Vicki's Book News and Articles

Business: Literary Agents

Written by Vicki Hinze

On December 28, 2010

Vicki Hinze © 2001-2011

1) Do you have any advice on selecting literary agents to query? I have been following a site called “Writers Beware” to help our authors group be aware of scam literary agents.

One of the biggest mistakes authors make is to go with an agent on a recommendation of another author: meaning, an author recommends you to their agent, and without hesitation, you and the agent elect to work together.

From experience, I’m sorry to say, that’s not a good idea. Often you learn after the fact that the way you work is not compatible, or you have opposing views on your work, or your strategies for reaching your goals are not in harmony, or your goals and the agent’s view of your goals are not in harmony–you have different visions, that can be in opposition.

This creates added pressure and friction on both sides and isn’t conducive to developing the true partnership that we strive for in agent/author relations.

Now if an author has researched and an agent is on their short-list of agents the author would like to approach, then that’s different. The author has independently decided, based on their own set of criteria in what they’re looking for in working with an agent, that the author-agent match would be a strong, positive one. Then a referral is a good idea.

The caution I extend is this: every author has his or her own vision of success and career strategy and working relationships. We want different things. We have different expectations and desires. And it is only in discussing them with the individual agent that we can see beyond the generalizations (typical work ethics and day to day operations) to how that agent will work with us individually and what vision they hold for our writing, as well as how they intend to assist us getting where we choose to go.

Many agents are extremely flexible. They work differently with different authors, because different authors have different requirements and work best under different circumstances. (Remember, we’re creative geniuses, not cookie-cutter hacks. So we need to give ourselves whatever we find essential to unleash our genius. :))

For example: some authors flourish when their agent reads sections of a book, offers comments, and is very hands-on during the creative process. Other authors cringe at the thought. They do their best work when their agent reads only what the author considers a final draft of a work. Some agents read every word the author writes. Some never read the author’s work, but have an in-house (or outside) reader write a short commentary so the agent knows what they’re selling.

Agents, like every other human being, have preferences and tend to, over time in the field, lean toward them in their editorial connections and in the authors they choose to represent.

No one can know everything. And no agent can know every market intimately. That’s not possible in a dynamic industry, which is a healthy industry. So it’s imperative that you find agents who share your interests. If your specialty–your author theme–has you focusing the continuing thread in your book in the fantasy or science fiction genres, obviously you want to explore agents who concentrate their efforts in that area.

If your interests are broader, and you’re a multi-genre author, as I tend to be, then your search is complicated by that, because you want an agent who is familiar in all the areas in which you write. This requires compromise at times. An agent might have an intense interest in one area, an interest in a second one, and virtually no special knowledge of a third area.

The key in this case is that the agent be open-minded enough to be inquisitive, secure enough in his/her judgment to be willing to explore, and wise enough to know the “norms” for that specific area before making important decisions. And you, the author, must realize the extra effort and requirements of this extensive reach and adjust your expectations accordingly. Time is literally an agent’s money–their livelihood and your own. So understand that this extended reach requires research that will be of mutual benefit, but it will also take time to acquire.

The writer can also contact other writing organizations like Writer’s Guild, RWA, MWA and others to ask if there are outstanding complaints against a specific agent or agency. If so, the organization can’t give you specifics, of course, but it can tell you that there are or are not complaints. This is a vital step in avoiding challenges or scams.

Another important resource is AAR: the Association of Authors Representatives. I’m particularly fond of AAR because of the protections for the author and the agent that are associated with it. You see, anyone can label themselves an agent. There is no specific license required. This isn’t good for agents or authors, but it’s the way it is–reality, at this time. But AAR does have standards and requirements. And its associate agents not only must be active, selling, agents, they must agree to adhere to a specific code of ethics. I find this ethical aspect extremely attractive. AAR does have a website, and does respond to authors’ needs. So it ranks high on my list of important resources. It also has a membership list of its agents that can be invaluable to an author seeking representation. The less the author knows about the industry and those in it, the more valuable this list is to the author.

2) What is a typical relationship with an agent like?

I’m not ducking your question, but the truth is, there isn’t a typical relationship. Agents work in different ways and within their client base, they work differently with different authors. They work in different ways with different editors, too. Personality plays an important role, but so does something nebulous that gives strong agents their genius. They’re extremely creative, mutable, in a sense, in that they assess the author’s needs and expectations, combine those with their own needs and expectations, and develop a personalized system that is beneficial to both them and their clients.

That said, agents also work differently with their client at different stages of their careers. An agent might invest an enormous amount of time editing or reading and suggesting edits early on. But as the author grows, that need changes or alters. So less intense editing is needed but more overall business strategy skills are required.

