Newer vs. Established Agents

Before I dive into this topic, let me just state the obvious: I am a newer agent, therefore, my outlook on the issue is a bit biased. However, I don’t want you to think that I’m trying to sway you unfairly. There is a lot to be said for being the client of an established agent, but there’s also a lot to be said for being the client of a newer agent. This isn’t going to be me playing the realtor who tries slapping creative adjectives on something undesirable. (In my soon-to-be-former home of San Francisco, realtors repeatedly call an area that, technically, is the Tenderloin, one of the city’s skeeziest neighborhoods, “Lower Nob Hill.”)

So, what’s the difference between a newer agent and a more established agent? Time and experience. As Ben Folds says, “time takes time,” so the only way a newer agent becomes a more established agent is through living and working in publishing every day. All agencies have rank. At my agency, we have Andrea, who is the President, then we have a Senior Agent. After that, we have five Agents and two Associate Agents (including myself). The “title” of each agent depends on the amount of time they’ve been with the agency and the number of books they’ve sold. That’s really all you need to know about rankings. (All the other concerns are internal and mean more to the agents themselves than to writers.)

Let’s talk about established agents first. These are the Presidents or Senior Agents, and sometimes the Agents, at an agency. They’ve been around for (usually, again, this is general) about three/five years or more and have amassed an impressive sales record. They have strong relationships with editors and their projects often get more careful consideration when they land in an editor’s inbox. They’ve proven themselves as people who have great projects. People editors want to work with again and tell their colleagues about.

So, the pros are clear:

  • Great reputation
  • Strong relationships and lots of trust
  • Impressive sales and client lists
  • Clout, clout, clout

But there are also cons that are sometimes associated with a more established agent:

  • Very selective, so it’s sometimes hard for a debut author to be considered.
  • Most established agents don’t get a lot of their clients from submissions — they weigh referrals much more heavily.
  • The longer an agent works, the busier they are. They have bigger client lists and they’ve done more books. For every book you sell, there is work attached to it (contracts, paperback reissue, royalty statements twice a year, marketing, foreign and subrights sales, etc.). The more books an agent has sold, the more work they have to devote to their existing sales and clients, and the less time they sometimes have.
  • Agenting is all about taking risks on writers and the possible return on that time and energy investment. More established agents might select writers who are very advanced already, and not take as many risks on debuts who have something special but need a lot of work.

So it’s a trade-off. An established agent has wonderful pros but they keep their clout by working hard and staying very busy. Smaller writers or debuts sometimes feel like they disappear on a bigger agent’s list. When you’re considering a more established agent, ask yourself what is more important to you: their clout when dealing with editors or feeling like a big fish in their small pond? You’ll always get the former with an established agent, but you may not get the latter.

Let’s switch gears to the newer agents. They’ve started as an intern or an assistant at an agency and worked their way up. They may have been agenting for a year or two or three. They’re building their relationships with editors and they don’t have as many sales under their belts. In a business that’s all about reputation and relationship, they’re still working on a lot of those factors.

This is often tempered, though, by the reputation of the newer agent’s agency. An agent who is hired by a very well-regarded agency has some clout already — great agencies keep their reputations by choosing great employees. And a newer agent’s senior colleagues are usually great resources, giving advice, reviewing submission lists, suggesting editors and otherwise speeding up the time/experience process. But the newer agent is still an unknown until they get more business. And their tastes and market knowledge are still evolving, so editors take that into consideration when they see a submission from most newer agents.

Here, then, are the cons of a newer agent:

  • Less personal clout — though they might have agency clout and mentors within the agency
  • Fewer big name clients and impressive sales
  • Evolving taste and market knowledge
  • Personal relationships with editors are still developing

But there are pros, too. And, again, I speak as a newer agent, so take this with a grain of salt. The pros:

  • Newer agents are hungry for sales and to build their careers. (Most agencies pay commission only, so making those sales, building those relationships and getting off the ground are very high-stakes matters for newer agents.)
  • Newer agents have more time to devote to existing clients and might be more willing to take on writers/projects that need a lot of work — they are sometimes more open to the risk of developing a writer.
  • Most newer agents have something to prove and are the ambassadors of their agencies, going to all the conferences, making the rounds with editors, getting their name out there. They’re on the up and up and have unknown potential — the newer agent who plucks you from the slush might grow into that senior agent one day, and you could be one of their loyal, long-term clients as they gain prestige.

