Tuesday, October 21, 2008

An Agent's Responsibility

How much responsibility does an agent bear for a book not selling? Is a good agent - like a good query letter - simply responsible for getting the manuscript read? Are there different levels of editorial contacts that agents might have - junior vs senior - with more or less power? I guess what I'm trying to understand is whether who your agent is - provided they truly have contacts - really makes a difference in whether or not you get published.

These are a lot of great questions with a lot of answers. I’m going to try my best to answer all of these as clearly as possible because I think this is a really interesting topic. We talk all of the time about big agencies versus boutique agencies and “big name” agents versus those who are lesser known. And of course I’m always encouraging readers to consider those agents who have recently opened up shop and are hungry for clients. But how much responsibility does an agent bear for the sale of the book, or a book that doesn’t sell?

The truth is that the answer to that question is of course “it depends,” and I’d love to hear, anonymously of course, from some agented authors who’ve had different experiences with this. A good agent’s job is to get your work read by not just any editor, but hopefully the right editor. Is the agent solely responsible if the book doesn’t sell? Well, that’s something only you can determine. Did the agent seem aggressive in getting your book out? Do you feel that the agent had an effective plan, and if you asked your agent about the choices she was making could she give you honest feedback? For example, when making a submission plan there are certain editors I would prefer not to submit to and don’t submit to unless I absolutely have to. Why? Ultimately I don’t feel they are the best advocates for their authors. I also know different editors within different houses. I know some things about their personal interests as well as their reading preferences and I also know something about the style of writing and voice they often gravitate toward. I know the editors who like the same style of writing that I do and I know those that don’t. So when putting together a submission plan I’m not just considering which houses I think would be the best fit, but which editors.

Do the titles "junior" or "senior" come into play when making those decisions? Yes and no. They do in the sense that the longer an editor has been with a house and/or the more experience she has often the more pull or power she has within a house, but not always. I’ve known Senior Editors with little to no power and Assistant Editors with impressive lists and pull within a house. Does experience equal editorial advice? Not at all. When evaluating which editors to choose I think of my client and what I think she needs from an editor, I think of the book and what level I think it has potential to be within a house. Not all books should be judged the same way. Some are bigger books and should go to editors who can make them such, while others aren’t, even though the author eventually might be.

I think that at the end of the day your agent and an editor can be the very best of friends and have very similar interests, but your book has to be able to sell itself, and frankly, that’s what you want. Because even if your agent is powerful enough to convince an editor to buy it, no one is powerful enough to trick enough readers into buying the published book to make it a success. For example, maybe I know that Editor B is desperate for the exact type of women’s fiction I just read. Maybe Women’s Fiction X isn’t that great, but I know I can get her to buy it. Do I offer representation just to sell a book? Well I don’t. Because I don’t think it’s the best deal for the author. Just because I can sell a book doesn’t mean I can build a career, and building careers is my ultimate goal. Selling a book is a thrilling event for an author and for an agent, but you want it to be the start of your career, not one thrilling moment. In that case you don’t want an agent who can “convince” editors to buy a book. You want an agent who has the contacts you need to find the right editor to launch your career with.



Anonymous said...

My first book that went to NY never sold. For many reasons. I don't believe it was for lack of talent, but I do think I hit the market with that para in a time when para is so saturated you really need to stand out to make a sale. Never once though did I blame my agent. The fault always lay on my shoulders (in my eyes). I had a wonderful agent who constantly kept me in the loop, sent me each and every tidbit of news we learned along the way. She did her part.

And ever since then I've worked twice as hard to do my part. To write not only a compelling book but something different, something that sticks out and is memorable. I believe the author bears as much or more, responsiblity than the agent does because in the end it's like Jessica says, you can trick the house into buying but you can't trick the readers into believing.

Being that I'm not only a writer but a reader I have to say I rarely reach for vampires anymore. I've hit vampire overload..I'm not saying write to the market at all...write what you love, but it's also not a bad idea to keep the market in mind when doing so. Then again you could be a Stephanie Meyer and totally shoot my theory out of the water. :p

Chicki Brown said...

I nominated you for my "I Love Your Blog Award." If you get a free minute, drop by. www.freewebs.com/chicki663.

Anonymous said...

I'm published and dropped by my publisher. Did my agent have anything to do with that? Probably not, although I'm not sure she helped matters because my editor once commented to me that my agent was getting a reputation in-house of being a pain in the ass. (I wasn't so sure about the professionalism of either of them at that point).

I've discussed this with a few former clients of my agent and they have mixed feelings about it. As one said, "It's disconcerting to be cc'ed in on e-mails about your work where the title of the book is wrong or your name is wrong."

Since I've had that happen numerous times myself, you have to wonder. At the same time, she did get contracts, she does have some decent clients (or did).

The biggest one was when she was dealing with a film agent and several production companies and the film agent, who is a big name, came back (yes, I was cc'ed in on this) to tell her that what she was doing was "strictly amateur hour."

