Archive | August, 2008

Do You Need An Agent?

I‘m continuing to respond to various comments on my blog over the last few days.

Marcus wrote:

At some point, I’d love to hear the agent vs. no agent debate here. I get mixed messages from many writers. (Though I’m thinking I’m an agent kind of writer–if I’m any kind of writer at all.)

Randy sez: Don’t get an agent if:
* You have all the contacts with editors you need
* You can negotiate a publishing contract skillfully
* You don’t need help with proposals
* You don’t need career advice

Otherwise, get an agent. Make sense?

Tim wrote:

What if you finish your manuscript and send it to several editors and get interest from two or three. What do you do about that, also if you meet with an editor or agent and you have already sent out letters to other editors should you tell the editor or agent that you have done so?

Randy sez: If more than one editor asks to see the work, let them see it! Be sure to let them know that you have multiple interests, but don’t make a big deal about it.

If you meet with an editor or agent and they express interest in your work, then they will almost certainly ask who else has seen it and what was their response. You should tell the truth here. Telling the truth is an Xtremely good idea in the publishing world, for a number of reasons. You are always allowed to put your best foot forward, but you must not lie, period. Lies will catch up with you, and publishing is a small world.

Karen wrote:

What if you do a Ted Dekker thing and walk in with a dozen novels under your armpit? How do you handle that without looking like a geek?

Randy sez: If you do, you need to have a Ted Dekker-sized armpit. Ted is a special guy with tons of ideas and he works extremely hard. If you are also special with tons of ideas and you have the work ethic to carry it off, then do so. Otherwise, you might want to just pitch one project like the rest of us mortals.

Andra asked:

If I talk to an agent who in the end isn’t a good fit, is it appropriate to ask if he or she knows another agent who would be?

If so, would it then be appropriate to mention the recommendation in a query letter (or face-to-face meeting) to the new agent?

Randy sez: It depends on why you’re “not a good fit.” If you get the idea that the agent thinks you’re a good writer, but your action-adventure novel just isn’t a sweet romance like all her other projects, then go ahead and ask for a referral. If you get one, it is always a good idea to say, “Can I tell Agent X that you referred me?” The answer will give you some idea of how enthusiastic the agent is.

On the other hand, if you have the strong impression that the agent doesn’t like your writing, then asking for a referral is likely to get you an incredulous “No!” or a referral to the Agent From Hell. So tread carefully here.

You might imagine that no agent or editor would ever recommend a writer to their competition. The agents and editors I know sometimes do this. 10 years ago at a writing conference, my buddy John Olson pitched a Christian vampire novel around. One of the editors, Lisa Bergern, didn’t think she could use it, but she showed it to her friend, Karen Ball. Karen loved it, but she also knew she couldn’t buy it for her publishing house. Two publishing houses later, Karen bought it and that novel will come out this October under the title SHADE. So it happens.

Ann asked:

Randy, on interviews with Agents and Publishers, do you think it would be acceptable to ask if they would agree to my recording the interview, and making it clear that it’s only to be able to go over their advice and requests (if they have any requests) at a later date?

Randy sez: Yes, ask. If they say no, do NOT punch them in the nose, stalk off in disgust, or otherwise show your displeasure. Smile pleasantly, instead, and say, “Did anyone ever tell you that you look much nicer than the south end of a north-bound rhino?” Trust me, this always builds bridges. You can never have too many bridges.

Miss Skye asked:

I’m curious– did you finish reading the Harry Potter series yet? The reason I ask is I wanted to direct your attention to editor Cheryl Klein’s speech “A Few Things Writers Can Learn from Harry Potter”.

Randy sez: My girls and I are almost done reading HP aloud. We are about to begin the final battle at Hogwarts in Book 7. This is a LONG reading project, but we’re really enjoying it. Of course, all of us have read it multiple times, so there are no surprises, but every time I read the series, I notice new things. In my opinion, JK Rowling is one of the best authors on the planet. I read through the speech by Cheryl Klein and it was excellent.