Much like we’re taking a risk on you when we offer representation and start developing you as a writer, with a newer agent, you’re taking a risk on someone who is at the beginning of their career, too. If it works out, you could be in a great, prestigious relationship.

Take these things and what you want as a writer into consideration when you’re choosing. With newer agents, DO make sure that they have some sales under their belts and that they’re with a reputable agency. In this industry, it doesn’t really take much to hang out a shingle and call yourself a literary agent. If a newer agent is backed by a reputable agency, that’s a huge vote of confidence (as I’ve experienced firsthand, as a newer agent with a prestigious agency). If you’re getting ready to query, I’d suggest picking a list that has both newer and established agents and seeing where you get more responses.

ETA: As Bryan points out in the comments below…newer agents won’t take just anything. Newer agents have to build reputations and go out with great projects, so it isn’t necessarily easier to get past the threshold of a newer agent. And established agents will work with stellar debuts, too! Bottom line, as it is in any other post on my blog: write a great book!

Getting Into a “Closed” House

An issue came up in the comments about my recent catch-22 post. Christine asked about “closed” house editors (those who do not accept unsolicited or unagented submissions) who go to conferences and request materials or open up submissions to conference attendees only.

Editors do not rely solely on agents to bring them fantastic material. They are always on the hunt. Just like agents, they love the possibilities of the search, the thrill of discovering something brand new and phenomenal. I know plenty of editors who read blogs and websites, scout literary magazines and otherwise keep their antennae up. This includes going to conferences and picking up potentially talented writers. When agents and editors are at conferences, our role is very much the same: hone in on the cream of the crop and get their submissions. There’s even a similarity to how editors and agents treat submissions from conference attendees. Sometimes we reject outright, sometimes we reject the particular project but leave the door open to receive future work, and sometimes we take that writer on and develop them.

The key difference, though, is that agents are, inherently, more free to gamble. We have more time and resources (and incentive…a lot of agents work on commission, while editors get a salary…both go above and beyond the call of duty all the time, but agents do have an extra hunger) to develop raw talent into something saleable. Editors have bandwidth for this as well but they have all sorts of other things to do, projects already on their list to edit and lots of internal office duties that most writers don’t even lend a thought to. So they will sometimes pass on something that needs work (or pass it along to an agent friend), whereas an agent might dig in and really shape it into a great book.

Here’s what I said to Christine in the comments:

Yes, editors who attend conferences will sometimes tell attendees to send them submissions (usually a query or ten pages, sometimes for a limited time window like 3 months). Sometimes editors will also requests manuscripts based on a meeting or consultation with a writer. So yes, there are ways to get into closed houses by meeting editors at conferences.

However, as an agent (and as an agent, obviously, I would argue the merits of agents), it is my job to help writers get their manuscripts to an “editor ready” level. Sometimes these conference connections result in a direct offer from an editor. More often than not, though, they don’t. I’d much rather have a writer come to me and say “I met with So and So at a conference and want to get my manuscript in shape before s/he sees it,” than, “I met So and So at a conference and they passed on this already.” An unagented writer has less idea of what “editor ready” means, is all.

***

For a lot of unagented writers, meeting an editor at a conference seems like the Golden Ticket. If you do have this opportunity, though, I strongly urge you to query some agents as well. If you keep getting form rejections or no response, or if any of your requests come back with the same general feedback…do go back to the manuscript and give it some more elbow grease.

Agents have one goal: selling a book to an editor. So if agents keep rejecting your book, it’s a really good sign that an editor will probably reject it as well. Your chance with an editor (as with an agent) is sometimes a one-time opportunity, so you really do want to make sure your work is in fantastic shape. An agent, obviously, would be a great asset in determining whether or not you’re going to compete with everything else that editor has in his or her inbox. At least think about trying for an agent, even if you do have an invitation to submit from a conference or another opportunity.

