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May 2017
A Message from Kristin Nelson

5 Qs Authors Don’t Ask but Should When an Agent Offers Rep

Kristin Nelson

In the last two weeks, we at NLA have offered representation to seven authors, most of whom received multiple offers. All agents are aggressively seeking new talent right now! It’s awesome to talk to savvy authors who have a list of good questions prepared for their initial conversations with prospective agents, questions like:

• What is your communication style?
• How would you describe your dream client?
• What is your editorial vision for my work?
• What would your submission strategy for this work be if you took it on?
• What happens if my project doesn’t sell?
• Are you open to me writing in different genres?
• Can I chat with a current client?

All these are questions you should ask; you definitely want your agent to be a good personality match and share your vision for your career. But you also want that agent to be your best advocate and protect your business interests in the publishing industry. With that in mind, here are five key questions authors should also be asking, but in general I never hear:

1) What is the average duration of a contract negotiation at your agency? At NLA, average time is three or four months, as we’ll stand firm on key clauses until a compromise is reached. We don’t rush it. If a publishing house has recently revamped its boilerplate contract, then that timeframe can more than double, as we’ll have to negotiate the boilerplate contract first, and then negotiate your specific deal.

2) Will I be involved in seeing the original offer and then the final offer from the Publisher? NLA always shares with our clients the details of the first offer and what we negotiated to create the final offer. Clients are always invited to participate in the process and weigh in.

3) Will I have a chance to review the original contract from the publisher as well as all the requested changes documentation, and then the master redline of the final contract I’ll be signing? Can you walk me through any contract clause that I might not understand? At NLA, we share all this documentation, whether clients want to read it or not, so that clients are 100% confident that their deal and contract have been fully negotiated. And I’ve spent many an hour on the phone or Skype, combing through contract particulars with clients to make sure they’re completely comfortable with what they’re signing. Most agencies simply forward on the final contract for signatures, and that’s it.

4) Do you regularly audit royalty statements? How much money has the agency recovered by doing so? At NLA, we’ve recovered hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years for our authors because we regularly catch errors when auditing their royalty statements. And we catch errors in almost every accounting period—that’s how frequently it happens.

5) How many non-agent support staff are at your agency? This is important, as it’s very hard for an agent to do all of the above, and do it well, without significant assistance from non-agent support staff. At NLA, we have three agents and a team of six in-house non-agent support staff to protect our clients. Most agencies have a lot of agents and very little, if any, support staff. The agents are expected to be independent silos and handle all of the above plus all agenting duties. It’s not possible to juggle all that without letting stuff fall through the cracks.

Bonus question to ask if you are feeling bold: What percentage of your clients make their living solely from writing? If you ask me this question, I can truthfully say that 95% of my clients earn their living as authors—meaning they earn enough money to support themselves without a secondary job or support from a partner.

Back in the crazy days of the late 2000s, there was a popular agent, active on social media, who landed a lot of clients, posted some sexy six-figure deals, and then disappeared. I ended up taking on a former client of this now defunct agent/agency and realized, to my horror, that the author had been signing boilerplate contracts with no negotiated changes. The agent hadn’t negotiated a thing! The author was new to the business and had no way of knowing the agent wasn’t doing the job. Even though that agent looked hot from the outside, s/he had actually done very little to protect the client’s interests.

You can make sure that doesn’t happen to you. This is your career. Ask the above 5 Qs. After all, these aren’t the sexy tasks, but they do affect an author’s bottom line. Don’t feel uncomfortable or worry that you might insult the agent. If an agent becomes defensive when asked legitimate questions, then chances are that agent isn’t right for you.

Stay smart, savvy, and shrewd. Check out my “What Makes a Good Agent” article series on Pub Rants. You are your own best advocate.

Recent News
Think Like an Agent

Do Protagonists Have to Be Likable?

By Angie Hodapp

Short answer: No. The idea that you must write a likable protagonist if you want to write a bestseller is a myth. But as with everything else about this weird and wonderful world of writing, the short answer is rarely the last word.

First, note that there’s character likability and there’s reader sympathy. Think of the former as character based (relating to a character’s personality, temperament, mannerisms, attitudes, beliefs, etc.) and the latter as plot based (whether a character’s present situation triggers goals, motivations, decisions, analyses, and actions that fall in line with a reader’s own sense of morality or justice).

OK. Now. Remember those Punnett squares you had fill out when you were learning genetics in junior high? Make one now. Label the two columns likable and unlikable; label the two rows sympathetic and unsympathetic. Now let’s look at each quadrant:

Quadrant 1: Likable/Sympathetic – Reader: “I like you, and something about your current situation and goal really hits me in the feels. I want you to win, and I’ll be sad if you don’t.”

