Just what am I getting myself into? Part VII: but what happens if an agent says yes? (After the celebration dies down, that is.)

Those are jolly images, are they not? And not a moment too soon, I suspect: after our recent determined march through some hard realities faced by writers hoping to get a book published in the current hyper-competitive literary market, I shall be devoting today’s post to a much, much happier topic: what happens after an agent decides to sign a writer to a representation contract.

Actually, let’s kick off the festivities by talking first about the offer itself. First, it will not be in any way ambiguous: few interpersonal communications in the English language are less susceptible to misinterpretation than, “I love your manuscript, and I want to represent it.” Second, a writer is under no obligation to respond to such an assertion with an equal lack of ambiguity, or even to say yes or no throughout the course of the entire conversation.

Although truth compels me to say that the most common writerly instinct is to blurt out an instant “Oh, God, YES!”

Already, I spot some hands in the air. “Um, Anne?” inquire the many, many writers shy enough to prefer communication in writing, “when you say conversation, you don’t mean that I’ll actually have to TALK to the agent of my dreams, do you? One of the reasons I chose to query by mail/e-mail, rather than by marching into a writers’ conference and giving a verbal pitch, was so I could let my pages speak for themselves, while I remained at a safe distance.”

Some agents share your preference, shy ones, when it’s a question of querying or day-to-day agent-writer communications, but in practice, it’s relatively uncommon not to have an actual conversation prior to signing. Typically, if a US-based agent is offering to represent a North America-based writer, the agent will telephone, rather than send a letter or e-mail. This means, unfortunately, that this particular bit of good news seldom arrives in a SASE — that’s a self-addressed, stamped envelope, for those of you new to the querying game, and it should be included in every mailed query packet you ever send.

Lest that scare any of you into resolving never to open a returned SASE again: other types of good news do in fact regularly arrive in them. The most common: a request for manuscript pages or a book proposal, based upon that stellar query packet.

But you’re not thinking about that SASE, are you, oh shy ones? You’re thinking about that interminable moment immediately after you pick up the phone and realize that it’s the agent of your dreams.

Why interminable, you ask? Because if you’re like most aspiring writers, you’ll be straining every nerve to prevent yourself from shouting “Oh, God, YES!” before the agent actually has time to make the offer. That’s why, if you have manuscripts out circulating amongst agents, it’s a good idea to give a little advance thought to what you might say during that conversation.

Other than…oh, you know your line by now. Unless you are in the habit of receiving good news on this scale with aplomb, it would be prudent to prepare for this moment.

Seriously, it’s to your advantage to have a few discussion points prepared. When the agent of your dreams calls to offer to represent your book, she will undoubtedly have a few questions for you, so you should feel free to ask a few of your own.

To pull one at random out of thin air: “How are you planning to go about trying to sell this book, and to whom?” This is likely to elicit important information, such as whether the book category you selected for your manuscript or proposal was a good fit.

Another that you might consider blurting out: “Are you going to want any changes to the manuscript/book proposal before you start sending it out to editors?” The answer will almost certainly be yes, incidentally, but at least you will have broached the issue politely yourself, rather than having it come as the intense surprise it generally is to those new to the agent-having experience.

Another that surprisingly few writers think to ask in the moment: “What do you like best about my book?” This is not just an ego-gratifier: to an agent, this is a marketing question, an invitation to talk about target audience and why your book is likely to appeal to it. (For a few other questions you might consider asking, check out the posts under the obscurely-named WHAT TO ASK AN AGENT WHO OFFERS TO REPRESENT YOU category on the archive list at right; the US agents’ guild, the Association of Authors’ Representatives, also has a good list on its website.)

If these sound like far more intelligent questions than are at all likely to occur to someone totally overcome with joy, well, you’re right: I know literally dozens of now-agented writers who were able to stammer out little more than a well-nigh-incoherent, “Yes!” Unfortunately, of those dozens, quite a few had manuscripts out with more than one agent at the time; as soon as they stopped being giddy, they realized that they had shouted that all-important syllable of agreement not to the agent they were convinced would be the best fit for their respective books, but simply the one who asked first to represent them.

Yes, yes, I know: it sounds like a problem that every aspiring writer would like to have. But what does that writer do a week later, when another agent calls with a similar request?

This is not the right time to inform an agent who has been reading your manuscript that another agent is considering it, by the way; trust me, it will not engender a pleasant response. If more than one agent is reading your manuscript pages or proposal, it’s the writer’s job to make sure that all of them are aware of it as soon as the situation arises.

How, you ask? How about mentioning it in the cover letter you send out with submission packet #2, and every submission thereafter? While a bread-and-butter statement like please be aware that other agents are also considering this manuscript might not win any points for originality, it will get the job done. As will simply sending an e-mail or note to Agent #1 just after you popped a requested materials in the mail to Agent #2, saying something like I just thought you would want to know that another agent is now also considering my manuscript.

Trust me, Agent #1 will want to know.

Another way you might want to occupy yourself and all of that nervous energy between submission and acceptance: doing a bit of homework on what agents actually do — and cannot do — for a writer. Most aspiring writers have only a fuzzy idea what the representation relationship entails, over and above simply selling one’s book to an editor at a publishing house. In reality, the writer-agent relationship is quite a bit more complicated than that — and the clearer your understanding of it is, the more fruitful that initial conversation with your new agent will be.

Why, here’s a brief overview of what that understanding might entail now. Who could have anticipated that?

Some things a reasonable writer should expect a reputable agent to do:

*Present the client’s manuscript and/or book proposal to editors at large and medium-sized publishing houses (even if a writer has more than one book ready to go, most agents will prefer to work on only one at a time),

*Advise the client on how to make the manuscript or book proposal more marketable to editors,

*Negotiate the terms of the publishing contract, including royalty percentages, serial rights, electronic rights, and foreign rights, as necessary and appropriate,

*After selling the book, handle all of the financial arrangements between the publisher and the writer,

*Provide both the client and the appropriate tax entities reliable and accurate statements of yearly earnings,

*Act as the client’s advocate in any subsequent disputes with the publishing house, and

*Serve as a sounding board about future book projects’ marketability.

Some things an agent cannot do (and you should start asking many, many questions if your caller says he can):

*Guarantee in advance that he will be able to sell a particular book to a publisher,

*Guarantee that he will be able to sell a particular book to a particular publisher,

*Guarantee a certain minimum advance for the book if it sells,

*Dictate when the publisher who acquires the book will release it or speed up the publication process at will,

*Force the publisher to drop requests for manuscript revision, or

*Make a writer rich and famous overnight.

I sensed some of you squirming in your chairs as you read through those lists — you’re not completely comfortable with the notion of cross-examining someone offering to represent your work, are you? “What if I do my homework really, really well, Anne?” I hear some of you wheedling. “If I quadruple-check in advance that the agent is legit, why will I need to ask questions at all?”

Excellent question, seated squirmers, and one that fully deserves an answer: because every agency operates slightly differently. You actually do need to know your future agent’s — and future agency’s — quirks in order to work with them well. Don’t rely upon the agent to mention these preferences spontaneously in your initial conversation, however: remember, to the people who work within a particular agency, their way of doing things may seem so normal to them that it doesn’t call for explanation.

If asking about particulars seems a bit confrontational for a first conversation with someone you really, really want to like you, don’t worry: this isn’t a negotiation. You’re asking how this person would like to work with you, that’s all. And that’s completely appropriate, because your future agent honestly does need you to understand her process.

You will also be happier if you understand it, especially if you are lucky enough to be juggling competing offers of representation. It’s entirely possible that nice Agent #1, the one who is calling today, embraces a quite different selling strategy than that delightful Agent #2 who is still reading your submission. For instance, some novel-representing agents prefer to approach editors one at a time, giving each a nice, long look at a manuscript (and a chance to reject it) before moving on to the next, while others favor the common nonfiction approach of submitting simultaneously to eight or ten editors. Nor is that the only possible variation from agency to agency: a very well-known agent or one at a very large agency might have a junior associate act as a first-time author’s primary contact, rather than the agent himself.

This is all simple factual information that you have a right to know, by the way; as long as you inquire politely, a legit agent should regard these questions as routine, both up front and after you have a copy of the representation contract in your hot little hand. It’s also factual information that is unlikely to be on the agency’s website, so asking about procedures, practices, or what the representation contract actually calls for may be the only way to find out.

At least at the point when you will be called upon to make a decision; it’s not at all uncommon for the writer to accept a representation offer without knowing all (or most) of the agency’s specific expectations about what representation would entail. Or even — brace yourself — without having seen the agency contract.

How could that happen, you gasp? Quite simply: an agent calls a writer, and the first words out of the latter’s mouth are, “Oh, God, YES.”

In case I’m being too subtle here: before you pant out those words, or any remotely similar, you can and should inquire about any part of the process you don’t understand fully. Yes, even if it’s a matter I’ve covered in this discussion, because — wait for it — every agency operates differently. (Besides, I am a writer and editor, not an attorney, so none of this should be construed as legal advice. If you have serious legal questions about the agency contract in front of you, I would urge you to consult a lawyer who specializes in such matters.)

So when the phone rings, take a nice, deep breath, reach for that list of questions you have so thoughtfully prepared, and start asking. Keep your tone respectful, please, and remember, you’re doing this to gather information, not to try to wrangle your way into better terms.

Whatever you hear, don’t take umbrage at any particular piece of news and try to argue about it. (“What do you mean, a royalty of 20% for foreign sales is standard? I challenge you to a duel, sir!”) Remember, too, that you are under no obligation to say yes or no immediately. If you have lingering questions, want some time to think about what you’re hearing, or would like to see what the other agent(s) who has your manuscript have to say after you tell them that there’s an offer on the table, it’s perfectly legitimate to put off a decision.

Or even, on the off chance that the phone rings before you’ve had a chance to work up a solid list of questions, to say, “Gee, Agent #1, I have a million things to ask you, but I’m just on my way out to a doctor’s appointment/work/my nephew’s bar mitzvah. Could we set up a time to chat at greater length?” You could then, in theory, hang up the phone, frantically do some research about the agency, and be prepared to have a productive conversation by the arranged chat time.

Speaking of questions, I sense that some of you are harboring a major one. “But Anne, if I honestly do need to know about the agency’s practices, I still don’t get why I have to ask. Shouldn’t such details be spelled out in the agency contract?”

Ah, that is a question that has long caused philosophers to scratch their heads in wonder. In fact, representation contracts are often downright vague about what the agent will actually do with the manuscript. This is generally for convenience’s sake, though, not to confuse prospective clients. Especially in the current volatile literary market, an agent may well need to change strategy in order to sell a particular book.

Most agency contracts are easy-in-easy-out affairs for both parties, so it’s highly unlikely that you’ll get stuck permanently in an arrangement you don’t like. Since they do vary (out comes the broken record again), it’s up to you to check precisely what those terms are. Representation contracts tend to be rather short-term, specifying that the agent will either handle the entire selling process for a single book or all of the client’s work a year’s or two’s time — a choice made by the agency, incidentally, not the author.

Had I mentioned that this wasn’t a negotiation? Or that it would be prudent for you to know to what you are agreeing before you say yes?

Some contracts have a rollover clause, which stipulates that if the author has not notified the agency by a particular date that she wants to seek representation elsewhere, the contract is automatically renewed for the following year. Find out which, so you are aware of the terms of renewal. If you sign with an agency that favors the rollover clause, you are going to want to know precisely when the opt-out date is. Mark it on your calendar, just in case. And keep marking it every year, for your own protection.

If you are planning to write more than one book (or already have), do be sure before you sign a per-project contract that your agent is at least willing to consider representing everything you want to write. A time-based contract minimizes this concern, but do be aware that often means that the agent has right of first refusal over everything a client writes during the agreed-upon period — i.e., you must allow her to decide whether she wants to represent an additional book before you may show it to another agent. So either way, writers with many projects going at once will want to make absolutely certain to ask about future projects.

The agency contract will also specify the percentage of your advances and royalties your agent will get. Typically, in literary agencies, the cut is 15% for English-language North American sales. Script agents generally get 10%.

These percentages are non-negotiable in virtually every agency on earth, so you will not asking about them up front and/or examining your contract in order to gain haggling ammunition: it’s to prepare you for the day when a check arrives with fewer zeroes on it than your advance led you to expect. And no, a lower percentage does not usually mean a better deal for the author – it’s usually an indication that the agency is new, and is trying to attract high-ticket clients.

Just so you know, how and when your agent takes his percentage will not be left up to the goodness of your heart and the burnings of your conscience. If you are represented by an agent, he will see to it that your publication contract will specify that the publisher will send your checks to the agency, not directly to you. This means that any money you see will already have the agent’s percentage deducted from it.

See why it’s so important to be positive that you can trust this person? Or that you ask questions about anything you don’t understand in the representation contract before you even consider applying ink to it?

Pretty much every agency in the country takes a significantly higher cut of foreign sales: 20% or more is the norm. (For reasons I have not been able to fathom, my agency takes 23% of sales in the Baltic republics, so they’ll really score if my memoir takes off in Lithuania.) The higher price tag abroad is for a very practical reason: unless an agency has an outpost in a foreign country (as some of the larger agencies do) it will subcontract their foreign rights sales to agencies in other countries, who take their cut as well.

So if you suspect that your book will have a high market appeal in Turkey or Outer Mongolia, you might want to check up front whether your prospective agency has a branch there, or is subcontracting. The differential in commission percentage can be substantial.

“Um, Anne?” I hear a small, confused chorus out there piping. “Was the bit about English-language North American sales just a really complicated typo? Aren’t there other people in the world who read English — like, say, the people in England? Why aren’t all of the English-language sales lumped together, and the foreign ones together?”

Well might you wonder. Before I launch into the extensive and rather convoluted explanation required to answer that excellent question, you might want to pop into the kitchen and make yourself some tea, or fluff up the pillows on your ottoman. I’ll wait.

Everybody comfortable? Here goes: from the point of view of your garden-variety US publisher, books published in the English language fall into three categories: those sold in North America, those sold in Great Britain, and those sold in other countries. Of the three, only those in the first category are considered English-language sales, for contractual purposes. The last two are considered foreign-language sales.

There — and you thought it wasn’t going to make sense…

So, perversely, if exactly the same English-language book by a US author was sold in Canada and Great Britain, the author’s US agent would take 15% of the royalties on the first and 20% on the second. Before you laugh out loud, I should tell you that this scenario is not particularly far-fetched: all of the books in the HARRY POTTER series were sold in a slightly different form in the former Commonwealth than in the U.S. (Why? Well, chips mean one thing to a kid in London and another to a kid in LA, and while apparently the industry has faith that a kid in Saskatchewan could figure that out, it despairs of the cultural translation skills of a kid in Poughkeepsie or Omaha.)

This is why, in case you were curious, you will see the notation NA in industry discussions of book sales – it refers to first North American rights, minus Mexico. Rights to sell books south of the border, in any language, fall under foreign language rights, which are typically sold on a by-country basis. However, occasionally an American publisher will try to score a sweet deal on a book expected to be a bestseller and try to get the world rights as part of the initial deal, but this generally does not work out well for the author.

Why? Well, if a book is reprinted in a second language and a North American publisher owns the foreign rights, the domestic house scrapes an automatic 20% off the top of any foreign-language royalties accrued by the author. (If this discussion seems a trifle technical, chalk it up to the rather extended struggle I had to retain my memoir’s foreign rights; back in the day, my now-gun-shy publisher wanted ‘em, big time. But they’re mine, I tell you, all mine!)

I sense that some of you have gone a bit pale over the course of the last dozen or so paragraphs. “Um, Anne?” a few queasy souls inquire. “You’re kidding about expecting me to have an intelligent discussion of all of this with my agent in the first 30 seconds after she’s offered to represent me, right? Couldn’t I just agree to let him represent me, and sort all of this out later?”

Well, of course you could — if you I may have mentioned, most aspiring writers just blurt out “Oh, God, YES!” before finding out anything about the terms to which they’re agreeing at all. I can completely understand this, even if I deplore it: mistrust is the last thing on your mind when you are thrilled to pieces that a real, live agent wants to represent YOU.

Trust your Auntie Anne on this one, though: honeymoons do occasionally end, and not generally because anyone concerned has done anything nefarious. As I mentioned above, agents move from one agency to another all the time (if this happens, you will need to know with whom you have a contract, the agency or the agent; either is possible), and it’s not unheard-of for an agent to stop representing a particular genre even though she has clients still writing and publishing in it. Writers occasionally develop a sudden urge to compose a book in a category for which their agents do not have current contacts.

