Pub Rants

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

Category: agenting

12 Trends in the Query Inbox

In July, I attended the Colorado Writing Workshop. I knew I would be asked about what’s hot or trending. So Angie, Maria, and I put our heads together to create a handy list of what we’re seeing in the query inbox. Let me preface this though:

Writers, don’t read too much into this list.

If your current WIP fits into one of these trends, it doesn’t mean all hope is lost. It just means that you are not alone in playing with these concepts/tropes. It also means that it’s harder to stand out in the query slush pile. That’s just a fact. So you have to work at really spotlighting what makes your novel with these elements special and unique so as to entice the query reader to find out more. Why is this one worth reading over the ten other queries that might have come in the same day with a similar premise?

A tough question, I know! But one worth answering in your query, even if none of the below describes your WIP.

1. The main character is dead or can see dead people. We’re seeing this concept in submissions for both the adult and young adult markets.

2. The main character is trapped in a book, game, or virtual reality. We’re seeing this a lot in adult SF submissions and also some in the YA world.

3. The main character is being sent to live with a relative (aunt, uncle, grandparent), whether for the summer or on a more permanent basis. Lots and lots in middle grade, but also appearing in YA submissions.

4. WWII…still getting tons of queries for WWII stories. Almost all the submissions we’re seeing in this space are for the adult market. For the record, I love stories set in this time period. After all, E.R. Ramzipoor’s THE VENTRILOQUISTS releases in August. Still, it has to be a standout story.

5. Lots of queries for stories set in ancient Rome, or in secondary worlds based on the aesthetic of ancient Rome. Interestingly, we are seeing in both YA and adult market submissions that fit this bill.

6. Lots of villains who are thinly veiled portrayals of our current president. Feels like in every submission we are receiving…but this is cropping up most often in dystopian submissions.

7. Lots of queries featuring pirates. Aye, Mateys! Whether the pirates are fun and whimsical, serious and historical, or speculative (like air-ship pirates or space pirates), we’re seeing pirates galore in middle grade, YA, and adult fantasy.

8. Retellings seem to be slowing down compared to, say, a year ago. But we still see them on a regular basis. Fairy tales, folk tales, classic literature retellings—across all genres for adult and children’s.

9. Teens recruited, conscripted, or otherwise forced to train as assassins, soldiers, spies, etc. I think you guess for which market this is!

10. Teens who must compete in trials or games to save themselves or a loved one, to determine their place in society, or as a means of matchmaking. No extra comment needed here!

11. Main characters who are bullied or abused, or who are survivors of bullying or abuse, and there isn’t another story line to create depth/complexity or to truly drive the plot of the novel. We see most bullying in middle grade, though it shows up in YA submissions as well, while survivor narratives abound in women’s fiction.

12. Post-apocalyptic stories, many of which take place in the aftermath of a plague or virus, or some climate-related catastrophe. Seeing this in the adult and children’s market still.

Happy writing! If you are early into a WIP based on a trending concept, spend some time thinking about whether it’s worth continuing or whether you should tackle a different, more brilliant idea you’ve played with. You might decide it’s better to get cracking on that one instead.

Creative Commons Credit: Andy Wright


The Most Common Pitfalls in Middle Grade Manuscripts

 

Middle grade is a very robust area of the market and an exciting place to be as an author. Middle grade readers (usually ages 8 to 12) are enthusiastic and passionate about books and the writers they love. On the older end of the spectrum, they are on the cusp of puberty and young adulthood, and yet they still have one foot in childhood with a thirst for imagination and adventure. It is a stage in life that lends itself to a wide range of stories and and life experiences and, therefore, it is a very rich and exciting space to write in. There is a lot of room for experimentation and risk-taking in terms of plot and genre. That said, it is also a tricky category to get right.

I read a lot of queries for middle grade: it is a category I truly love and am actively looking to represent. Because of that, I’m going to share the most common pitfalls I see in the middle grade manuscripts I consider, along with some tips for sidestepping those issues in your own writing.

