Monday, December 15, 2008

Offering Representation to Published Authors

For obvious reasons there is a perception among unpublished authors that the only way to get an agent is to either have a book deal in hand or to be a published author, and while both of those things can help, I think that there’s a lack of understanding about how they can also hurt.

I’m not going to discuss how to handle having a book deal in hand in this post since I have discussed it a number of times already. Instead I’m going to shed a little light on what it’s like for published authors to seek representation, and the first thing I’m going to tell you is that being published doesn’t guarantee anything.

When I'm considering an offer of representation to an unpublished author, the only thing I have to think about is whether or not I think the book is fantastic and whether or not I think I can sell it. When considering a published author, however, the number of things to think about are much greater and the things that can stand in the way can be more extensive.

If a previously published author comes to me seeking representation, I need to, of course, look at the new work to see if it’s something I would even want to represent, and then if it passes that test I must consider the sales figures for the author’s previous work or works, and this is where things can get sticky. In case anyone has forgotten, this is a business, and when considering a new author a publisher’s, and therefore an agent’s, primary consideration needs to be how money can be made and how much. An author who only two years ago had incredibly poor sales numbers is going to have a hard time crawling out from under that. Bookstores are going to look at those numbers when placing orders and editors are going to look at those numbers when making an offer. So, unless the book is absolutely phenomenal, or a completely new direction for this author, it’s going to be a difficult sale for me.

The other thing to consider is the author’s reputation, and I don’t mean whether or not people like her, I mean her brand. If the author is known for her romances and suddenly wants to branch out into mysteries or SF, will her brand allow for it? Sure she could use a new name, but then doesn’t that defeat the purpose of having built the brand?

So before you go complaining that agents are only interested in hearing from published authors, think about what you are saying. Being published doesn’t ever guarantee an easy “in.”



Judy Croome | @judy_croome said...

Is there any part of the journey to fame and fortune as a writer that's easy? :(

Oh, well, where's the fun in "easy" anyway? Writing is like bungee jumping for the soul!

Kimber Li said...

So, once an author publishes, she's stuck in that genre or subgenre for life?

I guess that means 'write what you love' is just a sweet myth told to newbies.

Anonymous said...

Kimber: I don't think you're stuck but it can make things problematic.

It ties back into building a brand. Agents and editors want sales and sales typically do better when an author becomes known for a particular genre.

Imagine Nick Hornby writing a horror. It wouldn't fit in with most people's expectations. He'd get some loyal readers following him over, but assuming that most of his audience will cross genres for him is a bit of a risk. You also then have to contend with the fact that his books are appearing in two sections of the store.

It does kind of suck, but such is the nature of business.

Anonymous said...

I don't mean any ill will, but I'm sick to death of people talking about an author's "brand."

Honestly, I can count on my fingers the number of authors in each genre that have a "brand" enough to sell on their name alone.

Brands are Steven King, Nora Roberts, James Patterson, John Grisham, or even Stephenie Meyer.

Today, you have authors that are unpublished and unagented trying to brand themselves before they've even finished the first draft of a book, and it's ridiculous.

Can an average midlist author have a following? Sure, but let's face it, with the lack of promotion for your average author (who isn't a lead title and therefore isn't promoted beyond belief by their pub house) MOST authors don't have a chance to be anything BUT midlist.

Today publishers try to create brands through promotion. But they pick a book or two a season to do this to, without regard as to the author's actual talent. Instead of a brand happening organically from an author's own writing style or particular take on the world, pub houses try to "make it happen."

This happens in the YA market all the time. A pub house pays a huge advance to their one lead title, promote the heck out of it, and two books later that author is churning out books that are so ill-conceived, they wouldn't even get published as a paperback had the pub not have publicized it to force sales.

That's a huge difference between someone with the talent of King, who's kept his quality over the years.

Anonymous said...

Kathleen Peacock --

Nick Horby put out a YA earlier this year. Because the YA market is supposedly "hot" right now.

It was a mediocre teen pregnancy book, didn't get good reviews, but sold lots of copies anyway. On his name alone. No author that already had a following is going to accept a deal that isn't going to publicize (and therefore get sales) their books.

It was pushed because it was Nick Hornby, not because it was good. If he wrote horror, it'd be the same thing.

Anonymous said...

Today, you have authors that are unpublished and unagented trying to brand themselves before they've even finished the first draft of a book, and it's ridiculous.

