Pub Rants

Category: editors

Article #2: Commanding Authority: An Agent’s Negotiation Edge

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

In January, one my clients emailed me a great note to kick off the new year. She wrote:

“This is going to sound random, but I feel the need to do a bit of effusive gushing to you. As you probably know, authors eventually turn to gossip (about their contracts too) and I recently found out that several writers I know are stuck with joint accounting, one of them being a NYT bestseller. To say the least, I was agog. My next, immediate thought was that I have the best agent ever.”

Because my client knows that all our contracts here at NLA have separate accounting. I really appreciate when my authors recognize a good job well done because let me tell you, great contract negotiation is not the sexy part of agenting. But it’s the backbone of a great career for my authors.

First, let me explain what joint accounting is: A multi-book deal that grants joint accounting allows the publisher to apply all earnings for all books on that contract to the total advance granted; in other words, none of the books earns out until all of the books earn out.

Separate accounting, on the other hand, specifies that each book’s earnings apply only to that book’s advance; in other words, if book one earns out, the author begins to earn royalties, even if the subsequent books on that contract have yet to earn out. Yay! Royalties!

I decided early in my career that Nelson Literary Agency would only do multi-book deals if the contract granted separate accounting. I weighed the pros and cons, and I just couldn’t see an advantage to granting joint accounting. Since my job as agent is to advocate on behalf of my authors, I’ve held firm on this issue—even if it means we can only sell one book to an editor instead of two or three.

If editors know that joint accounting isn’t available, they don’t bother asking me for it. Why am I sharing this example? Because I want to discuss what could be considered a rather nebulous concept, and my #1 criteria for what makes a good agent:

Good agents command authority naturally.

What does it mean to command authority naturally? For one thing, it means that an editor has immediate respect for the agent. They view the agent as powerful, well informed, and fair yet tough. Especially when it comes to negotiation. So if the agent has established that she won’t grant XYZ in a deal, then editors don’t bother asking for it. In other words, the agent is not a pushover as a negotiator.

There are many agents who are absolutely lovely people but who don’t command authority naturally.

Why should you, as a writer, care about this?

Because it is the essence of this biz. Publishers (who are not evil, by the way) want the most they can get out of a contract (which is often not in the author’s favor), and the agent’s job is to grant only what won’t be detrimental or disadvantageous to the author so that the author gets the fairest contract possible.

The goal is to meet in the happy middle, where both the publisher and the author feel satisfied. And it’s simple: Authors with strong contracts have more successful careers.

So if an agent commands authority naturally, editors will respect that. Editors who know an agent is a negotiating pushover will ask for as much as possible, and since the agent won’t stand tough on key issues, writers get stuck with yucky stuff in their contracts, joint accounting being just one example.

In fact, I know of agents who simply accept the first offer an editor gives without any negotiation whatsoever. Yikes!

Agents who command authority naturally get their projects read more quickly.

Agents who command authority naturally get higher advances and better royalites for their authors’ work.

Agents who command authority naturally are granted more compromises during negotiation, making sure contracts are advantageous for the author.

Agents who command authority naturally get more leverage when dealing with conflict (for instance, over a cover image or something else in the author’s career).

By the way, this doesn’t mean that the agent will always get her way. But it does mean that the editor respects, values, and weighs seriously the agent’s opinion. And sometimes that translates into swaying the editor on the issue.

Agents who command authority naturally are just better at the job of agenting. And in my mind, if the agent is better at agenting, the author is going to have a stronger, more successful career.

And since authors want to make a living writing, this becomes pretty important indeed!

*******

The genesis: In January 2015, Backspace co-founder Karen Dionne and I had a conversation in which she mentioned that writers sometimes want representation 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 on 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.

