Pub Rants

Category: agents

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

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

Thus, this series of articles was born.


Article #1 in the series WHAT MAKES A GOOD AGENT? by Agent Kristin and Karen Dionne, co-founder of Backspace

Simply put, a literary agent is the person an author hires to manage his or her publishing career.

Literary agent is actually an odd career. It’s the only job in which the the agent picks the client (writer) first, and then the client decides whether or not to hire the agent. What other job is remotely like that? None. It’s unique to this industry.

Regardless, once an agent offers you representation, saying “yes” and hiring your agent is a business decision—one with real consequences that directly impact the success of your career.

And not all agents are equal—especially in their skill set.

Yes, I know that many writers only receive one offer of representation and don’t have the luxury of their choice of agents. In the end, you’ll have to do what is right for you. Just keep in mind the nine criteria below as you make decisions about hiring—or firing—your agent.

I’m constantly amazed at how rarely writers demonstrate business acumen when it comes to their own publishing career—something that would never fly in their day jobs or in other parts of their lives. Ultimately, an author who is smart, educated, and business-oriented will have a more successful career.

The same traits that make a good business manager also make a good agent. Before I give you my list, take a moment to jot down your own list. In your opinion, what makes a savvy business manager? Rank your criteria in order of importance.

Now let’s see if we match up.

In my opinion, based on a decade-plus of experience, good agents:

  • command authority naturally
  • are good negotiators and unafraid to walk away from a deal if necessary to protect the author
  • are assertive (not to be confused with aggressive)
  • are comfortable with conflict and don’t avoid it (as in they don’t acquiesce to the publisher so as to not “rock the boat”)
  • advocate on behalf of the author (not to be confused with persuading the author to accept whatever the publisher wants simply to avoid conflict)
  • are highly organized
  • are skilled, financially stable entrepreneurs if they run their own agencies
  • know how to be team players
  • are good communicators, both with you and with the in-house publishing team

In addition, they might also be the author’s cheerleader!

I know from personal experience that a lot of agents are good at the bottom two items on this list (being a team player and being a good communicator), but these agents don’t rate high on what I consider the top seven criteria. The hard stuff. The real stuff.

Good/great agents offer the whole package. It’s important for you to know if yours qualifes.

It’s so important, in fact, that in 2015, I’m going to tackle each criteria in this series of monthly articles and explain how it relates to the job of agenting, all in hopes of giving writers the necessary business tools that can be applied to their careers.

GUEST BLOGGER : Karen Dionne

After seeing Kristin’s criteria list, perhaps you’re wondering, “How can I tell if an agent who has offered me representation meets her criteria when I haven’t worked with them yet?”

The answer is simple: Talk to their clients.

You might be reluctant to ask for references, thinking it’s too forward. Or after a long and oftentimes brutal agent search, you might be afraid to rock the boat.

But as Kristin points out, once an agent has asked to represent an author, whether or not they work together is now up to the author. As with all professionals, a good agent will be happy to provide a prospective client with references.

You might also be reluctant to talk to an agent’s clients before you sign, thinking the exercise is moot. Of course the author won’t say anything negative about their agent, so what’s the point? But if you frame your questions correctly, you should be able to get the answers you need. For instance, to find out if the agent is a good negotiator, you might ask, “How did your submission process go?”

Likely, you’ll get a detailed account (we authors do love to tell stories!)—how many publishers the project was sent to, how many rejections came in before they got an offer, who bought the rights to the project in the end, whether they bought North American or world rights, and so on. If the agent negotiated more favorable terms for the author, you can be sure they’ll mention it.

Example #1: A writer friend had two offers for his first novel. Publisher A offered a $40,000 advance, while Publisher B offered $75,000. My friend would have gladly accepted Publisher B’s offer, but his agent thought they could do better. She went back to Publisher B and told them they had another offer (though not how much), then added that her author would really like to work with Publisher B, but was hoping for an advance more in the area of $100,000. Publisher B agreed.

Example #2: When my first novel sold, my agent negotiated a considerably higher advance even though only one offer was on the table.

On the other hand, if the client tells you they accepted the publisher’s original offer without negotiation, perhaps indicating their agent told them it’s standard practice for first-time authors to accept the offer as-is because they don’t yet have sufficient clout to negotiate, watch out. It’s not. Contracts are always negotiable, even when an author approaches an agent with an offer from a publisher in hand, as Kristin will explain in future articles.

