn’t wait any more for me to re-open,” as if I had deliberately set out to inconvenience writers, so he sent the query anyway. I even had several people hand deliver their projects to the agency doorstep (projects that, by the way, were promptly donated to the recycle bin). 

All because I had to close one aspect of my agenting life—my availability to writers looking for an agent. 

Agents are human beings first and agents second (or maybe even third in our life roles). If agents are closed to queries, there is a reason. No amount of trying to circumvent the closure is going to change our minds. An author could have sent me the next New York Times bestselling manuscript and the honest truth is, I DO NOT CARE. Not at this moment in my life. I will not be reading it. 

And to all the wonderful writers out there who only wish me well during what has been an incredibly tough time in my life, thank you for all those good wishes and positive thoughts. I know you are out there, which is why I will re-open to queries again (most likely in January 2023) and continue trying to educate aspiring writers.

Photo by Marina Shatskikh

Every week I receive multiple inquiries from aspiring writers asking if there are job openings at Nelson Literary. I applaud the chutzpah (after all, you won’t know if you don’t ask), but alas, NLA is not currently hiring. But I have to say this: Although an inside look at publishing provides a huge education for any aspiring writer, working in publishing might kill your desire to write. 

There are always exceptions to the rule. I can name any number of working editors who also enjoy successful careers as authors. There are plenty of agents who do the same. But I also know that every assistant I’ve ever had was initially an aspiring writer looking to understand the business that was fueling their passion. And almost all of them—Anita, Becky, Jamie, and now Tallahj—chose to leave the daily grind of publishing to embrace their true passion of writing (or a similar creative endeavor). They all ultimately decided that the daily work was killing the creative spirit.

Tallahj came to NLA after she stood up at her high-school career day and declared she wanted to be a publisher because she loved to write. We asked her to come learn all about it with us. Six years, a high-school diploma, and a bachelor’s degree in English later, she is off to a new adventure in the audiovisual graphic arts. I sat down with Tallahj to get the scoop. We laughed (and I cried a little) when we remembered some of the fun stories with her at NLA. Mine was how all of us pitched in to teach her how to type (no two-fingered hunting and pecking!) and cheered her on during her timed keyboarding tests (and presented her with a surprise grand prize when she passed at last). Hers was about when we took her out to lunch and convinced her to try artichoke dip. Whoops! That was an epic fail. Now she loves all kinds of food and is a master of all things social media and video editing—and she can run circles around my typing ability. 

Me: What surprised you most about working in publishing?

Tallahj: Working at NLA shifted my perspective completely on the way I read. Before, if I was interested in the concept, I was happy to read it—even if the writing was only average and all the characterization was on the surface. Now I find myself reading novels and reading between the lines by focusing on what is not on the page as my avenue to understanding characters. Two of my favorite reads that do exactly that are Jason Reynolds’s Long Way Down and Ellen Hopkins’s Crank. Reading and analyzing the opening chapter of Nyxia by Scott Reintgen is what taught me the importance of that as part of the job. 

Me: When working at NLA, did you read less for pleasure?

Tallahj: Yes, very much so. Part of that might also be because I was in school earning my Bachelor of Arts, but it’s also because I changed as a reader. Reading used to be a way to “turn off the brain.” When I was working, I had to do the opposite and “turn on the brain.” By the end of the day, I was just done with words. This was also how I ended up finding my true passion creating videos and doing audiovisual editing. 

Me: Did working in publishing impact your desire to write?

Tallahj: I definitely wrote a lot less during my time working at NLA, but when I do write, I write with more of a purpose now. For me, it changed how I would get to a story’s end. Before, I was always focused on simply writing just to finish the story. Now, I’m much more focused on how I get to the end part of the story. I focus so much more on craft, so I end up with a lot more works-in-progress. 

Me: Now that you are pursuing a different job outside of publishing, will writing be more of a creative outlet?

Tallahj: It’s definitely a creative outlet I want to hold on to. I also want to tap back into the passion I felt for reading before I worked in NLA. 

Me: What are you grateful to have learned during your experience with NLA?

Tallahj: Having the inside look gave me information I never would have learned otherwise, but aspiring writers don’t need to work in the industry to get that information. I learned that so much of it is actually readily available through reading Publishers Lunch, subscribing to agency newsletters, following editors and agents and other writers on social media, and attending critique groups. Aspiring writers should plug into all of that. Working in the field can stifle that passion. 

After my interview with Tallahj, my takeaway is that if you are an aspiring writer, maybe don’t work in the field. If you are an aspiring agent (but not a writer and simply a lover of books), then publishing might be a profession worth exploring. 