This is, in short, one contract to read with your glasses on, and paper by your side to jot down questions. Then pick up that piece of paper, get yourself to a telephone, and start asking.

If you do not have an opportunity to see a copy of the agency contract before having your first serious conversation about your future with your new agent (as will probably be the case; many agents are notoriously slow in sending out representation agreements), do make a point of asking the agent for a brief overview of its major points. Again, it’s merely good sense whenever you are going to deal with a business with which you are unfamiliar, and it would never occur to a reputable agent to take your caution at all personally.

By being cautious, you’re not calling the agent’s integrity into question, but making sure you know precisely what she is proposing that you do together. After all, the agent almost certainly will not have been the person who wrote the contract; the agency will have an established boilerplate. Naturally, it is in an honest agent’s best interest for a prospective client to understand the contract-to-be well enough to abide by its provisions.

Allow me to repeat something I dropped into the middle of that last paragraph, because it comes as news to a lot of newly-agented writers: unless your future agent happens to own the agency, it is the agency — not the agent whom you are prepared to love, honor, and obey for as long as you shall write and he shall sell — who will set the terms of your relationship. To put it another way, the agent who is being so nice to you on the phone may not be the only agency employee who will be dealing with your work.

What might other people’s involvement entail? Well, among other things, the agency, and not merely the agent, is going to be handling every dime you make as a writer — and furthermore, telling the fine folks at the IRS all about it.

Remember, your publisher will be sending your advance and royalty checks to your agency, not to you personally. (I talked a bit earlier in this series about how writers get paid for their work, but for a more in-depth examination, please see the ADVANCES and ROYALTIES AND HOW THEY WORK categories on the list at right.) If your work is going to be sold abroad, the agency will turn your book, your baby, over to a foreign rights agent of its selection, not yours – and will be taking a higher percentage of your royalties for those sales than for those in the English-speaking parts of North America, typically. Also, the agency is going to be responsible not only for keeping the government informed about all of these transactions, but also preparing those messily-carboned royalty forms that you will be submitting with your taxes.

That’s a whole lot of trust to invest in people who you may never meet face-to-face, isn’t it?

Did I just hear a giant collective gasp out there? I hate to be the one to break it to you, but many authors never meet their agents in person; it’s not as though the agency will fly a prospective client from California to New York just to get acquainted. Since almost everything in the biz is handled by phone, e-mail, or snail mail, face-to-face contact is seldom necessary.

The result? Well, it’s not a scientific sample, of course, but I know plenty of writers who couldn’t pick their agents, much less the principal of their agency, out of a police line-up. (Not that you really want to be in the position to hiss, “That’s she, officer. SHE’S THE ONE WHO DIDN’T MAIL MY ROYALTY CHECK,” but still.)

Ideally, you want relationships with both your agent and agency so comfortable that you have no qualms — and no need to have any — about simply handing the business side of your writing over to them and letting them get on with making you rich and famous. (Which you already know that no agent cannot legitimately promise up front, right?) So perversely, while asking a whole lot of pointed questions at the outset may seem mistrustful, doing so will actually substantially increase the probability that you’re going to trust and respect your agent a year or two down the road.

Do find out whether you are signing with the agency as a whole or with the agent specifically: contracts come both ways. As I mentioned in passing above, agents move around all the time, and some agencies can have pretty short lifespans.

If your agent retired, for instance, would you still be represented? What about if your agent started an agency of her own? Or decided to scrap her career and follow the Dalai Lama around for a decade or two? Or, heaven forefend, died?

Yes, I actually do know authors to whom each of these things has happened; thanks for asking.

I can only reiterate: agencies vary quite a bit. Some are set up so the royalty money all goes into a common pool, funding the entire agency, and some are run like hairdressing establishments, where each chair, so to speak, houses an independent contractor, and no funds are mixed.

Why should your agent’s employment arrangements concern you? Well, if you are the client of an independent contractor-type agent, if she leaves the agency, you more or less automatically go with her. If your contract is with the agency, you probably will not. If your agent has a track record of agency-hopping every couple of years — as many junior agents do; it’s a smart way to build a professional lifetime’s worth of contact lists — may I suggest that this is a contractual arrangement that may affect your life pretty profoundly?

Do assume, however, that you may never see another copy of the contract again after you sign it. Make yourself a photocopy — yes, even before the agent has countersigned it — so you may refer to it later.

I know that this post has occasionally read as if half the agents out there are evil trolls, waiting under every bridge into Manhattan in the hope of defrauding innocent authors, but I am only trying to get you to put up your antennae before entrusting your precious manuscript or proposal to just anyone. The vast majority of agents honestly are nice people who love good writing and want to help writers –- but as in every profession, there are a few practitioners who are not as scrupulous about fulfilling their obligations toward their clients as one might like. It behooves us all to be cautious.

Please, when the time comes: don’t be so flattered by an agent’s attention that you just agree to everything you are asked — or contractual provisions you don’t know exist. That’s how good writers get hurt, and I don’t want to see it happen to any of you.

I’m still spotting some furrowed brows out there. “But Anne, let’s assume that the conversation you mention goes swimmingly, and I do say yes. What happens after that?”

Another good question, brow-furrowers, but one that will have to remain unanswered until next time. Keep up the good work!

Just what am I getting myself into? Part II: the money matters

After our long, in-depth foray into the delights of standard format for manuscripts, and as a segue into what I hope will be an extended romp through craft, with particular emphasis upon problems that tend to generate knee-jerk rejection responses, I’m devoting a few days this week to explaining briefly how a manuscript moves from the writer’s fingertips to publication. (My, that was lengthy sentence, was it not? The late Henry James would have been so proud.) There are several ways that this can happen, of course, and but for now, I’m concentrating upon what most people mean by a book’s getting published: being brought to press and promoted by a large publisher. In the US, that publisher’s headquarters will probably be located in New York, Los Angeles, or San Francisco.

Everyone clear on the parameters — and that what I am about to say might not be applicable to a big publishing house in Paris, Johannesburg, or Vladivostok, or to a small publisher domestically? Good. Let’s recap a bit from last time. While we’re at it, let’s get conversant with some of the terms of the trade.

How a manuscript typically comes to publication at a major U.S. publishing house these days (as opposed to way back when)
As we discussed, fiction is typically sold as a completed manuscript; nonfiction is usually sold as a book proposal, a packet of marketing materials that includes a sample chapter and a competitive market analysis, showing how the proposed book will offer the target readership something different and better than similar books already on the market. While the proposal will also include a summary of each of the chapters in the book-to-be-written (in a section known as the annotated table of contents; for tips on how to construct this and the other constituent parts of a book proposal, please see the HOW TO WRITE A BOOK PROPOSAL category on the archive list at right), the editor will often ask the writer to add or subtract chapters or change the book’s running order.

Which underscores a point I made last time: a nonfiction book proposal is essentially a job application wherein the writer is trying to convince the publisher to pay him to write the book being proposed; a novel is a product that the author is trying to sell.

I can already feel some of your eyes glazing over from jargon fatigue, can’t I? Hang in there; I assure you that there are plot twists to come.

A hundred years ago, writers who wished to get their books published went about it in a fairly straightforward manner, by approaching editors at major publishing houses directly. If the editor the author approached liked the book, he would take it to what was (and still is) known as an editorial committee, a group of editors and higher-ups who collectively decided what books the house would bring out in the months and years to come. If the editorial committee decided to go ahead with the project, the publisher would typically pay the author an advance against projected royalties, edit the manuscript, and have it typeset (by hand, no less).

Today, a writer who intends to approach a large U.S. publisher must do so through an agent. The agent’s job is to ferret out which editors might be interested in her clients’ books and pitch to them. Unless an editor happens to be exceptionally well-established at his or her house, however, s/he is not the only one who needs to approve a book’s acquisition: typically, the book will still go before an editorial committee.

At that point, it’s the acquiring editor’s turn to be the advocate for the book s/he wants to publish — and that’s not always an easy task, because other editors will be fighting for their pet projects as well. Since a publishing house can only afford to bring out a very small number of books in any given marketing season, the battle for whose project will see print can become quite intense, and not necessarily only amongst the editors around the table. At a large publishing house, the marketing and legal departments might weigh in as well.

If a manuscript makes it through the hurly-burly of the editorial committee, the editor will offer the writer a publication contract. (Actually, s/he will offer it to the writer’s agent, who will in turn discuss it with the author, but it amounts to the same thing.) Contractual terms vary widely, but at base, they will stipulate that in return for pocketing the lion’s share of the profits, the publisher would bear all of the production and promotional costs, as well as responsibility for getting the book onto bookstore shelves.

In return, the author will agree to provide the manuscript for by a particular date (usually quite soon for a novel — which, please recall, is already completely written before the agent takes it to the editor) or as much as a year and a half later for a book proposal. If the editor wants changes, s/he will issue an editorial memo requesting them.

Some of you just had a strong visceral reaction to the idea of being asked to alter your manuscript, didn’t you? If your heart rate went up by more than a third at the very suggestion, you might want to sit down, put your feet up, and sip a soothing beverage whilst perusing the next section. (Camomile tea might be a good choice.)

Why? Because when an author signs a book contract, she’s agreeing to more than allowing the publisher to print the book. Such as…

Control over the text itself
While the author may negotiate over contested points, the editor will have final say over what will go into the finished book. The contract will say so. And no, in response to what you’re probably thinking: you’re almost certainly not going to be able to win an argument over whether something your editor wants changed will harm the artistic merit of the book.

Sorry to be the one to break the bad news, but it’s better that you know the score going into the situation. Pretty much every first-time author faced with editorial demands has attempted to declare something along the lines of, “Hey, buddy, I’m the author of this work, and what you see on the page represents my artistic vision. Therefore, I refuse to revise in accordance with your misguided boneheaded downright evil suggestion. Oh, well, that’s that.” Or at least thought it very loudly indeed.

That’s an argument that might conceivably work for a well-established, hugely marketable author, but as virtually all of those aforementioned first-time authors could tell you, no one, but no one, at a publishing house is going to find the “My art — my way!” argument particularly compelling. Or even original.

Why? Well, remember my earlier quip about how publishing houses can only bring out a few titles in any book category per year, far, far more than their editors would like to bring to press? It’s never wise to issue a take-it-or-leave-it ultimatum to people so well equipped with alternatives that they can easily afford to leave it. Especially if the issue in question is something as small as cutting your favorite paragraph.

I’m telling you all this not to depress you — although it’s not all that difficult to imagine those last couple of paragraph having that effect — but so that you will not waste your energy and reputation on battling with your editor over every single requested change. Editorial control is built into the publishing process, after all; if you bring a book to successful publication, I can virtually guarantee that you will have to compromise on something. Learning to pick your battles, figuring out when give in gracefully and when to go to the mat, will serve both your interests and your book’s best in the long run.

May I hear an amen? No? How about a few begrudging grunts of acknowledgment? Well, suit yourself, but if you found that last argument trying, you might want to find something to bite down upon before you read on.

Why, you ask with trembling voice? Well, final say over the actual text and the ability to determine the timing of publication are not generally the only authorial rights one signs over via a publishing contract.

A few matters that most first-time authors are stunned to learn that they cannot dictate for their own books: the typeface, the type of binding, the use of italics or special fonts, the number of illustrations, if any, when it will come out, and what the cover will look like. Also almost always beyond a first-time author’s ability to do anything about: the book’s title (that’s generally the marketing department’s call, believe it or not) and whether there is an acknowledgments page (the reason that they have become rarer in recent years is not that authors as a group have magically become less grateful, but that, like the dedication and epigraphs — those nifty quotes from other authors that often appear in published works — they take up extra page space, and thus render publishing a book more expensive).

Hey, I’m just the messenger here. As a memoirist whose title was summarily changed by her publisher from something she expected to be changed (Is That You, Pumpkin?) to one that was bizarrely ungrammatical (A Family Darkly, a coy reference to A Scanner Darkly, which is in itself a reference to 1 Corinthians 13), believe me, my sympathies are squarely on the writers’ side on this one. (And no, Virginia, no employee of my former publishing house was ever able to explain to me with any degree of precision what they thought their preferred title meant.)

The moral, should you care to know it: while landing a publication contract for a first book is certainly a coup, you’ll have a much, much happier life as a professional writer if you don’t expect it all to be one big literary luncheon where the glitterati congratulate you warmly on the beauty of your prose and the insight of your book’s worldview. It’s going to be hard work — for a crash course in just how hard many first-time authors find it, take a gander at the GETTING GOOD AT INCORPORATING FEEDBACK category on the archive list at right — and if you’re going to be successful at it, you’re going to need to come to terms with what you can and cannot control.

Speaking of which…

The hows and whens of book publishing
Another matter that the publication contract will specify is the format in which the publisher will release the book — and no, it won’t be up to you whether your book will be released in hardcover or not. Historically, the author’s percentage has been higher for a hardcover book than for a paperback; until fairly recently, newspapers and magazines habitually reviewed only hardcovers for most novel categories, since that was the standard for high-quality fiction releases.

In the last 15-20 years, however, fiction (and quite a bit of nonfiction, too) has increasingly been released in trade paper, those high-quality softcovers that so conveniently may be rolled and stuffed into a pocket or backpack, so the earlier review restriction has softened. That’s definitely good news for first-time novelists, as well as those of us who like to lug around several different books when we travel.

Hey, a Kindle’s an electronic device — it has to be turned off for takeoff and landing.

Once an editor has acquired a manuscript, it is assigned a place in the publisher’s print queue. In other words, they will tell the author when the book will actually be printed. Since much must happen between the time the editor receives a finished manuscript and when it goes to press, the contracted date by which the author must provide the book is typically months prior to the print date. This often comes as a great big surprise to a first-time author.

If you wish to see your books published, though, you will have to come to terms with the fact that an author’s life is a hurry up/wait/hurry up/wait existence. The main manifestation of this: how long it takes for a major publisher to bring out a book. Although they sometimes will do a rush job to meet the demands of a current fad or news story, the typical minimum time between an author’s signing a book contract and the volume’s appearance in bookstores is at least a year. More often two.

And that’s for fiction — which, as you will no doubt recall, is already written before the publisher has any contact with the book at all. For nonfiction, the time lapse is often substantially longer, in order to permit the author to write the book in question.

So although one does indeed see books on current news stories hitting the shelves within a matter of weeks (the OJ Simpson trial, anyone?), that is most emphatically not the norm. A savvy writer takes this into account when constructing a narrative, avoiding references that might seem absolutely up-to-the-minute when he first types them, but will be as stale as last year’s fashions a year or two hence, when the book is finally available for readers to buy.

I could go on and on about timing and control issues, but I’m seeing some raised hands out there. “Um, Anne?” the excellent folks attached to those hands ask timidly. “I don’t mean to seem shallow about my writing, but I notice that you haven’t said much about how and when an author actually gets paid for her work. Since I will have invested years of unpaid effort in writing a novel or perhaps months in constructing a marketable book proposal, is it unreasonable for me to wonder when I might start to see some tangible return on that investment?”

Of course it isn’t. Let’s take a closer look at how and when a writer might conceivably start cashing in for those manuscripts and/or book proposals she’s written on spec.

How authors get paid for their books
An author who publishes through a large publisher is paid a pre-agreed proportion of the book’s sale price, known as a royalty. An advance against royalties (known colloquially just as an advance) is an up-front payment of a proportion of what the publisher expects the author’s percentage of the jacket price for the initial print run (i.e., the total number of books in the first edition).

Thus, the more spectacularly the publisher expects the book to sell, the larger the advance. And because the advance is by definition an estimate of a number that no human being could predict with absolute accuracy, if the publisher’s estimate was too high, and thus the advance too large for the royalties to exceed, the author is seldom expected to pay back the advance if the book doesn’t sell well. However, once the book is released, the author does not receive further royalty payments until after her agreed-upon share of the books sold exceeds the amount of the advance.

Since approximately 2/3rds of you just gasped audibly, let me repeat that last bit: the advance is not in addition to royalties, but a prepaid portion of them. An advance is not a signing bonus, as most people think, but a down payment toward what a publisher believes it will eventually owe the author.

While your jaw is already dropped, let me hasten to add that royalties over and above the advance amount are usually not paid on an as-the-books-sell basis, which could entail the publisher’s cutting a check every other day, but at regularly-scheduled intervals. Once every six months is fairly standard.

Don’t feel bad if you were previously unaware of how writers get paid; half the published authors I know were completely in the dark about that last point until their first books had been out for five months or so.