The agent mentally envisions a path for the writer, works to get an author established, and then often the editor and author work direct, and the agent gets involved more on the marketing/promotion or business side of the career spectrum. But s/he is always looking ahead to the next creative endeavor, the next move to further the author’s career. So one foot is in the present with the present needs, and the other is in the clouds, reaching to the future. Kind of like a writer: one foot firmly planted in reality and the other firmly in the clouds. Agents, like writers, create something new out of an existing something and form a new something and a new level or bar for nothing to reach for next time.

Perhaps the author broadens his/her horizons, and works in an alternate genre for another market. Or chooses to change houses. Or writes for multiple houses. You can see that the dynamic aspects of the career for the author create a need for dynamic alterations in the agent’s work, too.

I’ve often said that the best agent is fluid and flexible and open-minded. Those are essential traits even if the author writes for the same house in the same genre for his/her entire career. Because the market itself cycles, the publishing house’s needs cycle, and that means the author and agent too must cycle. “Dynamic” is inevitable over the course of a career. So these are critical attributes–in an author and in an agent–in my humble opinion.

3) What is the process the agent follows to market authors’ works?

This depends on the vision the agent has for the specific work. One book might be seen as a perfect compliment for a specific editor at a specific house. Both editor and house, in this situation, would have an excellent reputation for marketing and promoting this book.

Another book might be seen to have higher sales potential because of content, context, or other matters outside the actual writing. Timeliness, for example, or timelessness. In some manner, the book excels, the timing is perfect, and a multitude of houses are eager for just this book. In that case, the agent would still hand-pick the editors s/he felt would best serve the book and the author, and submit. The agent well might opt to auction the work in a case such as this.

If auctioning, s/he would select editors to invite to participate, invite them, and then hold the auction at a subsequent date, after giving them time to review the material.

Some auctions begin with a floor, or a minimum bid. Sometimes, if an agent prefers a specific editor, the agent will offer that editor/house an exclusive for “x” number of days. That editor can make a preemptive offer. If the agent and author agree, then specific rights are sold.

In today’s market, the author, through the agent, often retains foreign rights, audio and film rights, and other subsidiary rights. Sometimes, the agent offers hard cover rights only. Then later, after licensing the hard cover rights, s/he sells the soft cover or paperback rights. And typically still later, the agent will market audio, foreign, film, and/or other subsidiary rights.

Few authors/agents license full rights on a work to the initial publisher anymore, though with the mergers and strategic alliances being formed between publishers and media conglomerates (some of which now include substantial Internet resources), I expect this will change in the next couple years.

Off the cuff, to many authors it sounds like a bad thing. But it can be excellent. In house advertising and cross-media exposure can be a huge asset for a book, audio, or film. How these resources shake down and compensate the author will be the test, and to judge their net effect, we’ll have to wait and see. I do urge authors to keep an open mind. Different doesn’t mean bad, only different.

So how the agent markets the work really begins with the work and what the agent sees as its commercial appeal and market potential. The broader its horizons, the more options the agent has for marketing it to the houses. Being aware of the editors’ personal preferences, what they’re currently looking for, the slants of their individual houses, the author’s preferences and matching the perfect author/editor/house fit–all of these insights are in the realm of the agent’s expertise.

As an agent works with an editor, trust is established. An agent might call an editor and pitch the project. The editor then says s/he is interested (because the agent is going to KNOW that editor would be interested before calling), and the terms are discussed (exclusive for five days, three days, the weekend, etc.), then the work is sent by mail, fax, or courier to the editor. That’s pretty standard. So are multiple submissions, but the bottom line is the project. What is right for one, isn’t right for all.

Later in the author’s career, when the agent has the author established at a specific house with a specific editor, things can get more complex. Say, for example, an author writes mysteries for one house. Now, the author has written a women’s fiction novel. The option clause in the author’s current contract with the mystery house covers only the author’s next mystery novel, so technically the agent is free to market the women’s fiction novel elsewhere. The agent might, as a courtesy, contact the mystery editor, but odds are, unless that house has a record of expertise in marketing women’s fiction, the agent will submit the work to a second house.

Some authors write for three or more houses. Option clauses and rights can get extremely complex, and the agent juggles and keeps business straight. The author monitors things, of course, but the agent’s diligence frees the author to do what s/he does best: write. This is why you must choose your agent with the care you choose a spouse. Your career and professional reputation can well rest in their hands and in their decisions, and you will live with the results of their decisions–good or bad–so you must choose your representative wisely.

I’ve had four agents. I’ve been with my current agent for over five years now, and I respect her enormously both for her business acumen and for her personal ethics. Each of these agents marketed my work differently, viewed me differently. When shopping for my current agent, I did a lot of sleuthing. Talking with other authors, checking for complaints and/or commendations. I interviewed each of them, and checked up on the references they gave me.

In the interviews, I was specific about how I work best, what I wanted to accomplish, how I intended to accomplish it. I warned the agent of my hot buttons, and of conduct that left me cold. What was expected and acceptable and what was not. I asked the same of them.

