Pub Rants

Category: research

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.

The Schmagent

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 Beware and 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. 

The Hobbyist

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. 

The Greenie

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. 

The Blindsider

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. 

As an agent, I’ve put many an article out there trying to assist writers in arming themselves with knowledge. I did a whole series of articles on what makes a good agent well as an article on 5 Questions Authors Don’t Ask but Should when considering an offer of representation.

One final comment. As an agent, I wish for no more black marks on my beloved profession, but I’m also practical. Another news article will probably be just around the corner. 

Creative Commons Photo Credit: Nenad Stojkovic

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.  

Creative Commons Photo Credit: Clint Budd

Dirty Word: Comment Moderation

STATUS: I have a lot that needs to get done today. Doing a phone conference in 5 minutes and I’m in the middle of negotiating a deal.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? ROAD by George Winston

This morning I have to say that I’m a little annoyed. I’ve been blogging since 2006. I certainly wasn’t the first agent to start this process (waves to Jennifer Jackson and Miss Snark) but I certainly was early into this game.

And for the most part, I love it. I love being able to rant when I want to and I love how sometimes my blog topics spark an interesting discussion in the comments section. I prefer open forums. Freedom of speech, etc. But for the past 2 months, I’ve contemplated turning on the moderating comments function again because there have been several posters (about 3 of them) who seem to have a personal agenda and regardless of what my specific blog entry is about, these comments hijack the comment section to turn the conversation around to their specific viewpoint on publishing or to highlight, once again, their personal taste regarding what they think is worth publishing and what is not.

Now this certainly isn’t a crime. Everyone is entitled to their own personal opinion but I’m finding that these constant hijacks are completely limiting the possibility of any other real discussion about the publishing industry in the comment section. Not to mention, my blog’s comment section has become a soapbox for a select few individuals.

Sorry, I’m done with that. Sadly, comment moderation is back on. It’s more work for me and it depresses the number of comments people actually want to make but I guess so does a constant soapbox.

As I’ve mentioned on previous blogs, there are plenty of terrific writer chat forums that are excellent vehicles for expressing opinions and having your voice heard. Here are three just to name a few:

Writers Net
Backspace Forums

Absolute Write Forums

Exploding The “Must Have Connections Myth”—Guest Blogger Megan Crewe

STATUS: For a Monday, it was actually fairly quiet. Only one major issue to solve.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? RASPBERRY BERET by Prince

I thought this a pertinent and timely entry in light of a lot of recent discussions I’ve seen in the comment section of agent blogs lately.

Megan’s debut hits shelves this week—all done with nary a networked connection.

I think every aspiring writer hears this message at least once: You don’t have a hope of getting published unless you’ve got connections. I saw it pop up on message boards and websites as I was preparing GIVE UP THE GHOST for submission to agents, and couldn’t help feeling nervous. After all, I’d never talked to an editor or an agent in my life. I didn’t even live in the same country as most of them! And my close writer friends were currently unagented, so I didn’t have a referral, either.

But I’d also read posts by authors talking about getting picked out of the slush pile, and agents mentioning their excitement at finding a gem in their inboxes, and that gave me hope. So instead of digging into my savings to fly off to every conference I could manage, I simply wrote a query letter, revised it, and started sending it out.

Three and a half years later, I have an agent, a publishing deal, and a book that just hit the shelves. I met Kristin in person for the first time this past May, two and a half years after we started working together.

I know now that there’s nothing to worry about–people receive offers of representation and book deals without any prior connections all the time. I did, many of my writer friends did, and I’ve happily told this to writers who’ve said they’re afraid they won’t be able to find an agent or get published because they don’t know anyone.

Unfortunately, I realized offering my experience isn’t enough. Why should anyone believe me over those claiming that it’s impossible? Maybe my case was just the exception.

Which is why, last month, I set out to collect solid data. 270 fiction authors from a variety of genres filled out a poll asking them about their experiences selling their first published novel. With the results now in, I say with assurance that the idea that you need connections to get published is nothing more than a myth.

