Thursday, March 16, 2006

PTC #9

9. Real Deal and Not Blowing It: What do you do when you actually hear from an agent/editor who wants to represent/publish you? What kinds of documents are you going to be required to complete, what knowledge do you need, is it inappropriate to fly out just to hug the person, what are pitfalls that will make sure your book never sees daylight...what happens when you get past the hard part?

All of the following information is based on my experience with major publishers and a very reputable, experienced agent from a large LLC. Remember that small presses, POD presses, new agents, agents who don't work for agencies and other publishing entities may operate differently.


When you begin querying agents, make a list of the information you need. If an agent calls to offer representation, run down the list and ask questions, i.e.:

1. What is the agent's fee? (industry standard is presently 15% of the author's advance and royalties)

2. Are there any additional fees (reading, office/overhead, etc.) involved beyond the 15%?

3. Will the agent represent all your work? (important for multi-genre authors)

4. What is the procedure for agent payment? (most reputable agents work for literary agencies, which collect author payments from publishers, deduct the agent's fee and send the balance to the author.)

5. Will you be required to sign a contract with the agent, and if yes, what are the terms?

Not jumping at an agent the minute they call and offer to represent you is probably wise. My advice is to take at least 24 hours to think things through before you agree to anything. If you're required to sign a contract with the agent, you must read every single word of it. If you don't understand the contract or any of the terminology used in it, get an attorney and have him explain it to you.

It's also not unusual for an agent to want to see more than a query letter or partial before taking you on as a client. A very famous writer recommended me to my agent, and I had a two-book offer from a major publisher in hand when I contacted her, and still my agent asked me to send her some manuscripts so she could evaluate my potential as a writer.

Once you and an agent have come to a working agreement, the agent becomes your representative.

This is basically how the writer/agent relationship works (all agents are not identical and some will do things a bit differently): Whatever you'd like to sell goes in submission form to your agent. Some agents critique their writers, others don't. The agent either sends out or takes your submission to an editor or editors for consideration. Usually the agent decides which publisher is most appropriate, but if you have a specific imprint or editor in mind you should let your agent know this. Editors interested in publishing you then contact your agent and make an offer. The agent gives you the offer along with advice on whether to take it, ask for more money, try your luck with another publisher or any other options. When you decide to accept an offer, your agent negotiates the terms of the contract, receives the contract, reviews it, makes any necessary corrections, forwards it to you for your review and signature, retains a copy in your client file and mails it back to your publisher.

This is not a speedy process. Contract negotiations can often take anywhere from a few weeks to several months.

Also important: your agent is your business representative, contract negotiator and occasionally your past-due payment collector. Your agent is generally not willing to be your loan officer, best friend, therapist, parent, crying rag, critique partner, priest etc. Your agent does work for you, but your agent also likely works for a whole bunch of other writers, so you do not own your agent. Give your agent a lot of shit and you won't have an agent for very long. Treat your agent the way you expect to be treated and you should get along fine.


As with agents, when you're querying editors, make a list of the information you need. Ideally you want your agent to ask these questions, so if an editor calls you may want to put off accepting their offer until you can obtain an agent (that's what I did, and the agent I got before I accepted the offer helped negotiate better terms for me.)

Some of the things you need to know:

1. What is the exact offer? (is the contract for one or multiple books, what is the advance amount, how will the advance be paid, what is the author's percentage, will there be joint or separate accounting for multiple books?)*

2. When will the book come out? Will the release be in mass market, trade or hardcover? For a major house, which imprint will be releasing the book?

3. Who will edit the book? (Don't assume the editor who calls you will be your editor.)

4. Are there any major changes to the book required? (most of you won't need to ask this one, but it can be a deal breaker for some writers.)

5. When is the outline/synopsis and the finished manuscript due? (very important if you've subbed a partial, if there are sequels involved and you don't have manuscripts fully outlined or written.)

*Note: if you are taking on this contract without an agent, this would be the time to negotiate the amount of your advance.

Once the editor and you and possibly your agent have negotiated the deal, and finalized and signed the contract, you work with your editor on the book. You will be given deadlines to turn in your outline/synopsis and finished manuscript. Once you've turned in your book, your editor will read it, edit it, and return it to you with requested revisions and another deadline. You revise your book, send it back to the editor by deadline, and the editor sends it to copy-edit. The copy editor edits your book. You receive the copy-edited manuscript with yet another deadline and have to approve any changes and answer any queries from the copy-editor before you return it. The book goes into production, and a set of proofs or galleys are made. The proofs are sent to you for one last check with a final deadline; you correct them and return them. At this point advance reading copies are bound and distributed to buyers, booksellers and the media. A few months later the final edition of your book is released.

