With so many stories emerging of agents behaving badly, if only there was a quick and easy way for aspiring writers to verify a literary agent’s legitimacy. What a boon for new writers navigating a complicated publishing landscape. In good news, there is.
The job of a literary agent is an unusual one. This isn’t a profession that one learns by going to college (although almost all agents have college degrees and many might have attended a Publishing Institute program). This isn’t a profession where accreditation is required, such as passing the bar for attorneys (although many agents are also lawyers). Any person can literally hang out a shingle and claim they are a literary agent. Because of that, many Schmagents have lured in unsuspecting writers. However, there is an organization that does govern this profession: the Association of American Literary Agents (AALA).
Initially founded in 1991 under the name Association of Authors’ Representatives (AAR), this governing body was implemented to form bylaws and a canon of ethics that member agents are required to follow—thus creating a standard of working in the profession. Membership is by application only. An agent must fulfill the professional qualifications and submit letters of recommendation for entry.
In 2020, AAR began the process of rebranding to the AALA (as there is a sister organization in the UK)—hence, both websites are currently active as the transition unfolds. This rebranding is reinvigorating the organization, which is now much more focused on agent education (via monthly programming), mentorship, and promoting diversity in our ranks. All very much needed and delightful to see. As a new-to-the-biz agent in 2002, one of my first goals was to fulfill the qualifications criteria so I could become a member. After all, I was a mostly unknown agent operating out of Denver. For me, AAR membership was a stamp of legitimacy to ease the minds of writers considering me when I offered representation.
Currently, the AALA member directory is a tool that writers can use when doing agent research to verify an agent’s legitimacy. If an agent is a member, they do have to adhere to the AALA’s bylaws and canon of ethics or they will be asked to relinquish membership.
Now, having said that, here are several things to keep in mind:
Not all legitimate agents are members of the AALA. Membership is by choice and not required.
Just because an agent is a member does not mean they are an agent with good negotiation skills or that they fulfill other criteria that I outline in my What Makes A Good Agent article series (see right side bar). There are many agents who qualify to be members but might fall under the heading of Hobbyist or turn out to be a Blindsider.
An agent who is a member might be a good agent but not a good agent for you.
The existence of this organization, and searching through the membership profiles, is just one piece of the agent-search puzzle. It does not take the place of all the other research you should be doing on the agents you plan to query, which should include their sales record and current client list. Writers, good luck on your representation quest.
Whenever a new story breaks about an established literary agent behaving badly, I cringe. Although I’m not personally responsible, it’s another black-mark moment for this profession that I love. So what responsibility do agents have to protect writers, and what can writers new to the publishing world do to protect themselves?
The answer is surprisingly simple: be armed with knowledge. Agents with integrity should provide information in a public sphere whenever possible, and many do via Twitter, blogs, and newsletters. Writers should gather all they can but also know that things change. Be kind to yourself, as it might not be possible to have “known better” if an agent partnership does not go as planned.
As an agent who has spent the last fifteen years putting information out there for writers (since I started Pub Rants in 2006), I hope to arm you with info about agent types you might want to avoid. By the way, I highly recommend that writers looking for an agent have a subscription to Publishers Marketplace, where you can do your research. A lot of heartache might be avoided with a little time spent there.
This type of agent is easy to define. This scammer pretends to be an agent, charges fees for everything a normal agent just does as part of the job (i.e., reading fees, submission fees, marketing fees, etc.). The red-flag word here is “fees.” When writers spot that, it’s an instant tell that the agent isn’t legit. In 2013, Victoria Strauss of Writer Bewareand I were expert witnesses for a lawsuit to take down a scammer masquerading as a literary agent. This person fleeced unsuspecting writers out of hundreds of thousands of dollars. (It’s lucrative, which is why there are so many schmagents out there.) It’s a bit like whack-a-mole, but we put this one out of biz. By the way, Victoria is a tireless advocate for writers, and she doesn’t get enough props for everything she has done and is currently doing. Send her a note, or better yet, buy one of her books. It’s thankless, time-consuming work, and she is an amazing human being. In the internet age, this type of agent might be easy to spot, but scammers still snare unsuspecting writers all the time. If this describes your experience, don’t spend time berating yourself. Scammers are pros at what they do.