Yet another moral: it behooves you to read your publication contract carefully. If you don’t understand what it says, ask your agent to explain it to you; it’s her job.

Those hands just shot up again, didn’t they? “I’m glad you brought that up, Anne. You’ve made it clear why I would need an agent to help me though this process, which sounds like a drawn-out and somewhat unpredictable one. So how do I go about finding the paragon who will protect me and my work?”

I’m glad you asked, hand-raisers. Many aspiring writers believe, mistakenly, that all that’s necessary for a book to get published is to write it. However, as any author whose first book came out within the last decade could tell you, bringing one’s writing to the publishing industry’s attention can be almost as much work as the composition process — and has been known to take just as long or longer.

Again, sorry to be the one to break it to you, but it’s vital to a good writer’s happiness to understand that extended, frustrating, and difficult roads to publication are the norm for first books these days, not the exception.

Clinging to the common writerly misconception that if writing is any good, it will always be picked up by the first or second agent who sees it, or that a manuscript that doesn’t find a publisher within the first few submissions must not be well-written, is a sure road to discouragement, if not outright depression. Certainly, it makes a writer more likely to give up after just a few rejections.

Since the competition in the book market is fierce by the standards of any industry, realistic expectations are immensely helpful in equipping even the most gifted writer for the long haul. It can also be hugely beneficial in tracking down and working well with the helpful friend who will be toting your manuscript to publishers for you, your agent.

So how does a writer go about acquiring this valuable assistant? Unless one happens to be intimate friends with a great many well-established authors, one has two options: verbally and in writing.

But first, let’s talk about what an aspiring writer should NEVER do
Querying and pitching are an aspiring writer’s only options for calling a US-based agent’s attention to his or her work. Picking up the phone and calling, stopping them on the street, or other informal means of approach are considered quite rude.

Translation: they’re not going to work. Don’t even try.

The same holds true for mailing or e-mailing a manuscript to an agent without asking first if s/he would like to see it, by the way. This is universally an instant-rejection offense. Unlike in the old days, simply sending to an agent who has never heard of you will only result in your work being rejected unread: uniformly, agencies reject pages they did not actually ask to see (known as unsolicited submissions).

Is everyone clear on how to avoid seeming rude? Good. Let’s move on to the accepted courteous means of introducing yourself and your book.

Approaching an agent in writing: the query letter
The classic means of introducing one’s book to an agent is by sending a formal letter, known in the trade as a query. Contrary to popular belief, the query’s goal is not to convince an agent to represent the book in question — no agent is going to offer to represent a book or proposal before she’s read it — but to prompt the agent to ask the writer to send either the opening pages of the manuscript or the whole thing. After that, your good writing can speak for itself, right?

Think of the query as your book’s personal ad, intended to pique an agent’s interest, not as the first date.

Always limited to a single page in length, the query letter briefly presents the agent with the bare-bones information s/he will need in order to determine whether s/he wants to read any or all of the manuscript the writer is offering. This will be familiar to those of you who worked through my Querypalooza series last fall, but for the benefit of all of you New Year’s resolvers new to the game, here’s a list of the information a good query should include:

(1) Whether the book is fiction or nonfiction. You’d be surprised at how often queriers forget to mention which.

(2) The book category. Basically, the part of the bookstore where the publishing book will occupy shelf space. Since no agent represents every kind of book, this information is essential: if an agent doesn’t have connections with editors who publish the type of book you’re querying, he’s not going to waste either your time or his by asking to see it. (For guidance on how to determine your book’s category, please see the aptly-named HOW TO FIGURE OUT YOUR BOOK’S CATEGORY listing on the archive list on the lower-right side of this page.)

It’s also a good idea, but not strictly required, to point out who might be interested in reading your book and why; an agent is going to want to know that at some point, anyway. Of course, I’m not talking about boasting predictions like, “Oh, Random House would love this!” or “This is a natural for Oprah!” (you wouldn’t believe how often agents hear that last one) or sweeping generalizations like, “Every woman in America needs to read this book!” Instead, try describing it the way a marketing professional might: “This book will appeal to girls aged 13-16, because it deals with issues they face in their everyday lives. (For tips on figuring out who your book’s audience might be with this much specificity, please see the IDENTIFYING YOUR TARGET MARKET category at right.)

(3) A one- or two-paragraph description of the book’s argument or plot. No need to summarize the entire plot here, merely the premise, but do make sure that the writing is vivid. For a novel or memoir, this paragraph should introduce the book’s protagonist, the main conflict or obstacles she faces, and what’s at stake if she does or does not overcome them. For a nonfiction book, this paragraph should present the central question the book addresses and suggest, briefly, how the book will address it.

(4) The writer’s previous publishing credentials or awards, if any, and/or expertise that renders her an expert on the book’s topic. Although not necessarily indicative of the quality of a book’s writing, to an agent, these are some of your book’s selling points. For tips on figuring out what to include here, please see the YOUR BOOK’S SELLING POINTS category on the list at right.

(5) Some indication of why the writer thinks the agent to whom the letter is addressed would be a good representative for the book. As I mentioned above, agents don’t represent books in general: they represent specific varieties. Since they so often receive queries from aspiring writers who are apparently sending exactly the same letter indiscriminately to every agent in the country, stating up front why you chose to pick THIS agent is an excellent idea. No need to indulge in gratuitous flattery: a simple since you so ably represented Book X or since you represent literary fiction (or whatever your book category is) will do.

Should any of you have been considering querying every agent in the country, be warned: it’s a sure route to rejection, especially if a writer makes the mistake of addressing the letter not to a specific person, but Dear Agent. Trust me on this one.

(6) The writer’s contact information. Another one that you might be astonished to learn is often omitted. Yet if the agent can’t get hold of you, she cannot possibly ask to you to send her your manuscript, can she?

(7) A stamped, self-addressed envelope (SASE) for the agent’s reply. This isn’t part of the letter, strictly speaking, but it absolutely must be included in the envelope in which you send your query. No exceptions, not even if you tell the agent in the query that you would prefer to be contacted via e-mail.

I’m serious about this: don’t forget to include it. Queries that arrive without SASEs are almost universally rejected unread. (For tips on the hows and whys of producing perfect SASEs, please see the SASE GUIDELINES category on the list at right.)

Is there more to constructing a successful query letter than this? Naturally — since I’ve written extensively about querying (posts you will find under the perplexingly-named HOW TO WRITE A QUERY LETTER category on the archive list, if you’re interested) and how it should look (QUERY LETTERS ILLUSTRATED), the list above is not intended to be an exhaustive guide to how to write one.

Speaking of realistic expectations, do not be disappointed if you do not receive an instantaneous response to your query. Because a well-established agent may receive 800 to 1500 queries per week (yes, you read that correctly), it’s not uncommon for a regularly mailed query not to hear back for a month or six weeks. Some agencies do not respond at all if the answer is no. So it’s just poor strategy to query agents one at a time. (For a fuller explanation, please see the QUERYING MULTIPLE AGENTS AT ONCE category at right.)

Approaching an agent in writing, part II: the electronic or website-based query
Because of the aforementioned slow turn-around times for queries sent via regular mail, increasing numbers of aspiring writers are choosing to send their query letters via e-mail. There are pros and cons to this — which I shall go over at length in a day or two, when I fulfill a reader request for a Formatpalooza take on the subject.

Some agencies ask queriers fill out an electronic form that includes some or all of the information that’s in a traditional query letter. While some aspiring writers have landed agents in this manner, I tend to discourage this route, since typically, the word count allowed is sharply limited. (Some agency sites permit as few as 50 words for plot summaries, for instance.) Also, most writers just copy and paste material from their query letters into the boxes of these forms, substantially increasing the likelihood of cut-off words, missed punctuation, and formatting errors.

If you just cringed, in recognition of how people who read manuscripts for a living tend to react to these types of tiny errors: congratulations. Your chances of querying successfully are substantially higher than someone who doesn’t know to conduct intense proofreading upon ANYTHING that’s s/he sends an agent.

Remember, literally every sentence you send a potential agent is a sample of how good your writing is. Regardless of whether you choose to query electronically or via regular mail, it’s in your best interests to make sure that every syllable is impeccably presented.

Which is why, in case you were wondering, written queries were the only means of approaching agents until just a few years ago, and still the means that most of them prefer. (Short of a personal introduction, of course. Writers whose college roommates or best friends from elementary school grew up to be agents enjoy an undeniable advantage in obtaining representation that the rest of us do not enjoy.) If a potential client has trouble expressing himself in writing, is ignorant of the basic rules of grammar, or is just plain inattentive to those itsy-bitsy details I mentioned above, a written query will tend to show it.

To be fair, aspiring writers often prefer to query in writing, because that, after all, is presumably their strength. Besides, there are a lot of very talented but shy writers out there who would infinitely prefer to present their work from a distance, rather than in person. However, direct interaction with an agent is sometimes a plus.

Approaching an agent verbally: the pitch
A face-to-face presentation of a book concept to an agent is called a pitch, and it’s actually not indigenous to publishing: it’s borrowed from the movie industry. Screenwriters pitch their work verbally all the time. The reason that the publishing industry has been rather reluctant to follow suit is a corollary of the proof-is-in-the-pudding reason I mentioned above: not everyone who can talk about a book well can write one successfully, just as not every writer capable of producing magnificent prose is equally adept at describing it in conversation.

However, since writers’ conferences often import agents to speak, many set up formal pitching sessions for attendees. Sometimes they charge extra for the privilege; sometimes it’s included in the conference fee. It’s also sometimes possible to buttonhole an agent after a seminar or in a hallway, but many conference organizers frown upon that. (Contrary to conference-circuit rumor, it’s typically the conference bigwigs who object to hallway pitching, not the attending agents. Virtually nobody objects to being approached politely immediately after a conference panel — and if they do, they simply say no and walk away. But no matter how much you want a particular agent to represent you, it’s NEVER considered acceptable to attempt to pitch in a conference or literary event’s bathroom. Don’t let me catch you doing it.)

Like the query letter, the purpose of the pitch is not to convince the agent to sign a writer to a long-term representation contract on the spot, but to get the agent to ask the writer to mail him or her chapters of the book. (To engage in another parenthetical just-between-us chat: contrary to what conference brochures often imply, agents virtually never ask a pitcher to produce anything longer than a five-page writing sample on the spot. Since manuscripts are heavy, they almost universally prefer to have writers either mail or e-mail requested pages. I don’t know why conference organizers so often tell potential attendees otherwise.)

In order to achieve that, you’re going to need to describe your book compellingly and in terms that will make sense to the business side of the industry. In essence, then, a pitch is a verbal query letter.

Thus, it should contain the same information: whether it is fiction or nonfiction, the book category, the target audience, any writing credentials or experience you might have that might provide selling points for the book, and a BRIEF plot summary. Most conference organizers are adamant about the brief part: their guidelines will commonly specify that the summary portion should take no more than 2 minutes.

Did I just hear all of you novelists out there gulp? You honestly do not have a lot of time here: scheduled pitch sessions may range in length anywhere from 2-15 minutes, but most are 5-10.

Usually, they are one-on-one meetings in a cramped space where many other writers are noisily engaged in pitching to many other agents, not exactly an environment conducive to intimate chat. At some conferences, though, a number of writers will sit around a table with an agent, pitching one after the other.

Yes, that’s right: as if this situation weren’t already stressful enough, you might have to be doing this in front of an audience.

While the opportunity to spend telling a real, live agent about your book I’m going to be honest with you: the vast majority of aspiring writers find pitching absolutely terrifying, at least the first time they do it. Like writing a good query letter, constructing and delivering a strong pitch is not something any talented writer is magically born knowing how to do: it’s a learned skill. For some help in learning how to do it, please see the HOW TO PREPARE A PITCH category on the list at right.

In case I’m being too subtle here: if you are looking for in-depth analysis on any of these subjects or step-by-step how-tos, try perusing the category list at right.

Since I usually tackle these issues on a much more detail-oriented basis — a hazard of my calling, I’m afraid — I’m finding it quite interesting to paint the picture in these broad strokes. Next time, I shall talk a bit about what happens after a query or submission arrives at an agency — and perhaps use that as a segue into that aforementioned additional Formatpalooza post, by special reader request.

The joint is going to be jumping here at Author! Author! Keep up the good work!

The getting-a-book-published basics, part XII: things change — but not as fast as many writers would like

Yes, yes, I know: I usually open our discussion and gladden your hearts with a pretty picture, or at any rate one to get you thinking about our topic du jour. Today’s marginally pretty pictures, however, require a bit of initial explanation. Specifically, I want to give you a heads-up about how I would like you to use them.

So: please stare at the photos I am about to show you for a good, long minute before moving on to the rest of the post. I would like these images burned into your cranium before we return to our ongoing topic, how manuscripts move from the writer’s brainpan, through an agency, through a publishing house, to end up on your local bookstore’s shelves.

Never mind why; just stare. First, at this snapshot I took in my yard a year ago:

a-windchime-in-the-snow

Clear in your mind? Excellent. Now contemplate, if you will, the same view at a later date (and from slightly farther away, I now notice):

crabtree-blossoms-and-windchime

Four months separate those pictures — either a very short time for such a radical alteration of the environment or an interminable one, depending upon how you choose to look at it. But whatever your attitude, the fact remains that both the wind chime and its observer feel quite different sensations now than they did then, right?

Bear that gentle observation in mind for the rest of this post, please. This series has, after all, been all about gaining a broader perspective on a great, big, time-consuming process whose built-in delays aspiring writers all too often — mistakenly — regard as completely personal.

Yes, it’s all happening to you, but the upcoming change of seasons will happen to you, too. Does that mean that nobody else experiences it? Or that today’s frosty blast of winter air was aimed at you personally?

Realistic expectations and the management of resentment
For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been sticking to the basics: an overview of the trajectory a manuscript typically travels from the writer’s hands to ultimately sitting on a shelf at your local bookstore. Since what most aspiring writers have in mind when they say they want to get their books published is publication through great big New York City-based publishing houses — GBNYCBPH for short, although admittedly, not very short — I’ve been concentrating upon that rather difficult route.

As we have seen, in order to pursue that particular path — which is, as we shall see later in the week, not the only possible route to publication; people merely act as though it is — a writer needs an agent. Yet as we also saw earlier in this series, that was not always the case: aspiring writers used to be able to approach editors at GBNYCBPH directly; until not very long ago, nonfiction writers still could. Instead, writers seeking publication at GBNYCBPH invest months — or, more commonly, years — in attracting the agent who can perform the necessary introduction.

So a historically-minded observer could conclude that over time, the road to publication has become significantly longer for the average published author, or at any rate more time-consuming. Should we writers rend our garments over this, bearding the heavens with our bootless cries, complaining to an unhearing collection of muses that it’s just a whole lot more difficult to get good writing published than it used to be?

Well, we could — and a startlingly high percentage of the public discussion of the writing life is devoted to just that. One can hardly walk into any writers’ conference in North America without tripping over a knot of writers commiserating about it. Certainly, you can’t Google how to get a book published without pulling up an intriguingly intense list of how-to sites and fora where aspiring writers complain about their experiences, sometimes helpfully, sometimes not. And don’t even try to total up all of the blogs on the subject.

Two things are clear: there’s quite a bit of garment-rending going on, and this process is hard.

Although I am never averse to a little light self-inflicted clothing damage if the situation warrants it, I am inclined to think that most aspiring writers expend too much energy on resentment. Without question, most take it too personally, given that the GBNYCBPH didn’t suddenly rearrange their submission policies the day before yesterday in order to avoid having to deal with any individual submission they might otherwise have received within the next six months. Using agents as the North American literary world’s manuscript screeners, effectively, has been going on for quite some time.

Did I just hear a few dozen cries of “Aha!” out there? Yes, your revelation is quite correct: at one level, an agency is to a major NYC-based publishing house what Millicent the agency screener is to the agent, the gatekeeper who determines which manuscripts will and will not be seen by someone empowered to make a decision about publishing it.

But it’s laughably easy for an aspiring writer in the throes of agent-seeking to forget that, isn’t it? All too often, aspiring writers speak amongst themselves and even think about landing an agent as though that achievement were the Holy Grail of publishing: it’s a monumentally difficult feat to pull off, but once a writer’s made it, the hard work’s over; the sweets of the quest begin.

It’s a pretty image, but let me ask you something: have you ever heard a writer who already has an agent talk about it this way?

I’m guessing that you haven’t, because I’m hear to tell you: seldom are garments rent more drastically than amongst a group of agented writers whose books have not yet been picked up by GBNYCBPH.

