Friday, August 17, 2007

Handling an Unagented Offer from a Publisher

Recently I got a call from an author asking advice for a friend of hers. The friend had received an offer from a publisher and was unagented, and while she was over the moon, she was also in a panic. What to do? What to do?

I covered this topic once before here, but it bears repeating and elaborating on.

While most of us preach against submitting directly to a publisher, there are still a few publishers who accept unagented material and will consider it. And yes, they will, on occasion, make an offer. In fact, I have four clients who came to me with a publisher’s offer in hand. In two instances the author was previously published with this publisher and decided that this time she wanted to use the offer as leverage to find an agent. In another instance the author had never been published before and wanted an agent to negotiate the finer points of the deal. In that case we sent the material around to a number of different publishers, and while we got some interest, in the end we signed with the publisher who originally offered. In another case the author had never been published before but had submitted to a couple of publishers based on contest requests. In that case we used the offer as leverage to sell the book to another publisher for an even better deal.

So what are your choices if you’re unagented and receive an offer directly from the publisher? As I see it you have two: (1) sign with the publisher and move on to working with the editor on your book, or (2) use the offer as leverage to contact all of your favorite agents and find the one you think is best suited to your work and work style.

Of course my suggestion would always be choice #2, but there’s absolutely nothing wrong with choice #1 either.

If, however, you decide to try to find an agent, here’s my advice. . . .

1. Thank the editor and let her know that you’re planning to find an agent to negotiate on your behalf. Let her know that you’ll get back to her in 7 to 10 days (and then of course get back to her in that time frame). Do NOT tell the editor you accept her offer or anything even remotely similar. This will ruin any possibility of the agent negotiating on your behalf.

2. Contact every agent who has your work (at least those you are most interested in working with) and give them the details of your deal. You don’t need to reveal money matters at this point, but let them know that you have an offer, with what house (you can leave out the editor’s name) and for how many books. And give them a deadline. Let them know you’d like to hear back in 3 to 5 days.

3. Contact new agents who you’ve always liked and wanted to submit to, but who don’t have your work. Let them know why you’re contacting them and provide all the same information as in point #2.

4. And then wait. Most agents will get back to you in the time asked. For those who don’t, they should at least ask for more time or let you know when they can get back to you. For anyone who seems uncommunicative or lacks the ability to get back to you in time, cross them off your list. Either they aren’t interested enough for you to want to work with them or their communication style isn’t what you want in an agent (unless of course you’re fine with being ignored).

5. Once the agents get in touch with you, read my blog post on Questions to Ask Before Signing with an Agent and don’t forget to read the comments. This should help give you an idea of what the agents are about and who you would be most comfortable working with. And then go for it. Sign with the agent.

6. Now that you’ve found your perfect business partner let the editor know that So-and-So agent will be getting in touch to handle the deal.

7. And Celebrate!

And lastly, don’t worry that editors or agents will be put off by your demands. You’re demanding nothing. You are acting as a smart and wise businessperson.



Anonymous said...

This is great advice, Jessica. Thank you so much. But I have a variation on the theme. What if you have a novel (YA in my case) ready for query to lit agents and you are approached by a producer who is interested in the property as a TV series?

Most of the lit agents I have researched have the ability (or contacts) to make those deals, but will having a TV offer on the table impress them? Should it be handled the same way? How should it be mentioned?

Aimlesswriter said...

Thanks for this. I always wondered if the Publishing house would get annoyed if I suddenly ran for an agent on their acceptance.
Do publishers prefer working with an agent over directly working with the new writer? Or do they think they'll get the writer "cheaper" if they deal directly with a novice?

moonrat said...

Hi Jessica,

This is not a message for you, since I've worked with your agency and know how honorable and by-the-books you are. This is more for writers who haven't been in this particular position and don't know this angle of the issue. Thanks in advance for letting me kvetch.

I'll vouch that we editors are perfectly happy to have unagented clients seek out agents to negotiate deals and "finer points of contracts," like you mentioned. Honestly many authors who are great writers and smart people are less equipped to handle the process alone--it's a business, like any business, and it's hard to be thrown into an entirely new industry without the years of experience an agent would be able to offer.

However, I also have to admit that every time I make an offer to an unagented author and hear them say "I think I'm going to take this opportunity to find an agent," my heart sinks. I would like to go back to the note you made about taking the offer and shopping it around to other companies--this is the rub. An editor's take:

An author is of course entitled to get the best offer on their own project they possibly can. But there is intellectual capital to be lost here, too, and any agent (except the extremely self-serving kind who doesn't care about burning bridges--and unfortunately, there are quite a lot of this particular kind of agent) should look into the situation and pump the author for the history of the deal. If this project is, say, a novel the author wrote and one publisher has offered $2000 for it, it is fair enough for that agent to shop that project to her little heart's content. But if this was a concept developed by the publishing house and the editor, who probably put long hours into refining it and seeking out a particular author who would be best for the project, the agent MUST be sensitive to the fact that the editor already views this project as hers.

