Pub Rants

Category: agents

Last week, I just had to share on Facebook and Twitter an article I saw in Publishers Weekly called “Trying To Find A Literary Agent Is the Worst Thing Ever.”

I had a sneaking suspicion that it would ring true for a lot of aspiring writers. With over 7,000 people viewing the post on FB, I guess I was right!

But here is a little tidbit I bet most writers don’t know. Sometimes being a literary agent is the worst thing ever. Agents are in this biz because we love books, admire writers, and want to make dreams come true. Sending out a rejection is none of the above. I really don’t want to be in the business of crushing dreams.

Crushing dreams truly sounds like the worst job ever.

When I sell a debut author, a first-time writer finally realizing his or her dream, that is the biggest high. I’ll be giddy for weeks after because I just helped fulfill someone’s long-held dream. How awesome is that?

In 2015, I had the pleasure of selling two debut authors. Not only that, but each project sold at auction for an amount that could reasonably entice the debut author to quit his or her day job. Writing as your full time job—talk about ultimate wish fulfillment!

But trust me when I say that sometimes being a literary agent is the worst thing ever. The majority of us don’t sit in our office chuckling maniacally with glee at every rejection we send. The truth is that I hate sending rejection letters. And two of my former assistants ultimately moved on to different jobs because they, too, hated having to say no.

Some days it’s truly the worst thing ever. I see many a worthy project that I simply can’t take on. Every new client is a big-time investment because agenting—and agenting well—is a huge commitment.

I don’t expect a lot of sympathy from writers. But do know that I, for one, don’t take pleasure in hitting the send button for a rejection.

Photo Credit: Tilemahos Efthimiadis

November is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), and the TwitterVerse and Blogosphere are alive with advice from writers helping other writers knock it out of the park. There isn’t much I can add there, but I can offer some advice from an agent’s perspective that I think writers will find enormously helpful. So here are three tips that may change how you tackle NaNoWriMo:

Tip #1: Write the jacket copy before you write the novel.

Why? So many writers focus on stories that don’t have a concept big enough to merit a novel. Knowing how your jacket copy could read before you jump in and write an entire novel forces you to boil your story down to its essence to see if your idea is solid. Then share your jacket copy with other writers. Ask, “Would you read this novel?” So much of success in this business depends on luck and timing. You have to have the right story at the right time for the market.

If you are indie publishing, don’t worry about this too much, but do ask your fans whether this a story they’d want to read. They won’t be shy about telling you!

Tip #2: Even if you don’t hit the NaNoWriMo goal (to write approximately 1,700 words a day, or 50,000 words in 30 days), consider yourself a success. Finish the manuscript, and then revise it!

Once you finish your manuscript (whether on November 30 or later), do tackle the next step, which is revision. We get a lot of queries every year on December 1, and for most writers, the first draft isn’t quite golden enough to snag an agent’s attention. Resist the urge to submit until you’ve made your novel the best it can possibly be.

Tip #3: Not everything you write needs to be shared with an agent or the general public. 

If you keep this I’m mind, it can set your writer-self free. Sometimes the largest block to writing is the fear of writing terrible stuff. I’ll let you in on a secret. Every author writes crap sometimes. Repeat after me: Even bestselling authors write crap sometimes. It’s a fact of the writing life.

Give yourself permission to write badly. That is what revision is for! Sometimes there is a gem of an idea that will turn into “the one” and jumpstart your career. But you can only find that if you write.

And my final tip? Have a blast writing. If you aren’t having fun, it’s not worth doing.

Emily Easton at Crown Books for Young Readers has won, at auction, Scott Reintgen’s debut science fiction young adult trilogy beginning with THE BLACK HOLE OF BROKEN THINGS. In the novel, a Detroit teen accepts an interstellar space contract only to realize the promised millions must be won in a brutal competition where winners face the ultimate choice—take the money and become pawns in the corporation’s sinister plans or find a way to fight that won’t forever compromise their humanity. Publication is scheduled for 2017. Kristin Nelson at Nelson Literary Agency brokered the mid-six figure deal for North American rights.

To celebrate Scott’s awesome news, I’m delighted to share with my blog readers Scott’s original query letter that landed me as his agent and resulted in an auction for a mid-6 figure young adult book deal.

