Friday, April 15, 2011

Common Questions about Agents & Publishers

Q:  Do I really need a literary agent?
If you are going the traditional publishing route, absolutely.  
 First, let me say that there is no advantage whatsoever for me, personally, to advise you to use a literary agent to represent your work.   The only reason I recommend that you, as an author, have an agent is simply because that today's environment, I sincerely believe it is in your  best interest to have one.
As you probably know,  many of the larger publishers will not accept submissions from unagented writers.  However, even if such publishers were anxious to get their hands on manuscripts from such writers, there are several reasons that it is wise to have an agent.
A good literary agent:
- knows the current market value of a book in your genre and can get the you best possible deal
- knows which editors and publishers are most interested in, and can effectively market, your type of book
-  can hold an auction if there is enough interest in your book and get you an even higher advance 
-   from experience, knows the ins and outs of all the mind-boggling legalese in publishing contracts and can negotiate the best possible terms for you
- knows when it might be necessary to audit a publisher's books to make sure you are being paid all your royalties, and can instigate the process
- only gets paid when you get paid, taking a fixed percentage of your royalties.  The more money you make, the more money your agent makes.  This perfectly aligns his/her motivation with yours and inspires the agent to work hard on your behalf.
For these reasons, I believe a good literary agent not only saves you a lot of money in the long run by keeping people from taking advantage of you, but actually makes you far more money than you could make dealing directly with publishers yourself.  Furthermore, a good agent takes much of the "business" side of authorship off your shoulders, which leaves you with more time to write. 

Q:  What happens once I sign a contract with an agent?

First, your agent will work with you to make sure your manuscript is edited, polished and ready to submit to publishers.  Be forewarned that most agents do not involve  themselves in extensive editing--their primary business is marketing.  They usually expect the manuscript to be in good shape before they will take it on in the first place.  There are exceptions, of course--in some cases an agent may want to help mold the book into its final form.
The next step will be for the agent to develop his/her own pitch to editors.  This may or may not be based on your query letter and synopsis.  Agents believe they know how to best pitch each particular book they represent, so the author is generally left out of this process and usually does not see the marketing materials.
After the pitch is developed, your agent will begin the submissions process, often sending only a few copies out at a time to gauge the response.  If the response is strong, the agent may elect to hold an auction for the book .  More often, however, the agent will continue with the normal submissions process until either a) the book is sold, or b) all the possibilities are exhausted.  Your agent will most likely start with the largest publishers and work her way down, consulting with you on how small a press you are willing to consider.  She should share any letters from agents which give feedback on your book or reasons for rejection (often this is stipulated in your contract).
With a little luck, a good agent will be able to place your book (yes, luck is still a factor, even at the agent level).  If not, then you must decide whether or not you want to try another agency (difficult if the book has been well shopped around) and also whether you want to submit your next book to the same agency or try a different one.  You should know that many agencies have contracts which allow them to pick and choose which of your books they represent so that they are not bound to try to market something they don't believe will sell.  In any case, you should strive to maintain as amicable relations with your agent as you possibly can, as the publishing industry is relatively small and you do not want to develop a reputation of being a difficult client.
My overall advice in dealing with agents is to make the best possible choice you can in the selection process, and then stand back and this professional do her job.  Pushing your agent, second-guessing her, and annoying her with a lot of emails and phone calls will only interfere with the process of selling your book.  Ultimately, that's what you want--how she manages to do it should be left up to her.

Q:  What if a prospective agent says she'll "take another look" if I change my book in a certain way?  Should I make the changes?

This is a dice roll.  From experience, I believe the answer is:  if you honestly agree with the changes that the agent wants (i.e., you think they improve your book), go ahead and make them and resubmit.  If the agent passes again, then you can continue submitting to more agents, knowing that you have a better manuscript to send out.  If in doubt about the changes, then don't make them--just move on.  If and when you feel you have exhausted all your possibilities with other agents, you can reconsider--you may feel differently about making the changes then.

Q:  When querying more than one agent at a time, I obligated to put this in my letter?