Using Freelance Editors

Here’s a question I got from Katie recently:

I was just wondering if you recommend getting one’s manuscript professionally edited? Do you think this would help the revision process or have an effect our our growth as a writer? What are the advantages/disadvantages and can agents usually tell if a manuscript has already been edited professionally before? Are there any editor services that you recommend? If an editor does scouting for certain agents do you think this could help the writer get one foot in the door?

There are a lot of reasons to use a freelance editor and a lot of points in one’s writing journey when a freelance editor could come in and help the writer to the next level. Some writers hire freelance editors at the beginning of their learning experience and give them a very early novel. Other writers hire a freelance editor after several drawer novels and for the final draft of something they really think, after stumbling around for a while in the dark, might be The One. Some writers don’t hire freelance editors at all.

My thoughts on the subject are a little… complicated. First of all, I have to say that there are a lot of wonderful writers and publishing professionals who either make a career in or supplement their income with freelance editing. Their talents are many and their insights are deep. I have a lot of great respect for them and for what they do. However, I would not point all writers to freelance editors. Let me try to articulate without offending anyone.

First, here are the types of writers who might benefit from the services of a freelance editor:

  • Writers who can handle constructive criticism (working with a freelance editor, as Katie guesses, IS a great learning experience)
  • Writers who haven’t managed to find a good critique solution despite trying
  • Writers who don’t work well in a classroom or workshop environment
  • Writers who are starting out and want a kick start
  • Writers who are so stuck that their loved ones fear for their sanity
  • Writers who are so close to a good, publishable manuscript, and know it, and want a more complex and professional opinion on the whole thing before querying or submitting

Then there are the types of writers who might not benefit from a freelance editor:

  • Writers who cannot handle critique or constructive criticism
  • Writers who have never been in a critique or workshop situation before
  • Writers who just want to give their manuscript to someone in the hopes that it’ll get fixed for them
  • Writers who don’t intend to learn during the process
  • Writers who want someone to decide, once and for all, if their book is saleable or not… Not everyone will have the same opinion of this and, unless your editor has had significant experience in publishing, do not ask them to make this call
  • Writers who don’t vet their freelance editors… Not all freelance editors are created equal… Ask for references, talk to them to see if you’re a fit, and don’t go with the first one you see…

Here is why I say I don’t want to send all writers to freelance editors. And here is why, even if you get your book professionally edited, it might not be a magic bullet for the thing selling. There are no guarantees, not even if you hire the country’s best, most expensive book doctor. The danger is this: Revision is the most important skill, after writing, that a writer has in their toolbox. Until you learn to revise successfully, I say you’re not ready to be published. An editor will edit you and give you suggestions for revision, but then it’s up to you to turn out the finished manuscript. If you like getting edited and lean on an editor for every manuscript… which is a very real thing that happens… you might not be learning the critical skills you need to see your own work with an editorial eye. And those skills are essential. You’ll be getting great advice, but you’ll be short-changing yourself. Revision will be your blind spot and, these days, it simply can’t be.

Another issue here, which I hinted at above, is expectation. Freelance editing is expensive. And good freelance editing SHOULD BE expensive. This isn’t something to cut corners on, if you go this route. With expense comes the expectation that you’ll really get something out of it (in this case, a publishable manuscript). But do remember that the final burden is on you. You can get notes until you’re blue in the face, from teachers, critique partners, freelance editors, but it’s up to you and you alone what you do with them.

That’s why, to answer another of Katie’s questions, I can’t really tell if a book has been freelance edited. I don’t spent time trying to guess… authors tell me if they want to. It’s really what the writer does with the notes that ends up in my inbox, and if the writer can’t revise, or they take their revision in an unsuccessful direction, or they just didn’t have that strong of a manuscript to begin with, it’s an unpleasant surprise to hear that they’ve been edited already. There really is only so much even the best freelance editor can do with a bad manuscript… they’re not God. It makes me wonder what kind of mess the writer had before the editor stepped in. On the other hand, if I see a clean, tight, and polished manuscript that has been freelance edited, I might be more wary of the writer’s revision skills, since I don’t know how much is them and how much is the editor they hired. It’s not a deal breaker, but I do want to see if they can revise with me, just to get a feel for how they do on their own.

