I was going to wait till tomorrow to answer some stuff, but this one won’t wait.
I tried searching your archives to see if you had already addressed this question but didn’t see anything, so forgive me if it’s been asked and answered before.
I think I remember from before that your position on agents is an absolute yes. I’m currently in a position where someone at a big publishing agency is interested in my project and may offer me a contract. I don’t currently have an agent, and I’m concerned that if I reach out to anyone once I have the offer, they’ll take it just because it’s an easy sell with someone already interested. But how do I make sure they’re passionate about the project and not just the sale? I’ve continually heard that it’s nearly impossible just to get an agent to look at your stuff these days, so I’m thinking that without the contract, they’ll skip even trying.
Sorry, I think this may be as much a rant of frustration and confusion as it is a question. Any past experience or advice you might have would be appreciated.
Yes, you still need an agent. Especially now. More so now than before.
But before I get into the details, I strongly urge you to please not sign anything. I’m speaking from experience. Please give me the benefit of a doubt.
You need to do your research and identify your dream agents. More than one, in case the first one doesn’t click. Find agents who represent writers with books similar to your manuscript and carefully look at their client list. Look for bigger names. If in doubt, email one of those bigger names and politely ask if they are happy. Once you determine that the agent is legitimate and appears competent, contact the agent. If you have an offer, tell them. If you have a strong interest from one of the houses, tell them. They will ask for a sample of your work. Agents, even established successful agents, do sign on new clients quite often. If the agency is really successful, it employs junior agents, who are usually looking for clients and who will consult with the senior agent, so you will still get the benefit of their experience.
A good agent doesn’t just make deals. A good agent manages your career, which means they have to genuinely believe in your work. Nancy Yost is our third agent. We had an offer on the table from the publisher, we had hit New York Times, and even so, we had to submit writing samples and have several conversations before everyone decided that we would be a good fit. She was interviewing us while we were interviewing her.
It helps to have realistic expectations: an agent isn’t a therapist, a best friend, an accountant (although an agency should contract with one) or a psychic. An agent is an industry insider who serves as a zealous advocate of your work.
I’ve rambled before in some detail about why having an agent is a must. Even a just-decent legitimate agent is much better than no agent. And if, down the road, it turns out that you just can’t work together, you can fire them. You are allowed. But you need an agent because otherwise you risk signing a contract that will tie your hands to your feet.
So no, my position on agents is still unchanged. Here is why the new publishing model makes employing an agent even more of a necessity. Let me be completely blunt: the business of commercial fiction has drastically changed in the past five years. Previously the Big Six Publishing Houses (Hachette , Macmillan, Penguin Group, HarperCollins, Random House and Simon & Schuster) were the primary providers of commercial fiction. The independent smaller publishers always existed, but they provided an interesting alternative to mainstream rather than real competition. The Big Six mostly competed with each other. So if Author A’s book came out, it would compete mostly against books from other publishing houses. There was a certain commonality between contracts from different publishing houses and being with a publishing house was one’s only way to reach the readers.
That train has sailed. We now have a state of upheaval in the publishing industry. Russians in the region where I was born have an excellent word for it: kavardak. All ahs, rhymes with duck. It means a chaotic, frantic, disastrous mess. The rise of ebooks created an extremely robust independent publishing marketplace and it changed the rules of the game.
1) Fiction is now cheap. (I didn’t say cheap fiction is always good. As with any unregulated marketplace, the quality of goods offered varies drastically. But this is a different conversation.)
What does it mean for you as a writer: when Amazon rolled out its alternative to Netflix, I read up on some interesting research connected to it, and of course, I can’t find it now, so I’ll summarize. Let’s say a person is in the mood to watch a specific type of movie, horror, for example. If you give that person a limited selection, they will make the selection work for them. If there are no good horror movies available, they will watch a bad horror movie, despite the negative ratings, because they already made a decision to watch a horror flick.
