Monday, July 04, 2005

Why Should a First-Time Author Have an Agent?

Hi, Gang!
Just in from the pool. While the world at Knight household is a bit still and quiet, thought I’d post an answer to Michelle’s question below.

Michelle asked:
Sometimes I wonder, though, is it worth it for a first time author to worry about an agent since the advance is typically pretty low? In any case, I appreciate the information!

An agent’s role in managing an author’s career is multi-faceted, but let's start at the very beginning, a very good place to start. :) It might take an unagented author years to get their manuscript read by the right editor—assuming they’d even know which editors truly loved their kind of books—and even then, the author just doesn’t have negotiating power to get the deal to the right level. So when I say the typical romance author earns low money to begin with, that is of course a relative situation. An unagented author might be offered, oh say, anywhere between 2-8K (eight being VERY high end for a first timer without an agent) whereas an agented author could potentially expect anywhere from 4-25K on a first book, depending on the circumstances, the publisher involved, and the kind of book. (Though, outside of category most agents wouldn't consider a 4K offer, even for a first-time author, unless all other avenues had been exhausted.)

Part of how an agent can get that bigger money is by generating multi-house interest. If you take our agency for example, at almost every house “around town” we have multiple authors. At Berkley, for instance, we have Beverly Brandt, Robin Owens, Jacey Ford, Crystal Green, Jennifer St. Giles, Shelley Bradley, and novellas by Karen Marie Moning and Gena Showalter. We also have quite a large number of NAL authors (NAL being Berkley’s “sister imprint” within Penguin Putnam.) So imagine if one of their editors receives a submission from us versus an unpublished author. It’s pretty much a given that we’re going to get an extremely fast read (often overnight), whereas the unpublished author may languish in the slush pile for two years or more. And if they wind up languishing that long, after a time the editor is going to assume that if the book were any good, it would have sold by then anyway.

And just who does the unpublished/unagented author submit to, anyway? Usually to an editor they met at a conference. Does that qualify them as the best and most appropriate editor for that author’s work? Not by a longshot. Let’s say you’ve written a dark, futuristic paranormal romance and you’re hoping to land a deal at Berkley. Let’s then say you meet one of their editors, Bob Schmoe, but Bob doesn’t tend to even like dark futuristics—but you don't know that, because you've never spent more than ten minutes with Bob. On the other hand, Jane Doe Editor--who you never had an appointment with--would have been the ideal editor for your book. In fact, Jane is hungry and aggressively seeking more dark futuristics. But you, unagented author, don't know that, so you submit to Bob schmoe post-conference, not Jane, and blam, two years later Bob sends you a generic form letter rejection.

On the other hand, imagine you make a thoughtful, well-targeted list of agents who you think like dark paranormals. You land your dream agent. Dream agent—after working with you to fine-tune your work—sends it out on overnight exclusive to Jane Doe at Berkley, and you have an offer the next day. If it’s not the offer you want, then the agent goes wider, keeping in mind the precise tastes of the editors who love dark paranormal futuristics. After a few more days, you find yourself with more than one offer on the table, and at the end of the day, with a pretty aggressive first time deal.

Next, let’s look beyond the money the agent gets you—even if it’s still “starter money” you can rest assured it’s a heck of a lot more than starter money would be if you’d been proceeding on your own. And let’s also look beyond the contacts and relationships they have in place: the agent knows the ins and outs of all the contract details. They can define and explain things like first proceeds clauses, or premiums, or competitive works clauses. They can get you *better* language in a host of contractual areas than you could on your own. They can ensure you the freedom to write for other houses, and to take your work elsewhere on the next deal if terms aren’t what you’re hoping for. Quite simply, a good agent has your back.

When cover art issues arise—as in, “Wow, my hero looks like a mutant, not a dark paranormal futuristic HUNK,” they can argue for a change. If your name on that cover is a paranormal event in itself, i.e. invisible, they will ask that the font size be enlarged. If you’re overly copyedited, they go to bat for you. If the publisher decides that after a change of direction, they no longer wish to publish you, they stay in your camp. When the royalty statements arrive, and too large a reserve is kept out, they’re the ones who call the royalty manager and argue for a liquidation of some of those royalties. The list is, quite literally, almost infinite. We’re here, in the words of my three year old, to “dry down all your tears.” That’s what good agents do.

Then there’s strategy. Because, after all, you have somewhere you want to go with this writing career of yours. Maybe you don’t ever want to be a bestseller. Maybe you want to be in hardcover and be a NY TIMES bestselling author. Either way, the agent’s job, from the beginning is to analyze how to accomplish those goals, beginning with, that very first submission. Where you land, and with whom, from the get go is critical. It shouldn’t be left to just someone you meet at a conference, without any strategy behind why that editor might deserve to publish your work.