Thank you for everything, Tallahj. You’ve been a joy in our daily lives for years. We will miss you, but I also know we are going to watch you soar as you choose what you really want to do in your life. 

Main Post Photo Credit: Complot

[Check out former NLA assistant Rebecca Taylor’s latest release, Colorado Book Award finalist The Secret Next Door, and former NLA assistant James Persichetti’s upcoming debut release The Sapling’s Curse.]

If the first three months of 2022 are any indicator, the pandemic is still informing what creators are writing about, and the proof is in the inbox. Here are the two very clear directions writers are pursuing:

  1. The world is dire.
  2. Time to escape. 

Big trends showing up in our query inbox

  • WWII is back with a vengeance—although it’s perennial as a historical subgenre and, therefore, never really goes away. But there seems to be a yearning for a time when the world united against a great evil and prevailed. I do appreciate wishful thinking, and with all that is unfolding in the Ukraine, WWII stories are not a hearkening to a time that was simpler, but to a time when the moral compass seemed clear.
  • Post-apocalyptic fiction is surging, especially climate-based stories.
  • Dystopian fiction featuring evil dictators. (Ahem: Putin anyone?)
  • Demons, demons, so many demons. We think this might be a way to personify an evil that, at least in some stories, can always be defeated, and in other stories, turned to good or leveraged for the protagonist’s benefit. There is catharsis in the ability to create on the page that which might not be happening in the world.
  • Horror. This is super hot in Hollywood, so it’s not a surprise to see so many horror projects in our query inbox. What we’re seeing most in the horror space? Contemporary stories with some horror edge.
  • Gods-based fantasies in which the protagonist is a god, must become a god, is descended from a god, or must defeat one or more gods. Perhaps this is another way of creating a palatable world to be in.
  • RomComs! The heartwarming, engaging beach read. Yes, bring it on! All of us can use this type of escape, and I know editors are looking, which means we’re looking too.
  • Intrigue in historical settings. Anything set in the past is an escape of sorts—although I imagine writers don’t necessarily think of it that way. 

Other interesting trends

  • Middle-grade stories in verse. Poetry is having a cultural moment. It’s no surprise that’s currently mirrored in current storytelling.
  • LGBTQ everything. There is always room for great stories. Take that, Texas and Florida.

Photo by Jan van der Wolf from Pexels

Getting multiple agent offers is like getting asked by several potential dates to go to the publishing prom. It might be helpful to remember this: Make sure you are dancing with the right partner once you’re there. Here are five things to consider when your invitation to prom comes.

It amazes me that I’ve been agenting for twenty years. I can still remember my first year, when I might get 100 queries in an entire week. Back then, queries were snail mailed. And we had rotary phones and a typewriter. (Yeah, I’m kidding.) Still, snail mail feels ridiculously quaint. I remember the thrill of seeing Nelson Literary’s first entry appear in Jeff Herman’s big hefty phone-book-like Guide to Book Publishers, Editors & Literary Agents. I also remember thinking that was a huge agent section. If he were to publish that phone book today, I think the literary agent section would be double in size. There has been a big expansion in the last two decades. 

And with that expansion comes an interesting observation: We are in the age of the agent beauty contest. This means that “hot” projects often receive multiple agent offers. This is good news for writers, who often feel they don’t have the balance of power tipped in their favor in this industry. They should enjoy being courted by multiple agents and being able to carefully consider and choose representation. Some writers only get one ask (and hey, it only takes one to get the publishing career rolling). I’ve also noticed another, odd trend. Writers who are getting multiple invitations to the publisher prom are simply after as many invitations as possible, as if the high number is some sort of trophy. To quote Bobby Brown, it’s your prerogative. 

This goal, however, comes with an unforeseen cost. Here are five things writers might want to consider:

  1. Getting multiple asks sounds exciting, but if you’ve talked with an author who has done it, it’s incredibly stressful. And exhausting. By the time you hit your fifth call or video chat, they all run together. Even with notes, it’s hard to keep all those conversations straight. (By the way, it’s the same when an author is on submission or when the manuscript is going to a multiple-editor auction.)
  2. Agents can tell when you are “just not in to us.” You might not think it’s showing, but if you are doing meets just to do them, it’s often conveyed in the body language and vocal tone. Joanna and I have both done meets and have known at the end of the call that the author never intended to sign with us. It’s still the author’s prerogative, but it’s also a waste of our time and the author’s.
  3. Curate your agent list before you submit. In your heart, if you know a particular agency is not a top choice for you, it’s okay. You don’t need to submit to that agency. We don’t hold it against writers. As mentioned above, lots of agent fishies in the publishing sea.
  4. If multiple asks to the publishing prom happen, take your time. Allow all agents who have your material a chance to read it. After all, you must have been interested in that agent/agency if you submitted there. Two weeks is a norm, but if that feels too long for you, one week is perfectly respectable—though the less time you give, expect more agents to bow out of the running. If multiple offers happen, you are not obligated to consider or have conversations with all the interested agents. Maybe curate to your top three to five and go from there, but be sure to communicate that decision to any agent who has your submission.
  5. Last but not least, if your dream agent asks and you just want to say yes, go for it. In that case, just alert all other agents that your project is being withdrawn. I’m incredibly grateful every day that Shelby Van Pelt (Remarkably Bright Creatures) chose me and decided to forego a possible agent beauty contest. She had a small submit list. I also did not exert pressure and allowed her to choose her own timeline for a decision. But man, my outburst of joy when she said yes…her ears are still ringing. 

In the end, you want to go to the publishing prom with the right agent because they will not only be your matchmaker for the right editor/publisher, but they’ll also be be your partner for future dances. Or books. Be sure when the music begins, you’re both starting out on the right foot!

Photo by Anna Pou from Pexels

For over a decade NLA has compiled our yearly stats. This year is no exception and there is one positive note in the number of manuscripts requested that also received offers of representation. This is good news for writers! Find out what else was positive for writers in 2021 (hint: across the pond). 

13,932 : Queries read and responded to. Up 371 queries from 2020 [which had a total of 13,561]. This looks like a close match…but it’s not. The agents of NLA, collectively, were closed to queries about 47% of 2021, as opposed to in 2020, when we were collectively closed to queries for only 27% of the year. So our average number of queries received per month actually increased 29% in 2021 over 2020.

353 : Number of full manuscripts requested and read (down from 430 in 2020): 95 requests for Kristin, 161 requests for Joanna, and although no longer with the agency, 97 requests for the other agents. 

111 : Number of manuscripts we requested that received offers of representation, either from us or from other agents/agencies (up from 106 in 2020). This is good news for writers in the query trenches. 

22 : Number of referred manuscripts KN read and considered during the times she was closed to general submissions but open to referrals only. The total for number of referrals read is 34 when including the other agents. 

3 : Number of new clients who signed with NLA (0 for Kristin—which is first in her career; 3 for Joanna)

37 : Books released in 2021 (down slightly from 41 in 2020).

2 : Number of career New York Times bestsellers for Joanna. Extra congrats to her client Kate Baer!

51 : Number of career New York Times bestsellers for Kristin (up from 48 in 2020). Marie Lu hit the list again this year, while Stacey Lee and Richard Chizmar made it for the first time.

5 : TV and major motion picture deals (almost on par with the 6 from previous year)

1 : TV show in production (Wool Saga coming on Apple+ in 2023) 

126 : Foreign-rights deals done (up from 70 in 2020). Wowza. This is great news for writers, as foreign markets are another great source of income. 

0 : Physical conferences attended. Thanks again, Covid. 

2 : Virtual conferences attended by Kristin (Story Brook Children’s Lit Fellows, Virtual Stoker Con). 

103 : Physical holiday cards sent (up one from 102 in 2020—we still only sent to clients during this Covid year).

736 : Electronic holiday cards sent (down from 837 in 2020 as a lot of editors left and we did a much needed cleanup of the list).

0 : Eggnog-chai lattes consumed during December because Starbucks didn’t offer. Huge sad face.

Lots : Of wonderful days reading and appreciating creators. 

Photo by Black ice from Pexels

Last month, I was lamenting not having a crystal ball that would allow me to predict future market trends. However, if there is one publishing prediction I can make with absolute certainty, it’s this:

  1. Change is certain.

For nineteen Decembers, I’ve soldiered on through the crush of wrapping up everything by year’s end with a Starbucks eggnog chai in hand like a battle sword. This year, The Buck didn’t offer my favorite beverage. I’m still bitter about it, but change is inevitable. That’s the one prediction I can make with certainty. 