More About Agents

I’m wrapping up my answers to the various questions that have been posted here lately on agents.

Lynda wrote:

I was reading about a conference. They said there would be public and private interviews with agents. Does this mean some interviews are done with an audience listening in? Or a panel of agents? Dispair!!!

Randy sez: I’m not quite sure what it means, but one thing that is commonly done at writing conferences is to have a panel of agents and let writers do quick pitches to either individual agents or to the panel as a whole while the audience listens.

This has got to be the most terrifying thing imaginable to me and so I’ve never done it. I’ve seen it done, and it seems not to be so bad, especially if you already enjoy crawling naked over broken glass while a tiger chases you. Some people like that sort of thing and others don’t.

If this doesn’t appeal to you, then don’t do it. There are other ways to meet agents and editors.

Carly wrote:

My question is what are the responsibilities of an Agent?

Wow, this question will show just how much of a freshman I am: What is the difference between the Agent and the Editor?

Randy sez: This is a safe place to ask Freshman-level questions. Be assured that there are other Freshmen out there wondering the same thing, but who don’t have the guts to ask.

The main responsibility of an agent is to help you sell your book to a publisher and get the best terms you can. This includes the following tasks:
* Help with preparing a book proposal
* Give editorial suggestions
* Pitch the book to editors
* Negotiate the deal
* In some cases, receive the money from the publisher and cut you a check for your share. (In some cases, the publisher writes a check to the agent and a check to the author.)

Agents can and often do some of these other tasks:
* Give you career guidance
* Give you ideas for marketing your book
* Make connections with other authors for co-authoring opportunities
* Support and encourage you

I have had agents do all of the above for me.

Agents usually DON’T do these tasks:
* Give you loans
* Do paid editorial work for you
* Babysit your cat
* Marry you

I have heard of agents doing most of the above, though my best belief is that all of these events are rare.

Carly’s second question was on the difference between an editor and an agent.

An editor is someone employed by a publishing house to acquire manuscripts, edit them, and shepherd them through the publishing process. An editor will be the person who takes your book to the publishing committee (if there is a publishing committee) and fights for approval to get your book published. The editor will often fight for the right cover for your book (I’ve had an editor do this when everyone else at the publisher wanted the wrong cover, and he won–thank you, Steve Laube!) In short, your editor is your book’s champion at the publishing house. Please note that it is not your editor’s job to get you the most possible money for your book. The editor has a fiduciary responsibility to the publishing house to help it earn money. So the editor will offer you what he or she considers a reasonable amount of money, but NOT a generous amount.

The agent is YOUR employee. You hire an agent on a commission basis to get the best financial deal and to negotiate the contract to make sure there are no onerous clauses that will cause you trouble. Typically, the commission is 15% and the agent doesn’t get paid until you get paid. You should avoid agents who want money upfront to represent you. The agent has a fiduciary responsibility to YOU to protect your interests.

There is of course some conflict between editors and agents, because they have fiduciary responsibilities to different parties. The editor’s job is to make money for the publisher. The agent’s job is to make money for you. Somewhere in the middle is the sweet spot where everyone is as happy as possible.

It is common for editors to switch sides to become agents. Chip MacGregor, whom I interviewed here recently, was the editor for my first novel. Later, he became an agent and represented me for several years, until he jumped ship to work for Time-Warner. Now he’s an agent again. The editor of my second novel, Steve Laube, is also now an uber-agent like Chip.

I will say it again: Editors and agents are some of the coolest people on the planet. (Matched only for inherent coolness by novelists.) I realize that it’s hard for Freshman-level writers to believe this, but if you persist in this writing game, eventually you’ll have many friends who are editors and agents and you will be interested in them because they are so much fun to be with, rather than because you think they can advance your career. And they’ll be interested in you for the same reason.

More Questions on Those Pesky Agents

I’m continuing to work through my backlog of questions on agents and editors.