Date: July 1, 2015 at 1:58:01 AM MDT

To: [email protected]

Ms. Nelson:

I have the highest respect for you and how you represent your clients. After looking through your submission guidelines, I felt that my novel might be a good fit for your list. Thank you for your time and consideration.

THE BABEL FILES [title was changed for the actual submission to editors] is a completed, YA science fiction book of 83,000 words. Readers familiar with Pierce Brown’s Red Rising or Fonda Lee’s Zeroboxer will find similar elements in my work. I do feel one of the most important features of this novel is the focus it has on a main character who is a PoC. Having worked in urban schools my entire career, I so often find my students have little to no representation in these types of books. I was hoping to give them an opportunity to see themselves, vibrant and on the page and victorious. To this end, I followed advice I received from author Mary Anne Mohanraj at the World Fantasy Convention. She suggested I seek readers of a diverse background in the beta process. I did just that and was incredibly pleased at the response to Emmett’s authenticity and relevance.

Emmett Atwater isn’t just leaving Detroit; he’s leaving Earth. Why Babel recruited him is a mystery, but the number of zeroes on their contract has him boarding their lightship and hoping to return to Earth with enough money to take care of his family, forever.

As he and nine other teenagers wormhole their way through space, Emmett discovers the promised millions aren’t a guarantee. Each recruit must earn the right to travel down to Eden. There, Babel will use them to mine a substance that’s quietly become the most valuable in the world. Emmett’s year-long flight will act as a competition. Every training session is measured, every point matters, and Emmett will do anything to win. But Babel’s ship is full of secrets. Secrets about the volatile substance they’re hoping to mine, about the reclusive humanoids already living on Eden, and about their true intentions for the kids that don’t win their competition. As Emmett uncovers the truth, he realizes he’s not fighting for wealth or glory, he’s fighting for his life.

I am a 10th grade English and Creative Writing teacher who has spent years sharing my favorite science fiction and fantasy novels with my students, and I’ve started writing stories with them in mind. THE BABEL FILES is my third completed novel, and the first in a science fiction trilogy. I have included sample pages below for your consideration. I look forward to your response.

All best,

Scott Reintgen

For many authors, the thought of voluntarily ending their relationship with their literary agent can be heartbreaking—especially if their agent search was long and difficult, or if they genuinely like their agent. But like a marriage, sometimes what initially looked like an ideal pairing turns out otherwise.

Perhaps you’ve read Kristin’s “What Makes a Good Agent” article series in this newsletter and decided your agent doesn’t measure up. Or possibly you’ve known for some time that the relationship wasn’t working and have concluded it’s time to move on.

Assuming you’ve done everything you can to address the issues with your agent, what’s the next step?

How to Leave Your Agent

First, review your agency agreement. Most contracts specify that the relationship can be terminated by either party with 30 days’ notice.

Unless your agency agreement says otherwise, terminating your relationship by email is fine as long as the agent confirms receipt. If you choose to send your agent a letter via certified mail, it’s a good idea to email him or her in advance to let them know the letter is on the way.

If your agent has submitted your book to publishers, you’ll need to ask for a list of every publishing house he or she submitted your book to. Your agent owes you this information, as well as the status of each of those submissions if any are still pending. Understand that according to most agency agreements, your previous agent will be entitled to receive compensation for sales they made while you were under contract with them, even though you are no longer working together.

As with any professional relationship, take the high road. Feelings and emotions are involved, but don’t get caught up in the emotional aspects of the situation. You may have legitimate grievances. Your agent may be understandably upset. It’s important to stay calm and professional. Be polite and amicable. Thank your agent for all the hard work they did reading and submitting your work without compensation, and move on.

When to Start Looking for a New Agent

Most agents advise terminating your current relationship before looking for another agent. Some authors are understandably nervous about breaking up with their agent before they have another. However, keep in mind that publishing is a small world. If you decide to send out feelers before ending your relationship with your agent, odds are good your current agent will find out.

True story: Agent X and Agent Y, who worked at a different agency, were friends and often referred potential clients to one another. One day, an author looking for a new agent wrote to Agent X. Agent X read the pitch letter and went online to learn more about the author’s book deals—which is how Agent X learned that Agent Y was the author’s agent.