But just for fun, here are a eleven more other predictions: 

  1. I predict that the Big Five will become the Big Four. It’s my guess that despite the objections of the Department of Justice, for better or worse, Penguin Random House will successfully acquire Simon & Schuster.
  2. I predict that for aspiring writers, 2022 will be a little easier. Agents are acclimated now to the new normal Covid introduced us all to, and I think they’ll respond to queries and full manuscripts in a more timely fashion.
  3. I predict that some agents, probably more than usual, will leave the industry, switch agencies, or even start their own. Covid had a way of making folks re-evaluate their futures and what they want out of life. 
  4. I predict the same will be true for editors.
  5. I predict that editors will get excited to acquire again now that we are past the Covid transition year and are seeing some stabilization across both fiction and nonfiction markets.
  6. I predict that print and ebook sales will stay robust. However…
  7. I predict that big-picture economic issues that have impacted print publishing, like the global paper shortage and supply-chain slow-downs, will be slow to resolve. Pub dates, print runs, and marketing plans that include the printing of ARCs will continue to be affected, but nothing is forever. Hopefully these issues will begin to be ironed out in 2022, but they will most likely linger a bit longer.
  8. I predict that the big streaming platforms like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, Peacock, and Apple TV+ will continue to actively scout for great books to adapt for the small screen.
  9. I predict that, in fiction, variety will reign. With few clearly discernible trends in what editors are buying right now, any good story that’s well written has a great chance to get acquired in 2022. Dark humor, cerebral alternate history, heartwarming friendship stories…whatever you want to write about, go for it!
  10. I predict that as writing conferences return to in-person events in 2022, organizers will continue to offer hybrid programming. In fact, now that Covid forced us all to become proficient at Zoom, I predict that virtual and hybrid programming is here to stay.
  11. I predict that Starbucks will bring back the eggnog chai and it will have nothing to do with the thousands of letters I sent to encourage them to do just that.

Photo by Sindre Strøm from Pexels

The verdict is in. With headlines such as HarperCollins Sales Near $2 Billion and Publishing Sales Jumped 18.1% and First Half Profits Soared at Penguin Random House, it’s clear that at least in term of earnings, Covid is not having a negative impact on publishing. I should be thrilled. My industry is sound. This is good for authors. Time to celebrate. Right? Yet, I’m grumpy. Here’s why. 

I’m glad that the future picture of publishing is rosy. I just wish there was movement in the industry to share that financial rosy picture with the content creators who make it possible. The opposite is happening. Royalty share to authors has contracted in the last five to seven years. 

A few examples:

For YA and children’s deals, when I first started in this biz, it was common to negotiate royalties for a project starting at 8% with an escalation to 10%. Now that royalty structure has gone the way of the dinosaur. Publishers hold the line at 7.5% (excepting grandfathered-in authors with higher royalty structures). All this despite the children’s segment being a huge revenue-growth sector for publishing for the last decade. As publishers earned more, authors received a smaller piece of the earning pie with this reduction in royalty. 

In the mid-2000s, Random House used to pay an ebook royalty of 25% of retail price until advance earn-out, and then it switched it to 25% of net receipts (which roughly equals about 17% of retail price). And there were deals where publishers offered 30% or even 40%. That went the way of the dinosaur, too (except for the highest echelon of established authors). And to be clear, I’m talking about traditional publishing here. Plenty of smaller, indie, electronic-only houses probably still offer those kinds of rates. 

The death of the mass-market format. This used to be a whole other royalty revenue channel for the author. It’s mostly just gone now (and ebook sales do not make up the difference). Despite the trade-paperback format becoming king and increasing earnings for publishers, there is no movement from the 7.5% flat royalty rate in over two decades. Two decades. Probably longer. 

And then there is audio. Earnings from this format have skyrocketed in the last five years. Yet here we are at 25% of net receipts for digital download and publishers “insisting” they must control audio rights when agents used to partner with audio-only publishers and would still prefer that. 

So yep. I’m grumpy. 

To add insult to injury, lemon juice to the wound, or insert another catchy phrase here, agents often heard several variations of the following this past year:

  • Because of Covid, we have an abundance of caution and that is reflected in the advance we are offering.
  • Because of Covid, sadly we’ll not be able to pick up this author’s latest option material.
  • Because of Covid, we are not supporting (translation: spending any money on) in-person events.

The litany is that publishing profit margins are “slim,” costs of printing are higher now, etc., etc., etc. Yet these recent headlines paint a different picture. And although Publishers Marketplace recently reported that at long last, advance levels are on the rise for the last quarter of 2021, the advance is only one part of the publishing-earnings pie. A book doesn’t exist without the content creator. The author. I’d love to see a headline that proclaims a publisher is offering authors a bigger slice of that earnings pie. Now that would make me smile.

Photo by Cats Coming from Pexels

On August 25, 2021, Richard Chizmar’s debut novel Chasing the Boogeyman hit the New York Times Bestseller list at #10. It was a huge milestone in my agenting career, an achievement I never imagined when I opened NLA in August 2002. It was my 50th New York Times bestselling client title. Amazing indeed, but self-congratulating isn’t much of an article. A good article is divulging just how a book might hit the NYT bestseller List. And sharing now what I wish baby Agent Kristin had known then. 