As for working with editors who scout for literary agencies — a common practice — sure, that’s a way to get in the door. If your editor is good (see above) and well-connected, it could lead to a recommendation to an agent… but there are less expensive ways to get an agent’s attention (namely, writing an awesome book and querying or going to a conference) than hoping for an elusive recommendation.

Those are just a few thoughts on this very complex subject. At this time, I can’t recommend any freelance editors. Not because I don’t know any great ones, but because I don’t want to have anyone feel left out of a list if I were to compile one, since several Andrea Brown clients work as editors. Plus, I don’t want to be responsible for a recommendation if a reader uses an editor and, per above, the experience doesn’t meet their expectations (whether the editor or a set of unrealistic expectations is to blame).

Like I said before, I think freelance editors are some of the hardest working and more under-appreciated people in publishing. They see a lot of messes. They labor quietly behind some great successes. They think and critique and inspire. But they’re not for every writer. The decision to hire one, when, and for which manuscript, in your writing career is a very personal one.

What Next?

Here’s a question I received a while back from Michele:

What is a writer to do when and agent really enjoys their work but passes? Obviously a form rejection tells you you’re way off the mark. If you are rejected because of an issue with the writing you can look at fixing it. But a rejection because the agent doesn’t connect with the story leaves a lack of direction. Do we leave our work as is and search for other agents? Do we assume the MS isn’t marketable and scrap it? Do we consider submitting other another Ms to that agent in the hope it will be a better fit? And, if we did submit to that agent again (and got accepted) would he/she pitch the stories the he/she already passed on? If the agent works for a house we really respect, do we query a different agent there with a future MS because they might be more passionate about our work?

Rejection isn’t just disappointing and hurtful, it’s frustrating, too. The writer is left with very little direction, as Michele so astutely points out. If the writer goes back to the agent with a question or a request for more detailed critique, the agent will usually decline to elaborate or not answer the email. We simply don’t have the time and energy to give personalized advice to everyone who wants it. So what’s next?

I’ll address Michele’s thoughts in order, starting with the first two. After an agent fails to connect with the manuscript, do you submit to other agents or do you scrap the MS and call it unmarketable?

When we submit a client’s manuscript to editors, we often get detailed feedback. If we made our client do a revision after every rejection, the client would feel jerked around, it would take forever, and there’d be no guarantee that the editor who offered some thoughts would go on to buy the project. It’s exactly the same here. I personally submit to smaller rounds of editors to see if we get some of the same feedback over and over. If we do, I can guide the client on a revision before submitting to other editors (or editors who wanted to see a revision). I suggest you do the same. Send to a group of agents and see if they all say the same thing. If they do, maybe think about revising. If they all hate it, try another group or, yes, it might be time to consider how saleable your work is. But do bounce it off several people before making revisions or the drastic decision to give up on that manuscript. There are so many tastes and opinions out there that letting one person’s rejection decide these questions isn’t the smartest thing to do.

As for querying that agent again (or another agent or editor at the same agency or house) with a different manuscript… I say you can try, but only after some time goes by and you really hone your craft. We really do get annoyed hearing from writers we’ve just rejected, if we rejected them because of basic writing issues. We’re going to think their new writing has the same issues, because so little time has passed since we saw those issues in a previous piece. Michele astutely wonders, also, if getting representation after a previous rejection means we’ll have to represent the previous project, too.

This is a sticky situation. I firmly believe that all writers are on a path toward improvement. So I never swear off a writer just because they’re not “there” in their craft, their ideas or their execution just yet. You never know. Everyone starts somewhere and then they go on to grow and learn and really impress people. That’s why I’m always going to at least look at a project from a writer who I’ve read and rejected before. If I do end up offering representation to them after time has passed and after they send along a different project, we’ll talk about their previous project. In most cases, writers who improve a lot tend to hate their previous work because they can see all the flaws in it. I can’t stand to look at most of the things I’ve ever written because I know so much better now. If the client wants to pursue it, we’ll look at it together and see if it’s viable. If it’s not, I am under no obligation to represent a client’s past work and drawer novels because I put my name and reputation on the line with everything I send out to editors, too.