*******

Archive:

February 2015 Newsletter – Article #1: Agent As Savvy Business Manager

Guest Blogger: Karen Dionne

One of my favorite panels regularly offered at my Backspace Writers Conferences was one in which I invited an agent I respected to bring in an editor they’d worked with to discuss the process of selling and bringing out a book. Sometimes called “Agents and Editors, Working Together,” sometimes “The Business of Selling the Book,” these discussions were far more interesting than their titles. I loved how they pulled back the curtain on an aspect of the publishing business that authors generally don’t get to see: the relationship between agents and editors.

The conversations were always casual, engaging, and honest. It was easy to see that the agent and editor respected each other and enjoyed working together—even though they acknowledged their jobs often put them on opposite sides of the fence.

I thought about these panel discussions after I read Kristin’s article about how a good agent needs to command authority naturally. In one discussion, the editor lamented how hard it was to know if the agent pitching a manuscript was telling the truth.

Agents lie to editors? I remember thinking. Apparently, some do. Editors know it, and it makes their jobs harder. As an example, the editor said an agent might tell her they have “interest” in a manuscript. Normally this means another editor wants to acquire the book. But “interest” could mean as little as the agent and editor had waved to each other in the hallway. The editor was exaggerating for effect, but the truth beneath her comment was clear.

“I will never, ever lie to an editor,” the agent broke in. “I’m a salesperson, so naturally I’m going to portray the book in the best possible light. But I will never say anything that’s factually untrue.”

“I know that,” the editor replied. “And I trust you. Personal relationships are super important to figuring out what’s actually going on [in negotiations].”

Or as Kristin puts it: “For an agent to command authority naturally means that an editor has immediate respect for the agent. They view the agent as powerful, well informed, fair, yet tough.”

Kristin also says: “Agents who command authority naturally get their projects read more quickly.” 

In the same panel discussion, the agent told the audience that if he thinks a book will generate interest from multiple publishers, he likes to send the book to editors on a Thursday. Why Thursday? So the editors can read the manuscript that night, get their colleagues on board the next day so they in turn can read the book over the weekend, and the following week the agent can hopefully set up an auction.

“We hate when agents do that!” the editor said. Dropping everything she had planned and reading is the last thing she wants to do at the end of a busy week. But because she respects the agent, she trusts that when he says the manuscript is hot, it really is, and he’s not lying in order to get the project read quickly. So she reads the manuscript right away.

“Agents who command authority naturally are just better at the job of agenting,” Kristin says.

At another of my Backspace conferences, when I met the editor the agent brought in for this panel and told her who my agent was, she said, “You have a good agent. He’s tough.”

I found out later that my agent and this editor are friends. Yet their friendship doesn’t preclude my agent being a tough negotiator when the situation calls for it. More important, this editor respects my agent because he is.

*****

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. This panel discussion along with the full Backspace Writers Conference video archives are available exclusively to Backspace subscribers and online conference registrants. 

One of the reasons why I wanted Hachette to be forthcoming when I started asking about the shipping issues (many moons before the news became public) was because I had already guessed that Amazon was flexing some muscle in a contract negotiation.

So confirming it wasn’t telling me anything I didn’t probably already know…

But also so I could tell Hachette and the editors that my authors and I were firmly on their side and hugely supportive of what they were having to face.

Amazon – I have been very appreciative of the many changes you’ve already created in publishing but now you are just being a big old fat hypocrite.

Because your motto is customer first, always.

Well, this kind of hardball in no way serves your customers. It hurts authors (whom you claim to support) and you deserve the public fall-out that this spat creates.

This just hit the newswire in the last week but I’ve informally known about this since late fall 2013 (as early as November). The problem? My Hachette authors and I noticed this “shipping issue” multiple times and brought it to our Hachette Editors’ attention. 

Multiple times. Repeated emails. We were assured that all was fine. (Which we, of course, did not believe since it kept happening….)

This is yet another moment where big publishing could have chosen to partner with authors and agents by explaining the truth behind Amazon’s muscle flexing.

Instead, Hachette choose to go with “we don’t discuss contract negotiations” tactic, which leaves their authors in the dark, agents like me fuming, and fosters a general atmosphere of distrust that the publisher is not being forthright.