Kristin says a good agent isn’t afraid of conflict. A question you might ask to find out how the prospective agent handles conflict might be, “Did you like your cover?” Again, listen carefully to the answer. Did the agent talk the author into accepting a cover they didn’t like? Or did he or she advocate for changes? When my publisher sent over the PDF of the cover for my second novel, before I could even open the email to see what the cover looked like, I got an email from my agent saying, “Don’t worry. We’ll fix this.”

If the author says they loved their cover, then ask about something else. There are always problems. Try to find out what the agent did to resolve them. What you’re looking for are warning signs that this is a passive agent, a non-negotiator, someone who shies away from conflict rather than dealing with it in a mature and productive manner.

Most publishers won’t roll out the red carpet for a new author; it’s up to their agent to fight for things that an new author probably expects should be taken for granted. Signing with a timid agent or an agent who is naïve about the business can result in lower advances, less in-house publicity, no bookstore co-op, a lackluster cover, and a-less-than-favorable contract.

Remember: It’s your career. Talk to the prospective agent’s clients and find out all you can using the criteria in Kristin’s list. If your gut says the agent is not the right person to help you reach your publishing goals, keep looking.


Karen 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 ConferenceShe is represented by Jeff Kleinman of Folio Literary Management.

Two weekends ago, I attended the Pikes Peak Writers Conference, and I had a chance to not only do a read-and-critique session, but also my infamous Agent Reads the Slush Pile workshop.

Doing these classes always provides fresh insight into why I stop reading a submission. Here are the top culprits so you, too, can start thinking like an agent when you read your opening chapters. If you say yes to any of them, time to dig into a revision!

1) Does your opening chapter begin with action, but then stop abruptly so that your character can sit and think or reminisce? About 50 percent of the pages we tackled did just that.

It’s a passive way to begin a story and means you’ve started in the wrong place.

2) Analyze your opening dialogue, and then the exposition that immediately follows it. Does your telling simply reiterate what was already clear in the dialogue?

3) Do you have a prologue? Is it in a different voice or style from the rest of the novel, or does it take a different direction? Is the prologue just an info dump about the world or backstory youthink the reader needs to know? Decide if it’s really necessary to include a prologue, as most agents will skip to chapter one or will stop reading altogether.

4) Do you repeat a fun element that was absolutely funny the first time around, but when it is repeated, it loses impact?

5) Does your opening chapter include nothing but dialogue? Not anchoring the reader clearly in a physical scene is a key culprit for why agents don’t read on. They have no way to imagine the scene.

6) How much of your opening chapter is in the current scene and how much is backstory? Remember that you, as the writer, need to know your character’s backstory, but the reader doesn’t need to know it right away in order to be pulled into your story.

So last week when I was out in New York for the Writers Digest Conference, I gave a talk on why successful indie authors might want to partner with agents.

As I was putting together my talking points, I actually came to the conclusion that why they partner is the wrong question. The real question might be when should indie authors partner with an agent.

If  indie authors are becoming successful, an agent can accelerate their exposure in a big way. For example, I couple of weeks ago I took on self-publishing phenom Jasinda Wilder. On March 16, she released her 18th novel FALLING INTO YOU.

In less than one month, she sold 140,000 digital copies of this title.

Yes, you read that right.

That’s a crazy number of copies in a short period of time. She hit the NYT and USA Today list for several weeks in a row.

She decided to partner with me. My job is now to accelerate her exposure in any way possible. Within a week Publishers Weekly did a feature story on her and I imagine this won’t be the last coverage given her extraordinary success.

Would Jasinda get coverage without me? Sure. But there is no doubt I’m stomping on the gas. This can be incredibly beneficial in talking with publishers and for foreign deals.

On Thursday I’m flying to New York City to give a presentation at the Writers Digest Conference on Friday morning. My topic is why a successful indie self-publishing author might want to partner with an agent.

If you are an indie author that doesn’t see the value in having an agent, I’m not really going to change your mind so there really is no purpose in reading my next several blog posts where I share my thoughts. However, if you are curious, I’m happy to share several reasons on why they do. Now of course I can only speak to why several indie authors have decided to partner with me. It’s going to vary depending on the author and the agent.  But I represent several and they find our relationship invaluable.

Thought 1: People are complaining about the archaic nature of publishing and why doesn’t it change.

