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Dealing with Agents and Publishers

March 24, 2011

Literary Agents

The role of the literary agent is to act as an intermediary between authors and publishers. They help authors ‘place’ their books with the relevant publisher. If the book is good (and precisely what constitutes “good” is sadly hard to say), then this is not difficult; any publisher will snap it up. However, it is much harder to place good books with good publishers. For this you need a good literary agent.

Many publishers will not deal with authors directly, partly because of the extra work involved, partly because of the poor quality of submissions they tend to receive this way. Literary agents act as a filter. They identify good and/or saleable work and assist the author in any necessary improvements.

A good literary agent needs:

  • To be well-known within the publishing industry; ie to have contacts; and
  • To be knowledgeable about the industry, ie to know about contracts, rights, negotiation, publishing law and so forth.

Once you secure your book deal, the publishers will draw up a contract. This is negotiable, and will include at least some clauses that are there simply to see how far the publishers can push their luck. Like any business, even the most reputable of publishers are out to make money and will try to exploit you as much as they can.

If the negotiations are not conducted to your advantage you could well end up with a published book and very little money to show for it. This would not be good; partly because you would lose out on the financial fruits of your hard labours, and partly because it will encourage publishers to expect you to be a pushover in the future.

A good agent will be well versed in literary law. They will know when the publisher is trying to ‘pull a fast one.’ Because they will earn between ten and fifteen percent of the royalties, they will ensure that you get the best deal going.

If you want to make writing your career, it will be a good idea to have a second book in the pipeline. Even if it is not written, the publishers may well try to secure the rights to this. With the help of a good agent, you can secure a good ongoing contract arrangement. This will entail reasonable advances and proper support.

Like a good employment agency, they will save you from having to attend to all the peripheral details that surround the main job–writing. Of course, just as there are employment agencies that seem to do very little for the people on their books, some agents are less helpful. But a GOOD agent will do more than simply find you a publisher. They will help you to organise your career, based on their expertise and knowledge of the industry. They will advise you what to do and when, schedule your workload, arrange interviews, book launches, book-signings, and other promotional activities. They will also build a career strategy that will help you to build up a readership, a fan-base, and this in turn will help you get a better deal for your writing.

Things You Should Bear in Mind

  1. Make sure that the agent is used to handling your kind of writing; that they have the right experience and the right contacts. While looking for an agent, you should have been guided by the kind of writer they represent; equally, they are unlikely to agree to represent you unless they think they can sell your work. But make sure about this before signing anything.
  2. When you do sign a contract with an agent (and you will do, this being separate from any contract with the publisher) DO NOT sign if it locks you into a relationship that lasts more than three months. If it is not provided, negotiate a clause that gives you the right to leave the agency after ‘reasonable notice.’ ie thirty days. When you are negotiating with the agent, you will be on your own, unless you choose to (and can afford to) secure the services of a solicitor who deals in this line of work. This would be expensive, but could be worthwhile if you can afford it.
  3. Make sure that you know what will happen to your work if your current agent leaves the industry, retires, dies, suffers from long-term sickness or is otherwise unavailable to represent you. There may be a clause stating that you will automatically be moved to whichever agent takes over the business, or that side of the business. If you want to have a say in what happens in this eventuality, make sure it is written into the agreement.
  4. Try to develop a good working relationship with your agent. The best agents are work colleagues if not friends. They will be on your side (even if it is in pursuit of their own interests). The publishers are on their own side. If you feel that the agreement is not working for you, however, then be ready to look for another agent elsewhere.

Dealing with Publishers

The best way to secure a book deal is through the representation of an agent. If you send a submission straight to the publisher without previously contacting them it is an ‘unsolicited submission.’ This will end up on the dreaded ‘slush pile.’ Here it will eventually be read by a low paid publisher’s reader (usually a recent graduate on the first rungs of a career in publishing, and with very little clout within the organisation).

Should your manuscript be identified as being of ‘sufficient quality’ OR ‘revenue potential’ (i.e. either GOOD, or SALEABLE), then the reader will refer it on to the acquisitions editor. If it passes through this filter, your manuscript (presumably slightly dog-eared by now) will be passed on to a junior member of the editorial staff (the process is simpler if the company is small).

Whether you employ an agent or go through the purgatory of the slush pile, the next stage will be when your submission is ‘championed’ by a junior editor. They will be laying their professional reputation on the line by doing so, and if your work is not taken on it will be a black mark against them; equally, if your work happens to become a bestseller, it could be a rung on the ladder for them. They must take a gamble by championing your work.

They must now convince their superiors and other staff that the submission should be published. Very few submitted manuscripts reach this stage; even fewer get further. The next stage is the negotiation of such matters as intellectual property rights and royalty rates. We will look at this in more detail in the future.

Getting Your First Novel Published

Getting your first novel published is never easy. The competition is enormous, the publishing industry is suffering both from such factors as book sales by supermarkets and book chains such as Amazon and like everyone else by the recession.

In order to get a successful career as a novelist you must make your mark in the first place, and then sustain the momentum. Although agents can help you to some extent, ultimately it is your own work and your own skills that will help you achieve this.

Forget the stories you see in the press about advances in the region of several hundred pounds. Publishers have found that high advances can create ‘artificial expectations’ in writers and the kind of hype you sometimes hear about first time writers is precisely that. Few writers who are offered vast advances actually live up to expectations, or even go on to have a career.

Once your publishing contract is secure, you cannot expect your publisher to put much effort into generating publicity. This is left to you and your agent (another reason to get an agent!) First time novelists depend on word of mouth, the media, book clubs and book prizes, and of course book reviews for their publicity campaign. As a first time writer, you may be both over-exposed and under-exposed.

Gavin Chappell has been teaching Creative Writing in the UK for several years. He is editor of online magazine Write On Wirral and also writes for Schlock! The webzine of science fiction, fantasy and horror and the Heswall Magazine.

  1. March 24, 2011 8:04 am

    Nice overview, Gavin.

  2. March 24, 2011 12:31 pm

    Make sure to be wary of scam agents, and there’s a sure way to detect them: if an “agent” wants the writer to send him or her money for any reason, then the agent isn’t really an agent. Agents send money to writers, not the other way around.

  3. March 28, 2011 4:39 pm

    The more I read about first time author’s the more I don’t want to know. I think it’s best to proceed with reckless abandonment, go for it and not fret too much about the daunting road ahead. Anyho, great overview.

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