This is a touchy issue with some agents, but in my opinion, you are not obligated to do so.  If you do not state that you are sending out multiple queries in your letter, the vast majority of agents will assume that you are.  This is because they know that any intelligent writer would inform them that the query is an "exclusive," as this gives the writer an edge over other writers submitting non-exclusive queries (see next question for more about exclusives) . If an agent has doubts about investing time into evaluating any particular submission, I feel it is his or her responsibility to ask the writer if the submission is exclusive.
Incidentally, when you make multiple submissions, if an agent asks you if you are submitting to other agents, an answer such as "Yes I am.  However, I will gladly agree to notify you and see where you are with my manuscript before I accept any offer of representation" is enough to satisfy most.   Agents simply want to be assured that if they invest the time required to evaluate your book, when they finish, you will still be in a position to seriously consider their offer.

Q:  What is an "exclusive" query and when should I go about sending one?

The terms "exclusive" or "giving an agent an exclusive" means that you are querying that particular agent and only that agent, which eliminates the agent's competition.  This allows her to freely invest time into evaluating your book because she doesn't have to worry about losing you to another agent during the evaluation process.  This should give you an advantage in their eyes, obviously, but many agents don't seem to give exclusive submissions much weight.  In any case, this approach must be used with care.  If you decide to give an agent an exclusive, she will have expected you to have thoroughly researched her and her agency, and thus will expect you to jump for joy if she makes you an offer of representation.  Any vacillation on your part upon receipt of the offer (other than asking to review the legal contract, perhaps with the help of a lawyer, and ask any questions you may have, which is prudent and reasonable), will get you off on the wrong foot and likely damage your relationship.   Therefore, when you give an agent an exclusive,  you should be 100% sure you want this person as your agent and have no doubts whatsoever about the agent's experience, credentials, or abilities. 
Having said all that, I don't recommend giving exclusives, as I feel it's just too limiting as far as your own options are concerned.  Plus, as I said, exclusive submissions from unpublished writers just don't seem to mean much to most agents.

Q:  How do I handle agencies that have more than one agent who seems a likely prospect for me?

You must query only one agent at a time within any given agency and wait until you receive a response from that agent before you move on to the next.  Some smaller agencies have a "team" approach, so a query to any agent there will be considered a query to the entire agency--you can tell if this is the case by the wording of their rejection letter.  It will say something like "After reviewing your work, we have decided..."  In the event that this is not clear, simply write back and ask if the rejection was from the agency as a whole, or just the particular agent whom you queried.  If it was just from one agent at the firm, you're free to query others there.

Q:  What if my book is long enough but it is a collection of short stories, not a novel?

Short story collections are rarely published by an author who is not already known.  This is simply because short stories are not popular with readers these days.  If you have such a collection, the best thing to do is put it aside and write a novel--once that is published, you may be able to sell the collection.  Still, having said that, it is not impossible for an unknown author to sell a short story collection--it has happened.

Q:  What if I want to market my books in another country?