Why, the agent-seekers out there gasp, aghast? Because typically, signing with an agent doesn’t mean just handing the manuscript over to another party who is going to do all the work; it means taking on a whole host of other obligations, frequently including biting one’s lip and not screaming while absolutely nothing happens with a manuscript for months at a time.

To put it lest histrionically, working with an agent is work. Just not the same work that a writer was doing before.

In other words: things change. And that’s only natural.

Okay, so what is it like to work with an agent?
Are you sitting down? You should, because the answer to that question generally comes as a gargantuan surprise to those in the throes of agent-seeking: the main change most newly-agented writers report is no longer feeling that they have control over what happens to their books.

That’s not paranoia talking, by the way, nor is it merely the inevitable emotional letdown inherent in reaching a goal one has pursued for an awfully long time. It’s a ruthlessly accurate perception, usually.

How so, you ask with horror? Well, for starters, the agent, not the writer will be the one making decisions about:

* when the manuscript is ready for submission to editors at GBNYCBPH;

* given that the agent’s initial answer to that first question will almost certainly be not yet, what revisions need to be made in order to render it ready;

* when the market is ripe for this particular submission (hint: not necessarily when the country’s flailing its way out of a serious recession);

* what additional materials should be included in the submission packet, and your timeline for producing them (because yes, Virginia, you will be the one producing most of marketing materials your agent will wield on your behalf);

* which editors should see it and in what order;

* how it should be submitted (one at a time, in a mass submission, or something in between);

* how soon to follow up with editors who have been sitting on the submission for a while (in general, quite a bit longer than strikes an impatient first-time author as appropriate);

* whether it’s even worth bothering to follow up with certain editors (especially if it’s rumored that they’re about to be laid off or are toying with an offer from another publishing house);

* whether to pass along to the writer the reasons that an editor gave for rejecting the manuscript (not all agents do — and not all agents who do pass along all of the feedback they receive from editors, especially if it contradicts their own views of the book);

* whether enough editors have given similar excuses that the writer really ought to go back and revise the manuscript before it gets submitted again;

* when a manuscript has been seen by enough to stop submitting it, and

*when to start nagging the writer to write something new, so s/he can market that.

I make no pretense of foretelling the future, but I don’t need to be the Amazing Kreskin to state with 100% certainty that those of you who land agents between the time I post this and two years from now will disagree with those agents on at least one of the points above. Probably more. And the vast majority of the time, you will not win that particular debate, because the agent is the one who is going to be doing the submitting.

Oh, you would rather not have known about this until after you signed a representation contract? And aren’t you glad that you already had those nice, peaceful windchime images rattling around in your head? (I thought you might like a brain-soother right about now.)

Now that you’ve calmed down — oh, like the list above didn’t make you even the teensiest bit angry — let’s take another gander at it. Notice how much work the writer is expected to do under this arrangement? You produce the manuscript or proposal, revise it according to the agent’s specifications, write any additional marketing material (trust me, you’ll be glad that you already have an author bio — and if you don’t, consider devoting next weekend to going through the HOW TO WRITE AN AUTHOR BIO category on the list at right to come up with one), make any subsequent revisions (editors have been known to ask for some BEFORE they’ll acquire a book)…

And all the while, you’re supposed to be working furiously on your next book project. Why? Because “So, what are you working on now?” is one of the first questions any editor interested in your current book will ask.

Nice, deep breaths. That dizzy feeling will pass before you know it.

In fact, don’t be surprised if your agent starts asking about your next book roughly 42 seconds after you deliver the full manuscript of the book that attracted his attention in the first place. A career writer — one who has more than one book in him, as they say — is inherently more valuable to an agent or a publishing house than one who can only think in terms of one book at a time; there’s more for the agent to sell, and once a editor knows she can work with a writer (not a self-evident proposition) whose voice sells well (even less self-evident), she’s going to want to see the next book as soon as humanly possible.

And no, at that point, no one will care that you still have a day job. It’s a reasonable objection, though.

A word to the wise: you might want to start working on your next during that seemingly endless period while your agent is shopping your book around — that’s agency-speak for showing it to editors — or getting ready to shop your book around. Yes, it’s a whole lot of work to wrest your fine creative mind out of the book currently in your agent’s beefy hands — but it’s a far, far more productive use of all of that nervous energy than sitting around and fretting about whether your agent is submitting your last book quickly enough.

Or rending your garments. Trust me on this one.

Wait — so what will my agent actually do with my manuscript once s/he deems it ready to go?
Let’s assume that you’ve already made the changes your agent requests, and both you and he have pulled it off in record time. Let’s also say that he’s taken only three months to give you a list of the changes he wanted, and you’ve been able to make them successfully in another three.

If that first bit sounds like a long time to you, remember how impatient you were after you submitted your manuscript to the agent? The agent has to read all of his current clients’ work AND all of those new submissions; it can take a long time to get around to any particular manuscript.

What happens next? Well, it depends upon how the agency operates. Some agencies (like mine, as it happens) will ask the writer to send them 8-15 clean copies of the entire manuscript for submission.

Other agencies will simply photocopy the manuscript they have to send it out and deduct the cost of copying from the advance. Sometimes the per-page fee can be rather steep with this second type of agency; if it is, ask if you can make the copies yourself and mail them. Many agents will also ask for an electronic copy of the manuscript, for submission in soft copy.

While some of you are cringing, furtively adding up how much it would cost to produce 15 impeccable copies of a 400-page manuscript, I can feel others of you starting to get excited out there. “Oh, boy, Anne!” a happy few squeal. “This is the part I’ve been waiting for — the agent takes my writing to the editors at the GBNYCBPH!”

Well, probably not right away: agencies tend to run on submission schedules, so as not to overtax the mailroom staff. It also makes keeping the submission lists straight easier — because you don’t want your manuscript to be sent to either the wrong editor or the same editor twice, do you?

In a large agency, it may take a while for a new client’s book to make its way up the queue. Also, not all times of the year are equally good for submission.

That just made half of you sit up ramrod-straight in your chairs, didn’t it? Remember how I told you that much of the publishing industry goes on vacation between the second week of August and Labor Day? And that it’s virtually impossible to get an editorial committee together between Thanksgiving and the end of the year? Not to mention intervening events that draw editors away from their desks, like the spring-summer writers’ conference season and the Frankfurt Book Fair in the autumn?

The inevitable result: your manuscript may be in for a wait. Depending upon your relationship with your new agent, you may or may not receive an explanation for any delays.

But the usual reason is — shout it with me now — things change. The manuscript that couldn’t interest an editor even if the agent did a striptease during the pitch (oh, there are stories) five years ago might get snapped up in a flash two years from now. And while the bookstores may be crammed with vampires and zombies now, they will be just as crammed with future fads next year.

See why it’s of critical importance to sign with not just any agent, but one whose judgment you trust, one who believes in your talent? A good agent is not just some guy who can take a brilliantly-written book and sell it — ideally, he’s the writer’s partner in long-term strategic planning of the literary variety.

And that kind of partnership, my friends, is well worth searching a while to find.

Because although this is a hard business, it’s also an ever-changing one. You want an agent who understands that ultimately, literary success is a long-term game. Myopically insisting that is true today is eternally true of the book market is just, well, historically ill-informed.

Things change — and that’s only natural. Keep up the good work!

The getting-a-book-published basics, part X: the agency contract revisited, or, excuse me, sirs, but could any of you tell me which one of you will be representing my book tomorrow?

police line-up

Last time, I broached the seldom-discussed issue of agency contracts — you know those handy documents that spell out explicitly what the agent offering to represent you will do for you in exchange for how much. While most aspiring writers simply squeal and shout, “Yes! Yes! Yes!” the nanosecond an offer emerges from an agent’s mouth, it’s very much in your interest to know what you’re agreeing to before you agree to it.

In other words: not all agencies are created equal. Nor do they all operate in the same manner.

There are, however, some norms. As those of you who pored over yesterday’s post may recall to your sorrow, in going over how (and how much) US-based agents typically get paid for representing their clients’ work, I mentioned that US agency contracts typically specify 15% for books sold to a North American English-language publisher, 20% or more for sales to non-North American publishers, whether the book is published in English or not.

“Um, Anne?” a small, confused chorus has been piping out there in the ether ever since I first brought it up. “Was the bit about English-language North American sales just a really complicated, drawn-out typo? Aren’t there other people in the world who read English — like, say, the people in England? Why aren’t all of the English-language sales lumped together, and the foreign ones together?”

Ah, because that would make sense, my friends. The industry likes to keep all of us guessing by throwing a cognitive curve ball every now and again, so this is going to require a fairly extensive and rather convoluted explanation.

Before I launch into it, you might want to pop into the kitchen and make yourself some tea, or fluff up the pillows on your ottoman. I’ll wait.

Okay, everybody comfortable? Here goes.

North American vs. world rights
From the point of view of your garden-variety US publisher, books published in the English language fall into three categories: those sold in North America (meaning in the US and Canada), those sold in Great Britain, and those sold in other countries. So when folks in the industry speak about a US-based agent selling a book to a US-based publisher, they’re generally talking about the first North American rights: the publisher has bought the ability to be the only source of the first addition of the book in the US and Canada.

Of the three categories, only North American rights are considered English-language sales, for contractual purposes. The last two are considered foreign-language sales, which is why — pay close attention here — if your agent manages to sell your book to a UK-based publisher, you will be selling the world rights. Believe it or not, the world excludes North America — which I imagine might come as something of a surprise to those of us who live here.

There — and you thought it wasn’t going to make sense.

What might all of this rigmarole mean for the writer? Perversely, if EXACTLY the same English-language book by a US author was sold in Canada and Great Britain, the author’s US agent would take 15% of the royalties on the first and 20% on the second. Sometimes, the Canadian rights are subsumed in the world rights (if, say, the publisher is UK-based), instead of under the North American rights.

Before you laugh out loud, I should warn you that this scenario is not particularly far-fetched: all of the books in the HARRY POTTER series were sold in a slightly different form in the former Commonwealth than in the U.S. Why? Well, chips mean one thing to a kid in London and another to a kid in LA, and while apparently the industry has faith that a kid in Saskatchewan could figure that out, it despairs of the cultural translation skills of a kid in Poughkeepsie or Omaha.

This is why, in case you were curious, you will see the notation NA in industry discussions of book sales — it refers to first North American rights, minus Mexico. Rights to sell books south of the border, in any language, fall under foreign language rights, which are typically sold on a by-country basis. However, occasionally an American publisher will try to score a sweet deal on a book expected to be a bestseller and try to get the world rights as part of the initial deal, but this generally does not work out well for the author.

Why? Well, do the math: if a book is reprinted in a second language and a North American publisher owns the foreign rights, the domestic house scrapes an automatic 20% off the top of any foreign-language royalties accrued by the author. (If this discussion seems a trifle technical, chalk it up to the rather extended struggle I had to retain my memoir’s foreign rights; back in the day, my now-gun-shy publisher wanted ‘em, big time. But they’re mine, I tell you, all mine!)

I cannot stress enough, though: read your contract. Ask some questions. Norms are just norms; individual agencies’ policies do vary.

But what if I am represented by an agent based outside North America — or if I’m unsure if a North American one is asking me to agree to legitimate terms?
Obviously, what constitutes a domestic sale would vary depending upon the country in which the agent does his primary business. So if you are reading this somewhere outside North America, or translated into a language other than English, you should not blithely assume that what I am saying here applies to your home country; it’s always worth your while to check with your national literary agents’ association. For the English-speaking world, the top ones are:

In the United States, contact the Association of Authors’ Representatives.

In the United Kingdom, contact the Association of Authors’ Agents.

In Australia, contact the Australian Literary Agents Association.

I couldn’t find a specific association for Canada (if anyone knows of one, please let me know, and I’ll be delighted to update this), but the Association of Canadian Publishers’ website does include information about literary agencies north of the border.

Not all agents are members of these organizations, but if there have been complaints from writers in the past, these groups should be able to tell you. They are there to help writers make crucial decisions about who should represent their work. So are writer-protection sites like Preditors and Editors or the Absolute Write Water Cooler, excellent places to check who is doing what to folks like us these days. Writer Beware, a website sponsored by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, provides a wealth of resources for those who want to learn about scams aimed at writers.

Please don’t dismiss the notion doing some minimal checking to assure the agents reading your work are on the up-and-up as writerly paranoia — who represents your work is too important to your writing career to leave to chance. Remember, not everyone who slaps up an official-looking website is actually an agent, and good writers too nice to want to seem confrontational get burned all the time.

In case it might influence the decision-making process of those of you quietly rolling your eyes at the prospect of investing even more of your scant writing time in researching folks whose ostensible purpose in life is to help writers, I should add: all but the last site I listed are also pretty good places to learn about agents’ specialties, on the off chance that you might be looking for someone to query now that the Great New Year’s Resolution Plague of 2010 is fast receding into memory.

I just mention.

Let’s assume for the moment, though, that the agency lucky enough to land you as a client — strange to think of it that way, isn’t it? — is as reputable as reputable can be. Most agencies are. Even under that happy circumstance, it’s very much in your best interest to understand how and to whom an agent might market your book before you read, much less sign, an agency contact. Not only because these distinctions are rather counter-intuitive, but because they’re the criteria used to determine what percentage your agent will take out of your advance and royalty checks.

Again: read your representation contract before you sign it. Ask some questions. The only way this relationship is going to work to both your benefit and the agent’s is if both parties understand precisely what each of them is supposed to do.

Tell me again how I’m supposed to cover all of this in my first conversation with a prospective agent without sounding like a paranoid jerk?
I sense that some of you have gone a bit pale over the course of the last dozen or so paragraphs. “Um, Anne?” a few queasy souls inquire. “You’re kidding about expecting me to have an intelligent discussion of all of this with my agent in the first 30 seconds after he’s offered to represent me, right? Couldn’t I just agree to let him represent me, and sort the details out later?”

Well, of course you could — as I said, most aspiring writers just blurt out “Oh, God, YES!” before finding out anything about the terms to which they’re agreeing at all. I can completely understand this impulse: mistrust is the last thing on your mind when you are thrilled to pieces that a real, live agent wants to represent you.

Yes, YOU. How thrilling!

Trust your Auntie Anne on this one, though: honeymoons do occasionally end, and not generally because anyone concerned has done anything especially nefarious. Remember, agents move from one agency to another all the time, especially in this economy. If this happens, you will need to know with whom you have a contract, the agency or the agent. (Either is possible.)

It’s also not unheard-of for an agent to stop representing a particular genre even though she has clients still writing and publishing in it. Writers occasionally develop a sudden urge to compose a book in a category for which their agents do not have current contacts. And so forth.

The agency contract is, in short, one contract to read with your glasses ON, and paper by your side to jot down questions. It’s perfectly legitimate to request time to pore over it. Then pick up your notes, hie yourself to a telephone, and start asking follow-up questions.

If you do not have an opportunity to see a copy of the agency contract before having your first serious conversation about your future with your new agent — as will probably be the case; many agents are notoriously slow in sending out representation agreements — do make a point of asking the agent in your first conversation for a brief overview of its major points.

That’s merely good sense whenever you are going to deal with a business with which you are unfamiliar, and it would never occur to a reputable agent to take your caution at all personally.

Because, you see, by being cautious, you’re not calling the agent’s integrity into question, but making sure you know precisely what she is proposing that you do together. After all, the agent almost certainly will not have been the person who wrote the contract; the agency will have an established boilerplate. Naturally, it is in an honest agent’s best interest for a prospective client to understand the contract-to-be well enough to abide by its provisions.

Allow me to repeat something I dropped into the middle of that last paragraph, because it comes as news to a lot of newly-agented writers: unless your future agent happens to own the agency, it is the agency — not the agent whom you are prepared to love, honor, and obey for as long as you shall write and she shall sell — who will set the terms of your relationship.

The agency, not the agent, produces that contract I keep yammering about, after all; the agent may not even sign it. So a savvy writer should be very, very interested in the policies and procedures of any agency to which she is about to commit herself and her writing.

Wait — what do you mean, I’m committing to the agency, not just the agent?
That’s right — agency policy will affect you, and that agent who is being so nice to you on the phone will not be the only agency employee who will be dealing with your work. Among other things, the agency, and not merely the agent, is going to be handling every dime you make as a writer — and furthermore, telling the fine folks at the IRS all about it.