First, a caveat. Talking about the NYT list is kind of like talking about unicorn sightings. The real science behind why a title hits the list is not transparent to publishers, agents, or authors. The NYT algorithm and tracking methods are proprietary information, so to be clear, I actually don’t know why or how any given title lands on the bestseller list. This article is simply a compilation of my observations after having 50 client titles hit that list. 

Velocity, Volume, Interval

If memory serves, my very first title to hit the NYT bestseller list was Ally Carter’s I’d Tell You I Love You But Then I’d Have to Kill You in 2006—just four years after I opened the agency. For baby Agent Kristin, that NYT appearance was a complete surprise. I had no clue it was even a possibility, which just makes me laugh at my own naiveté. As an agent now, I have a very good sense of whether or not a title has the potential to hit the list. Certain factors have to be in play for even the possibility of a hit, and it all relies on velocity, volume, and the interval. 

In other words, in order for a book to hit the NYT list, that title needs to quickly sell (velocity) a high number of copies (volume) during a one-week time span (interval). If a book does those three things, it has a very good chance of hitting the list. 

The Indicators

As an agent, what gives me an inkling that one of my client titles may be positioned to make an appearance on the list? Four factors:

  • Print run. A title needs a high number of physical copies going out into the world so that physical sales can happen. And yes, I know folks reading this article would love exact numbers (just how big does the print run need to be?), but honestly, this varies a lot. I’ve seen titles hit with a 100,000 print run (the bigger the number, the better), but I’ve also seen titles hit with only a 30,000 print run. There is no magic number here as other factors come into play.
  • Reprint before publication. If a publisher has to reprint a title before it’s even published in order to fill early demand, this indicates that excitement and interest for a title is building.
  • Pre-orders. The higher the number of pre-orders a title has, the better the chance. The pre-order number varies greatly depending on whether a title is set up to the hit the adult-hardcover list, the adult-paperback list, or the children’s list. With King, Patterson, Moriarty, Childs, and Steele all taking up regular space on the adult NYT list, and with those authors’ titles selling 20,000+ copies a week (according to Bookscan), you can start to get a sense of just how many copies of a book need to move in the first week to land on that adult-hardcover list.
  • Marketing spend. Awareness of a title has to happen for momentum. In publishing, marketing is where the publisher spends money to create awareness for a book. Publicity is exposure that is free. The bigger the marketing budget is for a book out of the gate, the better the chance. However, this isn’t always true…

The Surprises

Publishing is full of wild-card moments. That’s what makes this industry so much fun, impossible to predict, and full of joyful surprises. One of my bestselling YA titles of my career is Simone Elkeles’s Perfect Chemistry. This title had a modest beginning with a small print run and a minimal marketing budget. But that original cover and fan love propelled this series to selling over a million copies. I also think a lot of fans think Perfect Chemistry is a New York Times bestselling title, but the reality is that it was book two, Rules of Attraction, that hit the NYT list for the first time in 2010. When Chain Reaction released a year later, that put the trilogy on the series NYT bestseller list. Technically, the first book never actually hit the list. 

Twenty-six editors turned down Jamie Ford’s debut novel Hotel On the Corner of Bitter and Sweet. That book went on to spend 130 consecutive weeks on the NYT bestseller list. That’s 2.5 solid years on the list. I still can’t wrap my head around that. 

The Naiveté 

When I was a baby agent just starting out in the biz, I thought a New York Times bestseller meant the title was selling King, Winfrey, or Rowling levels. I also assumed that hitting the list would ensure riches for both author and agent. 

Wow, was I clueless. An NYT hit is fabulous, and often it does mean that the client will earn out the initial advance. It is not, however, a guarantee that earn-out will happen. And although for some clients hitting the list has led to financial stability in writing as a career, it does not automatically equal life-changing riches.

The Movie Effect

With the “New York Times Bestseller” moniker, instead of happening at once, sometimes it happens at last. Bird Box by Josh Malerman is that one client title that I felt in my bones should have hit the list out of the gate in 2014. I was just flat out wrong. It would take four years, Netflix, and Sandra Bullock to make that title into the NYT bestseller that I always knew it to be. 

Publishing. A giant mystery. Thank you for letting me celebrate 50 with you. I have a sneaking suspicion that number 51 might be just around the corner.