62% of the agented authors who responded got the agent who sold their first book through cold querying–no prior meeting, no referral.

72% of the authors sold their first book to an editor they had no connection to (either by cold querying themselves, or submitting via their agent).

You can find my full discussion of the poll results here.

Can connections help you out? Of course! But if you don’t have them, don’t sweat it. I’m a Canadian author who signed with a Denver agent who sold to a New York editor without my having any prior connection to either of them, and that novel can be found right now in stores across both countries. If I can do it (along with more than a hundred other authors who answered the poll), there’s no reason you can’t, too.

Art Of The Agent Search

STATUS: I’ve been so busy the last two days that honestly, I simply forgot to blog. Shocking I know. I woke up this morning and slapped my forehead.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? BIG SKY by Kate Bush

Galley Cat just recently posted a fun entry on the Easily Overlooked Art of Agent Research where author David Henry Sterry gives the scoop.

Hum… I’m not sure what to say about the stalking part. Grin. Now I do think writers should have more than 10 possible agents on their submission list but besides that…

Now that’s a good tip on how to target the right agent. Here a few tips on some things that will hinder your agent search. By the way, all of these have just happened in the last few weeks.

1. Telling an agent during your conference pitch session that the agent will be sorry that he or she didn’t allow this writer to pitch his idea for a novel. (Mind you—not a novel that this person has written but an IDEA for a novel).

2. Calling an agent during a busy busy work day and leaving 4 or 5 voicemail messages highlighting that you, the writer, are not computer savvy and since you have questions about submitting, will the agent please call the writer back.

3. A first-time writer asking an agent if he or she can send the half-written first draft of their debut novel. (Gee, what is the likelihood of that being his/her very best work?)

4. A writer sending a note with their submission saying that they thought they should just send along, not what the agent asked for, but chapters 8 and 9 because that’s where the story really picks up.

5. A writer highlighting that they met you, the agent, at a conference that you didn’t actually attend. (Oops.)

6. Writers stating in their queries that were recommended by one of the agent’s clients when they weren’t. (Folks, agents check this and most clients give a heads-up email when doing a referral).

7. Starting an email query with something like “Knowing your expertise with thrillers” and it’s not a genre the agent has represented or handled.

No Freewheelin’ With The Blurb Endorsements

STATUS: It was quiet for one day. I can’t even believe I said it was quiet yesterday. Plenty to do between now and Thursday. Won’t be in the office on Friday and of course, no blogging.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? DEMOLITION MAN by The police

I’m not really going to tally the results this time. Yesterday’s “poll” was more about creating a discussion around blurbs. For an author who is receiving the blurb endorsement, it’s an incredible feeling. That someone way more established than you (or famous) thought your novel worthy of praise. It’s big validation for a debut author in a world where there aren’t many validating moments outside of sales performance. And I always think of it as incredibly generous for an established author to do. When done right, it takes a lot of time to read a novel and it takes even more time to think of a short, pithy blurb that really captures the author’s emotion about it.

Try writing one for a favorite book of yours just as practice. It’s not easy.

For readers, it seems a mixed bag. I do know that booksellers and publishers absolutely do believe that blurb endorsements help to sell books.

Here’s what I’ve gleaned:

1. The author name has to be pretty big—as in immediately recognizable—for it to make an impact.

2. Readers do feel it’s part of the advertising.

3. Authors should not be too carefree about what they blurb as that can shape reader perception—of the blurbed books and for the books that author writes. Blurb only books where the endorsement is really meant.

4. Many readers find it helpful. That maybe they’ll try a new author they might not otherwise if a favorite author has blurbed the book.

5. The text of the blurb is just as important as the blurb itself. Faked enthusiasm is recognizable.

A Second Totally Unscientific PubRants Blog Reader Poll

STATUS: It’s a bit quiet leading up to the long weekend so I’m actually getting some things done. And yes, I’m still working on my query inbox…

What’s playing on the iPod right now? UNKNOWN LEGEND by Neil Young

When we did our completely unscientific first ever Pubrants Blog Reader poll, I realized that I left out one important question (or maybe series of questions).