Remember, your publisher will be sending your advance and royalty checks to your agency, not to you personally. (For a more in-depth examination, please see the ADVANCES and ROYALTIES AND HOW THEY WORK categories on the list at right.) If your work is going to be sold abroad, the agency will turn your book, your baby, over to a foreign rights agent of ITS selection, not yours — and will be taking a higher percentage of your royalties for those sales than for those in the English-speaking parts of North America, typically. And the agency is also going to be responsible not only for keeping the government informed about all of these transactions, but also preparing those messily-carboned royalty forms that you will be submitting with your taxes.

That’s a whole lot of trust to invest in people who you may never meet face-to-face, isn’t it? Or, in some cases, people that you may not even know exist?

Did I just hear a giant collective gasp out there? I hate to be the one to break it to you, but many authors never meet their agents in person; is it really all that surprising, then, that few are on friendly terms with the rest of the agency’s staff? It’s not as though the agency will fly a prospective client from California to New York just to get acquainted. Since almost everything in the biz is handled by phone, e-mail, or snail mail, face-to-face contact is seldom necessary.

The result? Well, it’s not a scientific sample, of course, but I know plenty of writers who couldn’t pick their agents, much less the principal of their agency, out of a police line-up. (Not that you really want to be in the position to hiss, “That’s she, officer. SHE’S THE ONE WHO DIDN’T MAIL MY ROYALTY CHECK,” but still.)

Ideally, you want relationships with both your agent and agency so comfortable that you have no qualms — and no need to have any — about simply handing the business side of your writing over to them and letting them get on with making you rich and famous. (Which you already know that no agent cannot legitimately promise up front, right?) So while asking a whole lot of pointed questions at the outset may seem mistrustful, doing so will actually substantially increase the probability that you’re going to trust and respect your agent a year or two down the road.

At minimum, find out whether you are signing with the agency as a whole or with the agent specifically: contracts come both ways. Remember, agencies vary quite a bit. Some are set up so the royalty money all goes into a common pool, funding the entire agency, and some are run like hairdressing establishments, where each chair, so to speak, houses an independent contractor, and no funds are mixed.

Why should your agent’s employment arrangements concern you? Well, if you are the client of an independent contractor-type agent, if she leaves the agency, you more or less automatically go with her, or will at least be given the option of doing so. If your contract is with the agency, you probably will not.

Again, asking about this is not being paranoid; it’s being prudent. Few human relationships are permanent, after all.

Let’s face it: some agencies have pretty short lifespans. It’s also not all that uncommon for agents simply to burn out on the biz; selling books is hard work, after all. And since many agents have a track record of agency-hopping every couple of years — as many junior agents do; it’s a smart way to build a professional lifetime’s worth of contact lists — may I suggest that how the agency is set up may affect your life pretty profoundly?

Don’t think that nice agent who called you to offer to represent you would drop out of sight? Okay, cover your representation contract — no peeking now — and answer these trenchant questions:

(1) If your agent retired, would you still be represented, or would you need to find a new agent?

(2) What about if she got laid off and the agency did not replace her, as is happening in agencies all over the country right now? Would you still be represented then?

(3) What if she got into a car crash, God forbid, and had to cut her client list in half?

(4) Does the agency have any hierarchy in place to mediate any disagreements that may If you had a fundamental disagreement with your agent, could you move to another agent within the agency, or would you need to find a new agent elsewhere?

(5) On the brighter side, what if your agent started an agency of her own?

Yes, I actually do know authors to whom each of these things has happened; thanks for asking. None of them had even considered any of these possibilities until the realities hit them in the face. And virtually all of them now say that it never occurred to them to question whether the agency would be there to support them if something happened to their again.

But perhaps that’s not too surprising: many an author could not pick any member of her agency’s staff but her agent out of a crowd at a writers’ conference. Or out of a police line-up, for that matter.

So I take it you’re saying that this isn’t a business that runs on handshakes
Sometimes it is, but you should be very wary of an agent who is not willing to offer you a written contract. Contrary to popular belief, verbal contracts may be binding (if some consideration has changed hands as a result of it, as I understand it; if you handed someone a $50 bill and the keys to your car after the two of you had discussed his painting a mural on the passenger-side door, I’m told that could be construed as a contract, even with nothing in writing, but you should definitely talk to a lawyer before you attempt anything so zany), but as I MAY have pointed out, oh, 1800 times in the last 5-plus years, this is an industry where the power differential tends not to fall in the writer’s favor until after she is pretty darned well established.

Protect yourself. A good place to start: reading your representation contract and asking some intelligent questions.

Assume, too, that at some point, you will want to revisit some of these issues. If you are offered a written contract, make yourself a photocopy so you may refer to it later.

Yes, even if the agent or agency’s head has not yet countersigned it. Many agented writers report that they have never seen another copy of the contract again after they signed it.

Dare I hope that those great, gusty sighs I hear wafting from my readership mean that this is all sinking in? “Okay, Anne,” sadder-but-hopefully-wiser writers everywhere concede. “I get it: it’s not in my interest to take the details of the agent-client relationship on faith. I need to ask questions when I don’t understand something. But right now, I don’t think I have the energy to do that, because you’ve depressed me into a stupor. The last couple of posts have occasionally read as if half the agents out there are evil trolls, waiting under every bridge into Manhattan in the hope of defrauding innocent authors.”

Of course, that’s not the case. The vast majority of agents honestly are good people who love good writing and want to help writers — but as in every profession, not all of them are scrupulous about fulfilling their obligations toward their clients. It behooves us all to be cautious.

So read that contract; act those questions; walk into that agency with your eyes wide open and your reading glasses firmly on.

And please, when the time comes: don’t be so flattered by an agent’s attention that you just agree to everything you are asked — or contractual provisions you don’t know exist. That’s how good writers get hurt, and I don’t want to see it happen to any of you. Put up your antennae before entrusting your precious manuscript to just anyone’s care.

Next time, I’ll talk about what agents do with manuscripts after the representation contract is signed. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

The getting-a-book-published basics, part IX: the agency contract, or, what to say to an agent who offers to represent you — other than, “Yes, please.”

fireworks

Today’s installment of our ongoing series is an exciting one, campers: I’m going to be talking about the happy day when an agent first tells a writer that he wants to represent her. Most aspiring writers have long fantasized about that auspicious event, but what actually happens?

Other than a monumental celebration, of course. I think it’s safe to assume that all of you can picture that part for yourselves.

Let’s back up a moment and savor the actual moment of acceptance in some detail: first, the phone rings. Although some agents do prefer to communicate by e-mail, typically, if a US-based agent is offering to represent a North America-based writer, the agent will telephone.

Why? Well, agents tend to be in a hurry pretty much all the time, and they’re used to using their powers of verbal persuasion. (Remember, most agents will assume that you will have continued to query and submit while they are considering your manuscript; for all the agent who wants you knows, you may already have other offers. Besides, the agent of your dreams will undoubtedly have a few questions for you.

This is also a great opportunity to ask a few of your own. In fact, you should.

To pull one at random out of thin air: “How are you planning to go about trying to sell this book, and to whom?” This is likely to elicit important information, such as whether the book category you selected for your manuscript or proposal was a good fit. (Hey, a writer likes to know these things.)

Another that you might consider blurting out right off the bat: “Are you going to want any changes to the manuscript/book proposal before you start sending it out to editors?” The answer will almost certainly be yes, incidentally, but at least you will have broached the issue politely yourself, rather than having it come as the intense surprise it generally is to those new to the agent-having experience.

If these sound like far more intelligent questions than are at all likely to occur to someone totally overcome with joy, well, you’re right: I know literally dozens of now-agented writers who were able to stammer out little more than a well-nigh-incoherent, “Yes! Yes! Oh, God, YES!”

So unless you are in the habit of receiving good news on this scale with aplomb, it might be prudent to prepare for this moment. While an agent is reviewing your manuscript or book proposal is a dandy time to work off some of your nervous how-long-must-I-wait-to-hear energy by coming up with a written list of what you want to know. You’ll find a few suggestions in the posts under the AFTER YOU LAND AN AGENT and WHAT TO ASK AN AGENT WHO WANTS TO REPRESENT YOU categories on the archive list located at the bottom right-hand side of this page; the US agents’ guild, the Association of Authors’ Representatives, also has a good list of preliminary questions on its website.

Even if you already have a fairly clear idea of what you would say during that much-anticipated phone call, please don’t put this off, thinking you can wing it when the time comes. Accepting an offer gracefully, like garnering the offer in the first place, usually requires some homework. I would strenuously recommend that anyone who might be in a position to be on the receiving end of one anytime soon — like, for instance, a writer who has just popped a submission packet into the mail — check out either these posts or another reputable source prior to having a conversation about one’s work with an agent, if only to clarify in one’s mind what an agent can and cannot do for a writer.

What’s that you say, readers? You’re not entirely sure what a good agent can do for you, other than sell your book? Let’s take a gander at the full range of possibilities.

Some things a reasonable writer can (and should) expect a reputable agent to do:

*Present a client’s manuscript and/or book proposal to editors at large and medium-sized publishing houses (even if a writer has more than one book ready to go, most agents will prefer to work on only one at a time),

*Advise a client on how to make the manuscript or book proposal more marketable,

*After selling the book, handle all of the financial arrangements between the publisher and the writer,

*Act as the client’s advocate in any subsequent disputes with the publishing house, and

*Serve as a sounding board about future book projects’ marketability.

*Help a client strategize the order and timing of working on particular projects, to maximize the agent’s ability to sell them.

All of that sound familiar and reasonable, or is the list disappointingly short for those of you who had been picturing the agent of your dreams wearing the cape and tights of a superhero? To help bring hopes into closer alignment with reality, let’s take a look at some common misconceptions about what an agent is actually capable of offering a writer.

Some things an agent cannot do for his clients:

*Guarantee in advance that he will be able to sell a particular book to a publisher,

*Guarantee that he will be able to sell a particular book to a particular publisher.

*Guarantee a certain advance if the book does sell.

*Dictate when the publisher who acquires the book will release it or speed up the publication process at will, and/or

*Make a writer rich and famous overnight.

If an agent offering to represent you claims to be able to do any of the things on that second list, you should be asking plenty of follow-up questions, as well as checking the agent’s credentials with Preditors and Editors or some other credible source. It’s perfectly legitimate to ask to see a list of clients before you decide, or to request a run-down of the sales tactics the agent used to sell the last book he sold in your book category. You may even ask to speak to a couple of current clients, to see how happy they are with his representation, although naturally, few agents will send a prospective client to a dissatisfied client for a reference.

I can sense some of you squirming in your chairs — you’re not completely comfortable with the notion of cross-examining someone offering to represent your work, are you? “What if I do my homework really, really well before the agent calls and offers to represent me, Anne?” I hear some of you wheedling. “If I quadruple-check in advance that the agent is legit, why will I need to ask questions at all?”

Excellent question, seated squirmers: because every agency operates slightly differently.

For instance, a very well-known agent or one at a very large agency might have a junior associate act as a first-time author’s primary contact, rather than the agent himself. (For a comparison of how large and small agencies can operate differently, please see this archived post, as well as this one.) Some novel-representing agents prefer to approach editors one at a time, giving each a nice, long look at a manuscript (and a chance to reject it) before moving on to the next, while others favor submitting simultaneously to eight or ten editors.

If asking about such things seems a bit confrontational for a first conversation with someone you really, really want to like you, don’t worry: your agent honestly does need you to understand how she works, so that she can do her job well. Most agents actually prefer clients who ask intelligent questions.

And if you say nothing, many agents will simply assume that you’re already familiar with every step in the often long and complicated process of getting a book published. An interesting assumption, given that the vast majority of first-time authors are completely astonished by what occurs. So are most writers new to working with an agent.

Don’t believe me? Ask any writer who signed with his first agent six months ago. Unless his book has already sold — and it’s highly unusual for an agent to be able to sell a new client’s work that quickly — he’s going to be full of wonder about why his agent is handling the book the way she is.

So come up with a set of reasonable questions in advance, and ask them before you sign anything. As long as you don’t take umbrage at any particular piece of news and try to argue about it (“What do you mean, a royalty of 20% for foreign sales is standard? I challenge you to a duel, sir!”), this is all simple factual information that you have a right to know.

I see a few more timid hands raised. “But Anne,” confrontation-haters continue to wheedle, “surely most of what I need to know will be spelled out on the agency’s website. No? Well, then won’t the agent give me some sort of hand-out, explaining how she works? No? Isn’t it even spelled out in the agency contract I’ll be signing?”

I’m sorry to report that the answer to all three questions is not necessarily. (See my earlier comment about the likelihood of agents’ assuming that writers are already aware of what will be required of both parties to the agency contract.) In fact, representation contracts are often downright vague.

Don’t let that make you tense. Trust me: the lack of specifics is generally for convenience’s sake, not to confuse prospective clients. Remember, to make this arrangement work, both parties have to hold up their end of the deal. It’s just not in a good agent’s interest that a writer not completely comprehend what he is being asked to do.

What might an agency contract require of my new agent — and of me?
Most agency contracts are easy-in-easy-out affairs for both parties, so it’s highly unlikely that you’ll get permanently stuck in an arrangement you don’t like.

In fact, representation clients tend to be rather short-term, specifying that the agent will either handle the entire selling process for a single book or all of the client’s work a year’s or two’s time — a choice made by the agency, incidentally, not the author. Sometimes, a single-book contract will grant the agency the right of first refusal over the client’s next book, entitling them to see your subsequent writing before you show it to anybody else, regardless of how happy you were with how the agent handled your first project.

Read every syllable of the contract carefully before you sign; if you don’t understand any part of the contract, ask the agent. If you don’t understand the answer or anything seems fishy, take it to an attorney familiar with representation contracts.

That may seem mistrustful, but a good agent is already quite aware that what you don’t fully grasp can hurt you, contractually speaking. Some contracts, for instance, will feature a rollover clause, which stipulates that if the author has not notified the agency by a particular date that she wants to seek representation elsewhere, the contract is automatically renewed for the following year.

Find out which up front, so you are aware of the terms of renewal. If you sign with an agency that favors the rollover clause, make sure you know precisely when the opt-out date is. Mark it on your calendar, just in case. And keep marking it every year.

If you are planning to write more than one book (or already have), do be sure before you sign a per-project contract that your agent is at least willing to consider representing everything you want to write. A time-based contract minimizes this concern, but do be aware that often means that the agent has right of first refusal over everything a client writes during the agreed-upon period — which means what, campers?

That’s right: you must allow her to decide whether she wants to represent an additional book before you may show it to another agent. (I was just checking to see whether your eyes had glazed over while I was going over technicalities.) Either way, writers with many projects going at once will want to make absolutely certain to ask about future projects.

The agency contract will also specify the percentage of your advances and royalties your agent will get. If this section is vague in any way, start asking questions, fast.

How writers get paid for their books — and how agents get their percentage
Any money you ever earn on books sold for you by the agency will pass through the agency before it comes to you; the agency will take its cut, then mail you a check for the remainder. Paying the agent’s percentage will not be left up to the goodness of your heart and the burnings of your conscience; once you are represented by an agent, he will see to it that your publication contract will specify that the publisher will send your checks to your agent, not directly to you.

This means that any money you see will already have the agent’s percentage deducted from it. See why it’s so important to be positive that you can trust this person?

Typically, in literary agencies, the agent’s percentage is 15% for English-language North American sales. Script agents generally get 10%.

These percentages are non-negotiable in virtually every agency on earth, so no need to worry that asking about them up front will make you look like you’re haggling: it’s to shield you against the unhappy day when a check arrives with fewer zeroes on it than your advance led you to expect. Or for more time passing than you expected between your publisher’s cutting your royalty check and the agency’s passing along your share to you.

And no, a lower percentage for the agent does not usually mean a better deal for the author — it’s usually an indication that the agency is new, and is trying to attract high-ticket clients.

Pretty much every agency in the country takes a significantly higher cut of foreign sales: 20% or more is the norm. (For reasons I have not been able to fathom, my agency takes 23% of sales in the Baltic republics, so they’ll really score if my memoir takes off in Lithuania.) The higher price tag abroad is for a very practical reason: unless an agency has a branch office in a foreign country (as some of the larger agencies do) it will subcontract their foreign rights sales to agencies in other countries, who will need to be paid as well.

So if you suspect that your book will have a high market appeal in Turkey or Outer Mongolia, you might want to check up front whether your prospective agency has a branch there, or is subcontracting. The differential in commission percentage can be substantial.

I see a lot of raised hands out there, and I’m delighted to see so many of you getting in some practice, speaking up when you’ve got a question. However, you might want to lower those flailing arms; I’m out of time for today.