Not the end goal here! What we need is more communication, not less.

Let agents and authors help you take a stand–which is actually what’s going on now and is detailed in this New York Times Article.

As happens time and time again, the truth does emerge and leaves those of us who have been asking about it for the last six months with exasperated hands in air, the desire to bang head against desk, and authors who now won’t believe the publisher when the response is “all is fine” in the future.

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).

 

 

What Are You Looking For?

STATUS: Doing meetings in New York all week.

What’s playing on the XM or iPod right now? I’M A BELIEVER by The Monkees

Good question. What am I looking for?

Because I’m rewriting content for our new website (and the submission guidelines are an integral part of that), this question is definitely on my mind as of late. Not to mention, when I attend a conference, invariably I get asked this question. By now, you’d think I’d have a good answer ready. To be honest, I don’t.

We also have to answer this question on our new website for our submission guidelines. Since Sara’s answer is different than mine, we are tailoring our “what are you looking for” list for our specific agent pages.

By the way, the launch of our new website is a bit delayed. Our web developer lives in New Jersey. Yep, Hurricane Sandy.  He actually emailed me to apologize for the delay as he didn’t have electricity. Holy cow! No need for an apology there. We can wait a few more weeks.

But back to our website submission wish list. When I sat down to evaluate what I’m looking for, I find that I’m not interested in creating a nice, neat little list.

Right now our site says I’m looking for literary fiction with a commercial bent, commercial mainstream, women’s fiction, romance, science fiction, fantasy, young adult and middle grade.

Sure, that’s accurate and true but you know what? That doesn’t quite capture what I’m looking for. I want an intense, well-told story and the “genre” is incidental.

This summer I sold a literary cross-over novel that had a lot of horror elements – BIRD BOX by Josh Malerman.

Look at the list above? Do you see the word “horror” anywhere?

Not exactly. Yet, that story was perfect for me.

My book club is going to read Gillian Flynn’s GONE GIRL.

That’s totally up my alley. Do you see “thriller” on that above list? Nope. So what I’m looking for is not clearly defined by a neat little list that I can post on our website.

And today I had lunch with an editor from St. Martin’s and a bubble tea with an editor from Random House. (I think the tapioca is still stuck in my teeth…) Both had great previous experience in working at genre imprints earlier in their careers and now, neither is a genre editor per se but both love a big story that has a genre element to it. That’s what they are looking for.

And that’s what I’m looking for.

I have to find a way to say that on my page that outlines my submission guidelines. Not an easy trick. I do know that I don’t plan to post a handy little list because that doesn’t really capture what I’m looking for.

I want a good story well told. How you tell that story doesn’t need to fit in a neat little category.

When Trendy Trumps Publishing Sense

STATUS: Wearing Halloween tights! Of course I’m having a great day.

What’s playing on the XM or iPod right now? SKYFALL by Adele

Don’t ask because I won’t reveal the title as this post is a true rant. *grin*

Last year I saw a YA manuscript on submission. The author had gotten an offer pretty quickly so I had to read right away. I read to the end (which is rare for me) and ultimately I decided to pass. The story had a lot of promise but for me, there was a bit of an ick factor and I thought it needed a ton of work. It also had a bit of a bizarre ending that I couldn’t fathom.  The title went on to sell for big money at auction.

I remember just being astonished. Such a quick sale meant that very little work had been done before submission. In my mind, editors were willing to pay big money for a concept. Well, that’s not the first time that has happened. And it’s definitely not going to be the last.

Maybe I just had sour grapes as I had passed. There’s probably some truth in that. From what I can tell though, the book was published in 2012 and it didn’t do as expected.

Just recently it happened again with another YA title I saw on submission and passed on because I honestly did not think it was young adult novel despite its trendy concept.

I’m so so ready for something new and for editors to get excited about something wildly different!

(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,
Kristin

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

 

Creative Commons Credit: AJ Cann