I don't really agree with the rest of your comment but I do agree with this. I see so many new writers--either unpublished or with one short out with a tiny epress--working on their "tagline" for their website, and it's just silliness. Especially as all those taglines sound the same:

Sexy romance with an edge!

Sensual romance with a twist!

Twisty romance with heat!

Sexy, edgy romance!

Romance on the edge...of twisty heat.

Romance with humorous heat and edginess!

etc. etc. etc. Bleh. It's a waste of time, that stuff.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous 9:14

Though SLAM was YA, it wasn't a radical departure for Hornby in terms of story or style so it's not that much of a stretch for readers to follow him over (and, even then, I suspect he lost quite a few along the way).

Anonymous said...

publishing can be damn depressing.

Robena Grant said...

I hope not Kimber An. But I suspect until the author's name is known he/she is advised to stay within one genre to develop a readership.

I recently read John Grisham's Playing for Pizza. It was unlike his legal thrillers, yet I loved it, it even had a nice romance. This story is about a third string quarterback who had the worst performance of his career in the last seventeen minutes of a championship game and became the laughing stock of the NFL. He ends up playing as the starting quarterback for the Mighty Panthers in Parma, Italy. But he's Grisham and he can afford to take that risk and write something softer and not lose his audience.

I love it when authors try knew things. Many times I find an author repeating the same old story but with a new location and cast. They get stuck in the known in a similar way to an actor being type-cast. Maybe some of that direction comes from the editor/agent, or maybe it's the author who is stuck and hasn't fully worked through what it is about the human condition she's trying to convey. Not sure. But it bores me to tears and causes me to move on and try someone else.

Anonymous said... sounds in a sense like a previously published writer who wants to 'branch out' in another direction, i.e. another genre, might be 'type cast' and have a hard row to hoe getting an agent to even consider that author's book for representation? Wonder if guys like Elmore Leonard who went from westerns to crime fiction had a hard time of it? Also, as a published writer, it sounds like you had better have some good numbers on that first book or two or three if you want to continue to publish otherwise you're through...unless you can write under a pen name...?

Anonymous said...

I never really thought how hard it is after you're published too. I suppose in my publishing naivete I always thought it was so easy for them since it seemed like many agencies I'd looked at only wanted authors who were published.

Anonymous said...

I'm posting anon for obvious reasons. I'm an agented writer who does crossover with different pen names. And my agent is always supportive. And I know a few more writers with different agents who do the same thing. And these writers do it well, because they don't want to be boxed into one genre.

Now, taking on a published writer may be a different story. I haven't had to shop around for a new agent; I love the one I have. (And I think I'd better send her some candy after reading this :)

BookEnds, A Literary Agency said...

I didn't mean to imply that anyone has to stick with the genre they first write in. What I'm trying to say is that everything that happens with that first book you publish effects how publishers, editors and agents look at the next book. If you are simply growing a career in multiple directions you're in good shape, but if you've had a lull for whatever reason and are looking to make a comeback it might not be as easy as many unpubs think.


Anonymous said...

I'm anon at 4:12

When I thought about it later, I saw your point. Basically, even though you've been there, it's starting from the beginning.

Anonymous said...

Jessica, this is a great post. I know several authors and they are all at various stages of their careers...but all still fret about the things a debut author does. The main difference though, is the added's well will the newest release do? are my numbers going to make my publisher happy? And in this economic climate? What if they want to write something else? is it feasable? will they be able to? and you can bet if they're thinking about changing agents...all of these things are going to be considered closely. I don't think it never ends

Lorelei Armstrong said...

So upon reflection, being a first-time novelist with a hardback released October 1st, into the teeth of an economic collapse, and then having your publisher go out of business three months later, is bad. Right.

I'll be quitting now.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this post. I am a published author of 6 mysteries (two different publishers, two series). The first series was published by a wonderful publisher who distributes to libraries (not book stores). The second series was a project by another publisher for adults with limited reading skills and ESL and was never intended to be sold in bookstores (it was marketed to select groups, prisoners being one). My numbers (I don't know what they are) are almost certainly low for each. The first series was reprinted in paperback but I don't have any info at all on those.
It's been ten years since I've submitted anything for publication.
Do I have any chance at all,(either as a mystery writer or mainstream, e.g.) given the time lag and the inherent limitations on sales described above?