The entire time we were in these discussions, I listened and watched closely, asking myself one question: Would I feel comfortable with this person sitting across the table from my editor, publisher, or other industry professionals, representing me, my interests, and my work?

It was a good question to ask, and taking the time to answer it has led to a terrific partnership.

4) Can we expect an agent to have a personal relationship with editors he/she submits to manuscripts to?

In my experience, more often than not, the agent will have working relationships with those editors, and some grow to be good friends. You have to understand, editors change houses frequently, for all the dynamic aspects of this business, it still has a small community core. In the corporate world, in other work-worlds, we tend to become friends with those we encounter often. It’s normal. So it’s normal for agents and editors to be like the rest of us.

I will also say that agents and editors are professionals, and it has been my experience that they separate their professional dealings accordingly.

These personal contacts do give agents much needed insights into personal preferences and hot-buttons, and we all have them. It’s important too, to keep in mind that every time an agent submits to an editor, that agent is putting their reputation on the line. They are as good as the weight of their word. A few bad recommendations might not damage an agent’s judgment in the eyes of an editor. But it depends on how bad the editor perceives that recommendation to have been.

I’m afraid I’m muddying the waters, so let me try to be more explicit. Let’s say your agent works often with Editor A. Editor A has bought everything your agent has ever recommended. Now a project comes over and it’s good, but for whatever reason, the editor doesn’t want to buy it. For the sake of discussion, let’s say that the editor just bought a similar story. (That does happen!) Well, this recommendation isn’t a bad one, only an untimely one. No damage is done.

But let’s say, the agent recommends three projects and all three are unsuitable to the editor’s needs for various reasons. When the agent calls again with another project, do you think the editor is going to eagerly anticipate looking at it? Or has his/her potential enthusiasm been watered down, so to speak, by the history of this agent submitting unsuitable projects?

Knowledge is power. Using it wisely reaps benefits for the agent, the author, and the editor. Remember: editors must have authors’ works. Otherwise, they’ve nothing to sell.

5) Do agents keep authors informed of each step they take to market their works?

Again, this depends on the agent and on the author’s preferences. Many authors don’t want to know all of the steps in the process, only the bottom-line results.

Some agents send authors copies of submission letters, responses, etc., and some don’t. Typically, that is an author decision, so it’s an issue that should be discussed with prospective agents on your short list.

Early on, I wanted to know everything. Now, I don’t. This is going to sound irresponsible, so let me explain. Over the years, I’ve had a lot of movie producers request copies of my books from my agent. I’ve had several producers go into meetings with my agent on making network-targeted series of some of my books. Some prominent names you’d all know. None of them have panned out thus far, and some are still in the works, some two years later. Frankly, I don’t like the distraction.

Since reaching people is my ultimate goal in writing, the potential via film is huge. I got excited about it. Then, because these things can take so long, I’d ride the roller-coaster. So I told my agent I didn’t want to know when these things are requested, when couriers are sent over to get copies of books for stars, etc. I just don’t want to know it. Once in a while, she slips and says something, or she’ll be so excited she just needs to share something, but overall she holds this type information in reserve and I don’t know it. That works best for me and we both respect it.

Now some authors would be driven to distraction wondering and not knowing. Only you can decide which decision on this works best for you–and there are no wrong answers. My view on this film business is: If it’s supposed to happen and I’m supposed to do it, it’ll happen with no more than the book. I feel the same way on book club sales, audio, and all other subsidiary rights.

On rejection letters on my books, I feel differently: If there is constructive criticism that will help me identify a challenge with the writing so I can strengthen it, I want to see it. If not, I don’t.

This rationale may seem like I’m playing ostrich to some, but truly it’s not. My focus is on book writing. Anything in subsidiary rights is ancillary to writing my books. If a book rejection makes me a stronger writer, I’m interested. If it doesn’t mention a challenge in the writing, then the decision was likely based on marketing, and that is my agent’s domain. I write, she markets.

As I said, this is my method now. Early on, I wanted to know every step in the process, every little thing that happened. But, for me, that usurped a lot of energy on unrelated-to-writing matters, and that was not in my best interests to allow to continue, so I stopped it. Every writer must choose what level of interaction personally works best. If you find it constructive to know it all, then by all means make that arrangement with your agent. Perhaps your comfort level rests somewhere between all and specific-to-books. The important thing is to choose, not drift into a process, and to do so respecting yourself and your agent.

6) Do they offer editorial advice or recommend editors to edit their clients’ works?

Some agents do edit authors’ works, or suggest revisions, which of course are up to the author in the end. Remember, the agent has a serious stake in his/her submissions. Each represents his/her judgment and reputation. So an agent might well advise revisions, and if the author chooses not to do them, then the agent could decline to submit the work. That happens, though typically not with a well-matched agent and author who trust each others’ opinions and professional acumen.