So that makes me suspect that, at least in some cases, your agent can be a real detriment, that there are editors etc out there who cringe every time they get a manuscript from the agent. That, unless the manuscript is dazzling, they might actually say, "I don't care how good it is, I just don't want to deal with the writer's agent."

Anonymous said...

I think agents have a huge responsiblity in if a client gets sold or not.

I can sympathize greatly with Anon 9:24. I've had an agent where, when push came to shove, was not only clueless about the industry but also condescending. Any questions I had were shoved under the rug and meanwhile, the agent was sending to one pub house at a time -- leaving me with endless waits for responses and virtually no opportunity for an auction. During book negotiations he/she said to just take the advance they offered, and didn't make any kind of counter offer -- didn't even attempt to negotiate. Told me he/she didn't want to upset things by asking for more money. WTF??

But what's worse, clueless or self-important?

Writer friends of mine have had agents that were considered "uber-agents." They made huge promises that they didn't keep. Not just promises that they would "absolutely" sell their book, but that they were interested in helping them build a career. The reality? When the client's book didn't sell on the first round of submission the agent put them on the back burner, didn't submit to other publishers, didn't answer their emails. That's what's considered "career building" in this industry now?

Karma, man I love karma, and I'm lying in wait for it. That karma is going to be one big b#$ch when it comes back and bites them in their ass.

Anonymous said...

I've been with my agent for a number of years and she represented four books of mine that never sold, although some came close. She always cc'd me on where she was sending which ms and then cc'd me on each rejection. She also gave me great feedback on each ms before submitting it, feedback that resulted in my doing at least two major revisions. Was she working hard on my behalf? Yes, it would certainly seem so.
Nevertheless, I began to question whether she was sending my work to the right editors. Published writer friends of mine didn't believe she was doing right by me, since they believed in my work and felt I should have sold early on. I seesawed on whether I should hunt for someone new. Out of loyalty, though, I stuck with her. After all, she was doing her job, and she'd taken me on when no one else would.
A few months ago, you guessed it, she sold my latest project: a two book deal for good money with one of the best editors in the business. This editor has gone on to work hard with me and I feel that when my novel is released next year, it will be something I can truly feel proud of.
What's the moral here? It's hard for writers to judge how well or how poorly their agents are doing their job. On the surface, my agent was working hard to sell my work, yet it took a really long time to get there. Was it because she was approaching the wrong editors? Possibly. Was it because my work wasn't up to par? Very possibly.
Obviously, I'm glad I stuck with my agent. We know each other better for having been through so much and I feel she's completely behind me as I face publication and all the demands that it will entail. But there were plenty of times where I doubted her, doubted myself, doubted the entire industry. Whenever I felt like picking up the phone and calling it quits, I thought of that marvelous feedback she always gave me when I submitted material to her. I trusted that input even when I didn't always trust her to know where to sell it.

Anonymous said...

For me there is something SO important about getting the right fit, both with my agent and my editor. When I found my agent and she made an offer of representation, we talked on the phone and I did not feel I needed to think further about her: I felt she was my match from the start. At the time I had a couple of other, as you say "bigger" agents who'd expressed interest, too, but I'm not sure I'd have felt as comfortable with them as I do the agent I have today. Same goes for the editor she found for me: like my agent, this woman knows exactly what I'm trying to do and, also like my agent, is there to facilitate and improve my work, I think -- rather than change it. I have spoken with agents who had "bigger" ideas for my book, and I have to say that frankly, it scared me. I think that fear was a good signal to me that it wasn't a good match -- we didn't have the same vision for the book. The publisher my agent found is wonderful, but not one of the "biggest" houses. But you know what? I don't belong in one of the biggest houses! I know that. I'm comfortable, happy, excited, and know I'm in the most capable and perfect hands where both agent and editor are concerned. It's heaven!

Anonymous said...

After experiencing first hand the "name" agent syndrome -- name agent signs LOTS of clients, only pays attention to the ones that end up on a best-seller list, ignores the rest... I think a middle-of-the- road agent is best. It effects their own wallet if you don't sell, they have a personal stake in your success.

Anita said...

Kristin Nelson has a very recent post with a link to a fabulous editor interview. I think Jessica's comments are a great segue into that interview.

Also, Nicholas Sparks' official website has his story of finding an agent (look in Writer's Corner). It's a must-read for anyone still searching for an agent.

Anonymous said...

I signed on with my first agent because I'd met her at a writer's conference, she was approachable and friendly, and when an editor told me he was about to offer me a two-book contract (he didn't) I queried her and she took me on. Hey, I figured I was lucky to have an agent, any agent. Wrong.
Her only contacts seemed to be in the romance and cozy mystery areas, while my writing was straight suspense. After much too long, I parted company with her. (By the way, how about a post on the right way to do that? I went by the book, but I've heard some horror stories).
Anyway, I queried another agent I'd come to know very well and with whom I felt comfortable. She took me on, worked very hard to get my novel in front of the right editors at the appropriate houses, and I'm about to sign a contract!
Moral, in my opinion: don't take the first agent who agrees to represent you unless you know a lot about him/her, you "click," and you're convinced they're right for you.

