Nuts and Bolts

Last week, I posted information gleaned from a Q&A with Elisabeth B. Dabney, literary agent extraordinaire, but only one little sliver of the total information discussed. As promised, here are the bits and pieces I failed to mention last week in an effort at concision and cohesion. Each paragraph represents its own topic, so enjoy a unity-free reading experience.

Agents pitch manuscripts to publishers, handle contract negotiations (with which they have experience and will be able to pick out problems or room for improvements), and act as sounding boards on author platform, marketing ideas, the saleability of future projects, etc. They pretty much handle the business end of things, freeing up their authors to focus on the creative side. But there is no stone tablet carved without hand that says authors need agents. Outside of the Big Five in New York, authors can usually pitch their own works to publishers, or even self publish, and generally take care of business themselves. Agents just smooth the trail. (And if you choose to go it alone, it is still highly recommended, by pretty much everyone reputable ever, that manuscripts be professionally edited before publication. If you’re not working with someone who provides editing as part of the contract, shell out for it yourself.)

Finding an agent is easier and easier these days. For those of us who don’t live in big cities, finding agents through word of mouth isn’t a likely option. For those of us who live in abject poverty (or who have due dates that fall right on conference weekend- sob sob sob), writing conferences, wonderful and recommended as they are, aren’t always an option either. But the internet! The internet can help you hunt out agents while streaming live radio and timing your boiling farfalle. (Unless it’s my internet. Then you’re lucky if you can check your email.) You can use specific services, such as Publisher’s Marketplace, trawl around social media that tend to attract those of the writing ilk, such as Twitter, or just run a million increasingly specific Google searches.

There is no special training required to become an agent. As such, there are many different paths to agentdom. Many agents seem to bud off from publishing houses, often starting out as editors or marketers. Others begin as interns in literary agencies and work their way through the ranks there. There is also an increasing popularity of college certification processes, achieved much like any degree. And, of course, there’s nothing stopping people from simply declaring themselves an agent and getting down to business. (This is part of what makes it so important to do your homework before querying and especially before signing with an agent. It’s always good to have some idea of an agent’s background and, more importantly, his or her track record in sales.)

15% of net royalties is the standard commission awarded to agents. (About 7.5-15% of gross earnings on a book can be expected in royalties.) Be very wary of signing anything that takes more than 15% in the agent’s commission. Also be very wary of any agent that requests reading fees, editing fees, etc. up front or anything, really, that comes out of your pocket. (On a side note, some agencies also have a separate editing arm independent of the representative arm. Editing services can justly be paid up front regardless of promises or lack of promises of representation.) The publishing contract will spell out royalties, from which agents take their cuts and the rest are sent on to the authors. Never pay the agent up front.

Children’s book authors do not have to come to the table with illustrations (or illustrator) in hand. Illustrators are often contracted separately by the publisher.

If you’re already self-published and looking to contract an agent in the hopes of snagging a traditional publisher, you’ll need some pretty impressive numbers. If you’re already under contract with a publishing house, though, agents can’t help you, at least not with that project.

Copyrighting in advance of querying is not necessary. The work is your intellectual property from the moment it spills out of your brains. Copyright registration usually happens when the book is being published. (So self-publishers do have to worry about this step, but not until publishing.) If working with a publishing house, whether the author or the publisher maintains the copyright is negotiated in the contract.

It’s fine to query multiple agents at the same time. In fact, it’s pretty standard, considering the wait times that are often involved. In queries, it makes agents happy, and shows you did your homework, if you mention some of the authors on their list whose work you’ve enjoyed. But never attach your manuscript, or any part of it, unless the agent asks for it.

If two agents are fighting over you (woo-hoo!), the two main things to consider are: which agency can do the most for you (connections, sales records, benefits in contract); and which agent you get along with the best. Agents and authors will have a relationship over the lifetime of that work, and possibly over their entire careers. It’s important to work well together.

Some things to ask an agent before signing an agency agreement:

How much author publicity will the agency provide?
What are the kinds of publishing connections the agent has? (NYC? University presses? Boutiques?)
Does the agent have experience negotiating movie rights, or would these be handled by the publishing house?
Does the agent come from an editing background or from a business background (or some other process)?
Is the agency agreement exclusive to the manuscript or to the author? (Most will agents will want to sign with the author, but some provide representation on a work-by-work basis.)
What is the agent’s communication style? (Daily phone calls? Monthly emails? Twitter bombardment? No news unless something’s gone horribly wrong?)

Also, don’t feel like you have to sign anything right away. Show it around to others who might have a better feel for contracts. Don’t sign until you know what you’re getting into. And sleep comfortably at night knowing that agency agreements have clauses for breaking contract which are way easier than getting out of a publishing agreement. Sweet dreams!

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