This type of agent might mean well, but they pursue this profession for the “celebrity” of the job. This might not make them a bad agent per se, but it also means they probably aren’t a great agent either. How do you spot one? Well, this can be tough. The Hobbyist might have a great presence on social media, but if you dig in to the research (thank you, Pub Marketplace), the Hobbyist will not have a strong track record of sales or will only do deals with small presses or for digital rights only. And so I’m clear, there is absolutely nothing wrong with doing deals with small and digital publishers. I’ve done many in my career, but they should be balanced with regular/bigger deals to Big Five publishers and the well-established indie publishers.
Some agents might have integrity but are simply too green (and don’t have access to mentorship) to be able to advocate for a client.
Back in 2008, there was an agent who racked up many six-figure deals under her own shingle. She came on the scene quickly, and after two years, exited quickly and without warning. She looked hot on paper with all those deals, but her clients were signing boilerplate publishing contracts with no negotiated changes. This agent had no prior experience at another agency, and it was a nightmare for those clients later in their careers.
For the Greenie, the key is to look at the agency itself. How long has that agency been in business? What is the agency’s track record as a whole? This will help you determine whether this newer agent is in a place where they will receive guidance from a more seasoned agent.
This is the agent that all the research in the world can’t predict. This agent might have a terrific beginning to a career, and then that career publicly derails. You will never be able to spot this one coming. Writers, go into an agent partnership expecting the best. But if the worst happens, try and let go of any self-blame. You did the best you could with the information available when forming the partnership.
Also keep in mind that some agents are acting with integrity but might simply be a bad fit for certain authors. Communication styles or personalities don’t mesh. My client Courtney Milan tackled this convo recently on Twitter, so give it a look in case you find it helpful.
For over a decade NLA has compiled our yearly stats. This year is no exception but with one big surprise in the data. And it’s all about queries and the possible impact of Covid.
4 : Number of agents at NLA (same as in 2019)
1 : Number of agents who made the Publishers Weekly Star Watch Finalists List. Congrats Quressa!
13,561 : Queries read and responded to. QueryManager gives us an exact number now. As a team, agents were closed to queries for 27% of the year, including for 8 months for Kristin, but we also think it’s because fewer writers queried in the time of Covid, so this is down from 14,000+ in 2019.
430 : Number of full manuscripts requested and read (up from 354 in 2019, as we had more time stuck at home to read): 71 requests for Kristin, 173 requests for Danielle, 77 requests for Quressa, 109 requests for Joanna.
106 : Number of manuscripts we requested that received offers of representation, either from us or from other agents/agencies (down from 127 in 2019, which might mean fewer folks have work out there on submission).
13 : Number of new clients who signed with NLA (1 for Kristin, 4 for Danielle, 4 for Quressa, 4 for Joanna). Four was the magic number for everyone except me, and this is down by only 1 from 2019, so go NLA team!
39 : Number of book deals done (16 for Kristin, 5 for Danielle with 1 debut, 11 for Quressa with 2 debuts, 7 for Joanna with 4 debuts). Way up from 26 in 2019.
2 : Number of debut New York Times bestsellers (1 for Quressa and 1 for Joanna, whose client debuted in the #1 position on the list!).
48 : Number of career New York Times bestsellers for Kristin (up from 45 in 2019).
8 : TV and major motion picture deals (6 for Kristin, 1 for Quressa, 1 for Joanna). Down from 11 in 2019.
41 : Books released in 2020 (down from 45 in 2019).
70 : Foreign-rights deals done (54 for Kristin, 7 for Danielle, 9 for Quressa). Down from 106 in 2019. Thanks, Covid.
0 : Physical Conferences attended. Thanks, Covid.
2 : Virtual Conferences attended by Kristin (both Denver-based: Lighthouse Writers LitFest and the inaugural Margins Conference).
102 : Physical holiday cards sent (down from 180 in 2019 as we only sent to clients during this Covid year).
837 : Electronic holiday cards sent (down by one from 838 in 2019).
Not telling it’s so embarrassing : homemade eggnog-chai lattes consumed during December because I wasn’t popping out to Starbucks.