Hold those good questions, everyone, and keep up the good work!

So how does a book go from manuscript to published volume, anyway? Part XI: routes to publication other than through a major house

a-winding-road

For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been going over what I consider the absolutely most important information for any aspiring writer to know prior to beginning to market her work. As so often happens when I really get my teeth into a topic, I began by thinking, “Oh, I can polish this off in a couple of days. And now, ten awfully long (even by my rather prolix standards) posts later, I keep coming up with more to say.

Several lessons to be learned from this, I suspect. First, the simplest questions –in this case, How do books get published? often have really, really complicated answers, and having the space and audience to give them their due is an invitation not to minimize their complexity. Hey, boiling down multifaceted reality into bite-sized aphorisms is hard. Glancing back through what I’ve written so far, I was reminded of the old joke about the reporter interviewing the famous college professor about how long it typically takes him to write a half-hour lecture.

“Oh, all day,” the professor says, “if it’s a topic I’ve never lectured on before. Sometimes several days.”

The reporter is awfully impressed at that level of dedication. “Wow, that’s a lot of work. How long to write an hour-long lecture on the same topic?”

The professor shrugs. “About three hours.”

The reporter wonders if he has misheard the response. To be safe, he asks, “Well, how long would it take you to prepare a three-hour lecture, then?”

The professor smiles. “Would you like me to start right now?”

I suspect that I was reminded of this joke because I couldn’t help noticing that each post in this series was approximately the length of my usual notes for an hour-long lecture, factoring in time for digression and questions — you can take the professor away from the rostrum, but not the rostrum out of the professor’s mind, apparently — but I also believe that there’s a vital lesson here for those who are used to receiving their information about getting published in the kind of sound bites one hears the pros spouting at conferences.

It’s this: while brief, snappy advice may seem simpler, it’s actually significantly harder to produce, at least if it’s done thoughtfully. Unless, of course, the advice-giver is merely parroting the conventional wisdom on the subject, which tends to be expressed in dismissive one- or two- sentence bursts.

See my earlier post on translating these truisms.

The problem is, trying to follow sound-bite advice is rather like gnawing on cubes of bouillon instead of drinking broth: the two substances may well contain the same ingredients, but it’s certainly easier to digest in the watered-down form. Particularly when, as in this case, the prevailing aphorisms are deceptively simple — which brings me to the second lesson to be derived from this series (other than the masses and masses of information contained within it, of course).

Lesson #2: it’s profoundly important that an aspiring writer learns that the prevailing wisdom is the bouillon version, not the broth itself.

In other words, there’s a whole lot more to know about getting published than the brevity of the usual saws imply. I firmly believe that the combination of those over-concentrated pieces of advice that every writer has heard — the full range from basic writing tips like write what you know and show, don’t tell to the types of things agents and editors like to say at writers’ conferences like good writing will always find a home and it all depends on the writing — with the flat-out wrong popular conception that any genuinely good book will automatically find a publisher instantly very often leads good writers to waste time along the road to publication.

Or, even worse, to assume that if their manuscripts don’t get picked up right away, the problem must be in the quality of the writing.

These conclusions are completely understandable, of course: it’s what the truisms have taught us all to believe. But they are not the whole story, any more than a packet of bouillon is a vat of delicious soup.

Am I being profound, you’re probably wondering, or am I merely hungry? A little of both, I expect. Yet because I have dropped so much potentially quite intimidating information about how books typically get published upon all of you so quickly, I would imagine that the comparatively simple standard aphorisms might be sounding pretty good right about now.

I could bore you all at this juncture with some ennobling platitudes of my own about knowledge being power and valuable for its own sake — see my earlier comment about taking the professor out of the girl — but I’m not going to do that. Anyone with the dedication to have plowed through this, let’s face it, often-depressing series doesn’t need that pep talk. And you’re all bright enough, I’m sure, to have picked up from my SUBTLE HINTS throughout this series that the archive list at right is so extensively categorized precisely so my readers may find answers to specific practical questions as they come up.

Instead, I’m going to posit Lesson #3: the primary reason that it often takes even excellent manuscripts quite a long time to find agents and a home with a major publisher is that this process is hard. Anyone who tells you otherwise is probably either trying to promote a book or classes on how to get published — or is attempting to encourage all of the discouraged good writers out there to keep on going in the face of some pretty steep odds.

Here’s an aphorism that you’re unlikely to hear at a writers’ conference that is nevertheless true: most aspiring writers give up on finding a home for their manuscripts too quickly. Given how deeply affected by mercurial market fads agents’ and editors’ choices necessarily are, that’s truly a shame. Especially right now, when the economy is forcing the major publishing houses to be even more cautious in what they acquire than usual.

In other words: hang in there. To produce some bouillon of my own, the manuscript that gets rejected today may well not be the one that will get rejected a year or two from now.

But some of you may not be willing to wait that long to see your books in print. This, too, would be completely understandable: contrary to what agents often seem to believe, most aspiring writers care more about having their writing available for others to read than about making scads of money on the deal.

Which is why, in case those of you with agents have been wondering, it makes perfect sense to an agent to set aside a manuscript that he professes to love if it doesn’t elicit a fairly lucrative offer in its first circulation, in favor of marketing a client’s next book. In the agent’s mind, the first book hasn’t been discarded; it’s merely waiting to be part of a future multi-book deal. If an agent thinks a writer has a voice that might hit it big someday, continuing to market that first manuscript to smaller or regional presses might seem like a bad career move, even though going with a smaller press might bring the book into print years earlier. (If this paragraph sounds like gibberish to you, you might want to go back and re-read the earlier posts in this series.)

Obviously, this is not necessarily logic that would make sense to a frustrated writer, particularly one who may have spent years landing that agent. Heck, even the expectation that there would be a second book ready to go by the time a handful of editors at big publishing houses have had a chance to take a gander at the first would make a lot of aspiring writers turn pale.

If not actually lose their respective lunches. Especially a writer who might have only intended to write one book in the first place.

Which might not even occur to an agent excited by a new author’s voice, by the way; there’s a reason that “So, what’s your next book?” is such a common question even before the ink is dry on the representation contract. Since even authors whose books are released by major publishers seldom make enough to quit their day jobs — remember, few books are bestsellers — planning to write several marketable books makes very good career sense for a writer who wants to make a living at it.

The fact is, though, that’s not every aspiring writer’s goal. If getting that first — and possibly only — book into print is a writer’s highest priority, investing a great deal of time and energy in landing an agent might not seem like a reasonable trade-off. Others may feel that the large or mid-sized publisher route isn’t for them, or not be too thrilled about the prospect of an agent’s insisting upon changes to the manuscript in order to render it more marketable to the majors.

The good news is that there are other options — and I imagine those of you who have been sufficiently virtuous to keep working through this series’ concentrated account will be overjoyed to hear that a great deal of what I’ve said so far will not apply to the last two sub-topics on our publishing hit parade: publishing through a small house and self-publishing.

No need to conceal your joy; I know, I know.

For the rest of today’s post, I’m going to be talking about the various stripes of small publisher. So for the vast majority of you who have your heart set on a contract with a major publisher, take the rest of the day off.

The small publishing house
Also known as an independent publisher because they are not affiliated with any of the major publishing houses (as imprints are), small presses are often willing to work with authors directly, rather than insisting upon receiving submissions only through agents. Going this route can sometimes pay off big time for an author: in recent years, some of the most exciting new fiction has started its printed life at a small press and gotten picked up later by a major publisher.

And because some of you will be able to think of nothing else until I answer the question you just mentally screamed two sentences ago, one approaches them precisely as one does an agent: after having done some research on who publishes what, find out how they prefer to be approached, and send a query. (Both the Herman Guide and Writer’s Market have good listings of reputable small publishers.)

In other words: as with an agency, it’s never a good idea to send unsolicited manuscripts. Ask first.

I cannot stress sufficiently how important doing your homework is — many an aspiring writer has wasted time and resources approaching a major house’s imprint in the mistaken impression that it’s an independent press, ending up summarily rejected. Check the copyright page of a published book to see if the press that produced it is an indie or an imprint of a larger house.

Also, it’s important to select a small press that has a track record of publishing books like yours before you approach. Rather than publishing across a wide variety of book categories, the smaller publishing house tends to specialize. This often turns out to be a plus for authors, as targeting a narrow market often means that a small press can afford to take more chances in what it acquires.

Why can they afford to take more chances, you ask with bated breath? Generally speaking, because their print runs are smaller and they spend less on promotion.

Translation: the advance is often small or non-existent. (For an explanation of how the size of the initial print run affects the size of the author’s advance, please see the ADVANCES category on the archive list at right.) Also, the author usually ends up arranging the book tour himself. (While I’m referring you elsewhere, tor some useful tips on posts about how one might go about doing that, check out the posts by guest blogger Michael Schein beginning here.)

In fact, over the last couple of years, it’s gotten downright common for small publishers, especially those who market primarily online, to employ the print-on-demand (POD) method, rather than producing a large initial print run, as the major houses do, and placing it in bookstores. (For an explanation of how print-on-demand works, please see the aptly-named PRINT ON DEMAND category on the archive list at right. Hey, I told you that it was broken down into very specific topics!)

Check about this in advance, because POD carries some definite marketing drawbacks: POD books have an infinitely more difficult time getting reviewed (check out the GETTING A BOOK REVIEWED category for more details), and most US libraries have strict policies against buying POD books. So do some bookstore chains that shall remain nameless. (They know who they are!) Even some online retailers won’t carry POD books.

Why, you exclaim in horror? Well, for a lot of reasons, but mostly for because POD still carries a certain stigma; many, many bookbuyers who should know better by now still regard POD as the inevitable marker of a self-published book. More on why that might be problematic follows next time — for now, what you need to know is that a small publisher that does not go the POD route is going to have an easier time placing your book on shelves and into the hands of your future readers.

On the bright side, an author often has much more input into the publication process at a small press than a large one. Because it is a less departmentalized operation than a major publishing house, editors at indie presses often have the time to work more intensively with their authors. For a first-time author who gets picked up by a really good editor, this can be a very positive experience.

It can also, perversely, render an author more attractive to agents and editors at the majors when he’s trying to market his next book. (Since indie presses seldom have much money to toss around, multi-book contracts are rare; see that earlier comment about miniscule advances.) A recommendation from an editor will give you a definite advantage in the querying stage: a query beginning, Editor Y of Small Publisher X recommended that I contact you about representing my book… is probably going to get a pretty close reading from any agent’s Millicent.

Why? Well, having a successful track record of pleasing an editor at an indie press is a selling point; as those of you who recall my GETTING GOOD AT ACCEPTING FEEDBACK series may recall, not all authors are equally receptive to editorial commentary. Also, from an agent’s point of view, the fact that there is already an editor at a press out there who is predisposed to read and admire your work automatically means her job will be easier — if the majors pass on book #2, the editor who worked on book #1 probably will not.

Which is to say: if your first book with a small press does well, they will probably want you to stick around — and might become a trifle defensive if you start looking for an agent for book #2, especially if it is a press that ONLY works with unagented authors, or who prefers to do so. Such presses are rare, but they do exist; it is undoubtedly cheaper to work with unagented writers (again, see that earlier comment about advances). If this is their policy, however, they have set up a situation where their authors HAVE to leave them in order to pursue their careers. Consequently, they expect it.

However, people who work for small presses also understand that it’s far from uncommon for a writer to start out at a small press and move up to a big one with the help of an agent. Actually, the more successful they are at promoting your first book, the more they could logically expect you to move onward and upward. Authors move from press to press all the time, without any hard feelings, and when well-meaning industry professionals genuinely respect an author, the last thing they want to do is to harm their future books’ chances of commercial success. In fact, if your subsequent books do well, the small press will benefit, because new readers will come looking for copies of your first book.

Everybody wins, in short.

That being said, a right of first refusal clause over your next book is a fairly standard contractual provision. In essence, it means that when you sold the first book, you agreed to let them look at it before any other publisher does. They already know that they like your writing (which means that it is not at all presumptuous for you to assume that they might want your next, incidentally), and they would rather not have to compete in order to retain you.

Translation: you might not see an advance for your next book, either. But if getting your work out there is your primary priority, is that really going to annoy you all that much?

The regional publishing house
This is industry-speak for small publishers located outside the publishing capitals of the world — unless you happen to be talking to someone who works at a major NYC agency or publishing house, in which case pretty much any West Coast publisher would fall into the regional category. Sometimes, these presses are affiliated with universities, but many are not.

I bring up conversational use of the term advisedly: if you’ve attended any reasonably large writers’ conference within the last two decades, you’ve probably heard at least one agent or editor talking about regional publishing houses as an alternative to the major publishers. Specifically, you may have heard them answer an attendee’s question with something along the lines of, “Well, I wouldn’t be interested in a romantic thriller about wild salmon conservation, but you might try a Pacific Northwest regional press.”

If you’re like most conference attendees, this probably felt like a brush-off — which, in fairness, it almost certainly was. Most NYC-based agents who deal with major publisher houses prefer to concentrate on books (particularly novels) that have what they call national interest, rather than mere regional appeal.

Basically, national interest means that a book might reasonably be expected to attract readers from all across the country; books with regional appeal, by contrast, might have a fairly substantial market, but it would be concentrated in one part of the country. Or, to put it another way, books of national interest will strike agents and editors in New York City (or, to a lesser extent, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Toronto, and/or Chicago) as universally appealing.

Interestingly, books set in any of the boroughs of New York are almost never deemed of merely regional interest, even though novels set in Brooklyn do not, as a group, enjoy a demonstrably higher demand than those set in, say, Minneapolis. As far as I know, readers in Phoenix have not been storming bookstores, clamoring for greater insight into daily life in Queens, Chelsea, or Ozone Park. Yet it’s undeniable that many a Manhattan-based agent or editor would find such insights more accessible than those of the fine citizenry of eastern Nevada or the wilds of British Columbia. (Remember, it’s not all that uncommon for an NYC based agent or editor (as well as their respective Millicents) never to lived anywhere but the upper eastern seaboard of the United States.)

Here’s another bit of bouillon for you: regional marketability, like beauty, most definitely resides in the eye of the beholder.

Which is precisely why a writer of a book with strong regional appeal should consider approaching a local small publisher — which, in most cases, means the local publisher — or at any rate one based in your time zone. A book on homelessness in San Francisco may well strike a Bay Area editor as being of broad interest in a way that it simply wouldn’t to an agent in Manhattan.

That recognition doesn’t necessarily mean that a regional press will be able to get such a book national exposure (although it’s been known to happen.) Like other small publishers, presses that concentrate on a particular part of the country usually don’t have much money for book promotion; what they have tends to be concentrated within a small geographical area. For some books, this works beautifully, but it’s unlikely to land an author on the New York Times’ bestseller list.

Fair warning: contrary to the agent’s comment I reported above, few regional presses actually publish fiction these days, at least in novel form. (Some presses who specialize in regional nonfiction do publish short story collections; others will publish regional children’s books.) Again, you’re going to want to do your homework before you query or submit.

At least more homework than the agent who dismissed the Pacific Northwest novelist above. Given that regional presses have mostly been concentrating on nonfiction for a couple of decades now, I’m not sure why pros at conferences so frequently glibly refer aspiring novelists in their direction.

Speaking of shifts in publishing, there’s something else you might want to know about approaching a small publisher.

Remember how I had said that things change? Well…
As pretty much any writer whose agent has been circulating a book for her recently could tell you (but might not, for fear of jinxing the submission process), selling a book to a major publisher has gotten a heck of a lot harder in recent months. So much so that agents who might not otherwise have considered taking their clients’ work to an indie publisher a year or two ago have been thinking about it very seriously indeed.

More importantly for those of you who might be considering approaching a small publisher on your own behalf, some of them are actually doing it.

What does that mean for the unagented writer? Well, more competition, among other things, and often more polished competition. Also, as you may recall from earlier in this series, reputable agents only make money when they sell their clients’ books, so it’s very much in their interest to try to haggle up the advances on books sold to small publishers.

In a company where there isn’t, as I mentioned above, much money to throw toward authors, guess what that tends to mean for the advances available for unagented books? Uh-huh. But again, if your primary goal is to see your work in print, is that necessarily a deal-breaker?

Speaking of money, do make sure before you submit to a small publisher that it isn’t a subsidy press, one that requires authors to put up some percentage of the costs of publication. Unfortunately, not all subsidy publishers are up front about this; the latter’s websites can look awfully similar to the former’s. Before you cough up even one red cent — or, ideally, before you approach them at all — check with Preditors and Editors to see whether the publisher charges fees.