If you still want to work with the same agency or house but want to try another editor or agent there, do make sure that you’ve done significant revision. And wait until you’ve heard from all the other agents and editors who you have submissions out with. One of them might have feedback for you. If you’re really set on working with a particular company and they’ve already rejected you once or twice, really do put everything you’ve got into that next submission, since you may not have that many more chances. And, as always, patience is your #1 asset at this point.

Why I Say “No” To Great Work

It has happened many times that I get a great story, full of believable characters, with good voice, and one that’s well-written. Sometimes I jump all over it and offer representation. Other times, though, I hesitate. These end up being the most difficult decisions for me. Why do I hesitate? Because this is the thought in my head: I really like this, but can I sell it?

In other words: Is there a larger market for this? What do I think? Will publishing houses agree with me and buy this?

And this is a very difficult thing to say for sure. TWILIGHT was rejected by a dozen or so agents because, I bet, most people didn’t see a market for teen vampire romance. They were wrong. Very wrong. In order to keep up on trends, I talk to editors and read publisher catalogs, follow publisher and librarian blogs, read industry publications, go to trade shows, the whole shebang. I also stop into every book vendor I see (from the neighborhood indie to big box stores to the airport) to browse and see what books are on the shelves there (what books that store is selling and keeping in stock because that store sees demand for those books). I see what queries I’m getting in and listen to rumors about the next big thing. Even with all this research, I don’t know everything that will succeed in the marketplace. Some books that I’m sure will sell, don’t. Other books that I’m iffy on, go to auction.

The most I have is an educated guess, a passion for the project and a gut feeling. It’s persuasive but not guaranteed. That’s what makes passing on a good manuscript a very difficult decision. Even if I love it, there’s still a voice in the back of my head: “Can I sell this project? Is there a market for it?” When my gut and my market knowledge tells me “no,” I tend to waffle and put the rejection off anyway. Because it is — technically — a good book, and I don’t want to let a talented writer go. But it’s that last detail of selling it to a publisher and eventually getting it into the hands of readers (you know, my job) that prevents me from taking on every single good book that comes into my inbox.

The great thing is, there are many agents with many different sensibilities. There are the types of (sad) agents who passed on TWILIGHT because they didn’t think they could sell it. Then there’s the one who took it on and is very much enjoying that decision. When I see a good book but decide that I can’t personally see a way to pitch it or imagine which editors will love it and buy it, there’s another agent out there who probably can.

It really does come down to that with the most difficult rejections I make. At those higher levels, the deciding factor is the fit and the passion. The projects I end up taking on are those that I’m 100% passionate about and think I can sell to publishers. A writer deserves nothing less from their representation. If I reject a great project, it’s usually because I’m not feeling confident and creative about the selling part. Someone else, though, might feel completely differently.

Now, that’s not to say that I’m hot to reject the next TWILIGHT. If anyone has that kicking around, please do send. 🙂

Agents as Editors and Kidlit Newcomers

I wrote a post a while back about being an agent who loves to get editorially involved in client manuscripts. I think I’m part of the majority on this and that majority doesn’t just include new agents. Most agents, whether fresh on the scene or established, are finding themselves doing more editorial work these days.

Why? The publishing industry is in flux right now. Houses have been restructuring, having layoffs, piling more work on their remaining staff. Editors, associate editors and editorial assistants are finding themselves faced with a lot more to do, including all sorts of in-house duties that most writers can’t even imagine. Editors are finding less time to do the actual, you know, editing that probably attracted them to publishing in the first place. In fact, most editors routinely report that part of the editing they do for their authors — let’s not even get into the reading they do for manuscripts that come in on submissions — takes place at night and over the weekends.

Editors are the ultimate gatekeepers in publishing. Agents are the first line of defense, in this analogy at least, against the slew of submissions that would inundate all major houses if they accepted anything unsolicited. Now that the gatekeepers are finding themselves with less time to edit, it has become that much more important that agents send out projects that are polished, compelling, carefully revised. That means agents have to do more work with a client before going out on submission, and the barrier to entry has gotten higher.

Gone are the days when editors feel like they’ve got the time and resources to take on a severely flawed book and uncover the masterpiece hiding somewhere deep inside it, like Michelangelo liberating David from the marble. That’s now mostly an agent’s job, I think, and that’s only if they want to invest the time.