The process from negotiating a contract to the finished book can take anywhere from a year to three years; the average is about two years for a first-timer. The book production itself usually takes eight months to a year.

Your editor is your immediate supervisor at your publishing house. Your editor also decides whether to recommend buying more of your work, requests your payments from accounting, places your release on the schedule, works on cover art and copy with production and is the primary force at the publisher for getting you support. Aka the last person in publishing that you want to piss off, so by all means possible, don't.

The editor/writer relationship can be more involved than the agent/writer relationship. Working on your book together can be like a partnership made in heaven, or a showdown at the OK Corral. Some famous dude once said that no writer is a genius to their editor, and he was right. Your editor sees you, warts and all. If you're lucky, your editor helps you get rid of some of those warts and makes you a better writer. If you're very lucky, you will make your editor look good to his or her boss. If you're blessed, you will find an editor who is so good that you want him or her to edit everything you write.

As for showing your gratitude, everyone has their opinion on this one. I know writers who have instantly flown up to New York and hugged everyone involved in their first sale, and no one seems to mind. There are writers who go to NY every couple of months to visit. I've never gone to NY on publishing business; I've had a dozen editors and have met only one of them in person at a con, and I've seen my agent exactly twice, also at cons, over the last seven years. No one has complained about me staying home. You'll probably fall somewhere in between those extremes.

There are a few things that will make sure your book never sees print. I think the three most common among first-time writers are: 1) Not finishing writing your book; 2) Plagiarizing another writer and getting caught doing so; and 3) Violating the terms of your contract.

Then there are the personal scandals, as we've seen most recently happen to James Frey. Getting drunk at a con and punching out Stephen King will not make you popular around New York. Dancing naked in Times Square with your publisher's name tattooed on your ass is also probably not a good idea. Being caught in bed with your editor's husband . . . anyway, you get the idea. Basically, don't go crazy or behave like an idiot.

In all of your dealings with agents and editors, take your time, think things through carefully, and conduct yourself professionally, and you should avoid most of the serious problems that can occur.

Related Links:

The Association of Authors' Representatives

The Complete Reviews' Links to Publishers's Sample Publishing Contract

Tad Crawford's Author/Agent Contract (Excerpt) -- Legal primer and checklist's Literary Agents -- A Four Part Series

Lloyd L. Rich's Publishing Contract: Warranties, Representations & Indemnities Clauses

Midwest Book Reviews' What to Expect from Major Publishing Houses


  1. The contract world can be a muddy one. I signed my first big contract without an agent~it was for a novella going into an anthology. After I'd signed that one, though, I wanted to submit something else to the editor in question.

    THAT was when I got an agent. The anthology contract was a heck of a lot easier, and shorter, than the contracts that have followed. The other contracts also contain terms and clauses that I am sssssooooo NOT familiar with, even after three years of signing contracts for smaller presses.

    My agent was a Godsend. Yep, had to sign a contract with her, but it's very easy to read... ie in English, not legel-eze. I have questions, she usually knows the answers and if she doesn't she find the answer.

    No way I'd want to navigate my most recent contracts without her.

  2. I just wanted to chime in to thank you and your visitors for providing so much valuable information over the last few days. For those of us who started with smaller publishers, signing with a major pub and agent is a whole new world. I appreciate your willingness to share your experiences.

  3. Anonymous8:01 AM

    As an avid reader this was an eye opener. I generally read a book in a night, or two at the most, and then I'm panting for the next (particularly if a series with the same characters - i.e., StarDoc, etc.). Thanks for the insight.


    P.S. Any news on the next installment of StarDoc??

  4. Anonymous8:54 AM

    I don't know whether to be delighted...or cry. Somehow, everything seemed a lot simpler before I saw the list of questions one should ask, and now I feel like a deer in the headlights of an 18-wheeler. I thought the writing part was the hard part! *~*

    Thank you. I've saved the link (and printed it out to go over my computer at home)...and now I have a lot more research to do.

  5. I've also found this site very helpful in searching for an agent:
    agent query


  6. >>Some agents critique their writers, others don't.

    This is another good question to ask prospective agents--what their working style is. If they're hands on or off, if they help brainstorm, how much feedback they'll give you etc.

    Also as far as editors go, the option clause. I knew enough to whittle mine down as far as length and genre, but Sasha's the one who said to put a time frame on it as well. My editor didn't quibble a bit.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.