1. Sounding like an adult pretending to be a child instead of using an authentic middle grade voice. This is, by far, the primary issue I see in the middle grade manuscripts in my inbox. It is so important for you to see through the eyes of a middle schooler while you write rather than the eyes of an adult. An authentic voice is vital in middle grade novels and, hard though it may be, you can’t let your grownup perspective seep in. It is immediately apparent when an author isn’t quite attuned to the age group they are writing for. Most often when this happens, authors waver in and out of the character, sounding very young and overly precocious in turns, leading to an uneven tone. Here are some ways to address this problem:

  • Read recent published middle grade in your genre (contemporary, fantasy, humor, historical, etc). By reading similar novels that have successfully found their footing in the market, you can analyze how the authors of those books utilize language and how they portray the age group.
  • Know your audience. The best way to sound like a middle schooler is to spend time with the age group. Listen to the way they talk and the things they talk about. What do they care about? What books are they loving? What is the latest trend? What are they struggling with?
  • Channel the feelings you felt in middle school. The truest thing you can do as an author is capture feelings on the page. The life of a middle schooler in 2018 is very different than the life of a middle schooler was in your childhood, but the feelings are universal. Tap into those feelings as you write and it will lead to a story that is true.

2. Focusing on a moral message. Middle grade readers want to read a story that captures them and brings them on a journey. They don’t want to be preached at. Sure, your characters will learn something along the way, but if you approach your story with an agenda, a middle grade reader will immediately sniff that out and run the other way. Instead:

  • Focus on plot and character development. Make sure that the main character has problems, both external and internal, to overcome throughout the story. If there’s a theme you’d like to explore, don’t think of it from the perspective of teaching your readers a lesson, think of it as discovering a truth that allows your character to grow.
  • Show don’t tell. If you want your readers to walk away with a new understanding of the topic you’re writing about, let them discover it between the lines instead of hitting it home with moments of adult characters lecturing or having your protagonist pause in the story to reflect on a Big Moral Point.

3. Condescending to the reader. Trust that your readers are intelligent and have their own lives, complete with their own obstacles, conflicts, and emotions. Your readers live in the real world and are capable of being challenged and trusted with nuance. (Although sometimes a good fart joke is also called for.)

  • Don’t shy away from challenging topics.
  • Don’t hesitate to use the occasional sophisticated word.
  • Make sure your plot is just as developed and layered as it would be if you were writing for adults. Kids can identify plot holes and inconsistencies just as easily as adults can!

4. Writing from the author’s childhood rather than a contemporary setting. Too often, I see queries that make it clear the author has gone back to their own childhood to tell a story rather than contemporized an emotional truth from their childhood for a modern reader. Kids are looking for stories that resonate with them today–not stories that take them back to their parents’ or grandparents’ childhoods. If you are writing realistic middle grade, put it in a contemporary setting, unless there is a very compelling reason to set the story in a different time.

5. Adults? Keep Out! Make sure your adult characters don’t take over the story. It is completely normal for there to be grownups in a middle grade novel, but those characters should be side characters, not central characters. If you find your adults imparting important life lessons or making choices that help resolve the plot, or if you find that your young characters spend a lot of time observing and thinking about what the adults are doing in the story, then take a step back and look at your arc again. It is vital in middle grade that the protagonist is the character with the central conflict and that your protagonist is also the one to resolve that conflict. If you find your adults taking over, gently put them back in their place on the sidelines. Middle grade is a preteen’s world. No grownups allowed.

Creative Commons Picture Credit: State Library of Ohio


2018 End-of-Year Stats

 

Welcome to 2019!

What am I most excited about? Our move to QueryManager! Many of you are probably already familiar with QueryManager, since lots of other agencies use it, too. Here at NLA, we’re especially excited about its ability to help us track our numbers: submissions received (and in which genres), responses sent, requests made, offers of representation, etc. QM will give us one-click access to all things query next year at this time when I’m compiling our 2019 stats!

Interested in submitting a query to us? Here’s a handy link to our brand-new submission guidelines. From there, you can learn more about what each of our agents is looking for this year as well as how to send your query. Please remember that we share queries, so choose only one agent to query. Good luck, if querying is part of your new year’s goals!

As a reminder, we do not represent screenplays, poetry, short-story collections, picture books, early-reader chapter books, or material for the Christian/inspirational market; we also don’t represent most nonfiction (only Quressa is open to reviewing NF submissions).

Now…the moment you’ve been waiting for: NLA’s 2018 end-of-year stats!