Assuming Agent Y had referred the client, Agent X wrote a quick note to thank him for the referral. Half an hour later, Agent X got an angry email from the author saying he hadn’t yet spoken to Agent Y, and now that agent had fired him. Naturally Agent X was no longer interested in working with this author either.

Once you and your agent have parted ways, your next objective is to find an agent who will be a better fit. It helps to write down what you feel you need in an agent. One you have a list of prospective agents, try to talk to some of their clients if at all possible to ask about the agent’s management and communication style as well as your other concerns. There’s no point in leaving one agent only to fall into the same kind of relationship with the next.

Above all, don’t feel guilty for ending a partnership that isn’t working. This may be difficult if you and your agent are on good terms, but remember: In the publishing world, enthusiasm is incredibly important. Authors need an agent who loves their work, and who believes the author might be the next big thing. If this isn’t the case for you, leaving your agent might be the best decision you ever make.

*****

Karen Dionne is an internationally published thriller author, co-founder of the online writers discussion forum Backspace, and organizer of the Salt Cay Writers Retreat and the Neverending Online Backspace Writers Conference. She is represented by Jeff Kleinman of Folio Literary Management. 

Photo Credit: woodleywonderworks

This month’s topic is the hardest to quantify, because when an agent offers representation, it will be difficult for a writer to ascertain his or her financial viability. This is often knowledge that doesn’t become apparent until after a business partnership has been established.

Regardless, it’s still worth saying: Good Agents are financially stable as agency entities as well as in their personal lives. 

First, let’s discuss why this is important. For those who are new to the publishing industry, keep in mind that money always flows to the author, not away. So, an agent earns her living by being paid a 15% commission (slightly different percentages for foreign and dramatic rights) on advances and royalties for projects sold. In other words, a book is sold to a publisher, the publisher sends a check to the agent, the agent takes her 15% commission based on the gross amount and then passes the other 85% through to the author.

Pretty simple. So why is it important for an agent to be financially stable in both her business life and her personal life? Because you don’t want your agent making fast, split-second decisions about your career, what deals you should accept or not accept, based on the fact that she might really need her 15% commission that month to pay her bills—either for personal debt or for the agency. Same is true when the contract comes in. You don’t really want an agent who will “rush” through a deal-points negotiation or a contract just to get it signed so that she can receive her commission faster.

That’s never going to be in your best interest.

Is it possible to identify the financial stability of an individual agent? In the initial stages of forming a representation partnership, probably not. But here are some thoughts to keep in mind:

*  Does an established agent, in the business for five years or more, still take on a lot of clients? That can be a sign that her current client list does not generate enough money to support her or her agency.

An established, good agent with solid financial stability takes on only select clients in any given year. Agents who need the money often take on a lot of clients so there is more front-end money (advances) coming in rather than back-end monies (revenue generated through royalties). Evaluate an agent’s sales track record and assess how likely the money generated by those sales creates financial viability for the agent.

Are all the deals for small or no advances? Do larger deals that have sold at auction for six figures balance out the smaller deals? Have enough clients on the agent’s list been successful enough to potentially earn back-end royalties to support the agent or agency?

Even when NLA was in its infancy and the budget was tight and small, I was very selective in offering representation. I had a five-year business plan and a business loan to make sure agency expenses were covered as I slowly built up my client list. Good agents don’t jump into agenting on a wing and a prayer. Good agents are savvy entrepreneurs with a plan.

* Does an agent close a deal quickly and then process the contract equally as fast? See my previous Fearless Negotiation article on this topic, as this might be a red flag.

* Does the agent talk about money in oblique or negative ways? There are certain expenses that are just part of being in business as an agent (i.e., paying for one’s own health insurance if an independent contractor under a larger agency umbrella). Does the agent kvetch or consider it a “hardship” to cover these types of expenses? Often that will come out in casual conversation and could be a sign of financial instability.

* Is the agent an independent contractor affiliated with the agency? If so, then that agent has to cover all their own expenses outside of the agency umbrella. Does that agent attend major events like Book Expo or Book Fairs, even when they have to foot the bill themselves? Or does that agent only attend conferences that reimburse travel, hotel, and meal expenses?

* Does the agent balk at footing extra, necessary costs—such as a consultation with an attorney for special situations or issues?