This is a complicated question.  The general answer is, you should get an agent in the country where you live now and let your agent handle all foreign rights.  However, there are exceptions to this.
Before I discuss this in detail, here are a few facts you should know.
- All good agents in one country have partner agencies in other countries who can sell translation and marketing rights for all the books they represent.  Also, many agents go to international book fairs for the purpose of selling foreign rights, the annual Frankfurt and London Book Fairs being the largest two.  
- Books are rarely sold outside of one country until they sell well (to end readers) in their home countries.  Because agents and publishers naturally want to minimize their risks, they will not buy foreign rights for a book until it has proven itself in its home market, which is usually where the author happens to live. 
- Similarly, publishers only invest the money to translate books into other languages when the book has proved itself in its home country.    
- Even the largest publishers rely heavily on the author to help with the promotion of the book—in fact, as I'm sure you know, the author is the cornerstone of all promotional activities (media interviews, book signings, etc.)  Therefore, it is advisable for the author to live in the country where the book is first marketed so he/she can participate in these activities and maximize the success of the book.
Now, based on the above, things get complicated if  you have previously lived in another country and the story in the book takes place there, or if you are writing in a language that is not the main spoken language of the country where you live, and so on.
The best way to understand how all this works is to consider a few examples.  Suppose you grew up in the USA and now live in Australia.  If the book is set in Australia and has an Australian hero, probably it's best that you have an Australian agent, because the largest reader base (as a percentage of reader population) will very likely be there.  If the book does well, your agent can work through co-agents and sell rights in the USA, Canada, the UK, and all other English-speaking countries, and then perhaps sell translation rights to other non-English language markets.  However, if your book is set in the USA and has an American hero, it may be better for you to have a USA-based agent, as the reader base will probably be greater there…but you would have to consider that helping promote the book from Australia would be difficult.
Now, let's make things even more complicated.  Suppose you grew up in Morocco, immigrated to France, and later, through some bizarre twist of fate, ended up in Flottsam's Mistake, Wyoming.  Let us further suppose that French is your native language and English is your second.  If you have written a book in French about your experience of growing up as an immigrant in Paris, having a French agent might be the best choice.  This is because the largest market would probably be in France (partly due to the French language and partly due to the large Moroccan population there), and few publishers in other countries would want to take a risk on the book until it was proven in France.  However, if your book was written in English and was a romance that took place amidst the scintillating night club scene of Flottsam's Mistake,  Wyoming, an American agent would be best.  If, on the other hand, the book was written in English and based on your experience on living in Liverpool one summer (do you have a headache yet?), a UK-based agent might be most appropriate. 
If you have a complex situation like the one above--and they are not uncommon--the best way to answer it is simply to query a few agents in the relevant countries and ask for their opinions.

Q:  What if I would like to see my book made into a film?  Do I need a separate agent for that?

No.  Similar to the case with foreign rights above,  your literary agent will also handle film rights, either directly or through partner agents who specialize in that business.
Also, I should mentioned that this will take some time, and that in some cases, may never occur at all.  First, Hollywood does not buy unpublished books written by unknown authors.  In fact, they don't buy books at all—they buy screenplays, and what they buy from agents is the right to pay someone to adapt the novel into a screenplay.  Like anyone else, movie studios and producers want to minimize their risk.  If you are an unknown writer and sell your first book to a publisher, even a big publisher, the movie industry will usually wait and see how well the book does before they consider buying film rights.  There are rare exceptions.  If a book gets a big advance and the sale generates a lot of media hoopla and seems particularly well-suited for the screen, sometimes a producer or studio will feel confident enough to buy the rights before the book actually comes out (this happened with John Grisham's The Firm and Stephen King's Carrie, for example, and is part of the reasons they became mega-hits). 
But, as I said earlier, even if your book is published, and even if published by a big house, it may never be made into a movie.  Adapting a novel into a screenplay is not easy, and can be exceedingly difficult with certain kinds of stories, especially those with intense character introspection or complex subplots.   The Naked Lunch, Master and Margarita, and Don Quixote are three examples.  Also, for artistic or other reasons, some authors decide that they do not want their books made into movies at all.  An example of this case is J. D. Salinger and his classic, Catcher in the Rye.
As a final note, I believe that authors who are especially keen on seeing their books made into movies should consider adapting their books into screenplays themselves.  Having your a version of your story in the proper form (medium) will increase your chances of having it appear on the silver screen.

Q:  If I write a screenplay or a stage play, will my literary agent handle those as well?

It depends.  Some literary agencies handle both novels and screenplays, some handle only novels, some agencies that handle only screenplays, and even some that handle only stage plays.  
In any case, if your literary agent does not represent all the types of material you write, he or she will readily refer you to another agent who will rep the extra pieces.  It is to your agent's benefit for you to sell as much material as possible, as every sale gives your more credibility as a writer.  Also, there is great synergy between the publishing, film, and theater businesses.  Making a sale in one makes it easier to make a sale in the other.  Obviously, if a book or film or stage play becomes a hit, selling rights in the remaining forms is much easier, as there is a ready-made audience for the work.