We talked about covers and back cover copy influencing book buying decisions but we didn’t talk about author blurbs.

Often times before a book is to be published, the agent, editor, and author will put our heads together and discuss who would be a great blurb candidate for the project. Obviously blurbs are going to come for established authors with solid reputations and a large following, otherwise the blurb probably wouldn’t have much weight. The name has to be recognizable and appropriate for the genre, type of book, etc.

For example, this week has been very exciting at the agency as we just received word that Lisa See (author of Snow Flower And The Secret Fan), who we asked to read an ARC of HOTEL ON THE CORNER OF BITTER AND SWEET by Jamie Ford, loved the book and is thrilled to give us a blurb to use.

Needless to say, Jamie and I were giddy. Now I realize that the book isn’t out yet and therefore anyone who reads this blog can’t buy it yet, but would that influence you?

So that’s my poll for today:

Do you notice and read author blurbs on books you are potentially interested in buying?

If so, have you ever bought a book because an author you loved and trusted endorsed the book?

If you can remember, what established authors created the swing vote for you and you did indeed buy the book with their author blurb on it?

Have you ever bought a book based on an author endorsement and then were dissatisfied with the book bought? If so, did that impact a future buy for a book for which that same author has endorsed?

I imagine this random poll will spark some interesting discussions this week!

Stats And A Few More Thoughts

STATUS: I’ve got an auction happening tomorrow. That just makes the day crazy busy.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? A CHANGE WOULD DO YOU GOOD by Sheryl Crow

Basically last night was nothing but whining—at least I thought so until I started to really think about it. It’s actually extremely important for an agent to read for pleasure (and yes, sometimes reading sample pages is fun but ultimately it’s still working so it’s not quite the same thing as reading a book solely for pleasure). Do you know why? Because that’s when an agent feels the joy of the printed page and the written word. That’s when we remember how much we enjoy just reading like normal people do.

It also keeps us in touch with what’s out there, what’s selling or catching people’s attention. I love to read and when you work too hard, sometimes you forget that passion because all you want is to tick off one more item from your long list of TO DOs. So not only is it imperative (work-wise) to read for pleasure but it’s also wise for our sanity in general.

And finally, I have the stats for you from our poll on Tuesday, June 16, 2008. Some comments came in after the cut off and we’re sorry to not include you if your answer came late but we had to create a cut-off somewhere to compile.

Responses: 195
(not everyone answered every question which is why a few of the totals do not add up to 195)

Do you prefer hard copy or electronic?
Hard Copy: 185Electronic: 10
95% hard copy

When going into a store to buy a book, have you then bought a second title?
Yes: 187
No: 8
96% Yes

Have you bought a book based on the cover alone?
Yes: 63No: 131
68% No

Have you ever bought a book based on the back cover copy?
Yes: 155
No: 39
80% Yes

Kristin comment: If you ever needed proof that it was worthwhile to make your query pitch paragraph mirror back cover copy, here it is I think. Agents are just like readers. We can be swayed by good back cover copy.

How often have you bought a book based on a friend or family member’s recommendation?
Always: 5 = 2%
Almost all the time: 19 = 10%
Frequently (much of the time/ around 50% of the time): 75 = 39%
Rarely: 72 = 37%
Never: 23 = 12%

Have you ever bought a book because I mentioned it on this blog? If so, which book(s).
Yes: 63
No: 128
67% No

Which ones:
Ally Carter (23)
Sherry Thomas (13)
Linnea Sinclair (7)
Lisa Shearin (5)
Shanna Swendson (5)
Hank Phillippi Ryan (3)
Jana DeLeon (2)
Kelly Parra (2)
Marianne Mancusi (2)
Cheryl Hingley (1)
Leslie Langtry (1)
Kim Reid (1)
Jennifer O’Connell (1)

Kristin comment: Most interesting point about this question is that I actually mention quite a few non-client books on my blog and nobody mentioned whether that has swayed him/her to buy some other non-Nelson Agency Client book.