4 : Number of agents at NLA

442 : Number of full manuscripts requested and read

110 : Number of manuscripts we requested that received offers of representation, either from us or from other agents/agencies.

14 : Number of new clients who signed with NLA (2 for Kristin, 5 for Danielle, 5 for Joanna, 2 for Quressa)

21 : Number of book deals done (6 for Kristin, 5 for Danielle, 3 for Quressa, 7 for Joanna)

44 : Number of career New York Times bestsellers for Kristin (up from 41 last year). Her latest, Josh Malerman’s Bird Box, hit the list for the first time after the release of the film on Netflix.

1 : Movie released (Bird Box of course!)

9 : TV and major motion picture deals (8 for Kristin, 1 for Quressa)

35 :  Books released in 2018

20,000+ : Queries read and responded to (estimated)

64 : Foreign-rights deals done

7 : Conferences attended by Kristin, including ALA Midwinter, RWA, Lighthouse Writers, SCBWI Rocky Mountain, Dallas Fort-Worth Conference

155 :  Physical holiday cards sent

835 : Electronic holiday cards sent (up from 788 in 2017)

Not telling it’s so embarrassing : Eggnog chai lattes consumed during November and December

Lots : Late nights reading on my living-room chaise with the very senior and snuggly lady Chutney

All : Great days loving my job!

Creative commons photo credit: Jurgen Appell


2017 End-of-Year Stats

 

When I was getting ready to publish the stats from 2018, I realized I had never posted those from 2017. Well, that won’t do. So here it is–only 365+ days late.

3: Number of fantastic new agents at NLA.

1: Number of NLA Twitter Pitch Parties (and with 3,500+ pitches tweeted our way, our hashtag trended in Twitter’s top 5 that day!).

3: Number of Twitter Pitch events NLA participated in.

667: Number of full manuscripts requested and read (up from 87 last year). Wowza! The power of four agents reading!

91: Number of manuscripts we requested that received offers of representation from other agencies.

22: Number of manuscripts NLA offered representation for: Danielle = 12; Johanna = 6; Quressa = 2 (she started with us in September); Kristin = 2.

19: Number of new clients who signed with NLA.

37: Number of books released in 2017: 24 print releases, 6 reprints, and 7 digital releases.

25,000+: Estimated number of queries read and responded to.

112: Foreign-rights deals done (up from 71 last year).

9: TV and major motion picture deals: Kristin = 8; Danielle = 1.

41: Total number of Kristin’s New York Times bestsellers (up from 39 in 2017).

54: Number of print runs for Kristin’s longest-selling title, which is Jamie Ford’s HOTEL ON THE CORNER OF BITTER AND SWEET, originally published in 2009. Up from 50 just last year. The Energizer Bunny of novels with millions sold!

Millions: Number of copies sold of Marie Lu’s three bestselling series—yay Marie!

Millions: Number of copies sold of Ally Carter’s bestselling, long-running Gallagher Girls series (which celebrated its 10th anniversary with new editions in 2016)—yay Ally!

Millions: Number of copies sold of Hugh Howey’s bestselling individual title, WOOL, which just keeps finding new readers—yay, Hugh!

8: Conferences attended by Kristin: Colorado Superstars, SCBWI Tulsa, Colorado Teen Day, Pikes Peak Writers Conference, Lighthouse Writers LitFest, RWA, Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers, and Tattered Cover Teen Bookcon.

166: Physical holiday cards sent.

788: Electronic holiday cards sent (up from 539 in 2015).

Not telling it’s so embarrassing: Number of eggnog chai lattes consumed during November and December. (I actually tracked them this year, and that just made me less likely to share the actual number.)

Lots: of late nights reading on my living-room chaise with Chutney. (That old grand dame just keeps getting more snuggly with every year.)

All: Great days loving my job!

Welcome to the new New Year!

