Friday, October 23, 2009

Agents Do More Than Sell Books

I want to start this post with a little background information. I represent both fiction and nonfiction books, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned from my many years as both an editor and an agent, these are two very different worlds.

Typically a fiction author comes to the table with a great deal of knowledge. It’s almost required. For a fiction writer to have success she has already spent years honing her craft and learning about the publishing business. This is to her advantage. She goes into the situation with knowledge. Typically she really knows and understands what an agent’s job is, what an editor’s job is, and what her responsibilities are as the author.

Nonfiction authors on the other hand need a platform and a great idea. Many of them spend little to no time researching the business and jump in feet-first. This makes perfect sense. Why would you need to research what seems easy? What that means is that most nonfiction authors learn as they go. They might have heard they need an agent, but don’t really have a full understanding of what an agent can do for them, and that’s the point of today’s post.

Recently I was talking to the author of a nonfiction project. She clearly had a good idea and the experience to back it up. Unfortunately she didn’t have knowledge of the publishing world. This author had gone directly to the publisher with her project and received an offer. This isn’t uncommon, nor is it uncommon for editors of nonfiction to go directly to authors after reading articles or developing ideas on their own. Once she had an offer she contacted a handful of agents, but in the end decided it was a waste to go with an agent and was instead planning on using a literary lawyer. Ouch. I think this is a mistake.

The author’s assumption was that since the book had already been submitted it would be smarter just to hire the lawyer, pay a one-time fee, and have someone else negotiate the contract. Her thought was that if she has another book later then she’ll go out and try to find an agent. What she doesn’t seem to realize is that an agent’s job doesn’t end with the contract negotiation and it doesn’t even start with the submission process. An agent’s job is a lot more than that. Let me just tell you some of the things I have done for and with nonfiction authors when it comes to the publishing process.

Sure I submit the book, often garnering multiple offers, which only goes to increase the money paid to the author and hopefully help us sign with the best publisher for the project. In this case it’s quite possible I could have sent the book around to other publishers to ensure that the one the author signed with was the most enthusiastic and not the only one who saw the book. My ability to do this would of course depend on the situation (which I don’t have full knowledge of).

I negotiate the contract. BookEnds actually has spent a great deal of time learning from literary lawyers to develop publisher boilerplates and checklists that we use during negotiations. All of this helps us make sure we are getting the best we can for our clients. On top of that though, we have relationships with publishers that can sometimes work in our favor.

I hold hands. Now many of you say you won’t need hand-holding, so let me use a stronger term, I guide. When you dislike your cover or title I can help discuss possible alternatives with you and the publisher as well as mediate any conversations, or hold them myself, to try for change. I can also help edit if necessary or give second reads on material that you might feel needs an extra eye.

I know publication dates. If your book is a diet book scheduled for release in November I know to tell you that’s probably not the best time to release a diet book. It’s the holidays. Who’s thinking of dieting? Now January and New Year’s resolutions. That’s when you want your diet book on store shelves. At that point it’s a discussion I will definitely want to be having with the editor.

I plan. I help you plan your publicity efforts, your next book and your overall career path as an author. I can help you look at a list of ideas and decide what is probably the best direction, and of course I can work with you to make that happen.

Do I think the author is making a fatal mistake by going with a literary lawyer? No, not at all. What I think though is that she hugely underestimates what an agent does, and because of that I guess I’m a tad offended.



Kimber An said...

I know it's hard not to feel offended by ignorance, but if the person can't or won't be enlightened I think the best course of action is to shrug your shoulders and move on. Ignorance is a lack of knowledge, not a deliberate insult.

Aimee States said...

If an author does not appreciate what you do, you definitely shouldn't be doing it for that person.

As for non-fiction? I wish I didn't feel the need to make junk up

Mark Terry said...

As I think you know, I've worked with a nonfiction agent you recommended on a project I collaborated on. We had/have a deal proposed by a publisher, but it's sort of a mess. The agent and I are willing to walk--the contract really is problematic--but the 2 doctors I collaborated with are having problems doing that and I can't help but wonder why they trust an agent enough to handle their money, but not enough to listen to what she has to say about how crappy the contract is. (And the primary, or at least FIRST, sticking point, is that the publisher insists on having the copyright in their name).