How many books do you buy in a year?
0: 01-10: 29 = 15%
11-50: 82 = 44%
51-100: 42 = 22%
100+: 35 = 19%
With several responses of 300+ and even 500+

Kristin comment: Holy cow you blog readers buy books. I love you!

How many books do you check out of the library per year?
0: 87 = 47%
1-10: 16 = 8%
11-50: 45 = 24%
51-100: 23 = 12%
100+: 16 = 9%
Again with several responses in the hundreds

Kristin comment: We love libraries and librarians so it’s perfectly okay with us if you check out from the library. Libraries often buy lots of copies of each book and that makes us happy!

eBooks For The Young’un’s

STATUS: I had two things I wanted to accomplish before I left the office today. Yeah, didn’t do either. But other great things are going on.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? GOIN’ THROUGH YOUR PURSE by Material Issue

And I need to compile the stats from Tuesday’s poll but that will take a little time. In the meantime, here’s a cool article that fits right in to what we’ve been talking about this week. How interesting.

Survey Confirms Younger Generation Less Interested in Traditional Reading Habits
The Bookseller’s Reading the Future Survey, presented at a conference last week, reports only half of young people aged 18-24 years old think people will still be using bookshops in 20 years’ time. Looking deeper into 18-24 year olds’ reading habits, the survey found that 28% were favourable towards the idea of e-readers, compared to 9% of 65+ year olds, and 40% liked the idea of downloadable chapters of books, compared to 7% of 65+ year olds. Transworld publisher Bill Scott-Kerr said at the conference that the statistics point to where publishers are headed in the future. We all know the book is a great piece of technology – you can’t drop e-books in the bath. But we as an industry are in a lot of trouble; we don’t know where we are going.”

Here’s the full article at the Bookseller.

PubRants First Blog Reader Poll Or Something Equally Unscientific

STATUS: I’m getting my 80s groove thing on to start the week. How can you be upset when listening to nostalgia music like this?

What’s playing on the iPod right now? THE LOOK OF LOVE by ABC

So this morning I’m breezing through my copy of Publishers Weekly as we had just found out our author Sherry Thomas was getting a new PW review for her August release DELICIOUS (and a fab review at that!). I was pretty sure it was coming in the current issue that hasn’t hit my mailbox yet but to make sure, I scanned the latest copy.

Well, this article caught my eye. Zogby International, in conjunction with Random House, did a survey on current readership. Here’s the link if you want to read it more fully.

And here are just a few eye-popping stats from this poll.

82% of Readers prefer the hard copy of a book over the electronic version (Oy! I’m in the minority. I love reading on my Kindle.)

43% of readers go into bookstores looking for a specific title

77% of those readers make additional purchases when looking for a specific book

52% of book purchasers are swayed by cover art

49% of book purchasers are swayed by reviews

35% of book purchasers have been swayed by a cover quote (now my authors understand why we work so hard to get those cover quotes!)

60% of book purchasers are swayed by recommendations from friends or family members.

Word of mouth is everything!

Alas, I didn’t see any stats on back cover copy and whether that influences a purchase. That could have been relevant concerning all my recent blog posts regarding it.

But let’s do our own, not-so-scientific and spur of the moment sample poll:

Do you prefer hard copy or electronic?

When going into a store to buy a book, have you then bought a second title?

Have you bought a book based on the cover alone?

Have you ever bought a book based on the back cover copy? (what the heck, let’s ask).

How often have you bought a book based on a friend or family member’s recommendation?

Have you ever bought a book because I mentioned it on this blog? If so, which book(s). (oh boy!)

How many books do you buy in a year?

How many books do you check out from the library in a year?

I’ll compile our own totally unscientific stats tomorrow or on Wed.