Creative Commons photo credit: morebyless


Dispatches from the Trenches: Pitch Wars

It’s my first PitchWars as a featured agent and I did everything I could to get ready. I cleared the decks as much as possible, caught up on queries and submitted manuscripts and was waiting, coffee in hand, at 5 pm last Tuesday when the first requested manuscripts were set to drop in my inbox. An inbox full of professionally mentored manuscripts is like Christmas and your birthday all rolled into one as far as I’m concerned. But I knew it wouldn’t be smooth sailing. There were over 70 agents participating in this year’s ‘Wars, and we were battling it out over 50 Adult projects, 42 Middle-Grade offering, and 83 YA submissions. It was about as close as any of us would get to a IRL version of The Hunger Games.

For those unfamiliar with PitchWars, it an ingenious program that matches unpublished authors with published author mentors who work to hone a manuscript over the course of a few months and then present those projects to a group of invited agents for a first look. Why do agents love it? Simple—if editors are willing to spend more money on manuscripts that have been edited by agents (and we know they do), it stands to reason that manuscript that have been shepherd by published authors and agents will garner ever more attention in the market. As an added bonus, PitchWars classes create amazing groups of cheerleaders and readers for authors, which is a priceless asset on the journey to publication.

That first night of reading was like an agent slumber party over at NLA—we read, we iMessaged, we read some more. I called it quits around 11:30 pm and by the time I hit my desk the next morning, there were already projects with offers of representation out there. I know, right? How did those manuscripts do that, you may be wondering? And how realistic an experience is getting an offer of rep so quickly for a first-time author?

There were a handful of projects that got snapped up right away. These had the magic combination of stellar writing, pitch-perfect positioning, and a great hook/concept. PitchWars mentees know to be prepared for anything, from immediate offers to waiting. So I’ve been thinking a lot about what it was that made these project stand out. Here’s my take on the most successful offerings:

Positioning – The PitchWars madness begins during the agent showcase, where authors present a short pitch and excerpt for featured agents to respond to. The projects that got my attention were the ones that possessed compelling positioning sentences. This can be a mash-up (“Tarzan meets Six of Crows”) or a comp (“Perfect for fans of Liane Moriarty and Gillian Flynn”).

Hook/High Concept – As we’ve previously defined it, a high concept is a new twist on an established narrative trope; something that flips a known idea or story on its ear. The manuscripts that received the most requests contained the “It’s {familiar story line}…but {with a twist}” that got us thinking.

Killer Opening – One chapter. That’s what you have to get our attention. Agents are going to try to feel out as many projects as possible in a short amount of time in a situation like PitchWars. I can’t speak for everyone at NLA, but I was jumping in and out of manuscripts to get a sense of how they measured up. If it wasn’t holding my attention after one chapter, I’d move on. Check out Angie and Kristin’s advice here for opening scenes.

Voice – It’s that elusive thing that’s hard to define, but we all “know it when we see it.” The projects that really grabbed me—from contemporary romance to contemporary YA—were the ones that displayed a confident, consistent voice. Not surprisingly, a number of these were by long-time authors, which just goes to show that voice, like anything else, takes time to evolve.

As the adrenaline rush of running headfirst into PitchWars subsides, I found myself thinking about how strange this process must seem, especially for authors watching from the sidelines. PitchWars offers no guarantees, but it can be a game changer if you approach it with the right mindset. Of course, if you didn’t get into PitchWars, does everything I just said matter at all? Absolutely. I’m jumping back into my query inbox today and I’ll be taking all of these lessons with me.


The Power of Persistence

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.


Nabbing A Top Agent Before They Are a Top Agent

Or to give this article a subtitle: 365 Days of Agent Slumber Party

I have to say that 2017 has been absolutely amazing for me. When I took the next step to expand Nelson Literary, I had my work cut out for me. I knew that. I had my sleeves rolled up and was ready to mentor young agents to success. Little did I know how much fun I would have in the process.

In January, Danielle and Joanna came on board and when September hit, Quressa joined the team. Every Tuesday afternoon, the agents of NLA connect to share our own stories about what submissions we are currently reading, what might have an offer of rep that we need to discuss, and what sample pages are causing excitement.

It’s basically been 365 days of an agent slumber party geeking out about writers and sample pages.

We four agents are so simpatico, it’s been a non-stop year of great conversations, giddy excitement when an author said yes and joined NLA, and heartbreak when we didn’t land that client.

Oh the heartbreak.

Rarely do writers hear that it happens on the agent end as well! We don’t always win the agent beauty contest and trust me, we four felt really bummed when that happened.