Okey dokey. Let’s quit complaining and start having conversations to instigate change because how do you think change happens?

In May of 2012, I had Hugh Howey fly out to New York to sit-down with publishers. I thought it was important for them to meet him in-person just so they could see for themselves what a reasonable, personable, and forward-thinking author he was. He was not, and has never been, anti-traditional publisher. In fact, he’s fairly pro-publisher. But a partnership has to make sense and there is a lot of stuff from traditional publishing that doesn’t make sense.

Before Hugh got on the plane, we both knew that it was very unlikely that the meetings would result in an offer that we’d be willing to take.  Yet, WE DID IT ANYWAY. Why? And this might be kind of silly but both of us felt kind of strongly that having in-person conversations with publishers about our sticking points (ebook royalty rate, sales thresholds in out of print clauses, and non-compete clauses) was necessary in order to facilitate possible change in the future. In other words, we weren’t going to see the benefit of it but maybe a future indie publishing author would because we had started the conversation.

And these conversations could only occur via a reasonable author partnering with a reasonable agent who were meeting with affable and reasonable publishers and editors and having frank, smart, and intelligent conversations with them about current contractual sticking points.

For Hugh, it resulted in a very unexpected print-rights only offer five months later (much to our surprise). That was way sooner than either of us had ever thought to hope.

I imagine that in the not-so-distant-future other indie authors (and who might be unagented) might be thanking Hugh for having partnered with an agent (way) back in 2012 so as to have these meetings. Just as they might be thanking Bella Andre and her agent for pulling off one of the first print-rights only deals (that was publicly announced -there might be others I’m unaware of).



The latest buzz phrase in digital publishing is the “hybrid” author. In short, that means an author who is both digitally self-publishing and partnering with a traditional publisher. The hybrid aspect can work in a variety of ways such as…

1) Author has kept digital rights but partners with a publisher for the physical print edition.

2) Author has series that she/he is self-publishing digitally but also has a series or books with a traditional publisher so is publishing simultaneously in more than one venue.

According to stats presented at January’s Digital Book World, hybrid authors make 15% to 20% more than their traditionally published counterparts. In other words, it pays to be a hybrid author. But now this phrase is starting to be kicked around when it comes to agents and agenting. So what does it mean in that context? I’ve got a couple of bullet points to share.

1) Hybrid agents place authors with publishers but also assist clients to self-publish without being a publisher themselves.

2) Hybrid agents take on authors to simply sell foreign and film and let the other stuff evolve over time.

3) Hybrid agents get creative on new ways to manage/license a right or handle a property (think Rowling’s Pottermore site as an example of hybrid agenting to the max).

4) Hybrid agents are flexible. They don’t stick with the “this is how agenting has been done for X number of years” and that might mean allowing clients to self-publish on their own but be ready to do a print-only deal.

This past week I sat on a publishing panel here in Denver at the Auraria campus, which houses the University of Denver, Metro State, and the Community College of Denver. One of the questions asked was this: “what do you miss from how publishing used to be five years ago.”

My answer?  “Nothing.”

Hybrid agents don’t long for the past. We are solely focused on the future. Amen.

I saw this post on Writer’s Digest and it totally cracked me up. Totally reminded me of the buzzword bingo Dilbert cartoon strip. We definitely need to create this for agent rejection speak.

Raises hand. I’m guilty of these two:

1. “I just didn’t fall in love with the work as much as I had hoped.”

An oldie but goodie. I’m sure every writer has heard this one before! Lots of times it’s true though. Sometimes it’s decently written, an interesting concept, but it’s just not speaking to me. I do try and give a personalize comment or two if I read sample pages though.

2. “Although an interesting story concept and some solid writing, I didn’t see this work fitting into my list”

This means I honestly have no idea what to do with the work. It’s outside of my wheelhouse as an agent. Or, I don’t know what the market would be for it or no editors are popping to mind for submit list. Probably another version of this response is “it’s simply not right for me” or “I don’t have a vision for how I would handle this work.”

So why do agents resort to some typical or canned responses? It’s not because we don’t want to be helpful but it’s often a question of time and not wanting to be hurtful if a writer’s work really isn’t ready for an agent to see quite yet. Also, if an agent personalizes responses, invariably writers want to get into a dialogue about the why of it and how they can improve. There really isn’t time for that….