Lots : Late nights reading on my living-room chaise and missing my dear, dear Chutney. Reading full manuscripts is just not the same without her.
This month, NLA’s Omar Medina sat down with Quressa’s client Roseanne A. Brown, whose debut novel, A Song of Wraiths and Ruin, became an instant New York Times bestseller when it was published June 2 by Balzer + Bray.
Tell us about ASOWAR! A Song of Wraiths and Ruin is a dual-POV YA fantasy set in a world inspired by West African folklore and following two protagonists: a refugee named Malik and a princess named Karina. When Malik’s younger sister is kidnapped by a vengeful spirit, he makes a deal to win her freedom in exchange for killing Princess Karina. To complete his task, he enters a competition for Karina’s hand in marriage in order to assassinate her. However, he is not aware that Karina is planning to sacrifice the winner of the competition in order to bring her dead mother back to life. Thus we follow the two of them as they try to outmaneuver the other without realizing it, and the way their plans are derailed when they actually meet and realize they might be falling in love.
Can you give us any little hints about what’s coming in book 2? In book 2, we will be exploring more of the continent of Sonande past the city-state of Ziran, where the entirety of book 1 takes place. We’ll also be diving more into Karina and Malik’s pasts, plus deepening the rules of magic and of course the romance.
What inspired you to write this book? I first got the idea for this book in college in 2016 when I realized I had never read a fantasy novel where a character’s mental illness was not used as a metaphor or villainized in some way. As someone who has dealt with anxiety for most of my life, I wanted to see a Black character who reflected this struggle but still got to be the hero of their story. I’ve also always loved fantasy, so I knew I wanted to draw from the rich oral storytelling and folklore styles we have in West Africa.
On the topic of writing, are you a plotter or pantser? I’m what some call a road tripper, which is where I have a solid idea of where I’m trying to go and know exactly what is in front of me at the moment, but I’m not sure where I’m going to stop along the way. Is it a very stressful way to draft? Oh, 100%. But it hasn’t failed me yet!
How did you come up with the magic system in ASOWAR? The magic system in ASOWAR was inspired by the day-name system of the Akan people of Ghana, my mother’s people. Among the Akan, we have a tradition where one of the names an infant is given is decided by the day of the week on which they’re born. These day names hold great importance and, it’s believed, even have an effect on a person’s life, similar to the Western Zodiac. Using this tradition as a base, I created the magic system in ASOWAR where the day of the week a person is born decides what kind of magic they can do. Check out the full breakdown and learn what your magic and horoscope in the ASOWAR world would be.
What was your journey like to getting represented by an awesome agent? I signed with Quressa back in November 2017 on the wake of a mentorship program known as Pitch Wars. I had revised my manuscript for two months with the help of a mentor, and honestly the whole process was such a rush that I try to remind people my experience was an exception, not the norm. Quressa was the first agent to offer representation during the agent showcase portion of Pitch Wars, and from the start I was blown away by her deep understanding of my book and her vision for not just this project but for my career. I have not regretted the decision even once, and I am so excited to tell the world all the amazing things we have lined up, some related to ASOWAR, some not. 😉
ASOWAR deals with the topic of mental health. What advice do you wish to give readers who might be struggling with their own mental health? I’d suggest that anyone struggling with mental health not wait until it has negatively impacted every aspect of your life to seek help. I know for me, the stigma within my community against seeing mental health professionals is why I waited so long to seek help. That fear of seeming “crazy” or “damaged” is very valid, but I know now that risk was worth actually getting the resources and support I needed to be able to live better and more fully.
Your book was published right at the resurfacing of the Black Lives Matter Movement. How do you think that might affect how readers read ASOWAR? I definitely think that the added focus on Black creators during the week ASOWAR came out helped with the wonderful response it’s gotten. However, what I’m hoping is that this support does not dry up now that Black Lives Matter is no longer trending on every site. Black creators deserve support even when there is not a national tragedy occurring.
What are you reading right now? Anything you’d recommend? Right now I’m reading The Silvered Serpents by Roshani Chokshi and just in absolute awe of her character and worldbuilding. Another book I’ve started but haven’t finished yet is Where Dreams Descend by Janella Angeles, which is basically the Phantom of the Opera meets Moulin Rouge book of my dreams.