In 2017, it held true that a really good project would receive multiple agent offers. I’m not sure if that’s because there are a lot more agents (than there were, say, a decade ago), or if the pool of great projects has shrunk in the last two years. (I prefer to think the reason is that there are more agents so the competition is stiffer).

Some projects we were very keen on had as many as 10 offers of rep on the table. Statistically speaking, we certainly can’t win them all. And if a more established agent offers, well, it’s going to be that much harder for a newer agent to win that representation competition. After all, their reputation and client lists are still building.

But here’s a thought I want to share with writers. There is a good argument for seriously considering the offer from an agent who is earlier in her career. Here’s why:

Wouldn’t it be awesome to nab a top agent before the world knows they are a top agent? In other words, agents who will, 5 or 6 years from now, have so many well-known clients that they will be highly sought after? Agents who in just a few years will have client lists that would be a privilege for you to join? Or to put it another way, wouldn’t it be terrific to be the author who makes the agent’s reputation because of your success?

Heck yeah that would be fantastic. Over the years, I’ve heard back from many a writer who turned me down early in my career before my reputation was solidified. (By the way, I hold no ill will as I completely understand that I was unknown then. It’s a bigger risk than signing with an established agent.) It’s just interesting that years later I will often hear from some of these writers. They’ve sent me lovely notes highlighting that they wish the could turn back time and say yes instead.

With Danielle, Joanna, and Quressa, here is your chance. Risk-free. These agents are aggressively growing their client lists at NLA. Under my tutelage, they are honing their tastes so editors know to move their submissions to the top of the reading pile. They are learning exactly what it means to be a top agent in negotiation. They are learning how to analyze royalty statements, assess foreign deals in a context, and leverage Hollywood effectively. They are watching and learning how to manage a “big” author’s career. They are learning how to be a top agent.

And the best way for you, the writer, to be a part of that is to say yes to an offer of rep from them in 2018.

I’m going to make a bold prediction: these three ladies are all going to be considered top agents within the next 5 years. Agents whose client lists you’ll want to be a part of.

And all you writers need to do is say yes when they offer in the new year.

*grin*

Creative Commons Photo Credit: dlovins99


Gone Hollywood

 

I used to dream about about this town (Supertramp anyone?), but now I just wish I could have a month free from tackling a film or TV contract. And yes, I realize I’m whining about a good problem to have.

This summer I did seven book-to-film deals. (I’d like to clarify here that NLA does not represent screenplays or screenwriters. We only sell the film/TV rights to projects for which we have also sold the print/digital rights to a publishing house. I definitely do not want a stream of screenplay queries after this article goes live.)

Film/TV contracts tend to be 40 to 50 pages long and often require many rounds of negotiation before the contract is final and ready to sign. Studios hate to give in on requests because the biggest issue in Hollywood is that every contract sets precedent for the next—and neither side wants to get stuck with a deal term that will later come back to haunt.

So film/TV deals are quite sexy (for the author), but the time investment for the literary agent is significant. Most literary agents work with a film co-agent to shop and place film/TV rights, but I’ve negotiated and closed deals sans co-agent in conjunction with my entertainment attorney.

All this to say that even if a film co-agent is on board, it is actually the literary agent’s job to negotiate the heck out of the author’s reserved-rights clause in a Hollywood contract. Who better understands the publishing agreement than the original agent who brokered the publishing deal? I speak from experience: there are lots of changes that can be made in a Hollywood contract, and if your agent is not getting significant changes, author beware. You might want to engage an experienced entertainment attorney to act on your behalf during the contract negotiation.

The Anatomy of a Reserved-Rights Clause in a Film/TV Contract

Now let’s chat about the anatomy of a reserved-rights clause in a Hollywood contract. (There’s no way to tackle every aspect of a Hollywood deal in one article, so I see a series in my future!) The first thing that should be included in this clause (which, by the way, spells out which rights the author gets to keep, i.e., which rights are not being granted to the studio upon signing of the contract) is, rather hilariously, a hot-button topic during negotiations. I’m talking about novelization rights.

Think about it. The novel already exists because this is a book-to-film or book-to-TV deal! Yet the studios always try to get the right of novelization to the movie. As we all know, whether we like it or not, a film can vary greatly from the original novel on which it was based.