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  1. This is by far the most useful, informative and, incidentally, well-written, blog I have come across. Thank you so much.

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  3. The blog is really informative. Thank you!
    However, I have a question about publishing outside your home country. Namely, I do not live in the USA and I am not a citizen of it and on top of that, English is not my native language, but I would love to try to get a USA-based literary agent and sell for that market. Do you think some literary agent might be interested in collaborating if I don't live in the USA?
    I would highly appreciate any information on this, especially if you know somebody who has had a similar experience. Thanks.

  4. Hi, Filip, this is a very good question. Basically, the way it works is that literary agents in other countries are typically only interested in your book if it has been a big hit in your own country. There are exceptions but this is the general rule. Agents are usually not willing to invest any time or energy into foreign writers' work unless it has already proven popular in the writer's own country and native language. I know that may not be what you wanted to hear, but that's the way it is.

    1. Thank you for taking the time to reply and help me with this. I really appreciate it!
      What if the book is written in English? Funnily enough, I cannot write in my native language and English feels natural to me (I have a MA in English Literature}. Of course, as I write I make some grammatical mistakes, but I correct them when revising and editing after. For this reason, I can't publish my work in my own country (there are no publicists who do editions in English) and if I can't find a literary agent in an English-speaking country then what are my options? Is it only some sort of self-publishing, or putting it up for free on the internet?
      Your answer did get my hopes low, but I still hope and I will keep on writing no matter what.
      Thank you so much for your comment and information!

  5. That's different, Filip. I made the assumption you were writing in your native language and looking for other distribution options. In your case you are more or less in the same boat as every other unpublished American writer looking for an agent, though you still have the disadvantage of not living in the States. The subject matter you're writing about will make a difference. It seems that most of the success stories from people in your situation come about when they find an agent in Canada, the UK, or Australia, which are more open to international authors and are more used to dealing with them. Life of Pi is an example of a book repped by a Canadian agent that was a bit hit in the USA. So I would focus on trying to find an agent in one of those countries, and they can easily reach the US market via agency partnerships they have there. Don't be discouraged. If you persist and your writing is excellent, you will eventually break through the barrier.

    Now, self-publishing, like I do, is also an option. I didn't decide to do it because I couldn't find an agent nor get published traditionally--I did it when I came to the fork in the road where the publishing house editors kept asking me to change things about my books that I didn't want to change. I chose self-publishing because of my ability to control every aspect of the final product--title, content, synopsis, pricing, when and where it's sold, etc. I am a control freak, very independent and entrepreneurial, and don't think I could ever deal with big publishing houses and all the different personalities and conflicting motivations involved. I am not a "team player."

    I hope that helps.

  6. I apologize, I actually didn't state it clearly in my first post. But, I am now really happy there is an actual chance of getting a literary agent in the USA, no matter how small it is (I know that this road is a very difficult one). By the way, Yann Martel has lived in Canada for some time, went to university there as well, so for him it might have been natural to publish there. But you are right, all those markets would be great for me and I wouldn't be picky if any literary agent from those countries gets interested.
    The reason why I would like to go the traditional way is exactly the opposite of what you've written. I know that I cannot do some things, and I know that I need someone to help me with the whole process (one of the main reasons is because I live in Europe and want to publish in a distant market). I don't have a knack for entrepreneurship, so there has to be someone who will represent me in that area. I am also adaptable and willing to "cooperate", even though I know that I will probably be pushed in directions I sometimes would not want to go, but I think that as an unpublished writer I have to make some sacrifices in order to reach my goals. The knowledge that I would be judged primarily on my work makes me continue chasing my dream, work hard for it and hope it will happen. I know that many share this dream, and I know it might never happen, but there is a chance and at this moment, I am not asking for anything more than that.
    Thanks a lot your comment! It does help immensely!

  7. The only thing I would say in closing is that you can certainly self-publish into the American and other English-speaking markets from Europe. I live in Europe and have ever since I started self-publishing. In fact I haven't set foot in the USA since I started 3 years ago. The Internet makes all this possible.