* Does an agent talk with a long-term perspective? Agenting is hard, and lots of new agents come to the business with wide-eyed optimism and then don’t last beyond two or three years. If an agent is committed to the career regardless of the finances associated with it, that will come through in casual conversation.

Keep in mind, this is not a get-rich-quick career. An agent needs to be in for the long haul to make it a success.

*********

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

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

Photo Credit: Rich

The following would have been impossible even seven years ago:

This week I sold the film/tv rights for a memoir that a major publisher took out-of-print in 2013. But because of the indie-publishing revolution, the author had made her memoir available in the digital realm. Because of that, it was discoverable by a major Oscar-winning director and producer who not only took an interest, but also optioned the rights for television.

Sounds like fiction, doesn’t it? Back in 2005, I met Kim Reid at the Pikes Peak Writers Conference in Colorado Springs. Kim had made a pitch appointment, but she pitched me a novel that didn’t sound right for my list. However, in the course of our conversation, I learned about her extraordinary childhood as the daughter of one of the lead detectives who helped solve the Atlanta child murders, committed by Wayne Williams in the seventies and eighties.

I immediately told her, “You need to write that. I could definitely sell it!” So she did, and I signed her as a client. It took sixteen months of dogged determination, and Kim surviving a slew of rejections, but I finally sold No Place Safe in June 2006.

Kensington Publishing did a lovely job with it. Good packaging. Wonderful editing. And then the book was published, and bookstores shelved it, oddly, in African American Studies rather than in biography, where it truly belonged. I can honestly say that the shelving diminished the book’s discoverability, as well as its ability to sell.

Heartbreaking. By 2013, the work was out-of-print, and the rights reverted to Kim.

Luckily, the digital revolution happened. So Kim, in partnership with NLA Digital LLC, indie published the memoir to give it a second chance at life. Director/producer John Ridley found it. Bought a copy. Read and loved it so much that he convinced ABC Studios to buy it for him.

Suddenly, a memoir that would have dropped completely from sight was saved by publishing’s digital transformation. This title now has a ton of exciting new possibilities unfolding.

This is why I love agenting in the digital age. Authors have so many more options available now. And this particular terrific story happened to a very worthy book!

Photo Credit: Alyssa L. Miller

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

Photo Credit: Tinou Bao

This week I requested a full manuscript for a middle grade children’s novel. When I was reading, I was instantly captured by the voice of the narrator. So original. But I see good writing all the time.

Q: Do you want to know what tipped the balance and made me request the full manuscript?

Answer: As I was reading, it made me recall exactly the way I thought when I was that character’s age. And I had forgotten that I had felt that way when I was that age. Right there, that’s brilliant writing at work.

And that’s when you know the writer has nailed the MG voice as well as the MG character. As an agent, I’m compelled to ask for the full to give it a read. If you are writing for a middle grade audience, that is what you should capture on the page. And if you don’t, dig in and get back to work. You were that age once. Tap into the resource that is you.

Photo Credit: David Robert Bliwas (Creative Commons)

Authors, Do You Know Where Your Money Is?

(Just a note, this post is from our archives. Some references and links may be from past years.)

Every six months, you get an envelope from your agent. You tear it open, take out the enclosed check and royalty statement, and glance at the numbers on both. You shrug and mutter, “Guess that looks about right.” Then you toss the statement on your to-be-filed pile at the back of your closet, endorse the check, and head to the bank.

Sound familiar?

I can’t even begin to tell you how many published authors I’ve talked to at conferences who don’t give their royalty statements much of a glance. Why? Because they don’t know what they’re looking at. “Dammit, Jim, I’m a writer, not an accountant,” they say (or something along those lines). “Besides, isn’t that what I pay my agent to manage for me?”

News flash! Like you, many agents consider themselves word people—not numbers people—and your royalty statements are just as baffling to them as they are to you.

This means that the buck, quite literally, stops with you. Have a conversation with your agent about the level of support he or she is providing when it comes to combing through your statements and making sure you’re getting paid everything you’re owed.

More importantly, educate yourself. Learn how to audit your own statements.

Every year, we at Nelson Literary Agency recover thousands—sometimes tens of thousands—of unpaid dollars on behalf of our clients, simply because we audit their royalty statements.