Mira said...

What's interesting about this post to me is that editors are willing to cut agents out in the non-fiction book realm. I've heard in fiction, editors will often refuse to even talk to authors if they don't have an agent, or will refer an author to an agent before signing them.

I wonder what the difference is?

I also had a thought - why not beat editors to the punch? If you see someone with an extremely good platform, who hasn't written a book yet, why not approach them yourself? You could tell them what you have to offer, sign them, guide them through the writing process, even hook them up with a ghost-writer, if necessary.

If editors are soliciting potential non-fiction authors directly, why can't agents?

Just a thought.....

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this timely post. I'm about to jump into a non-fiction project and this blog post just encouraged me.


BookEnds, LLC said...


That's terribly frustrating and certainly I understand the situation and have been in it a number of times.

Agents do all the time. That's also how many agents find new nonfiction authors. The biggest difference is that if it comes from a publisher you know you'll have a sale. When it comes from an agent you hope you'll have a sale.

I also think it's important to note that editors on both sides are happy to look at unagented people if it's someone they've tracked down. It depends on the house, etc. I do know from personal experience however that most editors would prefer an agent get involved at some point or another. It typically makes their jobs easier.


Mira said...

Jessica, that's really interesting - thank you. It never occured to me that editors would track down a fiction author. But I guess that could happen, if an author won a contest, or something of that nature.

And that is a really good point: if you solict an author, you're still not assured of a sale.

I'm brainstorming. It's not likely I'll think of anything you don't already do.....but it seems like this is a market you'd like to protect. And if non-fiction authors don't naturally come to blogs, the question is how to reach them and educate them about what agents can offer them....

I wonder if there is a way to promote the profession of agents to potential non-fiction markets. Going onto blogs and intoducing yourself, sending brochures, teaming with an editor to approach someone directly, net-working within professions...well you probably already do this. Oh, and writing a post on a blog addressing this issue. That might be useful too. :)

Mira said...

Posting an article about it on your blog. Not a blog. Your blog.

After all, word of mouth is a powerful mareketing tool.

ryan field said...

I've seen and heard about this sort of thing before. And no matter how hard you try to explain the author/agent relationship, sometimes people just don't get it.

Anonymous said...

I really didn't know all that you do and I'm very grateful and interested to hear about it. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Jessica, you run a business, and I'm sure this blog partly serves the need to market your business. At times, though, isn't there a need, like this incident with the non-fiction author, that you have sell yourself and the services you provide?

I'm sure the author is thinking that she can spend a one-time fee for a literary lawyer and get the best deal from the publisher that she can. You can provide services above and beyond that, but you blame the writer for not knowing that. Isn't it your job to convince her that for 15% of her revenue from the book, that your services can make her more money that exceeds that 15%?

Literary agents are so busy and their services are desired by an overabundance of writers. Is it possible that the offense taken here is that you felt it beneath you to have to sell your services to a writer? It seems to me to a bit arrogant to be put off by a writer who doesn't appreciate all you can do for her, when it's your job to convince her of that.

Catherine Bybee said...

As an unagented author who has found some success in the literary world, I find it difficult to believe that any published author could hold this opinion. I have written, edited, subbed, revised, contracted, edited again and again, vacillated titles and then finally published the books... Then we go on to the never ending loop of promotion, contests, I even make my own trailers and try and find the best possible place to upload them on the web. All in the effort of finding readers and possibly other publishers.

Bottom line, having an agent to help with that journey isn't a one shot deal. You don't write the book, sell it and your done. No, no, no... there is soooo much more to do.

Anonymous said...

How much do you discount your fee because the author has already found the publisher?

Northwriter said...

Having an agent allows you to swim in a bigger ocean. I had (and still have) a publisher interested in my manuscript. But when my book goes out on submission I'm going to have a much better chance of connecting with the best editor/house for my work and for my career. It may be that initial contact I made on my own but it may not. A good agent is going to help you build a career as a writer if that's what you want. I feel very fortunate to have an agent. I don't take it for granted.

Anonymous said...