Now like I said, if I read the sample pages, I do try and constructively point out one thing that didn’t make it work for me. Often times I can see another agent thinking differently and if that’s the case, I’ll say so in my response.

There has to be dozens more writers see regularly.

So what other agent rejection responses should go on this bingo card?

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

STATUS: I feel like I need to flex my brain muscles to get back into shape for daily blogging.

What’s playing on the XM or iPod right now?  DANCE HALL DAYS by Wang Chung

I recently talked to a writer who had signed a small publisher’s boilerplate contract.


Let me start by saying that the signed contract was with an established and reputable small publisher. Still I shudder.

Let me highlight here that I wouldn’t want a writer to sign the boilerplate contract with any publisher -be it a small one or a big six publisher. All boilerplates are terrible. That’s why agents negotiate the heck out of them.

Pitfalls of Boilerplate Contracts

1) Every publishing boilerplate I’ve seen grants the publisher all rights. Oh boy. Honestly folks, you never want to grant rights to a publisher for things they won’t exploit effectively such as dramatic rights (film/tv), merchandizing, theme park rights etc. The rights will just sit there. And you can’t earn money unless those rights are sold.

2) Boilerplates have no recourse if the publisher fails to publish. Then writers are stuck in limbo forever! They can’t contractually demand the rights back for failure to publish. Writer is stuck. Not good.

3) Boilerplates often have no out of print clauses. I recently derailed a deal because I could not get the small publisher to insert one. They would have had the rights into perpetuity with the author having no way to ever get the rights back unless the publisher felt like it. Uh, no.

4) I’ve seen boilerplates that have a never-ending option clauses. If the publisher doesn’t take the writer’s next book, they still get to see the one after that and the one after that….. Yep, that author will never successfully be placed at a new home if that is the case as the new publisher would want an option for next work at the very least. That can’t be granted if the above is the case.

5) Boilerplate contracts don’t allow the author to see copies of sublicense deals. If that is the case, how can an author know what was sold and on what terms to verify the royalty statements? Good point, right?

And I could go on and on.

Creative Commons Photo Credit: Best Picko

Feel The Fear – Do It Anyway

STATUS: Hum, I thought August was suppose to be the slow month in publishing. Not so much.

What’s playing on the XM or iPod right now?  WAITING FOR A GIRL LIKE YOU by Foreigner

Last Thursday, Angie and I spent the day doing round-table chats with the graduates of The Denver Publishing Institute. The intensive month course ended and these 100 or so graduates are now making their way into a job market that is one of the toughest I’ve seen in years.

It’s true. But let that just be white noise as you move forward. You know this info but you aren’t going to let it rule what you will do. If you are determined enough, you can make something happen.

The year 2000 changed everything for me. I was a corporate trainer in my mid-30s making 6-figures doing training for fortune 500 companies. I worked 8 days a month. And I walked away because I didn’t love the job.

Folks thought I was crazy.

That was the year I had teamed up with a fellow corporate trainer and we did an awesome nonfiction book proposal. We had a well known literary agent. Our proposal was aggressively shopped and turned down all over New York (so I do, indeed, now what rejection feels like). But that was incidental. It was my “aha” moment that I wanted to be in this field but not on the writing side of things. But on the biz end.

But I was a corporate trainer. I lived in Denver. This was not the mecca of publishing in the year 2000 (and one would argue that Kate Testerman, Rachelle Gardner, and I do not a mecca make in Denver now)! I started researching what it would take and that showed me that I was going to have to work for an agent first to learn the ropes.

Not exactly a lot of possibilities available in my immediate geographic region. My husband and I sat down and formed a plan. If I had to, I would take a job at an agency in New York. We rock as a couple. We could commuter marriage for a year, two if necessary. That’s how important this was to me and I was determined to make it happen. I started applying for jobs. I went to New York and sat down with several agents who didn’t hire me but were awesome to talk to and encouraging.

Then I went to a local writers’ conference simply to meet the agents and network about jobs. I met an agent who had recently moved to Denver (previously with HarperCollins before having to relocate). She was looking for an assistant. I was looking for a job at an agency. Luck Luck Lucky.

Absolutely. But I was willing to do what was necessary and if New York had proved necessary, I would have done that so stay open. Work outside of “can’t” or “I can’t afford it” or “I don’t want to live in New York City.”

So I learned the ropes at that agency. I did the Denver Publishing Institute as a way of bolstering my network (which was very effective by the way as I sold my first book to a Penguin Editor who was a former DPI grad).