This doesn’t mean editors don’t edit once the acquire. Editors still work just as hard — and oftentimes much harder — now than they ever did. They give brilliant insight, amazing notes, gentle suggestions and really help an author learn and grow. An editor-author relationship really can be a wonderful thing. But the beautiful disasters aren’t going to catch an editor’s eye or convince their acquisitions committees as much anymore. Since their jobs have changed, the job of the agent has, too.

In children’s books, there’s an additional obstacle that’s developed this past year or two. Children’s is a market that has, so far, refused to go as deep into the toilet as many other book markets. In fact, it has done rather well throughout the recession. So a lot of agents who never would’ve thought to represent children’s books are now picking up clients and going on submission when they perhaps don’t know the market as well as agents who are experienced in the children’s book world. These newcomers haven’t read a lot of children’s books themselves, they don’t know what makes a good one, they might not be able to give the best editorial advice for the market.

This is an additional problem for editors, who are getting submissions of lesser quality from a first line of defense that has some newbies in it. This isn’t an issue at my agency — we’ve been exclusively representing children’s books for almost 30 years — but I’ve heard about this problem from editor friends and saw it with my own eyes when I worked at Chronicle.

Not only should you be querying with a manuscript polished enough to make an editor’s acquisition argument easier down the line, you should also query agents who are experienced in children’s books. A lot of people are trying to get into the game. If you want editorial guidance and the benefit of real experience, make sure your list of potential agents is full of real children’s book pros, not just people who hear the siren song of a strong (as strong as it can be in this economy) market.

Submitting On Your Own, Then Getting an Agent

I recently got a question on my “Getting an Offer and THEN an Agent” post. I started typing out the answer but it was too long and I thought I’d make it into a post of its own, just because there’s a point at the end that I wish more writers would be aware of. Here’s the question, from MM:

If I get an offer by myself, would it be considered inappropriate, after acquiring an agent, for that agent to pitch the project to other publishers in search of a better offer? Is there a ticking clock on the initial publisher’s offer?

Also, what of the situation in which an author has queried publishers directly, received all rejections, and then acquires an agent? I’ve heard agents warn against direct querying of publishers, saying that in the case of all rejections, now the agent’s hands are rather tied and it’s much more difficult to find a publisher.

Great question, MM, and one that agents often have to struggle with. A lot of the time, we get clients who have submitted on their own or who have had previous agents who’ve done submissions, and we really have to consider where the manuscript has been before. We also get writers who have an offer on the table when they come to us and they want us to negotiate better terms for them. Both situations have happened to me.

I’ll answer the first part first, and I don’t know if this is what you want to hear. If you want to find a better offer, you will have to decline the present offer. The offering publisher expects you to get back to them within a reasonable time frame, sure, but they’re also not going to be very pleased with you if you go around with your new agent and pitch everywhere else because you hate their offer… while their offer is still on the table. Imagine coming back to them and saying, “Yeah, I guess we’ll accept your crappy offer, even though we wanted that shiny publisher over there.” You won’t be saying that directly but they’ll know because a) a suspicious amount of time has passed and b) people in this small community of publishers talk.

That’s going to be a horrible working relationship with a publisher you’ve offended, if they don’t pull the offer themselves. You will have burned a bridge and nobody wants that. So if you hate the offer, your new agent will try to negotiate the best possible situation. If it’s still not enough — if your agent has said that you’re considering taking this elsewhere and the publisher still won’t fight to keep you — you will pull the project and decline the offer. It’s a risk because you may not have interest from other publishers or, if you get another offer, it may be equal to or worse than your first. But if you’re really unhappy, nobody needs that business relationship.

In this situation, I usually advise people to get the best possible terms from the offering publisher and then have their agent fight for no option clause, so they can go elsewhere with their next project. It’s not an ideal situation because nobody wants to be unhappy, but… read to the end of the post for my big advice before even getting into this mess.