And, from my position, I would like to say fair enough. Although I have never lost a project I specifically developed, I have had an agent who was belatedly brought in threaten to shop what was a very specific and carefully developed idea of MINE. (Oo boy did that one make me mad.) And I have had two very good editor friends who have seen their intellectual capital literally stolen and sold elsewhere. This is sheer heartbreak. Not to mention permanent dissolution of professional relationships--neither I nor any of my friends will ever work with those agents again. Also, people like me work to aggressively spread the word of who to avoid.

So this is a long response to a tiny point in your post, but I wanted to back you up on the fact that editors are very, very happy to have agents brought in after the fact, since it really does smooth the negotiation and delivery processes over with industry accountability. There is the caveat, though--so a plea on behalf of my kind. Authors, be honest with your agents; agents, be honest with your editors. We're all meant to work together, we really, really are.

I'm going to link to you on my blog, if you don't mind.

Unknown said...

The first publisher I contacted sent me a contract for my first novel. I thought an agent might help me negotiate, but I was advised by a writing teacher that no agent would be interested in a first-time novelist and a no-advance contract. So I signed.

Now the publisher has been "acquired" by another firm and are divesting their fiction arm separately (I don't think they have a buyer though) so I may have my novel handed back to me.

Questions: a) Should I have tried to get an agent initially?
b) Will the fact that it's already been accepted once (but not printed) be a selling point in my getting an agent now?

Thank you in advance for your guidance.
~ Storm Grant

bob said...

Great post.

I to wondered with such a small list of publishers that work with unagented writers if you'd be making waves if you were lucky enough to get an offer from said publisher but put the brakes on by contacting an agent.

Good information.

Anonymous said...

This type of post is extremely helpful...I'm hoping I'll need it someday!

On a related note, is there ever a time when it seems like you're being ignored, but maybe something else is going on? For instance, I have a friend who's queried you three times now (one initial e-query, an e-status check after 8 weeks had passed, and a snail SQ after another 12 weeks had passed) with no response. Any suggestions on what she can do (other than give up, of course)?

Scott said...

Not long ago, I attended a conference where an editor from a major house admitted quite frankly that unagented authors with great submissions might actually have a slight edge because they are cheaper, and that the house gets annoyed if the author suddenly runs off and gets an agent. It's not necessarily a deal breaker, but it can cost the author some good will with the editor.

That's one incredibly honest editor's position, of course, and not all will agree. But I thought it was worth mentioning here.

Anonymous said...

I may be getting close to this situation, as I had a publisher requested the full of my manuscript. I know it's not a done deal until I get an offer, but I hate feeling unprepared. Jessica and several other agents have fulls of the book, and I'm hoping that if an offer is going to happen, that one of them will make an offer of representation first so I won't have to run around in a panic, LOL. But this post has helped calmed me down somewhat, so thanks!

BookEnds, A Literary Agency said...

So many great comments on this post. Some I will answer here and others I'll expand on in later posts--some might even get both treatment.

From the top down...

Optioning your book for TV can help interest agents and editors, but in the end TV interest is very different than writing a good book. It can't hurt, let's put it that way.

As for whether publishers prefer working with an agent that really depends on individual editors and maybe moonrat will pop back in. Having been an editor though I always did prefer working with agents. It made negotiations much smoother and gave that buffer that is sometimes needed to help maintain the author/editor relationship. Negotiations can be very tough and no matter how much an editor loves a writer and her work her job is to get the best deal for the publishing house. That can be very difficult for an author to take if negotiating directly.

Storm: I can't tell you whether or not you should have gotten an agent, although it might have been easier. Whether or not that interest from a small publisher will grab an agent's attention really depends on the reputation of the publisher.

2readernot: I have no idea why your friend hasn't heard from me. I respond to equeries within 2 weeks time and am caught up on snail mail I believe through April. Is it possible she's not including an SASE or not using the correct contact info? I will tell you right now if you aren't hearing from me it's likely I didn't get it. I do respond to every equery I receive and every snail mail that includes an SASE.

Scott: I suppose that with some editors that might be true. But it's also your career first and an agent is your first line of defense when building a career.

Happy Friday everyone!


Anonymous said...

What is the best way to contact the agents when you have an offer? Do you call them, or is e-mail preferred?