Sam asked:

I was wondering how to submit a few pages or a one-sentence + one paragraph summary to an agent without attending a conference. Chip had mentioned submitting through email but referencing the conference so he knew it wasn’t a cold submission. Do agents just ignore cold submissions? How can we find an agent (that will help us either market the book or tell us it needs work) that will accept a cold submission?

Randy sez: That’s several questions, which I’ll break apart as follows:

You can submit something to an agent without ever meeting them. This is how my buddy John Olson got his first agent within one week. Of course, it helped that he and I had an offer on the table from an editor for our novel OXYGEN. The point is, it can be done. The important thing in doing a cold submission is to find out exactly what form the agent wants the information and then give them that–no more and no less. You can find this out from their web sites. If they say they want only a query letter, then send them JUST a query letter, dadgummit! They don’t want a proposal and they don’t want the full manuscript. If they say they want only email queries with no attachments, then don’t send attachments. Writer really make themselves look bad by not giving the agent the info that they want the way they want it.

So agents don’t ignore cold submissions. They do prioritize them based on how well you followed directions and other factors, such as whether your email has drool on it, whether you carry a recommendation from one of the agent’s clients, etc. In John Olson’s case, he had a friend who was a client of the agent. The friend gave him a recommendation. Plus John had a sale in hand–that put him at Priority One for this high-powered agent, because she knew John was money in the bank.

As for how to find an agent, the BEST way is to meet them at a conference. The second best way is to do your research. That means getting WRITER’S MARKET and working through all the agent listings to find those few agents who are most likely to be interested. Then send each of them exactly what they want, and make it clear that you aren’t just spamming them with a mass mailing. Long ago when I was looking for my first agent, I picked out one who I thought would be suitable and in my query letter, I mentioned that my project was similar in spirit to CLAN OF THE CAVE BEAR–which was a novel she had represented. That told her I’d done my homework and she requested a chapter and later the whole manuscript. She didn’t take me on as a client, but that was because my writing wasn’t quite up to snuff yet.

Paulette wrote:

I enjoyed this very much because I have run into a couple of rude agents and it left me wondering why I spent all my hard earned money to go to a conference to meet up with these types. A good lesson on forgiveness and the realization that there are all types in the writing business. I imagine the poor people were tired and frustrated by the time I got to the appointment.

Randy sez: Yes, there are rude agents, rude editors, and even (gasp!) rude writers. There have been times when I’ve undoubtedly been rude. I try not to, but it happens. :(

Sally wrote:

At what point would an agent be willing to talk about representing you? Does that happen at the conference, or later? Does the agent contact you, or wait until you contact them?

Randy sez: Occasionally, this might happen at a conference. It’s rare, but it could happen. Generally, that would be if you come with an awesome recommendation from somebody the agent respects AND if your writing is simply extraordinary AND if the agent believes you’re the Next Big Cheese. Otherwise, it will typically take a few weeks or months. The agent will want to see your stuff. They may want to read your whole manuscript.

If the agent requests that you send more stuff after the conference, send exactly what they asked for. Once you’ve done that, the ball is in the agent’s court. It may be there days, weeks, months, or forever. It’s a good idea to ask early on what sort of response time you should expect. Then if that time gets exceeded, you can shoot a quick email asking for an update. Be aware that most agents get enormous amounts of email and so shorter is better when dealing with them. If they can read your email in a minute and respond in a minute, they might well do so.

Bonnie had a great comment which I hope you’ve all read. I’ll quote the last couple of paragraphs here:

Agents take on work they love and know they can sell, but they also take on the author. Most agents go above and beyond the call of duty for their authors, working all sorts of hours and offering all sorts of support. Ideally, they want to work with authors who understand, respect them, and can work with them.

Take home: Look for an agent you believe is a good fit. You, the agent, and your career will benefit.