Second, our hands are rather tied if you’ve been rejected all over Creation. It’s true. That’s why we really do warn people… if their eventual goal is to get an agent, then get the agent first, before you go shopping the manuscript. At a lot of places, you only have one shot per project. I guess how doomed you are depends on if you know which editors read it. If you got a form rejection from that house, it means an intern read it. But they could’ve shown it to their bosses first. If you get a personal rejection from an editor, that means your agent knows who read it and might be able to pitch to another editor there or at a different imprint. Either way, you do risk the editor saying, “Oh, my colleague has already passed on this” or, “Oh, my intern showed me this and we’ve already passed.” We really do remember what we read and a repeat submission sticks out. That’s the worst that can happen but it still doesn’t look very good for you or your new agent.

Same with burning your initial offer. This is a small industry and reputation is key. So here is the main thing I want everyone to take away from this post. If you don’t want to be published by that house–or represented by that agent, or working with that editor, etc.–then why did you query them in the first place?!?!?!? Agents get this all the time. I’ve heard colleagues and friends talking about offering representation only to have the writer start waffling. They want more time, they want to check in with other agents. Then they frantically appeal to all their Dream Agents because their last choice agent has offered representation and, since it’s not who they hoped would offer, they are queasy about working with that person.

When you pitch your project or query an agent, the person on the other end of that pitch assumes you really want to work with them. Don’t query them if you wouldn’t be happy to work together. Don’t let your eagerness for someone to publish or represent you cloud your good judgment.

Querying With a Series and Series in General

This is the question I got the other week from Elan:

How do you feel about authors querying about a series? Is it important to mention that in the initial query letter, or is that something that can be discussed once an author/agent relationship is established? Let’s say the first book is complete but the others in the series are not.

Good question, Elan. This is something a lot of writers should be researching before they query because — if you’ve been under a rock for the last year or so and haven’t heard — the rules in publishing have changed a little bit since the economy tanked. This might not be my answer forever, but this is my answer right now.

Series have been snapped up left and right by the big houses in the recent past, ever since Harry Potter proved that you could keep the cash flowing for many, many books. A few years ago, it wasn’t uncommon to see two, three or even four-book deals right out of the gate, a healthy number of these going to debut authors. Fantasy, sci-fi and paranormal are three genres that lend themselves especially well to series and, if you asked the blogs a little while ago, they’d all say that writing “This project has strong series potential and I’m currently writing books two through five” in your query could very well be melodious to an agent’s ear.

Now houses are taking fewer risks. The average debut author is lucky if they can secure two books with their first contract. I was talking to an editor recently and she outlined the way her house has been approaching series: they buy the first book, maybe in a two-book deal but maybe as a stand-alone, release it, see how it does, and only then do they consider turning it into a series. If they do, they’ll commit through probably a trilogy (so two more books) or more. I like this model, maybe not from a bank account or a prestige standpoint but from an intellectual one. It’s cautious. It’s logical. It’s practical. It doesn’t assume the risk of a series right away, it makes the author and their debut earn the subsequent books. Intimidating thought, I know, but are you really in the writing gig for the easy money? 🙂 Didn’t think so.

This isn’t fun to hear for all the fantasy and paranormal and sci-fi writers who have planned seven-book story arcs. But it’s smart. Publishing can’t really be handing out four-book deals like candy anymore. It’s bad for the house because they’re spending a lot of money on untested talent and will have to compete in a very crowded fantasy/paranormal/sci-fi marketplace. It’s bad for the author, too, because the last thing you want people saying about you is: “Wow, poor writer, Publishing House gave her a four-book deal and the first book didn’t even sell that well. Now she’s stuck, her editor isn’t enthusiastic about the project anymore and the house lost a ton money. Bummer.”

It’ll be that much harder to get a new contract for future work from your publisher — why invest more in a product that doesn’t leave the shelves? — or attract a new house because everyone can see your dismal sales numbers. The conventional wisdom of “If a house pays more for a book or series, they’ll do more to promote it” isn’t necessarily true anymore. Big books and series still tank and, when they do, they tank big.

So, when you’re imagining a series in all its shiny, multi-book glory, the best thing you can do with the first book is make it a complete, stand-alone story. There’s definitely a pattern with series, in terms of what function each book serves. A trilogy, for example, will sometimes go like this:

  • Book One: set-up and background and initiation
  • Book Two: exploration and character development
  • Book Three: showdown!