Creative Commons Photo Credit: Carol VanHook

Lurking on Twitter, I stumbled on a thread of agents contemplating whether they should stay the course in this career. Some of the chatter echoed a conversation I had just weeks prior, where I said, “Agenting today is way harder than when I started agenting twenty years ago.” Just like that I sent out a request for input from agent peeps asking if they thought this was true. An earful hit my inbox. The consensus? Yes, agenting as a career is significantly harder than it was when we were baby agents. Here are fourteen reasons why.

Before I dive in, the requisite disclaimer: The information contained in this article is purely anecdotal and does not claim to represent an appropriate dataset for completeness, accuracy, usefulness, or even timeliness. I emailed a bunch of agents I knew, asked a question, and folks responded. That’s the level of “research” I did. This article is definitely not intended to be advice or a substitute for advice from, you know, a real expert or professional on the topic nor should any reader make a career decision or follow a particular career strategy based on content here. For further guidance, feel free to shake a Magic 8-Ball. 

More Agents Agenting

Although the Writers Market phone book was huge back in the day, the number of agents actively agenting and doing regular books deals is higher today—especially in children’s and young adult—than it was twenty years ago. I recall only about thirty of us repping in the field in the early 2000s. I don’t know the number today, but it’s probably 100 or more. Also, many editors have made the move to agenting in the last five years. With more agents in the field, more submissions are hitting editor inboxes. (Conversely, there are also more agents leaving the industry. Not a week goes by that I don’t receive a query that begins, “My agent has recently left the industry so I’m looking for new representation.”) Still, the bottom line is that more agents are agenting in 2021. 

Agents Acting More Like Editors

A project has to be close to perfect for a buy, so an agent today is doing far more editorial work pre-submission than back in the day. In the early 2000s, many an editor would take on a super promising manuscript and do the editorial work after acquisition. Today, it’s more common for an editor to request what is called a revise and re-submit—which places the onus back on the agent and author to gussy up the manuscript in hopes of an actual acquisition. 

This is a large time investment that may or may not result in a buy—and the subsequent earned commission, which is the only way an agent gets paid. 

Crowded Social Media Means Lower Agent Visibility

In 2006, I launched the blog Pub Rants. There were only two other literary agents blogging then. (Remember the amazing Miss Snark and her George Clooney crush? Such fond memories!) As one of the first agents to really spend hours educating aspiring writers and providing insider information for free on my blog, I was happy to see Pub Rants grow in popularity. At one point it was listed as the top 100 most influential blogs in the U.S. Glory days indeed. Blog Pub Rants = Visibility. These days, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok are crowded with social-media savvy agents and editors. That makes it much harder for agents to create visibility for their brands or stand out and land the hot projects.

The Marketing/Publicity Agent Hat

In today’s publishing landscape, agents have to do so much more marketing/publicity management to optimize client success. This limits the number of clients an agent can take on and work with successfully. Since agenting is commission-based, fewer clients means fewer sales, and that can impact an agent’s earning potential. 

The Taskmaster That Is Email

The sheer number of emails an agent fields in a day is impressive. For me, three hours minimum just reading, responding, handling everyday agenting tasks. Then I take a deep breath and dive into the actual to-do list. Three hundred emails is a light day. Dedicating so many hours to this necessary business task impacts how many hours are available for other aspects of agenting. When I started my career, email was certainly around, but it was used secondary to a phone call, and when it was used, editors would often email once a week with a summary round up. The pace of business is simply faster now with immediate responses often necessary. Not to mention editors of the current generation who are comfortable with the immediacy of email communication. There is no going backward, but email volume does make agenting harder in terms of a daily workload. 

Going Indie

Authors might start in the traditional publishing realm and then move indie—which eliminates a source of income for the agent. As most folks know, I’m hugely supportive of authors and indie publishing, but the loss of talent to the indie sphere does impact an agency’s bottom line and makes an agenting career more difficult to sustain. 

Publisher Payment Mandate

In the early 2000s, every contract I negotiated specified advance payments in halves: half on signing and half on delivery and acceptance of the manuscript. An agent earns the commission at the same time a client is paid. Publishers are now citing “corporate mandates” that payments must be structured in four or five installments—and some of those payments aren’t coming in until after publication…which makes it no longer an “advance,” but that’s a topic for another day. Not only does this structure impact an author’s financial well-being, it impacts an agent’s ability to earn a living. Imagine negotiating a contract today and knowing that a portion of your commission won’t be paid for two years. Yep. A get-rich-quick path agenting is not. 