The day the program ended, I was ready. I had a $20,000 business loan and a five year plan and I opened my own agency on August 15, 2002. I gave myself five years to make a profit.

Year 1 – took a loss
Year 2 – took a loss
Year 3 – took a loss, did another business loan (my husband didn’t sleep at all that year as he was pretty stressed about the debt)
Year 4 – small profit so I hired an assistant.
Year 5 – took a loss because of the salary I paid my assistant (another sleepless year for the hubby)
Year 6 – a respectable profit!
Year 7 – an even bigger profit so hired a marketing director
Year 8 – stunned myself on how profitable we were becoming
Year 9 – a really stunning year so hired two more employees (our royalties and contracts manager and our digital liaison)
Year 10 – it’s our anniversary and we are celebrating on August 25th with our clients coming to town to join us. We are on track for our best year ever.

In 2002 for my first trip to New York to network with editors, I bombarded every friend I knew and asked if they had any relatives or friends who lived in Manhattan. They did. I slept on the couch in the apartment of people I had never met because they were family of friends of mine and they graciously opened their doors to me.  (HUGE THANK YOU!! You know who you are.)

Make stuff happen. You’d be amazed at how many people love to be enrolled in what you are doing if you just simply ask!

If I knew then what I know now, I probably would never taken that first step. Thank goodness I was blindly optimistic.

Feel the fear. Do it anyway.

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

STATUS: Working though 245 emails in the inbox. You can’t hide from me!

What’s playing on the XM or iPod right now?  DON’T STOP by Foster The People

An yet, writers always have some confusion on what is the difference between a pitch and a query. Seems like a good topic to tackle (as I can already see a myriad list of sub-questions within this topic).

Let’s start with the basics.

A query is a professional business letter that introduces your work to an agent or editor. These days, this letter is sent by email rather than snail mail. In the query letter, you will have something called a pitch paragraph. The query letter will also contain an introduction and the author’s bio or credentials. It will be one-page long.

A pitch is the verbal delivery of the main pitch paragraph from your query letter. In other words, you need to have a quick way to sum up the opening plot catalyst of your novel in a sentence or two while talking to someone. That way your audience gets a clear and immediate gist of what your novel is about.

Here’s a great example from a novel I just sold by David Ramirez called MINCEMEAT. It’s a good example because in this instance, I actually did something unique. I pulled out the pitch from the main pitch paragraph. I don’t always do that but I did so in this instance. Also, when I was in New York in May, I verbally PITCHED this work to editors using the one sentence pitch highlighted in pink.

Here’s my submit letter to editors–which in essence is the agent’s QUERY letter to editors (to draw a comparison to what writers are doing when they approach agents):

Hello XXX,
It’s pretty rare that I send an email about a manuscript submission that I can sum up in a one sentence pitch. Trust me, I tend to be wordier than that!

But here it is:
All that is left of humanity is on a thousand-year journey to a new home aboard one ship, The Noah, and this ship is carrying a dangerous serial killer.

Intrigued? I hope so. At its heart, the concept for this SF novel MINCEMEAT by David Ramirez is quite simple but what unfolds is layer after layer of complexity.

Since most editors prefer I don’t leave it at one sentence, here’s a little bit more about the manuscript:

Priss Dempsey is a City Planning Administrator on the Noah, a vessel carrying the last survivors of Earth on a thousand-year journey to a new home.  She is equal parts psychic, economist, hacker and bureaucrat, a vital part of the mission, but her life seems to lose purpose after she experiences Breeding Duty.  Kept asleep through the impregnation and birthing that all women are obligated to undergo, she still feels a lost connection to the child she will never be permitted to know.

Policeman Leonard Barrens approaches her with a request for hacking support in the unofficial investigation of his mentor’s violent death. Only Barrens knows that a crime has been committed because he came across the mutilated remains before Information Security could cover it up. To everyone else, the missing man was merely “Retired,” nothing unusual.

Their investigation takes them through the lost dataspaces in the Nth Web and deep into the uninhabited regions of the ship, where they discover that the answer may not be as simple as a Mincemeat Killer after all. And what they do with that answer will determine the fate of all humanity.

May I send this novel your way?

All Best,

Next up, I’ll tackle the log line versus the pitch.


Creative Commons Credit: AJ Cann