What’s in your TBR pile on your nightstand? I’m really looking forward to Raybearer by Jordan Ifueko! Give me all the fantasy featuring Black girls, please. Some of my other most anticipated reads for this year are A Sky Beyond the Storm by Sabaa Tahir, Legendborn by Tracy Deonn, and These Violent Delights by Chloe Gong.
What do you do when you’re not writing? I’m really into Pokemon Go these days. It’s the only activity that really gets me moving and not spending all of quarantine on my couch watching Netflix!
For us here at NLA, it was paramount to get June’s newsletter right. We are living in a civil rights moment in history; we simply couldn’t do a business-as-usual publishing article. We embraced and then discarded many a topic for this space. None seemed right (and many would be powerful articles, but my voice is not what needs to be heard in this moment in time).
Then we realized we could release this newsletter on June 19, 2020: Juneteenth. One way to honor #BlackLivesMatter is to amplify black voices in literature on this date. So that is what we are doing.
What is Juneteenth? It is a holiday observed each year on June 19 to mark the official end of slavery in the U.S. For the history of this holiday, let me pass the mic to Henry Louis Gates, Jr., who is an Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and the Director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University.
To honor Juneteenth, we encourage our newsletter readers to buy a book, fiction or nonfiction, by a Black author today. Actually, buy two, or three, four, or more. At a loss for ideas? This is by no means an exhaustive list; however, we are positive that you will find a gem.
This month, Nelson Literary Agency honors one of our own. Rebecca Taylor, our former literary assistant, recently celebrated the release of her debut women’s fiction title, HER PERFECT LIFE (Sourcebooks Landmark, June 2, 2020). We couldn’t wait to talk to her about it and share her words of wisdom and encouragement with you.
Congratulations on the release of HER PERFECT LIFE! Tell us a bit about the book.
It’s about two adult sisters, Eileen and Clare, and their very different lives. Eileen is an overwhelmed mother of three who is navigating a troubled marriage and financial insecurity. Clare is a world-famous, hugely successful novelist, living with a husband who worships her. At the beginning of the book, Eileen learns that Clare has killed herself despite her outwardly perfect life. Eileen flies to Clare’s cliffside mansion north of San Francisco in hopes of learning why her sister would take her own life. The book is told from the perspectives of the two sisters, past and present.
As a writer, what surprised you the most about working for a literary agency?
First, the data management required for even a single author can be tremendous. For example, think of one author with five titles, each of which sells into twenty foreign-language markets. That’s 100 contracts and revenue streams that must be monitored and tracked, not to mention sales numbers, manuscript files in their various stages of drafts, edits, and final-final versions, marketing info and data for each author, each title, each market… Way more work goes on behind the scenes than most authors even begin to imagine. The management of all that information is exponential. Because of this, agents really do need to LOVE and believe in a title before deciding to invest all this very real sweat equity trying to get a book into the world.
Second, even if a book is well written and an agent believes in it enough to take it on, it’s far from guaranteed that book will connect with a publisher. And even if it does make it to the shelves, it may not find an audience.
Finally, most authors do not read their contracts. Or, if they do read them, they don’t ask questions about language they don’t understand.
How did working for a literary agency inform your writing?
Working for a literary agency made me more aware of the industry as a whole, not just what I felt passionate about writing in the moment. I had always heeded the advice about writing the story you wanted to tell, the story you’re passionate about. With my five YA books, that is exactly what I did—and I was never able to find a traditional publisher for those books. That awareness helped me to think more critically about a project before I began writing it. It also helped me focus on what sort of book I would like to be writing not just next week, but next decade. What genre would give me the flexibility to tackle new ground while still staying true to my love of creating character-driven works? Women’s fiction was the answer for me.
After you published five YA books, HER PERFECT LIFE is your debut women’s fiction. Tell us more about what prompted the switch. Will you continue to write YA?