The Great Contract Slow Down

Publishing houses need to double their contracts departments. Most of them have two or maybe three people total for the hundreds of contracts they do in a year. Back in the day, I’d wrap a contract in eight weeks tops. Today, if the first draft arrives within four months, it’s a win. And then the agent still needs to review and negotiate it, all before the author signs. Six months is the new norm to fully executed. So add that into the agent’s earning timeline along with payment structures in fourths and fifths. The real question is, just how is an agent earning a living?

The Great Publishing Contraction

Just this week, news hit that Hachette is buying Workman. Yet another independent publishing house bites the dust. Consolidation of pub houses = limited submission options. Limited submission options = titles less likely to be acquired. Titles less likely to be acquired = less revenue for the author and the agent. This alone makes agenting a harder career. 

The Great Submission Influx

Spend a little time on Twitter. Just a quick lurk will reveal that editors are drowning in the number of submissions they are receiving since more agents are submitting material. When I started agenting, I’d receive almost all editor responses within four weeks. Today, months is not unusual, and the number of no-editor-responses has risen significantly. Slow or no editor response = manuscript less likely to be acquired. Manuscript less likely to be acquired = reduced number of agent deals. Reduced number of agent deals = lower commission earning. Lower commission earning = harder to attain agent career success.

The Death of Editor Autonomy

Back in the day, individual editors had more autonomy to acquire a work/author. They connected with their boss, and that one person said yay or nay. In today’s world, a project submitted to a publishing house has to go to second reads, then editorial board, and then it has to run the gauntlet with sales and marketing for the final verdict. It actually feels like a little miracle any time a book sells. 

Blockbuster Mentality

In the early 2000s, it was understood that any newly launched author might need space and time to grow. Historically, authors weren’t expected to conjure bestsellers straight out of the gate, but to build their writing skills and audience over time as they developed their craft. Now, if a debut doesn’t do well, it is extremely hard to get the author a second chance. This is compounded ten-fold if the initial deal had a high advance. That means the agent must work extra hard to relaunch that client and will again face a low return on the hours they invest.

The Death of The Mass-Market Format

Back in the day, so many agents got their start representing authors in romance, mystery, and urban fantasy—all genres traditionally launched in the mass-market format. Fantastic glory days were when I would sell in a debut romance author for six figures. Today, with the death of the mass-market format, a whole swath of a viable market and its associated earnings disappeared for agents. The replacement ebook edition has not enjoyed the same robust earnings impact.

The Change That Hasn’t Happened

Publishers, despite emphasis on social change in the last couple of years, have not expanded their readership outreach or marketing to reflect the current cultural landscape. This continues to mean fewer opportunities for agents and authors of Color. This should be the one area where it’s better for the agents of today, and it’s not. 

So Magic 8-Ball, is agenting harder today than it was twenty years ago?

Answer: Without a doubt. 

Photo by Tara Winstead from Pexels

Ten Tips for Virtual or In-Person Pitching

The writing world is transitioning back to in-person conferences, and we couldn’t be more excited! But the unexpected benefits of virtual events means they’re probably here to stay. Whether you’ll soon be pitching in-person or over Zoom, here are ten tips to help you present as professional, knowledgeable, and ready to take on the publishing industry.

1. Practice.

Run through your pitch a few times in front of the mirror (if you’ll be pitching in person) or in front of your computer with your camera on (if you’ll be pitching virtually). You can even record yourself and play back your practice pitches until you feel like you’re nailing it. If you’re super nervous, start by pitching to a sweet-faced stuffie or your least judgy-looking pet. Work up to your friends and family. But know that you’re going to get the best feedback from other writers. They can give you tips on the pitch itself as well as on your delivery, so when you’re ready, ask your critique group if you can practice on them. (See #6 below for another practice tip.)

2. Avoid reading off a piece of paper.

Have you ever attended a lecture or keynote where the speaker read word-for-word off their PowerPoint slides or note cards? Of course you have. Everyone has. It’s a little monotonous, right? The speaker’s lack of interaction with the audience is awkward and yawn inducing. The same can be true of a pitch appointment. Reading the agent your query letter or synopsis isn’t your best move, and there are several reasons why. First, imagine what the agent or editor will be looking at while you read: the top of your head. Second, it can be difficult to hear you if you’re aiming your voice at the paper in front of you, especially in a crowded pitch room. If you’re pitching on Zoom and reading off your screen, speaking right into your mic, that’s not as bad, but your reading-aloud voice might still be a little flat. Which leads me to the third and most important thing: a verbal pitch should be an engaging conversation starter. As such, it should be shorter than your query letter’s pitch paragraphs. Therefore…