So just how can a studio novelize a film when the novel already exists, and they, in fact, based their production on that novel?

The answer is simple. They can’t. Novelization must be a right reserved to the author. Some studios literally won’t allow that, so we have to do an odd workaround—we have to “freeze” novelization rights so neither the author nor the studio can pursue. (Side note: this does not impact the original novel the author wrote, as that is already in existence.)

Yep. If you are thinking that is pretty ludicrous, I’m in total agreement with you. But that’s Hollywood.

Next month, I’ll chat about reserving all publishing rights in this important clause and the one publishing right we’ll actually allow as it’s good for the author and the studio.

Creative Commons Photo Credit: Eva Luedin


Money Talk: Where Does Your Commission Go?

By Danielle Burby

In this column, we discuss everything authors should know when it comes to landing an agent and navigating the complexities of the publishing industry. You know how to query and what to ask when an agent offers you representation, but here’s a slightly more sensitive topic: commissions.

Agenting is a sales job, which means your agent doesn’t get paid for their work on your book until you get paid. An agent takes on a project and invests their time, energy, and resources with the hope that the project will sell to a publisher. If the project doesn’t sell, the agent doesn’t doesn’t get paid. (If an agent ever asks you to pay a fee for their services, walk away. They are not a real agent.) The industry standard commission rate is 15% for domestic sales (with slightly different rates for various ancillary rights). Once a book has sold and the contract is fully executed, the publisher schedules an EFT or writes a check to the agency, and the agency retains 15% and sends the author a check for the remaining 85%. It may never occur to an author to wonder what happens to the 15% commission they just paid.

There’s no true industry standard in the arrangement between agents and agencies surrounding that 15% commission. Every agency has a slightly different way of approaching this matter, but a general rule of thumb is that the agent gets some of the money and the agency gets some of the money. Essentially, you are paying the agent directly for his or her work and you are also paying the agency to continue growing, investing in support staff, and providing you with the proper services.

Possible splits:

  • A very typical split between agent and agency is 50% of the commission (or, in other words, 7.5% of the entire deal). For example, if your book sells for $50,000, the total 15% commission payment is $7,500. It is reasonable to expect that $3,750 of that will go to your agent.
  • Many agents have built-in escalators (much like authors), incentivizing them to hit certain sales goals by bumping up commission percentages.
  • Your agent may get a higher percentage of the split (60%-70%) if the agency he or she works for doesn’t provide office space or support staff.
  • It is rare, but not unheard of, for agencies to pay their employees below 50% of that 15% commission.

Different ways of paying agents:

  • Commission only. Agents on a commission-only arrangement are paid when their authors get paid. Payments here are intermittent. Many commission-only agents work side jobs until they are able to build their list to a point where they have a steady, comfortable income.
  • Salary for services to agency plus commission. Many agents build their client lists while simultaneously serving in salaried support-staff roles for an agency (assistant work, subsidiary rights work, etc.) until they are financially ready to switch over to commission only.
  • Draw. A draw is an advance on future earnings, much like publishing houses pay to authors. Agents on a draw are paid a fixed amount of money annually that they are then expected to match (and hopefully surpass) in sales. Once they have earned back the draw, they begin to receive commissions. This provides an agent with a level of financial security and stability, allowing them to agent full time, though some agents are hesitant to accept a draw because the stakes are higher if sales goals aren’t met.
  • Salary. Some agencies pay agents a salary in exchange for the entire commission. In this case, agents often make a very comfortable salary and receive an annual bonus if they hit very high sales goals.

Ultimately, it is an agent’s right to keep his or her financial agreement with an employer private, and I wouldn’t recommend asking about it on The Call or in conversation. That said, arming yourself with an awareness that these different arrangements are out there is important for you as an author. And, knowing them, you may be able to read between the lines to figure out how it works for your agent.

This is important because, the truth is, how your agent is paid does impact you. If your agent isn’t receiving appropriate commission percentages, he or she may change agencies. If an agency isn’t investing their own percentage in support staff and company growth (and therefore more services for you), it is something to be aware of because, chances are, your agent is doing extra work. In the first several years of agenting, the money comes in slowly, unpredictably, and often in small sums. If an agent is just starting out and is being paid commission only, it can be very difficult for that agent to pay the rent and bills. Publishing is a very tough business with a high burnout rate. The way agencies pay their agents absolutely contributes to an agent’s ability to stick it out.