Does this mean that publishers are nefarious, knowingly cheating authors out of a few bucks here and there to improve their own bottom lines? In our experience, no. (In fact, not all errors we find are made in the publisher’s favor!) Every error we’ve called to a publisher’s attention has immediately resulted in the issuing of a corrected statement and, when called for, a check covering the difference.

Without naming names, here are some examples of errors we’ve recently found on our clients’ royalty statements:

1. Unpaid royalties of approximately $5,000 because the publisher had applied a $10,000 advance against the author’s earnings when the actual contracted and paid advance had been only $5,000. This means the author had actually earned out—though the statement said otherwise—and was now owed nearly $5,000 in earned royalties.

2. Unpaid royalties of approximately $4,200 because the publisher’s accounting department missed the fact the author’s contract contained a royalties escalator. What’s that? A royalties escalator increases the author’s royalty rate in steps, based on units sold. For instance, a contract might specify that the author will earn 10% for the first 5,000 copies sold, 12.5% for the next 5,000 copies sold, and 15% for all copies sold thereafter. In this case, the author had sold about 12,500 copies of a hardcover edition priced at $16.99, but she had earned only 10% for all of those copies. Not one, but two escalators had been missed.

3. Unpaid royalties of approximately $7,300 because the publisher sold nearly 6,500 copies of a $17.99 hardcover edition at “high discount,” even though Agent Kristin had ensured that the author’s contract limited the number of copies the publisher was allowed to sell at high discount. What does that mean? When publishers sell copies of your book at higher-than-usual discounts, it’s common that the author’s contract will specify that she will earn “one-half the prevailing royalty rate” on those copies. Because Agent Kristin had limited the publisher’s high-discount sales, this author should have earned 12.5% on those particular 6,500 copies, but she earned only 6.25%, and we were able to recover the difference. (By the way, does your agent understand this and negotiate your contract’s high-discount clause in your favor?)

Dear Authors, the only way to protect your assets is to do the math. Join me July 30, from 6:00 pm to 8:30 pm, for my Royalty Statements Auditing Workshop, a live webinar sponsored by Nelson Literary Agency. Hope to see you then!

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

Your job as an author is to objectively recognize those human attributes or failings in your agent and decide whether they impact your career. Hopefully they don’t.

To this end, Karen Dionne of Backspace and I have put together a whole list of topics to tackle for “Because Agents Are Human Too.”

Topic 1: Because they are human, good agents keep their client lists small and manageable.

The trick is to define what is considered small and manageable. This question is asked at conferences all the time, and the truth is that the answer is going to vary widely depending on the agent and the agent’s situation.

Some things to keep in mind:

*Is the agent part of a larger organization/agency that supplies a lot of support staff in terms of auditing royalty statements, reviewing contracts, accounting, etc.? Or, if he or she is with a smaller, less corporate agency, how many non-agent personnel does the agency employ?

Many agencies employ a lot of agents but very few support staff. It’s typical in this industry that agents are one-man bands. They handle all the business elements listed above, and even if they’re associated with a larger agency, they still operate as the sole proprietors of their client lists. To be blunt, doing agenting well requires far more work than one person can handle in an eight- or ten-hour day—which means a lot of agents aren’t doing things like auditing royalty statements and thoroughly negotiating contracts.

More support staff = more clients an individual agent can manage successfully.

Here’s a good rule of thumb: If your agent has a lot of support in place, a larger client roster is not really a concern. If they don’t, then know that a larger client list is pretty difficult to manage, and more than likely, some business aspects are going to fall through the cracks.

Some possible red flags:

*Some agents operate on what we call the “shotgun” approach. They take on a bunch of clients, throw a lot of stuff out on submission, and see what sticks. These agents will have a lot of clients on their rosters.

*A high number of small- or no-advance deals could indicate that an agent is operating on the shotgun approach.

*Agents who are already established (five+ years as an agent) should have developed strong financial security with their current client roster. Be on the lookout for agents who suddenly take on a lot of clients all at once or during a short period of time. It could mean their current client list isn’t supporting their business.

*Be aware of agents who have high rate of client turnover, or who do a lot of one-time deals for authors but few subsequent deals.

For me, a small client list means fewer than 50 clients. My list is currently at 32.

Other agents may easily have a comfort level at 60 or 70 clients.

The real question here is, as an author, what is your comfort level regarding how many other clients your agent represents?