Let’s say you wrote a vampire book. That means that when a reader logs on to his favorite retailer’s site looking for a vampire ebook, he will see your book for $7.99 and many, many other vampire ebooks for $2.99 each. Whether those books are good or bad – and they might be stellar or horrible – this reader is going to get himself a vampire book to read, and you are at a disadvantage because your book costs more than twice as much. Your competition is now not just the other traditionally published writers, but the latest $.99 release from a fan favorite independent author.
As an author, you now need to be asking your publisher specific questions that authors didn’t have to worry about before. What is the price point of my book? Will my book be discounted? Will I get special promotion from e-retailers?
Even more specific: your publisher wants to sign an exclusive promotion with one retailer, making your book available for one month only at that retailer, before everyone else gets it. Is this a good idea? Why is this not a good idea? How will you express to the publisher that this is not a good idea without coming off as a complete ingrate? They took a chance on your book, they paid you money for it, and you love your editor. Don’t you know how lucky you are to be published? (When you spend a little bit of time in the industry, this mindset will go away as we all eventually realize that this is a business.)
A good agent is the person who will a) know why this or that strategy is a bad idea and b) has no problems with stepping up and being a savage bitch about it in a very polite manner.
But won’t the publisher know what’s the best strategy? No. They will not. They are large corporations with a lot of inertia. They will trial and error things for years before their experiments become a policy. Sometimes these policies are dictated from above in opposition to the editors’ suggestions. The markets are changing very fast.
But isn’t the publisher acting in my best interests? No. The publishers are not evil, no matter how much some of the more vehement opponents of the traditional publishing will try to convince you. But publishing is a business. Publishers act in THEIR own best interests. Your agent acts in your best interests.
Ace is a fair publisher, but they’ve come with some odd ideas over the years, and when you’re overworked and trying to get things in and feeling guilty because you are now two days late, you sometimes say yes. I said yes. And then I got an email from the agent who says, “This is not a good idea. Perhaps we could reconsider?” Which forced me to stop and think for a second, and my reply said, “What the hell was I thinking? This is a terrible idea!”
Our agent is CC’ed on almost every email to our editor. We do this, because she saves our butts.
2) Fiction is now plentiful, because publishing is easy.
The independent electronic marketplace increased the number of authors by a huge margin. Suppose you are published and your book does well. Not even super great, but well. Now you have a check mark by your name. You have a proven audience. When a reader familiar with your work sees your name among all other names, you stand out. Curiously that gives you a little bit more leverage than before. Your agent might get you better terms based on this leverage. You could also self-publish to supplement your income. The question is where and at what price? Can you even contractually self-publish or did you sign a contract that says the publisher owns any work under your pen name?
Example: UK wants to buy rights, but only e-rights, and they will only give you 15% from the royalties they get and a $1,000 advance. Is this a good deal? Are you at the stage of your career where you can earn more on your own with a 30% royalty off the cover price or is there enough support in the UK publishing house to be of benefit to you?
Again, a good agent will know this and will steer you the right way.
3) Publishing will drive you even more crazy.
Publishing always made people neurotic, but now even more so. Things are constantly changing. Publishers are merging. People are fired. Ebook prices are fluctuating, Amazon is making its own money. BN is making scary noises about stores closing. Amazon filed a patent to resell used books. I’m pretty much in the middle of it, and I try to pay attention, but it gets to be too much and I might know maybe 30% of the important news our agent knows. Probably not even that much.
- You will come to either love or, most likely, loathe your publisher’s publicity department.
- You will hit your head against the wall and moan, “But why? Why??? It makes no sense?” when your publisher blatantly ignores reality in favor of some silliness.
- You will become enraged over stupid petty crap that nobody really cares about.
- You will panic and develop irrational fear about changes in the industry.
- If you are really anal, you will get a spreadsheet in which you will note your royalties, sales and promo and then you will gnash your teeth about it.
In other words, you will go a little crazy. Crazy people need someone sane in their corner. Just saying.