And if chipping in to get your book published sounds like a reasonable idea to you, just you wait until next time, when I’ll be talking about self-publishing.

In any case, you’re going to want to proceed with care — and do your homework. Naturally, this swift overview isn’t the last word on small publishers: as I said, an aspiring writer thinking about going that route should do extensive research on the subject. One of the best places to start: hie yourself to a well-stocked bookstore, start pulling books in your category off the shelves, and see who published them. Then find out whether any of those presses are open to queries from unagented authors.

Keep up the good work!

bunny-eggPS: yes, I know that this series has been long and dense, but I have a fabulous reward in store for you at the end of it: a guest post from an author I’ve been eager to get here to talk to you for a very long time. Hint: he’s funny, and appropriately for the season, there will be small, fluffy animals involved.

So how does a book go from manuscript to published volume, anyway? Part VIII: what happens after a writer lands an agent?

first-tulip-of-spring

This photo looks as if the tulip were growing inside an aquarium, doesn’t it? Not so: there actually are that many different colors of stone shards in my yard at the moment. (The WWL is noted for uncanny ability to pulverize seemingly solid rock.)

It’s my first tulip of the year, a good month later than usual, due no doubt to the unusually late snow. (As in a few days ago.) Oh, sure, I’ve enjoyed some minor dalliance with an early daffodil or two, and my snowdrops lost their reputation a month and a half ago, but this is the first honest-to-goodness tulip. This brave little bloom seemed like a great emblem of my topic du jour, which is all about new beginnings: what happens after an agent decides to sign a writer to a contract.

After the celebration dies down, that is.

Wait — let’s back up a moment and savor the moment of the author. Typically, if a US-based agent is offering to represent a North America-based writer, the agent will telephone, rather than send a letter or e-mail. (Agents tend to be in a hurry pretty much all the time.) She will undoubtedly have a few questions for you, so you should feel free to ask a few of your own.

To pull one at random out of thin air: “How are you planning to go about trying to sell this book, and to whom?” This is likely to elicit important information, such as whether the book category you selected for your manuscript or proposal was a good fit.

Another that you might consider blurting out: “Are you going to want any changes to the manuscript/book proposal before you start sending it out to editors?” The answer will almost certainly be yes, incidentally, but at least you will have broached the issue politely yourself, rather than having it come as the intense surprise it generally is to those new to the agent-having experience.

If these sound like far more intelligent questions than are at all likely to occur to someone totally overcome with joy, well, you’re right: I know literally dozens of now-agented writers who were able to stammer out little more than a well-nigh-incoherent, “Yes!”

So unless you are in the habit of receiving good news on this scale with aplomb, it would be prudent to prepare for this moment. (Oh, and in case I forgot to mention earlier in this series, this is not the right time to inform an agent who has been reading your manuscript that another agent is considering it, too; it will not engender a pleasant response. For tips on handling requests for materials so you never need to find yourself in a position to make such a shame-faced confession, please see the WHAT IF MORE THAN ONE AGENT ASKS TO SEE MY MANUSCRIPT category on the archive list at right.)

While an agent is reviewing your manuscript or book proposal, work off some of your nervous wait-time energy by coming up with a written list of what you want to know. You’ll find a few suggestions in the posts under the AFTER YOU LAND AN AGENT category; the US agents’ guild, the Association of Authors’ Representatives, also has a good list on its website.

Even if you already have a fairly clear idea of what you would say when that much-anticipated phone call comes, I would strenuously recommend that anyone who might be in a position to be on the receiving end of one anytime soon — like, for instance, a writer who has just popped a submission packet into the mail — check out either these posts or another reputable source prior to having a conversation about one’s work with an agent, if only to clarify in one’s mind what an agent can and cannot do for a writer.

Some things a reasonable writer should expect a reputable agent to do:
*Present a client’s manuscript and/or book proposal to editors at large and medium-sized publishing houses (even if a writer has more than one book ready to go, most agents will prefer to work on only one at a time),

*Advise a client on how to make the manuscript or book proposal more marketable,

*After selling the book, handle all of the financial arrangements between the publisher and the writer,

*Act as the client’s advocate in any subsequent disputes with the publishing house, and

*Serve as a sounding board about future book projects’ marketability.

Some things an agent cannot do (and you should start asking many, many questions if he says he can):
*Guarantee in advance that he will be able to sell a particular book to a publisher,

*Guarantee that he will be able to sell a particular book to a particular publisher,

*Dictate when the publisher who acquires the book will release it or speed up the publication process at will,

*Make a writer rich and famous overnight.

I can sense some of you squirming in your chairs — you’re not completely comfortable with the notion of cross-examining someone offering to represent your work, are you? “What if I do my homework really, really well, Anne?” I hear some of you wheedling. “If I quadruple-check in advance that the agent is legit, why will I need to ask questions at all?”

Excellent question, seated squirmers: because every agency operates slightly differently.

For instance, a very well-known agent or one at a very large agency might have a junior associate act as a first-time author’s primary contact, rather than the agent himself. (For a comparison of how large and small agencies can operate differently, please see this archived post and this one.) Some novel-representing agents prefer to approach editors one at a time, giving each a nice, long look at a manuscript (and a chance to reject it) before moving on to the next, while others favor submitting simultaneously to eight or ten editors.

If asking about such things seems a bit confrontational for a first conversation with someone you really, really want to like you, don’t worry: your agent honestly does need you to understand how her process works. As long as you don’t take umbrage at any particular piece of news and try to argue about it (“What do you mean, a royalty of 20% for foreign sales is standard? I challenge you to a duel, sir!”), this is all simple factual information that you have a right to know.

Which has long caused philosophers to ponder why all such details are not necessarily spelled out in the agency contract. In fact, representation contracts are often downright vague.

Trust me: this is generally for convenience’s sake, not to confuse prospective clients. Most agency contracts are easy-in-easy-out affairs for both parties, so it’s highly unlikely that you’ll get permanently stuck in an arrangement you don’t like.

In fact, representation clients tend to be rather short-term, specifying that the agent will either handle the entire selling process for a single book or all of the client’s work a year’s or two’s time — a choice made by the agency, incidentally, not the author. Some contracts, however, have a rollover clause, which stipulates that if the author has not notified the agency by a particular date that she wants to seek representation elsewhere, the contract is automatically renewed for the following year.

Find out which, so you are aware of the terms of renewal. If you sign with an agency that favors the rollover clause, make sure you know precisely when the opt-out date is. Mark it on your calendar, just in case. And keep marking it every year.

If you are planning to write more than one book (or already have), do be sure before you sign a per-project contract that your agent is at least willing to consider representing everything you want to write. A time-based contract minimizes this concern, but do be aware that often means that the agent has right of first refusal over everything a client writes during the agreed-upon period — i.e., you must allow her to decide whether she wants to represent an additional book before you may show it to another agent. So either way, writers with many projects going at once will want to make absolutely certain to ask about future projects.

The agency contract will also specify the percentage of your advances and royalties your agent will get. Typically, in literary agencies, the cut is 15% for English-language North American sales. Script agents generally get 10%.

These percentages are non-negotiable in virtually every agency on earth, so you will not asking about them up front and/or examining your contract in order to gain haggling ammunition: it’s to prepare you for the day when a check arrives with fewer zeroes on it than your advance led you to expect. And no, a lower percentage does not usually mean a better deal for the author – it’s usually an indication that the agency is new, and is trying to attract high-ticket clients.

Just so you know, the timing cutting the check for the agent’s cut will not be left up to the goodness of your heart and the burnings of your conscience. If you are represented by an agent, he will see to it that your publication contract will specify that the publisher will send your checks to your agent, not directly to you. This means that any money you see will automatically have the agent’s percentage deducted from it.

See why it’s so important to be positive that you can trust this person?

Pretty much every agency in the country takes a significantly higher cut of foreign sales: 20% or more is the norm. (For reasons I have not been able to fathom, my agency takes 23% of sales in the Baltic republics, so they’ll really score if my novel takes off in Lithuanian.) The higher price tag abroad is for a very practical reason: unless an agency has an outpost in a foreign country (as some of the larger agencies do) it will subcontract their foreign rights sales to agencies in other countries, who take their cut as well.

So if you suspect that your book will have a high market appeal in Turkey or Outer Mongolia, you might want to check up front whether your prospective agency has a branch there, or is subcontracting. The differential in commission percentage can be substantial.

“Um, Anne?” I hear a small, confused chorus out there piping. “Was the bit about English-language North American sales just a really complicated typo? Aren’t there other people in the world who read English — like, say, the people in England? Why aren’t all of the English-language sales lumped together, and the foreign ones together?”

Ah, because that would make sense, my friends. The industry likes to keep all of us guessing by throwing a cognitive curve ball every now and again, so this is going to require a fairly extensive and rather convoluted explanation.

Before I launch into it, you might want to pop into the kitchen and make yourself some tea, or fluff up the pillows on your ottoman. I’ll wait.

Okay, everybody comfortable? Here goes: from the point of view of your garden-variety US publisher, books published in the English language fall into three categories: those sold in North America, those sold in Great Britain, and those sold in other countries. Of the three, only those in the first category are considered English-language sales, for contractual purposes. The last two are considered foreign-language sales.

There — and you thought it wasn’t going to make sense…

So, perversely, if EXACTLY the same English-language book by a US author was sold in Canada and Great Britain, the author’s US agent would take 15% of the royalties on the first and 20% on the second. Before you laugh out loud, I should tell you that this scenario is not particularly far-fetched: all of the books in the HARRY POTTER series were sold in a slightly different form in the former Commonwealth than in the U.S. (Why? Well, chips mean one thing to a kid in London and another to a kid in LA, and while apparently the industry has faith that a kid in Saskatchewan could figure that out, it despairs of the cultural translation skills of a kid in Poughkeepsie or Omaha.)

This is why, in case you were curious, you will see the notation NA in industry discussions of book sales – it refers to first North American rights, minus Mexico. Rights to sell books south of the border, in any language, fall under foreign language rights, which are typically sold on a by-country basis. However, occasionally an American publisher will try to score a sweet deal on a book expected to be a bestseller and try to get the world rights as part of the initial deal, but this generally does not work out well for the author.

Why? Well, if a book is reprinted in a second language and a North American publisher owns the foreign rights, the domestic house scrapes an automatic 20% off the top of any foreign-language royalties accrued by the author. (If this discussion seems a trifle technical, chalk it up to the rather extended struggle I had to retain my memoir’s foreign rights; back in the day, my now-gun-shy publisher wanted ‘em, big time. But they’re mine, I tell you, all mine!)

I sense that some of you have gone a bit pale over the course of the last dozen or so paragraphs. “Um, Anne?” a few queasy souls inquire. “You’re kidding about expecting me to have an intelligent discussion of all of this with my agent in the first 30 seconds after he’s offered to represent me, right? Couldn’t I just agree to let him represent me, and sort all of this out later?”

Well, of course you could — and truth compels me to say that most aspiring writers just blurt out “Oh, God, YES!” before finding out anything about the terms to which they’re agreeing at all. I can completely understand this, even if I deplore it: mistrust is the last thing on your mind when you are thrilled to pieces that a real, live agent wants to represent YOU.

Trust your Auntie Anne on this one, though: honeymoons do occasionally end, and not generally because anyone concerned has done anything nefarious. As I mentioned above, agents move from one agency to another all the time (if this happens, you will need to know with whom you have a contract, the agency or the agent; either is possible), and it’s not unheard-of for an agent to stop representing a particular genre even though she has clients still writing and publishing in it. Writers occasionally develop a sudden urge to compose a book in a category for which their agents do not have current contacts.

This is, in short, one contract to read with your glasses ON, and paper by your side to jot down questions. Then pick up that piece of paper, get yourself to a telephone, and start asking.

If you do not have an opportunity to see a copy of the agency contract before having your first serious conversation about your future with your new agent (as will probably be the case; many agents are notoriously slow in sending out representation agreements), do make a point of asking the agent for a brief overview of its major points. Again, it’s merely good sense whenever you are going to deal with a business with which you are unfamiliar, and it would never occur to a reputable agent to take your caution at all personally.

Because, you see, by being cautious, you’re not calling the agent’s integrity into question, but making sure you know precisely what she is proposing that you do together. After all, the agent almost certainly will not have been the person who wrote the contract; the agency will have an established boilerplate. Naturally, it is in an honest agent’s best interest for a prospective client to understand the contract-to-be well enough to abide by its provisions.

Allow me to repeat something I dropped into the middle of that last paragraph, because it comes as news to a lot of newly-agented writers: unless your future agent happens to own the agency, it is the agency — not the agent whom you are prepared to love, honor, and obey for as long as you shall write and she shall sell — who will set the terms of your relationship. The agent who is being so nice to you on the phone may not be the only agency employee who will be dealing with your work.

What might other people’s involvement entail? Well, among other things, the agency, and not merely the agent, is going to be handling every dime you make as a writer — and furthermore, telling the fine folks at the IRS all about it.

Remember, your publisher will be sending your advance and royalty checks to your agency, not to you personally. (I talked a bit earlier in this series about how writers get paid for their work, but for a more in-depth examination, please see the ADVANCES and ROYALTIES AND HOW THEY WORK categories on the list at right.) If your work is going to be sold abroad, the agency will turn your book, your baby, over to a foreign rights agent of ITS selection, not yours – and will be taking a higher percentage of your royalties for those sales than for those in the English-speaking parts of North America, typically. And the agency is also going to be responsible not only for keeping the government informed about all of these transactions, but also preparing those messily-carboned royalty forms that you will be submitting with your taxes.

That’s a whole lot of trust to invest in people who you may never meet face-to-face, isn’t it?

Did I just hear a giant collective gasp out there? I hate to be the one to break it to you, but many authors never meet their agents in person; it’s not as though the agency will fly a prospective client from California to New York just to get acquainted. Since almost everything in the biz is handled by phone, e-mail, or snail mail, face-to-face contact is seldom necessary.

The result? Well, it’s not a scientific sample, of course, but I know plenty of writers who couldn’t pick their agents, much less the principal of their agency, out of a police line-up. (Not that you really want to be in the position to hiss, “That’s she, officer. SHE’S THE ONE WHO DIDN’T MAIL MY ROYALTY CHECK,” but still.)

Ideally, you want relationships with both your agent and agency so comfortable that you have no qualms — and no need to have any — about simply handing the business side of your writing over to them and letting them get on with making you rich and famous. (Which you already know that no agent cannot legitimately promise up front, right?) So perversely, while asking a whole lot of pointed questions at the outset may seem mistrustful, doing so will actually substantially INCREASE the probability that you’re going to trust and respect your agent a year or two down the road.

Do find out whether you are signing with the agency as a whole or with the agent specifically: contracts come both ways. As I mentioned in passing above, agents move around all the time, and some agencies can have pretty short lifespans.

If your agent retired, for instance, would you still be represented? What about if your agent started an agency of her own? Or, heaven forefend, died or decided to scrap her career and follow the Dalai Lama around for a decade or two?

Yes, I actually do know authors to whom each of these things has happened; thanks for asking.

Again, agencies vary quite a bit. Some are set up so the royalty money all goes into a common pool, funding the entire agency, and some are run like hairdressing establishments, where each chair, so to speak, houses an independent contractor, and no funds are mixed.

Why should your agent’s employment arrangements concern you? Well, if you are the client of an independent contractor-type agent, if she leaves the agency, you more or less automatically go with her. If your contract is with the agency, you probably will not. If your agent has a track record of agency-hopping every couple of years — as many junior agents do; it’s a smart way to build a professional lifetime’s worth of contact lists — may I suggest that this is a contractual arrangement that may affect your life pretty profoundly?

Be very wary of an agent who is not willing to offer you a written contract. Contrary to popular belief, verbal contracts may be binding (if some consideration has changed hands as a result of it, as I understand it; if you handed someone a $50 bill and the keys to your car after the two of you had discussed his painting a mural on the passenger-side door, I’m told that could be construed as a contract, even with nothing in writing, but you should definitely talk to a lawyer before you attempt anything so zany), but as I MAY have pointed out, oh, 1800 times in the last 3-plus years, this is an industry where the power differential tends not to fall in the writer’s favor until after she is pretty darned well established. Protect yourself.

Do assume, however, that you may never see another copy of the contract again after you sign it. Make yourself a photocopy — yes, even before the agent has countersigned it — so you may refer to it later.