As a nonfiction writer, I had a slightly different experience. I knew what I wanted to write about, and took the quest for an agent seriously while writing the first several chapters. But every effort I made to find an agent fizzled. A number were interested in the project, but doubted whether they could sell it. Several were skeptical that an academic could write the narrative nonfiction story in a way that was accessible to a general readership. Two took it to their acquisition boards before it was nixed. All the while, I kept writing, but finally I decided that I had expended enough energy on the hunt for an agent and decided to approach a publishing house directly. I had read that it was impossible, but I figured I had nothing to lose.

When I did that, an editor responded straight away, and in less than a month I had a book contract. The book is now finished and will be released in Feb. 2010, and I still don't have an agent! Now, don't misunderstand. I don't doubt that an agent would have helped me negotiate an optimal agreement, and would have done all the additional things you suggest, Jessica. But when is the writer entitled to give up that hunt? My guess is that after the publication of my book, I will be able to find an agent fairly easily. But if I had not forged ahead on my own, I might still be looking for one instead of looking forward to seeing my book in the stores.

Simon Hay Soul Healer said...

When you're passionate about what you do its realistic to feel a tad offended. I'm always surprised by how snarky some of the comments are. I've been reading agents and writers blogs for some time now and appreciate the time and energy invested in educating writers.

I've not thought about an agent tracking me down. I guess if you had a media promoted story you'd attract attention.

Thanks for the great posts. Cheers, Simon.

Allison Brennan said...

I could not imagine not having an agent. Before I sold, I only queried agents. Jessica's post only touches on what the agent does. Good agents are your lifeline. They mediate. They negotiate. They help plan your career. They sell other rights, help find special projects (like an antho, for example); they sell foreign rights, often have feelers out with film agents, audio rights, etc. If there are problems with production, copy, covers, an editor leaving, deadlines, etc--the agent is your mediator. They can often get more information out of a publisher about sales numbers than the author can. They know what to ask for and when to ask for it (i.e. when the print run is set, when the first sales numbers should be available, which houses share easily and which houses you have to fight to see the numbers.) Good agents are worth every dime of their 15%.

Kate Douglas said...

Everything Allison Brennan says and then some--I'm convinced an agent's emotional support goes way beyond hand holding. Jessica has saved me a fortune on psychotherapy and that alone makes her well worth her 15%.
(very big grin)

Anonymous said...

My agent is invaluable. He mediates. He suggests. He brainstorms with me. He explains things to me. He advises. He's sold foreign and audiobook rights for me. He follows up on payments due me. He mentions me to editors just in case they're looking for someone who writes my kind of book, for possible work-for-hire or other types of work. On top of that, he's my fan; he supports me and encourages me.

Selling the book was only the beginning. I'd be lost without him.

Jenna said...

It's funny how agents have different views of their own roles. I've worked with many agents, and I can tell you that I certainly would have been better off just hiring a lawyer to look over the contract in place of one of those agents (who did nothing-- ZERO-- for me aside from simply asking for a couple of clauses to be edited on a contract that I had already landed on my own)... she still collects on my royalties, yet was frustratingly unresponsive and unhelpful beyond that single day of negotiations. I'd love to be paid thousands of dollars for one day's work.

On the other hand, I've recently worked with an agent who is more hands-on and more responsive than I ever even imagined an agent could be. What a huge difference. A lot of feedback, a lot of hand-holding, late night phone calls, publicity help... She's more than earned her commission already, and we haven't even finished the manuscript.

Those are the two extremes, but I've worked with several in-betweeners. Like in any business, there are good'uns and bad'uns.

Inkslinger said...

This post comes at a timely moment. Now I have a link to send my nonfiction clients who want to bypass finding an agent (or even crafting a proposal). But in their defense (and to echo another comment), they wouldn't know to ask these questions, much less where to go to find the answers. I've discovered academics are prone to the same mistakes as newcomers to publishing because they assume mainstream publishing works the same as academic publishing.

This is a shame--because agents make a huge difference in how projects and careers develop. I've seen them act as mediators not only with publishing editors (and save the day as well as both sides' faces) but also with the people/organizations being written about (who sometimes want more control than they should have over the final manuscript or where the material is published). And with shrinking advances for midlist authors, authors need someone in their corner as they strategize about a long career.

That said--can you imagine how full your mailbox would be if so many nonfiction writers knew to search you out?