Every agent has to build from somewhere, but some agencies offer their employees more support in that arena than others. While your agent has no control over this and shouldn’t be penalized for, say, not being in a position to work full time, it is something you want to think about. Consider it in the same way you’d weigh whether you want an editorial agent, a boutique agency, or an agent with a large vs. small client list. As always, the more you know about the way publishing works, the better!


5 Qs Authors Don’t Ask but Should When an Agent Offers Rep

In the last two weeks, we at NLA have offered representation to seven authors, most of whom received multiple offers. All agents are aggressively seeking new talent right now! It’s awesome to talk to savvy authors who have a list of good questions prepared for their initial conversations with prospective agents, questions like:

• What is your communication style?
• How would you describe your dream client?
• What is your editorial vision for my work?
• What would your submission strategy for this work be if you took it on?
• What happens if my project doesn’t sell?
• Are you open to me writing in different genres?
• Can I chat with a current client?

All these are questions you should ask; you definitely want your agent to be a good personality match and share your vision for your career. But you also want that agent to be your best advocate and protect your business interests in the publishing industry. With that in mind, here are five key questions authors should also be asking, but in general I never hear:

1) What is the average duration of a contract negotiation at your agency? At NLA, average time is three or four months, as we’ll stand firm on key clauses until a compromise is reached. We don’t rush it. If a publishing house has recently revamped its boilerplate contract, then that timeframe can more than double, as we’ll have to negotiate the boilerplate contract first, and then negotiate your specific deal.

2) Will I be involved in seeing the original offer and then the final offer from the Publisher? NLA always shares with our clients the details of the first offer and what we negotiated to create the final offer. Clients are always invited to participate in the process and weigh in.

3) Will I have a chance to review the original contract from the publisher as well as all the requested changes documentation, and then the master redline of the final contract I’ll be signing? Can you walk me through any contract clause that I might not understand? At NLA, we share all this documentation, whether clients want to read it or not, so that clients are 100% confident that their deal and contract have been fully negotiated. And I’ve spent many an hour on the phone or Skype, combing through contract particulars with clients to make sure they’re completely comfortable with what they’re signing. Most agencies simply forward on the final contract for signatures, and that’s it.

4) Do you regularly audit royalty statements? How much money has the agency recovered by doing so? At NLA, we’ve recovered hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years for our authors because we regularly catch errors when auditing their royalty statements. And we catch errors in almost every accounting period—that’s how frequently it happens.

5) How many non-agent support staff are at your agency? This is important, as it’s very hard for an agent to do all of the above, and do it well, without significant assistance from non-agent support staff. At NLA, we have three agents and a team of six in-house non-agent support staff to protect our clients. Most agencies have a lot of agents and very little, if any, support staff. The agents are expected to be independent silos and handle all of the above plus all agenting duties. It’s not possible to juggle all that without letting stuff fall through the cracks.

Bonus question to ask if you are feeling bold: What percentage of your clients make their living solely from writing? If you ask me this question, I can truthfully say that 95% of my clients earn their living as authors—meaning they earn enough money to support themselves without a secondary job or support from a partner.

Back in the crazy days of the late 2000s, there was a popular agent, active on social media, who landed a lot of clients, posted some sexy six-figure deals, and then disappeared. I ended up taking on a former client of this now defunct agent/agency and realized, to my horror, that the author had been signing boilerplate contracts with no negotiated changes. The agent hadn’t negotiated a thing! The author was new to the business and had no way of knowing the agent wasn’t doing the job. Even though that agent looked hot from the outside, s/he had actually done very little to protect the client’s interests.

You can make sure that doesn’t happen to you. This is your career. Ask the above 5 Qs. After all, these aren’t the sexy tasks, but they do affect an author’s bottom line. Don’t feel uncomfortable or worry that you might insult the agent. If an agent becomes defensive when asked legitimate questions, then chances are that agent isn’t right for you.

Stay smart, savvy, and shrewd. Check out my “What Makes a Good Agent” article series on Pub Rants. You are your own best advocate.

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