Some agents have outside editors that they recommend and send the work to–with the author’s permission–for editing. The agent/agency typically pays this fee and not the author.

Some do recommend this and ask the author to pay the fees, which can be substantial. One author contacted me with an agency recommendation where the author was told that to get his book ready to submit by an outside editor would be $2,112.00. (I believe that was it. It was a very specific dollar amount, and an outrageous sum.) If that fee were paid, the agency would then submit the book.

My advice to the author was to run, not walk, away from that agency and to report them to the Writer’s Guild. This smacked of an agency who earns money editing, not selling.

Now, some agents legitimately suggest outside editing but aren’t willing to invest in the work for a prospective and/or new client. They might recommend an editorial service or book doctor–and there are some good ones. But the author should be cautious, because unfortunately, there are crooks out there, too. This is why you do your homework in investigating the reputation of the agent/agency. Odds are, a reputable agent is not going to recommend an editorial scam.

A side note: I’d strongly recommend doing everything humanly possible to send your prospective agent only your best, most polished work. This agent earns a living with his/her time. If your book needs a lot of work to meet his/her submission standards, then you require a large investment by that agent.

Agents don’t typically have large blocks of time, but bits of time here and there. They average between 30-60 clients. Some of the powerhouse agents have as many as 200 clients (but none of them expect the agent to actually read his/her work. Mostly, this agent focuses on negotiations and marketing strategies.) Now an agent might just love the author’s voice and the work and take on the client, knowing that author is going to require an investment. But the author’s odds of a lasting partnership are in presenting only their best, most polished work.

Remember, the agent is your first reader. His/her enthusiasm translates to the editors s/he approaches. Works free of mechanical errors come across clear. Clear writing doesn’t distract the reader–and that means you, the author, get that agent’s focus. You want this attention, but the right kind of attention: focused on the story, not the presentation because you’ve formatted strangely or forwarded a work filled with typos. Sounds simple? It is, and so is the rationale.

If you looked at 100 manuscripts per week and all were on white paper with 1″ margins, and then you got one on hot pink paper with 1/2″ margins, the hot pink papered submission would stick out–but for all the wrong reasons. Odds run high you’d reject it without reading it–or you might read the first paragraph. To keep reading, that puppy would really have to snare your interest. As an author, you want your work to get attention, yes. But the right kind of attention. You want an agent to be riveted to the pages because the story captivates his/her imagination.

7) Do they [agents] charge ANY kind of fees?

Some do, others don’t. Most agents charge 15% commission. Some, those affiliated with the film industry (writers there have minimum contracts and commission caps) charge 10%. Most charge no fees.

There are some agents who charge for copying costs, long-distance phone calls, and other incidentals. I’ve consistently refused to pay them and made that waived agreement with the agent at the onset. To me, these fees are simply costs of doing business. We all have costs of doing business and we all pay them. I have mine, and the agent has his/hers.

Some agents charge reading fees. Some very good agents charge reading fees. For them, it is to narrow the number of submissions to those written by writers willing to put their money where their work is, so to speak. But there are others who earn a living on reading fees and seldom, if ever, sell anything.

I’m afraid I’m not a very giving soul on this matter. I won’t pay reading fees. In my humble opinion, an agent must read a work to know what s/he is going to sell. That comes under the domain of job preparedness, which is the agent’s responsibility. If s/he doesn’t know what s/he has in the work, how the spit can s/he know what it’s worth or how best to market it?

Simplistic? Maybe, but on this I do not flex. Reading is part of the agent’s job.

8) Besides the web site for the Association of Authors’ Representatives, how do you find reliable literary agents to query if the Writers’ Digest is not adequately screening out scam agents in their listings?

I’ve addressed this in part already in, I think, Part I. Contact Writer’s Guild, genre organizations like Romance Writers of America, Mystery Writers of America, Science Fiction/Fantasy–nearly each genre has an organization–and ask about outstanding, unresolved complaints.

Talk to other writers. With the Internet you have a tremendous advantage over authors seeking agents just a few short years ago. You can go to Bulletin Boards or mailing loops on line with any of a number of writing groups and ask for recommendations of other authors. When you’ve determined your list, you can also ask in these same places if anyone has knowledge of working with this/that agent/agency. Networking is a wonderful asset. And where there are authors, there is knowledge of agents.

Some think authors aren’t eager to share this information. While that might be the case in isolated circumstances, it’s not the typical response. Authors want other authors to make informed, enlightened, and wise decisions, because what authors decide individually sets standards collectively. So information-sharing is beneficial to all. (Which is why editors do it, agents do it, publishers do it, and authors do it. So do booksellers, wholesalers, distributors, et al. Summits occur all the time!)


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