First off, my reading habits changed. I’ve always read widely, but as a reader, I found I was losing interest in the YA market. This, I am certain, was because my own children were moving into their teenage years. As a parent, I found it increasingly difficult to get into the teen headspace in a way that would genuinely resonate with a teen audience. As a mom navigating the parental world of setting expectations, defining boundaries, and taking away privileges, I found I was a living, breathing antagonist to that entire shelf space. Teen-centric story ideas stopped lighting up my creative centers—that well ran dry. But I did, suddenly, have a lot to say about women and mothers. Writing women’s fiction was a transition that made both logical and emotional sense to me. As for writing more YA in the future…who knows? But it’s not something I plan on or can even envision doing at this point.
As a full-time school psychologist and busy mom, how do you carve out the time you need to write?
It is definitely getting easier now that the kids are older. Much less feeding, dressing, and entertaining is required for teens than two-year-olds. At this point, it’s mostly balancing writing with working. One benefit of working in public schools is that I have plenty of time to write during the summer months—even if the warm weather does make focus far more challenging. During the school year, I generally get up around four a.m., so I have a couple of hours to write before work. I’ve tried writing after work or before bed, but I’m basically brain dead by that point in the day. I prefer to go to bed early and get up early.
Do you have a writing community or support system? If so, how has that helped you work toward and achieve your goals?
I have belonged to a few different professional writing organizations, both local and national, over the years. Through these, I have met many wonderful writers and taken countless classes that have both inspired me and helped me improve my writing. But by far, the most helpful support system has been my fellow writer girlfriends. When we can make it work, we take retreats together and focus on writing all day long. Then, in the evenings, we come together to eat dinner, drink wine, and talk, talk, talk. More regularly, we try to get together for brunch at least every few months. I love and cherish this time we spend together.
What are you working on now?
A second book of women’s fiction that is due to my publisher very, very soon. I’m nearing the end of the first draft, but I have found it difficult to focus over these past few months. I’m hoping to have it finished by the end of June, if not sooner.
What advice do you have for writers who are working toward landing an agent or their first traditional-publishing deal?
The waiting and rejection, rejection, rejection can be hard. So hard. But realize this: Even when you connect with that agent and finally sell that book, the waiting and rejection do not end. They just look different and tend to be more public. Get as comfortable as you can on publishing’s lumpy couch and do your best to keep writing through all the discomfort.
Celebrate the small successes along the way.
And finally, if you ever feel like you’re at the end of your rope with this business, like you just can’t take the rejection anymore and you really want to quit—then quit. I cannot recommend quitting writing and the pursuit of publishing more. I have quit twice in despair and frustration. Obviously, I crawled back to try again. But it was only when I came back after quitting for the second time that I truly understood I would continue to write for the intrinsic pleasure even if there was never going to be any external reward for my efforts. Once I realized that about myself, I was able to enjoy the process again and loosen my grip on trying to make publishing happen. And eventually, it did happen—eighteen years after I started writing my very first book.
Money, so they say, is a taboo subject, so don’t expect fellow writers to spill financial details.
Until now. Hats off to Heather Demetrios for pulling back the curtain and being brave enough to share her mistakes in the article “How to Lose a Third of a Million Dollars Without Really Trying.” It’s considered gauche to talk about money in this industry, yet it’s probably one of the most important topics authors should be discussing.
Agents are often in a weird position when it comes to talking to our clients about money management. On one hand, we are the author’s business partner; on the other hand, we aren’t their parent. We don’t want to make assumptions about an author’s financial responsibility (or irresponsibility).
Over the years, when I have a debut author who has landed a big advance, I have asked for permission to put on my mom hat and give counsel. If the author says yes, I offer these four pieces of advice:
When the advance comes in, don’t wait. Cut a check for 25% of the total that has come in and mail that check to the IRS right then and there. I’ve heard too many horror stories of authors finding themselves in real trouble when April 15 rolled around and the money was already spent.
Ever heard of the adage “pay yourself first”? Most people don’t know exactly what that means. Well, in investing terms, it means immediately placing the maximum percentage allowed by the IRS for that particular tax year into a retirement account (i.e., a Roth IRA, IRA, Vanguard S&P 500 fund, or similar).
If you have a mortgage your advance can pay down (or, better yet, pay off), that is worth considering. Owning your home outright can create a lot of financial freedom. If you have student loans or other debts, consider eliminating them.