Quadrant 2: Unlikable/Sympathetic – Reader: “You’re a nasty person, but you’re in a super intriguing situation, or you have a worthy goal, motivation, or plan of action that might benefit other characters whom I do like (or your story world as a whole). Other characters seem to like you, so I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt—for now. I’ll keep reading to see if I can understand you better, or whether you change, get your goal, or do something worthy that makes me like you more than I do now.”

Quadrant 3: Likable/Unsympathetic – Reader: “I like you, but you make bad choices that hurt people, so maybe karma needs to step up and kick you in the neck. Still, I’m interested in your situation, despite the fact that you keep getting in your own way. I’ll keep reading to see if you get your goal, change your ways, or attain redemption or forgiveness from those around you—or if you just keep screwing things up for yourself and everyone else.”

Quadrant 4: Unlikable/Unsympathetic – Reader: “You’re a jerk. I’ll cheer when you fail.”

Characters in Q1 and Q4 certainly have their place, but be careful: They can lean toward two-dimensionality. Q1 characters (Meg Ryan in You’ve Got Mail) might run the risk of being a little too saccharine, but they make great protagonists in Disney movies or romantic comedies (and even better sidekicks and love interests!). Q4 characters (Joffrey in Game of Thrones) are our classic pure-evil villains. The characters in Q2 and Q3 are our gray area. They’re automatically more complex—and, therefore, more realistic and potentially more interesting. So by all means, give us a Q1 protagonist! But give her a little dimensionality—a character flaw that makes her realistic or relatable, or a motivation, goal, or plan that’s morally gray, one we’re not ready to sympathize with.

Think of Jack Nicholson’s character, Melvin Udall, in As Good As It Gets. He starts out as a Q4, vile, cruel, and selfish. But no sooner is Melvin’s foul personality established than the storyteller (Mark Andrus) begins to build reader sympathy. Melvin bonds with his neighbor’s dog, and the dog bonds back. (If a cute little dog loves Melvin, can’t we?) Melvin falls in love with a no-nonsense, single-mom waitress (a Q1) and decides to help her care for her sick son—albeit for selfish reasons. Helping her means she can come to work and still serve him breakfast at his favorite table. (He’s capable of at least some kindness, so he can’t be all bad, right?) Melvin even becomes friends with his soft-hearted gay neighbor, Simon (also a Q1), once the object of Melvin’s scorn and derision, and begins to empathize with Simon’s plight. (Wait! Maybe we were too quick to judge this Melvin guy so harshly!)

Melvin moves from Q4 to bouncing back and forth between Q2 and Q3 as the storyteller unfolds the tale of Melvin’s transformation. Melvin never becomes a Q1, and we’re OK with that. Both his likability and our sympathy for him vacillate all the way through to the final scene, when he gets the girl, and we cheer because we’ve watched him work on himself and become worthy of her.

As you read bestselling novels and watch movies, pay attention to the specific things master storytellers do to shift a protagonist’s likability and influence your sympathies for the protagonist’s goals and actions in his/her current predicament. Some interesting characters to analyze on your own are Nick and Amy Dunne in Gone Girl, Walter White in Breaking Bad, Rachel Watson in The Girl on the Train, Sophie in Sophie’s Choice, and Mavis Gray in Young Adult.

The bottom line is, you don’t have to write a likable protagonist. But do be hyper aware of how long you let him linger in the unlikable or unsympathetic space without giving readers plot-related opportunities (plopportunities?) to re-evaluate their opinions of him and his current plight. (Pro Tip: Writing a solid supporting cast for your protagonist to interact with, as in As Good As It Gets, is a great way to accomplish this.) Give readers a sense that redemption and growth for your protagonist are at least possible—even if your story isn’t the happy-ending kind—and readers will stick with your story through the end.

Kristin's Book Club

No Grand Finale for a Life Mis-Lived

After a lovely April evening at Denver’s BookBar, where my client and Colorado Book Award finalist Kim Reid read an excerpt of her nominated novel Perfect Liars as part of the awards festivities, the book club gathered for margaritas at nearby El Chignon to discuss Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch.

Verdict: Hands down a gorgeous novel by a talented author. I’d pick up another Tartt novel in a heartbeat. She writes like a dream. If you as a reader enjoy a hefty read with unforgettable characters and don’t mind a daunting length, dive on in. I have a sneaky suspicion that many who bought this novel didn’t finish reading it.