Sabina E. said...

I know a few writers who are repped by agents and still haven't sold anything, but Anon 10:32 has a great story, so i guess there's hope after all.

now, on to find an agent of my own.. geez

Robena Grant said...

This is a great post. Thanks.

Also thanks to all of the anons for their honesty. It is, or should be, about the book first and foremost, the quality of the writing and the overall vision for that particular work.

If the agent is excited about the book and has the contacts to convey her enthusiasm for the project, and that editor can then run with it, and author, agent, and editor are all in sync then you have a winner. But I wonder how often that happens.

I know I would never sign with an author who didn't "get" my vision for my story. I'd be willing to work to make it better, but there would have to be that initial excitement, not just that it was commercial enough to sell.

Robena Grant said...

Umm ... that was supposed to be agent not author in the above post. Can you tell I was getting hot under the collar. ;)

Anonymous said...

This is a great, great question and one I'm on the fence about. Although my book sold very quickly, now I have questions similar to this, but regarding foreign sales. How do you know if your agent is working hard enough and aggresively pursuing foreign rights like they should be? And another issue with rights, who decides whether or not World English, or just North American rights should be sold in the initial deal? At first, I thought it was common practice to sell ONLY World English rights, but lately it seems like all I've been seeing are deals for NA rights only. Then the UK rights get sold for even more money. Should my agent have only sold NA rights?

Anonymous said...

Anon 1:10, this is Anon 10:32...

I appreciate your concern. My contract specifies NA rights only. And my newbie understanding is that the foreign rights dept at my publishing house will work on selling to the other publishing houses overseas--the ones that fall beneath my pub house umbrella, that is. Luckily for me, this is a very big umbrella. My agent won't be involved, other than working through the contract(s). Would other writers weigh in and add their two cents?

PS--Deaf Brown Trash Punk: please do take encouragement from my experience. You know the saying--only half of getting pubbed is talent. The other half is sheer dogged determination.

Kathleen Dante said...

Anon. 10:32 wrote:

My contract specifies NA rights only. And my newbie understanding is that the foreign rights dept at my publishing house will work on selling to the other publishing houses overseas--the ones that fall beneath my pub house umbrella, that is. Luckily for me, this is a very big umbrella. My agent won't be involved, other than working through the contract(s). Would other writers weigh in and add their two cents?

From my understanding of that, you sold only North American rights and retained other English language and foreign language translation rights. Therefore, the only rights your publisher's foreign rights dept might sell/license is English language print rights in Canada and (perhaps) Mexico. Since your publisher didn't get world rights, their foreign rights dept has no incentive and--more importantly--no authority to shop your book with publishing houses overseas, not even those within your pub house's umbrella; NA rights means your publisher doesn't get a cut of foreign rights sales. I think it's highly probable that your publisher will just export your book to Canada, and not explore licensing to Canadian publishers.

In your case, selling your book to overseas publishers is your agent's responsibility. If you expect your publisher to handle foreign rights sales, that requires your publisher to have world rights.

Anonymous said...


Thanks to your thorough explanation of foreign rights, I immediately reread my contract. My pub does have world rights--I dodged a bullet without even realizing it. Guess the lesson here is, an author really has to learn more than just how to write a book.

Anon 10:32

Anonymous said...

I received two offers of representation.

Agent Old was an established agent at an agency with a stellar reputation. She was lukewarm in her enthusiasm for my work and made it clear she wanted major rewrites.

Agent New was a junior agent brought on after the owner agent had run the reputation of his business into the ground. She loved loved LOVED my ms and didn't want to change a thing (so she said.) She said all the right things. She GOT ME.

I went with Agent New.

Biiiiiig mistake. ^Facepalm.^ She has few contacts. Her business model is to sign a hundred clients and throw all their manuscripts at the publishing house door in hopes that one will stick.

For the love of all that is holy, folks, don't sign with a inexperienced agent just to be signed. It's not worth the heartbreak. You are better off to keep shopping.

Anonymous said...

This is good information. Thanks. For new, unpublished authors, how do agents determine the "marketability" of an uknown author, and how much do agents/publishers depend on the authors themselves to do self-marketing? If an author has a solid marketing presence already in place, does that make him/her more attractive to agents/publishers?

Anonymous said...

My agent is well known in certain genres, but nearly unknown in others. I write in the others. He has succeeded in getting for me several high-profile deals with excellent, quit-your-dayjob money. His subrights group has made a few small foreign sales. Most of my writer friends would kill for the deals I've received. I find him to be responsive to my communication and a savvy negotiator.

And yet, I wonder where I'd be with a more powerful, big-name agent. Would I be making the six figure deals I hear coming out of Europe? The "major" deals they report in Publisher's Weekly? Would I be getting the attention from my publisher currently being lavished on other books whose distinction from mine is not the money spent on the book, but rather, seems to be only that they are represented by big-name agents with other bestselling authors at that imprint?

But I see many bestsellers in my genre who have small-name agents. So who is it that pushes you to the "next" level? I wonder.