Connect with a financial advisor who only charges by the hour rather than taking a percentage of your investments. This is a way to gain expert advice on reasonable terms—especially for authors who feel lost in the weeds about this whole investing and saving-for-retirement thing. Garrett Planning Networkis a good resource that can hook you up with a fee-only certified financial planner.
In the end, the best way to think about your advance is to take that amount and divide it by, say, three years. What would the author’s annual salary then be? For example, if an author is lucky enough to get a $150,000 as an advance (sounds fab, right?), that’s $150,000 minus 25% in taxes, which equals only $37,500 a year for three years. If that’s your sole income for those three years, that might be a bit sobering.
My client Courtney Milan once told me that a blog article I wrote a lifetime ago on authors and retirement really made a difference in how she managed her money. I wish I could find that original blog post, but chances are good the info would be outdated anyway. For more up-to-date info, here are my recommendations for retirement planning:
For NLA’s March newsletter I wrote this article but hadn’t had a chance to post on the blog. Then PW recently ran this article on 4/27/2018 about how Publishers are increasingly inserting language into their contracts that allows them to terminate based on an author’s behavior.
In further analysis and examination, I truly wonder if this is just a “change in market conditions” masquerading as a morality clause. 2018 is going to be an interesting year for contract negotiation!
AGENT KRISTIN’S ORIGINAL NEWSLETTER ARTICLE.
In October 2017, the #MeToo hashtag went viral on Twitter. Thousands of women shared their stories of sexual harassment, misconduct, and injustice in the workplace. The momentum began with the allegations against film titan Harvey Weinstein and then morphed into movements across other industries.
It hit publishing in a big way in February 2018 with Anne Ursu’sbombshell of an article on Medium about sexual harassment in the children’s book industry.
It engendered a lot of conversations here at NLA, as I imagine it did for a lot of authors out there. But I wonder how many authors realized that the #MeToo movement would directly impact them in one very specific and unexpected way: in their contracts.
It was no surprise to me when we received a Penguin Random House contract recently, and lo and behold, there was new language in clause 7.c, which deals with publication. There is a new “morality” clause that cites that if the author’s reputation materially changes, such changes could be cause for termination of the publishing agreement.
Every non-author-friendly clause in publishing contracts is there because of some other author’s previous bad behavior. But in general, I don’t subscribe to the philosophy that NLA clients have to contractually pay for the mistakes of others.
Personally, I fully understand why PRH wants to add this language given recent current events. I certainly support the intention! As an agency, though, we are going to negotiate this clause to be more fair for an author who isn’t guilty until proven innocent.
My sense is that PRH will not be alone in amending boilerplate language. We’ve got several other agreements coming our way in the next two weeks. We’ll definitely be looking for the addition of these types of morality clauses.
(Just a note, this post is from our archives. Some references and links may be from past years.)
Just recently, PW published an article in which agents shared their thoughts on children’s books and YA trends. Although I’m quite tickled that so many agents are seeing lots of submissions featuring diverse characters, it’s dangerous to consider diversity the latest YA trend.
I’m sure I’m not the only agent who can say they’ve been repping diverse authors/books since day one. It certainly didn’t take a trend for me to sign those books and authors (for example, Kelly Parra’s awesome MTV Book Graffiti Girl in 2007, Kim Reid’s memoir No Place Safe in 2007, and Simone Elkeles’s Perfect Chemistry in 2008). But I can say this: unequivocally, before #WeNeedDiverseBooks became a rallying cry in April 2014, selling in a diverse author/book was tons harder to do. I have my submission logs to prove it. It often took me about 12 to 16 months of grim determination to find a diverse book a home.
If diversity is now hot enough to make the selling-in part a lot of easier, trust me, I’m all for it. Yay! Finally! But I absolutely do not want diversity to be considered a trend in young-adult literature, and here is why: If something is a trend, then it can go out of fashion just as quickly as it came in. And quite frankly, that would be a travesty.
The blunt truth is that selling a diverse book is a perfectly normal thing to do in publishing. So my rallying cry? Agents, new and old, even when diverse books become harder to sell, as they inevitably will (in publishing, trends of every kind have always come and gone), keep on keeping on.
Diversity is not a trend. It’s simply here to stay. This is the new normal.