I’m happy to say that both Angela and I read through to the end. As a club, we talked at length about how trauma and addiction can affect a person, and the masterful way Tartt wrote a character who is often sympathetic and yet in many ways, self-centered and teetering on unlikable. I do confess that I wished for a bigger payoff at the end, after having spent hours and hours in the company of Tartt’s character Theo. Perhaps that was her intent: that there is no grand finale for a life mis-lived. I did feel the ache of loss for all he could have been had the afternoon with the goldfinch and the bomb blast gone differently.

And that is probably the real lesson to be learned, as life often has a way of doing just that—in reality as well as fiction.

Next up, a completely different nonfiction read about the financial meltdown of 2008. What might we need to learn from it so as to avoid another great recession? Makers and Takers: The Rise of Finance and the Fall of American Business by Rana Foroohar: “Drawing on in-depth reporting and exclusive interviews at the highest rungs of Wall Street and Washington, Time assistant managing editor and economic columnist Rana Foroohar shows how the ‘financialization of America’—the trend by which finance and its way of thinking have come to reign supreme—is perpetuating Wall Street’s reign over Main Street, widening the gap between rich and poor, and threatening the future of the American Dream.”

Guest Article

New Releases

Black Mad Wheel

by Josh Malerman

 From the author of the hit literary horror debut Bird Box (“Hitchcockian.” —USA Today) comes a chilling novel about a group of musicians conscripted by the US government to track down the source of a strange and debilitating sound

The Danes—the band known as the “Darlings of Detroit”—are washed up and desperate for inspiration, eager to once again have a number one hit. That is, until an agent from the US Army approaches them. Will they travel to an African desert and track down the source of a mysterious and malevolent sound? Under the guidance of their front man, Philip Tonka, the Danes embark on a harrowing journey through the scorching desert—a trip that takes Tonka into the heart of an ominous and twisted conspiracy.

Meanwhile, in a nondescript Midwestern hospital, a nurse named Ellen tends to a patient recovering from a near-fatal accident. The circumstances that led to his injuries are mysterious—and his body heals at a remarkable rate. Ellen will do the impossible for this enigmatic patient, who reveals more about his accident with each passing day.

Buy It Here:


The Darkest Corner

by Liliana Hart

Deacon Tucker is a dead man walking. A former black ops agent, he was disavowed and stripped of all honor before being recruited as a Gravedigger. But his honor and good name no longer matter, because no one knows he’s alive, and he’ll never get the recognition he deserves. His mission is simple: save the world or die trying. And for God’s sake, don’t ever fall in love. That’s a rule punishable by death. The kind of death a man can’t be brought back from.

Tess Sherman is the only mortician in Last Stop, Texas. She has no idea how Deacon Tucker ended up in her funeral home, but she’ll eat her hat if he’s only a funeral home assistant. Deacon is dangerous, deadly, and gorgeous. And she knows her attraction to him can only end in heartache.

Deacon is on a mission to stop the most fatal terror attack the world has ever known—what’s known as The Day of Destiny—a terrorist’s dream. But when he discovers Tess has skills he can use to stop them, he has to decide if he can trust her with secrets worth dying for. And, most important, he has to decide if he can trust her with his heart.

Buy It Here:


Uncorking a Lie - A Sommelier Mystery book 2

by Nadine Nettmann

It was the kind of invitation sommelier Katie Stillwell had only dreamed about: a dinner party at the Sonoma mansion of famed wine collector Paul Rafferty to celebrate a rare bottle. Everyone enjoys drinking the $19,000 wine, but Katie realizes it’s not the vintage listed on the label.

When she confides in Mr. Rafferty, he asks her to investigate, and she soon discovers the deception goes beyond money—it includes an accidental death that might just be murder. As Katie falls deeper into the world of counterfeit wine, she learns everything is at stake . . . even her life.

Buy It Here:


Outrun the Moon

by Stacey Lee

San Francisco, 1906: Fifteen-year-old Mercy Wong is determined to break from the poverty of Chinatown, and an education at St. Clare’s School for Girls is her best hope. Although St. Clare’s is off-limits to all but the wealthiest white girls, Mercy gains admittance through a mix of cunning and a little bribery, only to discover that getting in was the easiest part. Not to be undone by a bunch of spoiled heiresses, Mercy stands strong—until disaster strikes.

On April 18, a historic earthquake rocks San Francisco, destroying Mercy’s home and school. Now she’s forced to wait with her classmates for their families in a temporary park encampment. Though fires might rage, and the city may be in shambles, Mercy can’t sit by while they wait for the army to bring help—she still has the “bossy” cheeks that mark her as someone who gets things done. But what can one teenage girl do to heal so many suffering in her broken city?

Buy It Here:

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