But one last thing before I sign off. I don’t believe any author is well-equipped to negotiate on their own behalf. In fact, there’s a reason that, knowing all that I do about this industry and negotiating, I myself chose to have an agent. It’s because you want your conversations with your editor to be pleasant, cordial ones, not the kind of nitty-gritty negotiating ones that must take place between an agent and the publishing house. The agent is your buffer, allowing Happy Talk between you and your editor.

Have a fabulous Fourth tonight, my friends. And those of you all around the world, have a good week!


Anonymous Shalanna Collins said...

Thank you once again for the informative post! You describe such undreamed-of events that I'm uncontrollably jealous of your clients. I can attest to the truth of your statement that manuscripts sent in by unknowns, even when they're solicited on the basis of a good query/partial, can languish for over a year (try TWO years) and are then usually just packed up and sent back. Two agents who had exclusives on my work (one a ChickLit novel and one a mystery) for over a year finally e-mailed me back last month to say that "We're sure that by now you have found an agent, and we wish you luck in your future endeavors." The ChickLit genre is very "of the moment," and if I don't sell it fairly soon, the market will veer away. (Actually, I'm not completely convinced my book is ChickLit, but it has a very strong voice and *could* fit such a line. If _Carrie Pilby_ is Red Dress Ink ChickLit, then mine should pass, as well!)

Again, thank you for taking time to post. Even though it makes me indescribably envious of your clients.
Shalanna Collins

Monday, July 4, 2005 at 6:05:00 PM EDT  
Anonymous beejay said...

You sold me! Where do I sign? ;-)

Seriously, I thought I knew a fair amount about the biz aspect of getting published, but you have shown me the error of my ways.


Monday, July 4, 2005 at 8:46:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Ellen Fisher said...

"It’s pretty much a given that we’re going to get an extremely fast read (often overnight), whereas the unpublished author may languish in the slush pile for two years or more."

And this, IMHO, is one of the best reasons to get an agent first. I submitted a contemporary romance (not my first published book, either) to several NY pubs. One of those NY editors never responded, so I eventually gave up on that house. A year after the book was released by my e-pub, and two years after I submitted, I finally got a rejection on it from that NY publisher. Two years later!!! It absolutely boggles the mind how slow the submission process can be without an agent.

Anyway... very useful info, as always, Deidre. Happy Independence Day!

Monday, July 4, 2005 at 9:00:00 PM EDT  
Anonymous Michelle said...

Thanks for taking the time to answer these questions. Always appreciated! :)

Monday, July 4, 2005 at 9:49:00 PM EDT  
Anonymous Jess Madden said...

Amazingly good post. Thank you so much for taking the time! I knew before reading that an agent is a ticket in the door to the oh-so-slow NY publishing maze, but I tend to forget about all the other stuff. Basically you're our insider-for-hire. *g*

Great post.

Monday, July 4, 2005 at 11:40:00 PM EDT  
Anonymous ZaZa said...

This was great information, but can we flipflop the question? Why should/would an agent take on a first-time author?

Give us some selling points to use in our battle plans. Please. ;-)

Monday, July 4, 2005 at 11:56:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Linda Winfree said...

Fabulous post! It's fantastic to know *why* one needs an agent -- and what the dream agent should be doing for their clients.


Tuesday, July 5, 2005 at 10:16:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Brenda Bradshaw said...

Hey Deidre! Just got back from vacation (yeah right - 10 days of hell at my parents) and I'm running around my favorite blogs attempting to catch up and wouldn't you know it - Deidre is writing something close to my heart and sparking a few questions along the way.

I'm sure you probably don't remember this from when you visited on Charlotte's RWC loop, but I write romantic comedy. I know I'm not going to be tossed into the den with Evanovich and Crusie immediately, so I thought my best "career path" was to start in category (not my original plan, but to me, the most logical one.) I'm reading your post as, "even category needs agents". I hope I'm reading that right. BUT, here's the question: How interested is an agent in someone that's aiming for category? Wouldn't bigger money be had in the single title field? Or is it like it should be, and said agent (at least in this case) IS seeing the big picture, looks at the potential client's career goals and thinks said writer has a clue? Maybe even suggest to the writer to skip the idea of category and go straight into ST? Crap. I'm rambling.

I hope that makes sense, and I hope you're as brilliant as I think you are, and can find my confusing questions in there and give me a clue. Or at least thwack me upside the head to let me know that not only did I confuse myself, I confused you, too.

~slinks off for more coffee~

Tuesday, July 5, 2005 at 2:55:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Kristen Painter said...

This was a great post. Really informative and just the kind of thing those of us "unpubbeds" need to read. Thanks for taking the time to offer such insights.

Tuesday, July 5, 2005 at 10:25:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Angela James said...

I'm not an author. I'm not a writer. I aspire to be neither. But this post made me want to run out and get an agent ;)

Wednesday, July 6, 2005 at 12:11:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Anne Norman said...

Absolutely amazing. I am a novice but I'm on the road to learning. My book isn't finished, but I will know where to turn first. Thank you for the insights and the pep talk!

Friday, July 15, 2005 at 9:38:00 PM EDT  

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