Monday, April 21, 2008

Standard Agent Practices

Is it standard practice for an agent to ask a new client to send 20 or so hard copies of a manuscript for her to shop around? I assumed the agent would make any necessary copies and charge against the advance for a sale.

Also, should I be suspicious that she asks for no changes to be made to the manuscript? Don't most agents do an edit on their new clients' work?

No, it’s not standard practice for an agent to ask any client to supply hard copies of a manuscript. However, that doesn’t mean the agent is a scam either. One of the craziest things about this business is that while there are many “standard practices,” there are few rules across the board. Of course you all know by now never, ever, ever to sign with an agent who demands money up front. But what about these questions? Should you worry if an agent is asking for 20 copies of a manuscript? You might, but how do you know if you should? Ask questions. Where are the 20 copies going? Which publishers and, most important, which editors does the agent have in mind? Has she sold to these publishers and/or editors before? Why is she choosing them? Twenty is a lot of copies, especially up front and especially if this is fiction. Is the agent planning on sending all 20 at once or could you send more as necessary later? Many agents charge back expenses, usually the expense of copying manuscripts. It seems this agent is simply trying to avoid those costs up front. There’s really nothing wrong with that, although, as an aside, in today’s world I rarely send hardcopy (except to a few editors who always insist) and usually email almost all submissions. Couldn’t this agent do the same?

As for changes to the manuscript, that question is even harder to answer. I know agents who spend months editing manuscripts and I know agents who practically refuse to edit. They don’t feel it’s their job. Neither is right and neither is wrong. What is right or wrong depends on you. I would say that most agents, to some degree, edit their clients’ work, even if it’s a little, a general comment here or there. I also know of agents that take that role much too far, rewriting the book instead of working with what an author has. I try to find some balance. I edit the book as I see fit for a sale, but I leave the overall editing, the really hard work, to the author. Unless of course she requests otherwise. You need to find a balance that works for you. Do you want an agent who edits or are you confident enough in the work you send to know that when it goes out to editors it is the best work it can be?

What I would ask you is do you trust this agent? It seems that by asking me these questions you already have some concerns about either the legitimacy of your agent or, at least, whether or not this agent can truly do your career justice. If you are questioning your agent and her abilities I would suggest you first have a conversation with her about her business practices and why she is or is not doing certain things. It is after this conversation where you need to trust your gut. Is this really someone who can sell books and build careers? And is this really the best agent for you? Only you can answer that question.



Julie Weathers said...

Little warning lights would be going off in my head and I am notorious for being overly trusting.

Ask the questions and be comfortable with what's happening before you go forward.

As for the editing part, that would set off little alarms also. I will polish, edit and put my work through a fairly tough novels workshop before I send it to an agent. Even so, reading and agenting is a subjective craft. If the agent finds nothing he or she would change, it makes me wonder if anything is going to be glaring enough to spark such a request.

I don't expect an agent to be my editor, but I do want them to help me make it the very best it can be before it goes to publishers.

Neither of us win if it doesn't sell.

Aimlesswriter said...

I'd be suspicous. About the twenty copies for sure and the fact that she has no suggestions for the edit?
Jessica? How many perfect manuscripts do you get?
I'd investigate this agent's track record, maybe email the authors she lists on her site, (is that okay to do?), find out where and when her last sales took place.
Do other agents link to her site? I'm finding most of the "better" agents link to each other. I think they do this out of mutual respect.

Anonymous said...

I just wanted to chime in that while asking to put money up front can be a warning sign to dig deeper, I've been surprised at how many legitimate agents ask for the author to supply the hard copies for submission.

My agent asked for 10 copies to shop and is with a top and well-respected NYC agency. I have other friends who were in similar situations. So it's not necessarily a red flag that should have you running and screaming.

However, you should always do your homework to ensure the agency is legitimate before you even bother querying. I already knew that my agent was legit, but I also knew my agent's submission strategy and where those copies were going before I even sent them.

Scott Tracey said...

The way my agent explained it to me was that its a lot cheaper to go to a local Kinkos elsewhere in the country, and print out your MS than it would be if the agency went to a Kinkos in NYC.

Since many agencies do have reimbursement issues in place for things like copies, this is just a way to keep their overhead low, and save you money in the long run.

Anonymous said...

I didn't want an agent who edited; I wanted an agent who found me an editor. Thus I specifically shopped for an agent who didn't attempt to revise my work. We've been together for six books now, and we're very happy.

Having said that, she has never once asked me for a hardcopy of my manuscript. I find that unusual, but not suspicious.

I don't know why things like this would weird you out. What is suspicious about not editing? NOTHING. It's something you can even SELECT for in your agent search.

Haven't you already checked her track record to show that she has a host of sales to various publishers?

Karen Duvall said...

Eww... What's that fishy smell? I could possibly understand 5 to 10 copies, but 20? Is this agent using a scatter shot method rather than identifying just the right editors to match the book? I mean, if that's all she's doing, why is she needed at all? Just for the agency letterhead? If I were an editor, I'd find this approach mighty fishy as well.

I know it's expensive to have copies made, and electronic is the better alternative. Sigh. Which publisher is it that bought all its editors Sony ebook readers so they could download manuscripts and read them that way instead of on paper? Genius.

I'm just now preparing cover letters to go with the 4 manuscript requests I received just in the past few days. At $20 per manuscript, and then figuring in the postage costs, a couple with return postage, my restaurant budget for the month is severely compromised. So I can certainly sympathize with the agent who asks for help footing the bill for such costs up front. I just don't agree with a scatter shot approach to editor submissions. That seems highly unprofessional to me.

Anonymous said...

I don't think the non-editing thing is a red flag, necessarily. But I would want to know what your agent is planning to do with those 20 copies. (I know writers who signed with agents who asked for 5 or 10 copies, but never 20. At the least, it's wasteful. At the worst, it suggests your agent is going to scatter-shot your ms.)

I assume this agent has sales in your genre to reputable publishers. Did you talk with any of your agent's clients before signing?

Anonymous said...

Interesting topic to me esp. with the "should agent edit your work" thing. I know a first time author who recently hit it big with a gigantic deal, but only after ten months of her agent tearing her book apart and having her put it back together.

Then I know another first time author who also hit it big recently with a major sale -- after her agent submitted her ms. to various editors TWO DAYS after she read her submission, with absolutely NO editing on the agent's part.

My friend with the ten months of editing swears that unless an agent makes you edit, and edit hard, especially for a first book, you aren't going to make it. The other first time author feels the opposite, of course, that there's not always a reason to edit.

I expect editing when I finally do snag an agent, though I'm working as hard as I can to do the work up front so I don't spend another year editing a book I already worked so hard on.

Karen Duvall said...

Oh, I thought of something else. If the agent does a blanket submission, what happens when editors offer helpful feedback? Maybe revisions are requested, or the feedback switches incites a light bulb moment that helps make the book better. Maybe the book is so much better it goes to auction! But if 20 are sent out all at once, and everyone gets to see the same flaws, the chances of submitting a new and improved version are nil. That would be a real shame.

Anonymous said...

What does your contract say? You have a contract right? Do these copies get paid for out of the advance before the % is deducted? Is this agent's rate lower than typical because you pay for the copies? What about postage?

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