3. Avoid talking the whole time.

Pitch appointments average eight to ten minutes, and those minutes go by fast. The best pitch appointments for both the writer and the agent are those that turn into personable dialogues about the book, comparable titles, and the writer’s inspiration, journey, and career goals. Yet my colleagues and I have taken tons of pitch appointments over the years that end with the writer still talking—either because they haven’t practiced their pitch and are kind of wandering through a vague recounting of their story’s events, or because they’re still explaining their backstory, world building, or themes. There’s just not time during the average pitch appointment for that kind of elucidation. Therefore…

4. Encapsulate your premise or concept.

Lead with your story’s title, genre, word count, and character- or concept-based “person with a problem” proposition. You can expand a little, but not as much as your query letter does. Then give the agent an opportunity to ask you questions…or better yet, to just go ahead and request your manuscript.

5. Make eye contact.

Whether in person or on screen, eye contact conveys confidence and commands the attention of the listener. Without it, it’s easier for the listener to zone out.

6. Avoid memorizing your written pitch.

Maybe you’re making stellar eye contact and not reading off a piece of paper. That’s good! But the word-for-word recitation of a memorized pitch also risks being humdrum—especially when the writer forgets to breathe. And let me tell you, pitch memorizers are the most likely to forget to breathe! You’re much better off knowing what you want to say and then letting it come out naturally and personably in the moment. How do you practice that? Here’s something a writer friend of mine did: Write “tell me about your book” on a dozen notecards or stickies and have a friend post them around your world (on your toothpaste, washing machine, fridge, rearview mirror, TV remote). Whenever you come across one, pretend it’s an agent or editor at a conference, and right then and there, deliver your pitch impromptu style.

7. Have paper and pen ready.

Unless your project is too far afield from what the agent is currently looking to represent, the agent is probably going to ask you for sample pages. That’s the only way they can assess whether the idea you pitched is executed well and ready for representation. So be ready to write down (a) what they want you to send (pages, chapters, full manuscript) and (b) how they want you to send it. This is especially important during virtual pitches. In person, an agent can hand you their business card. But over Zoom, you’ll need to be sure to write down their email address or the link to their submissions portal or online query form. When I’m taking virtual pitches, I post these things to the private chat window, so besides paper and pen, also have a document already open on your computer where you can copy-paste. What often happens is that the writer is so flustered by the request that they end up scrambling for something to write with and on…and then later, they can’t remember what they’re supposed to do. So they contact the event organizers, who then have to get in touch with the agent, who then has to reiterate the request, which then has to be re-communicated to the writer. Best practice? Expect a request, stay calm and collected when it comes, and have pen and paper (or an open document) ready.

8. Respect agents’ social-media boundaries.

In our more virtual world, it seems professional boundaries have become a bit more blurred. Resist the urge to slide into an agent’s direct messages on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc., whether to pitch them, send links to your content, or follow up on a pitch or other submitted materials. It’s simply not professional, and frankly, it feels a bit off. I don’t know a single agent who has ever been impressed by a writer who doesn’t follow the submission guidelines outlined on their websites. So unless an agent explicitly invites professional interactions via their personal media, it’s best not to go there.

9. Remember in-person hygiene.

This one’s a little uncomfortable to talk about, and you might be wondering if we need to talk about it at all. But every agent who’s ever taken in-person pitches has stories. Hey, I’m sure writers have stories about agents’ hygiene, too. No one wants that to be the thing they’re remembered for. So as we all return to in-person life, some grudgingly trading yoga pants and slippers for tailored slacks and hard-soled shoes, here are some tips. First, forego perfume or cologne the day of your pitch. A few years ago, Agent Kristin ended up sneezing and mopping her eyes all the way through a pitch appointment because she had an allergic reaction to whatever scent the writer was wearing. Second, slip some mints or hard candies into your conference bag. These aren’t just for your breath—they also help remedy anxious dry mouth in the moments before your appointment. To that point, have a bottle of water in your bag as well. Finally, I know several conference regulars who carry a little travel-sized deodorant or antiperspirant in their conference bags. Great to have on hand for pre-pitch anxiety, sure, but also for surviving long breakout sessions when the hotel air-conditioning is on the fritz. (Why is the hotel air-conditioning always on the fritz?) Better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it.

10. Don’t be nervous.

Ha! Like it’s that easy, right? Of course there are nerves involved in pitching. The only way to combat the anxiety is to be practiced and prepared, and to keep signing up for pitch appointments every time you have the chance, both in person and online. Once you know what to expect, there will be fewer surprises, and you’ll be a pitching pro in no time.

Photo by Miguel Á. Padriñán from Pexels