I know that this post has occasionally read as if half the agents out there are evil trolls, waiting under every bridge into Manhattan in the hope of defrauding innocent authors, but I am only trying to get you to put up your antennae before entrusting your precious manuscript to just anyone. The vast majority of agents honestly are good people who love good writing and want to help writers – but as in every profession, not all of them are scrupulous about fulfilling their obligations toward their clients. It behooves us all to be cautious.

Please, when the time comes: don’t be so flattered by an agent’s attention that you just agree to everything you are asked — or contractual provisions you don’t know exist. That’s how good writers get hurt, and I don’t want to see it happen to any of you.

I had meant to get to what agents do with manuscripts after the contract is signed, but I seem to have run long. It will have to be a topic for another day. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

The agency contract, Part IV: Show me the money

Did you think I was going to sign off on my series on contract explanation without addressing the issue most on the average agent-seeking writer’s mind? Perish the thought.

Yes, Virginia, the agency contract will specify the percentage of your advances and royalties your agent will get. And no, abiding by this is not left up to the goodness of your heart: if you are represented by an agent, your publication contract will specify that the publisher will send your checks to your agent, not directly to you. This means that any money you see will automatically have the agents’ percentage deducted from it.

Typically, in literary agencies, this percentage for is 15% for English-language North American sales. Script agents generally get 10%. In either case, the contract may either be on a yearly (or longer) basis or a per-project basis: find out which, so you are aware of the terms of renewal. If you are planning to write more than one thing, do be sure before you sign that your agent will want to represent everything you want to write.

These percentages are non-negotiable in virtually every agency on earth, so the point of examining your contract is not to gain haggling ammunition: it’s to prepare you for the day when a check arrives with fewer zeroes on it than your advance led you to expect. And no, a lower percentage does not usually mean a better deal for the author – it’s usually an indication that the agency is new, and is trying to attract high-ticket clients.

Pretty much every agency in the country takes a significantly higher cut of foreign sales: 20% or more is the norm. (For reasons I have not been able to fathom, my agency takes 23% of sales in the Baltic republics, so they’ll really score if my memoir takes off in Lithuanian.)

The higher price tag abroad is for a very practical reason: unless an agency has an outpost in a foreign country (as some of the larger agencies do) it willsubcontract their foreign rights sales to agencies in other countries, who take their cut as well. So if you suspect that your book will have a high market appeal in Turkey or Outer Mongolia, you might want to check up front whether your prospective agency has a branch there, or is subcontracting. The differential in commission percentage can be substantial.

“Um, Anne?” I hear a small, confused chorus out there piping. “Was the bit about English-language North American sales just a really complicated typo? Aren’t there other people in the world who read English — like, say, the people in England? Why aren’t all of the English-language sales lumped together, and the foreign ones together?”

Ah, because that would make sense, my friends. The industry likes to keep all of us guessing by throwing a cognitive curve ball every now and again, so this is going to require a fairly extensive and rather convolutedexplanation. Before I launch into it, you might want to pop into the kitchen and make yourself some tea, or fluff up the pillows on your ottoman. I’ll wait.

Okay, everybody comfortable? Here goes: from the point of view of your garden-variety US publisher, books published in the English language fall into three categories: those sold in North America, those sold in Great Britain, and those sold in other countries. Of the three, only those in the first category are considered English-language sales, for contractual purposes. The last two are considered foreign-language sales.

There — and you thought it wasn’t going to make sense…

So, perversely, if EXACTLY the same English-language book by a US author was sold in Canada and Great Britain, the author’s US agent would take 15% of the royalties on the first and 20% on the second. (This situation is not at all beyond belief: HARRY POTTER is, I am told sold in a slightly different form in the former Commonwealth than in the U.S. Why? Well, chips mean one thing to a kid in London and another to a kid in LA, and while apparently the industry has faith that a kid in Saskatchewan could figure that out, it despairs of the cultural translation skills of a kid in Poughkeepsie.)

This is why, in case you were curious, you will see the notation NA in industry discussions of book sales – it refers to first North American rights, minus Mexico. Rights to sell books south of the border, in any language, fall under foreign language rights, which are typically sold on a by-country basis.

However, occasionally an American publisher will try to score a sweet deal on a book expected to be a bestseller and try to get the world rights as part of the initial deal, but this generally does not work out well for the author. Why? Well, if a book is reprinted in a second language and a North American publisher owns the foreign rights, the domestic house scrapes an automatic 20% off the top of any foreign-language royalties accrued by the author. (If this seems a trifle technical, chalk it up to the rather extended struggle I had to retain my memoir’s foreign rights; back in the day, my now-gun-shy publisher wanted ‘em, big time. But they’re mine, I tell you, all mine!)

Be very wary of an agent who is not willing to offer you a written contract. Contrary to popular belief, verbal contracts may be binding (if some consideration has changed hands as a result of it, as I understand it; if you handed someone a $50 bill and the keys to your car after the two of you had discussed his painting a mural on the passenger-side door, I’m told that could be construed as a contract, even with nothing in writing), but as I MAY have pointed out, oh, 1800 times in the last 6 months, this is an industry where the power differential tends not to fall in the writer’s favor until after she is pretty darned well established. Protect yourself.

Do not assume, however, that you will ever see another copy of the contract again after you sign it. Make yourself a photocopy – yes, even before the agent has countersigned it – so you may refer to it later.

I know that this series has occasionally read as if agents are evil trolls, waiting under every bridge into Manhattan in the hope of defrauding innocent authors, but I am only trying to get you to put up your antennae when dealing with them. The vast majority of agents honestly are good people who love good writing and want to help writers – but as in every profession, not all of them are scrupulous about fulfilling their obligations toward their clients. It behooves us to be cautious.

Please, when the time comes: don’t be so flattered by an agent’s attention that you just agree to everything you are asked. That’s how good writers get hurt, and I don’t want to see it happen to you.

On to cheerier topics tomorrow, thank goodness! Keep up the good work!

The agency contract, Part III: double indemnity?

When last we spoke – electronically, that is – I was waxing poetic about the need to take a close gander at an agency contract before you sign it, to prevent unpleasant surprises down the line. (I know, I know: we should all have such problems. But by preparing you for them now, my hope is that you will be a happier camper in years to come. Or sooner, if you’re lucky.)

While you are looking over the contract, check to see whether you are signing with the agency as a whole or with the agent specifically: contracts come both ways. Agents move around all the time, and some agencies can have pretty short lifespans. If your agent retired, for instance, would you still be represented? What about if your agent started an agency of her own? Or, heaven forefend, died or decided to scrap her career and follow the Dalai Lama around for a decade or two?

My friend May, for example, found out too late that her contract was with her agent, not her agency: amazingly enough, no one filled her in on the possibility until after her agent had actually passed away.

Something of a surprise, as you may imagine; May hadn’t even known that she was sick. (After you’ve hung out around represented writers for awhile, you will start to notice how often authors are NOT informed about illness, imminent life or career changes, or sometimes even the firing of their agents and editors. We writers always seem to be the last to know.)

May was very sorry, of course, because she had liked her agent very much, but it never occurred to her that she no longer had representation. Until she received a letter from the agency, a couple of weeks later. Seems that the agency had hired a replacement agent – who did not represent May’s kind of work. So sorry; best of luck elsewhere.

No offer to help her find another agent, nothing. Just goodbye and good luck. Incredulous, May checked her contract and, sure enough, she hadn’t signed with the agency at all, only her late agent. She was back on the querying junket again.

Why the distinction? Well, it actually has more to do with the internal structure of the agency than your agent’s relationship with you — or any other writer, for that matter. Agencies vary quite a bit. Some are set up so the royalty money all goes into a common pool, funding the entire agency, and some are run like hairdressing establishments, where each chair, so to speak, houses an independent contractor, and no funds are mixed.

Why should your agent’s employment arrangements concern you? Well, if you are the client of an independent contractor-type agent, if she leaves the agency, you more or less automatically go with her. If your contract is with the agency, you probably will not. (May’s contract was the former.)

And if your agent has a track record of agency-hopping every couple of years – as many junior agents do; it’s a smart way to build a professional lifetime’s worth of contact lists – may I suggest that this is a contractual arrangement that may affect your life pretty profoundly?

My friend Katherine, one of the most talented writers I know, was thrown for an unexpected loop by such a move, and at least in the short run, her book’s marketing prospects suffered for it. Her contract left the issue a bit ambiguous, specifying that Katherine would be represented by Agent X AT Agency Y. So when Agent X, without any advance warning, suddenly decided to leave Agency Y to start her own agency, Katherine actually had a hard time learning whether she was still represented at all.

Remember what I said earlier about the writer’s always being the last to know?

And, to make the situation worse, at the time, a respectable number of editors at major publishing houses had their hot little hands on Katherine’s excellent book. Naturally, she did everything, short of turning up on the doorstep of her NYC agency, to find out what was going on with her contract.

After several highly frustrating weeks of telephone and e-mail tag, she learned that she had only three options: break her contract and sign a new agency agreement with Agency Y, but be assigned to a new agent whom she did not know (and about whom they would tell her nothing); break her contract and sign with Agent X in her new agency, or break her contract and seek representation somewhere else.

While the book was still out with editors. No matter what, her old contract was more or less defunct. Through absolutely no fault of Katherine’s.

Since, like so many of us, Katherine had spent years upon years seeking the perfect agent for her work, none of these possibilities seemed particularly appetizing to her. Option 1 would involve leaving a well-established agency for a brand-new one (which generally means living through months of office-transition disorganization); Option 2 would leave her and her book orphaned until someone at her agency decided to pick her up. And, since she had long experience with querying, Option 3 sounded a lot like putting her hand in a meat grinder for fun. She ended up following her agent – which, if her contract had not been ambiguous, is probably precisely what would have happened anyway.

My point is, unexpected things can happen. If you understand your contract, you will be much better prepared to deal with emergencies as they arise. Again: ask.

I shall wind up my series on agency contracts tomorrow, but in the meantime, a heads-up to those of you who have material out with important agents and/or editors at the moment: the Frankfurter Buchmesse – that’s the Frankfurt Book Fair to those of us stateside – has just ended, which may well mean that the agent or editor who should be reading your manuscript is either on a plane or abroad at the moment. A hefty proportion of the industry’s heavy hitters attend, often grabbing European vacation time on either end.

As a result, guess what piles up on NYC desks every October?

What this could mean for you: a slower response time than usual, in an industry already notorious for slow response times. Don’t panic; I assure you, the delay is not about you or your writing. Sit tight.

And keep up the good work!

The agency contract, Part II

Yesterday, I started talking about the importance of understanding an agency contract before you sign it — and, indeed, of learning as much as you can about an agency before getting involved with it. Yes, I know: this reads as though I am talking about dating, and in a sense, I am. During the querying process, you are sending your book out on a series of close-to-blind dates, hoping to it will attract an agent. But not every agent is marriage material, if you catch my drift; writer-agent divorces are more common than you might think, usually on the grounds of irreconcilable differences.

Unagented writers don’t seem to talk, or even think, about this possibility much — after so much rejection, anyone who says yes to you can start to look pretty darned good — but let me assure you, amongst agented writers, the differentials between what we had expected our agents to do for us (send our work out promptly, for instance, or return phone calls within a month) and what they have actually done is a CONSTANT source of animated discussion.

My agent, of course, is a treat and a joy and a pleasure. Seriously, she is — and when a client writer can say that with such assurance in the middle of a fairly hair-raising revision on a tight deadline, it may safely be believed. Maybe I just have an unusually affectionate disposition toward people who make efforts on my books’ behalf, but I have to say, amongst the agents of my kith and kin (who are legion and literarily prolific, I am happy to report), my experience with my agent does seem to be a bit, well, anomalous.

I attribute this partially to the fact that writers are very often isolated from one another. If you don’t know another agented writer to ask, how are you going to know what is and isn’t normal in writer-agent relations? (Yet another terrific reason to join a writer’s group, eh?) For instance, it is not at all uncommon for an agent to be very slow — as in months — in getting a contract to a new client. I’ve known writers to be represented contract-less for a year or more.

Is this an indication that the agent who was wild to represent them a few months ago has cooled off? Not usually — but that is of course the first conclusion the writer tends to draw. Most of the time, agents who do this are just disorganized about something which is to them a rather low priority; from their point of view, all that’s important is that you have given them the right to represent your work, and that they have a signed contract with you before you sign a contract with a publisher. Since the signing with agent to signing with publisher time is often lengthy, what’s the rush?

Yet again, we see proof that writers’ sense of urgency (“I must overnight my manuscript!” or “I must make all of the revisions my agent wants by a week from Tuesday!”) does not always correspond with their agents’ (“I’ll send out that contract today…What do you mean, I said that five weeks ago?”) Moral of the story: try not to jump to the worst possible conclusions right away.

The result of this difference in urgency perception is often, alas, some pretty slow agency contract delivery times. Should this happen to you, go ahead and ask for it, if necessary once per month: believe it or not, agents sometimes think it’s been mailed out when it hasn’t.

The other reason that writers end up dissatisfied with their agents, I suspect, is that writers often do not have a firm grasp of either their new agencies’ policies, their agent’s expectations, and/or the provisions of their contracts before they sign. In the white heat of excitement over SOMEONE in the biz loving one’s work, it’s often hard to come up with good questions to ask.

Especially if you have not yet seen the agency contract. It’s in the mail, really.

This is definitely an arena where it is ENTIRELY appropriate to ask what-if questions, ESPECIALLY if you do not have a contract in hand. You will want to know about the normal MO of the agency — commission percentages, length of contract, how they submit to publishers, etc. — but try to work in a question or two about who your contact person will be OTHER than your agent. An assistant? The agency’s principal? The office tabby cat?

Why is this important? Well, if something happens to your agent — a leave of absence, an accident, a move to another agency, or even just not being in the office when a crucial call from an editor comes — the agency will be handling your interests. So you don’t just need to trust your agent — you need to trust your agency as well.

How might this affect you and your work? Well, put on your jammies, boys and girls: it’s story time.

I had been signed with my wonderful, amazing, devoted agent for less than six months when she had a baby. Miracle that she is, she managed to sell my book AND another client’s practically as they wheeled her off to the delivery room, but for some months, it looked very likely that the contract negotiations for my memoir might end up being handled by another agent. As it turned out, another agent held my hand during the rather nerve-wracking period between contract-signing and book delivery — which, in my case, was only about two months.

I think it’s safe to say that I was not always perfectly happy and level-headed during that intensely stressful period. I was lucky that I had been temporarily reassigned by my agency to a delightfully patient and kind listener.

More seriously, I was also still under the care of my interim agent when the first lawsuit threat came. (It came in waves, one in early July, followed by much silence, then another in early September, and a third the following March. Different allegations about the book each time, I might add, and none textually-based.) If my agency were not full of very competent, very supportive people, I might have been left to face the threat unadvised. Having known other writers who have had to deal with lawsuits over their memoirs (hey, I get around) without the help of an agent, I feel very, very fortunate.

And VERY glad that that I read my agency contract very well before I signed it, so I felt secure about the agency that would be taking care of me. Because, as it turns out, this was not a one-time phenomenon: I have a novel teetering on the brink of a sale now (see my post for September 30th, if you missed the big news), and my agent’s second child is due in roughly two and a half months. She and I seem to be on a similarly prolific timetable.

What might have happened, had my agency not been well prepared for this contingency? Let me tell you the story of my friend Lois, a writer of literary fiction. After a year and a half of quite cordial interactions, Lois’ agent just stopped answering her e-mails one day; returned phone calls became a thing of the past. And because Lois was, like so many writers, long trained in assuming that any silence must have something to do with the quality of the book, she naturally fell into hyper-revising mode. Yet when she meekly submitted a new version of her novel, she STILL heard nothing.

“Have I offended my agent somehow?” Lois wondered. After wondering about it for a couple of weeks, she concluded that she must have. She sent a formal (if vague) apology. Still no word.

Weeks dragged on into months, and after three, Lois had had enough. She called the main number for the agency, and demanded to know how she could terminate her contract with the agent. (She had not read her contract closely enough to have that information already, you see. But you know better than that.)

“Wait,” the astonished receptionist told her, “didn’t anybody tell you? She had to have emergency surgery. Poor thing, she’s been in physical therapy for months.”

Of course, Lois felt really small, but actually, I think that the agency should have been the ones apologizing. That many months sans agent, and the agency hadn’t thought to notify her CLIENTS? A quarter of a year can feel like a lifetime to an author whose book is being circulated.

Dear me, I got so carried away with my examples that I haven’t left room to write about contract specifics, so that will be the task of another day. In the meantime, keep up the good work!