But if you send an agent a book that’s all set-up and background info and initiation, it doesn’t stand alone. I’m going to say: “Well, that’s great, but what actually happens? This all seems like prologue…” There has to be a full and compelling plot, rich character development, a climax and a denouement for this manuscript, and it has to be satisfying, even if there are other books planned. And why wouldn’t you put all of your best work and your best effort into this first book? Don’t hold on to the good stuff for Book Six. You might never get there. If the market can only bear your debut, you should still feel good that you’ve created a wonderful story. Even if GRACELING didn’t have two other books attached to it, it would still have stood alone and been a perfect, utterly satisfying fantasy novel. That’s what it takes in today’s market.

I’d also warn unagented, unpublished writers away from developing an entire series and finishing all those manuscripts a) before querying and b) before landing a publishing contract for your first book(s). The most painful thing to see is seven completed series manuscripts that are gathering dust because the author couldn’t attract an agent for or sell the first one.

So when you query, do let me know if you’ve got a series in mind. But now, instead of hearing about how you’re working on Book Twenty-Nine, the following sentence would be music to my ears: “This project has strong series potential but this manuscript tells a complete tale and stands alone.*”

* And, you know, have this be true.

Getting an Offer and THEN an Agent

Elizabeth asked this great question yesterday and I wanted to tackle it for everyone:

I am unpublished and unagented, but I have a picture book manuscript under serious consideration at a great publishing house. If I am offered a contract, can I (without annoying the publisher) try to find an agent before accepting the contract? Would this take too much time from the publisher’s point of view? Would agents be likely to take me on at this stage? I have heard that many agents are not interested in picture book authors. Is it better to try to find a literary contract lawyer and pursue an agent after I have a published book under my belt? Such a raft of questions! I am obviously in a stew.

Most of the advice I can give Elizabeth will apply to all creators who have received an offer for their work and want to find an agent, so read on. First of all, congratulations! Even though there’s no firm offer yet, you’re in a good place. I’d advise you to take the time — once you receive a firm offer — to find an agent. IMPORTANT: Tell the editor “Thank you so much for your offer. Before I get back to you, I’m going to try and partner with a literary agent.” They’ll be fine with this, it happens all the time. But make sure you don’t agree to the terms of the offer just yet (I know that can be hard and anxiety-making. Don’t worry, they won’t withdraw it.) When you query, put something like this in your subject line: “Picture book Query — OFFER RECEIVED.” Believe me, you’ll catch a few eyes because it’s good news for both you and the prospective agent.

Since you have an offer on the table, the agent search won’t take too long. Agents tend to read things that have offers quickly, and picture books are easy to evaluate fast. I’d say that, if getting an agent is your eventual goal and you’re sure you’ll have one sooner or later, do it now while you can seem more attractive to them and rope them in from the first contract, not after it. There’s really not much reason not to.

Now, the agents I know are still taking picture books on but it’s tougher to attract an agent with a picture book than with a fiction manuscript, that’s true. Make sure you query people who deal in picture books or have in the past. When I’m evaluating a picture book author, I always ask them what else they have. Before I take one on, I like to know that this author has other manuscripts. I’d be less interested to take an author on who only has one or two picture book ideas in them. I want someone who has potential for a long and lucrative career, of course.

As for the deal itself, I do want to tell you that a) if you get an agent before you sign your contract, they will take 15% of the money you’ll earn and b) there will be a very limited number of things they’ll actually be able to do for you with this contract. Especially if you’ve already accepted, verbally or in writing, the offer. They might not be able to get you a better advance, but they probably will be able to negotiate better terms for you, like rights, options, royalties, etc than you would’ve gotten on your own. So you will lose some money in the short term but will most likely fare better in the long run with this particular book when you bring an agent aboard.

All that said, an offer in hand isn’t a magic bullet. The agent will still have to love you and your work enough to be your long-term advocate, for this deal and for those in the future. I wouldn’t take someone on automatically just because they have an offer. Overall, a good situation to be in. I’m obvious in favor of writers getting agents, but I’m also very much in favor of this particular scenario, since this is exactly how I got my first picture book author/illustrator client, who I love!