Randy sez: This is all very true. Agents now fill much of the role that editors used to. Editors depend on agents to screen out all the crap and only acquire authors that are ready to be published. So editors no longer get so much stuff on their desk. The agents get it all. It can be murder to sort through it all. So take pity on the agents and help them help you.

Patricia wrote:

1) Do agents always offer a time period in which to get back to them? What if you felt right away that you couldn’t do it in that time? Would suggesting a slightly longer time period cast you in a negative light?

2) Isn’t another possibility that the agent doesn’t like the premise at all? (I’m betting not everything Tom Clancy proposed was accepted.) How would the agent say this and how should the author react? Should the author be prepared with other ideas?

Randy sez: Agents operate in different ways and so not all of them will give you a timeline. If they ask you to send something by a certain date and you know you can’t do it, ask for a longer time period and give a good reason. One common reason is, “I learned so much at this conference that I want to apply it all to my manuscript before I send it to you.”

It is VERY likely that the agent won’t like the premise and will Just Say No. (I once heard that Tom Clancy had never been rejected, but Tom’s a singular case. Most authors are.) How an agent would phrase this tragic truth depends on the agent. Some might be rude. Some might be overly kind. A lot depends on why they don’t like it. If the writing’s wretched, then frankly, the author has wasted the agent’s time, and the agent might be a bit more abrasive. If the writing’s good but it just isn’t the right genre for the agent, again the author has wasted the agent’s time, because most agents specialize. It’s a good idea to do your homework and find out what agents like your genre. If Clancy had submitted his work to an agent specializing in romance, then he’d have had a sure-fire rejection.

As for being prepared with other ideas, that would be rare. Authors generally only write one book at a time. If you come in with multiple ideas, it might look like you are “all hat and no horse” or whatever the Texans say about people who talk a lot and don’t execute.

OK, I’ll answer more questions tomorrow. I’ve still got some good ones in the hopper, I think.

How To Talk To An Agent

My last blog post featured a very long example appointment with an agent. In it, I pretended to be Tom Clancy pitching his first novel, THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER, to agent Chip MacGregor.

Since that post, I’ve been on a week-long “work break” in which I focused on actually getting some work done. Gotta pay that pesky mortgage! That was pretty successful, so I’ve got time this week to blog again.

Krista asked:

Is it ok to do the whole copout of “this is my first time… sorry if I’m a bit rusty” at the beginning? I think it is leading try to get reassurance and help starting from the agent, but I’m sure if we thought of a better lead in we would look a bit more professional.

Randy sez: It’s OK to do it, but only if it really is the first time you’ve had an appointment. I don’t think I could get away with that now. My opinion is that it’s always best to be honest about who you are and where you are in the process. The agent will figure it out soon enough anyway, but you’ll score a point for having some sort of self-awareness. I strongly suspect that editors and agents don’t much respect delusional authors.

Tim wrote:

I am a bit of a wander when it comes to my writing. I actually call myself a story teller because I have great confidence in crafting a story, I am working on the writing part. Anyway, when I start talking about my novel series I go on forever, any suggestions to help stay on track when talking with anyone, especially an agent or editor?

Randy sez: Well, if your natural talent is to spin out a story, then that’s going to come out in the interview. (That’s definitely not my natural talent.) However, be aware that the editor or agent is not going to want that right away. Like Chip said in the interview, they’re going to want the big-picture first. So it would be wise for you to prepare a one-sentence summary and a one-paragraph summary in advance.

If you go in with those and get some interest, then is the time to pull out your storytelling skills. (If you get a big yawn instead, then quite honestly, the interview is over already, no matter how good of a storyteller you are, so be prepared to discuss Them Damn Yankees or Those Crazy Politicians or whatever direction the small talk will inevitably take when your editor/agent realizes that your story just isn’t for him.)

Remember that if the editor or agent doesn’t like the story, it’s not necessarily a statement about the story. It’s a statement about them. As an example, I’m told that GONE WITH THE WIND is a great story. I’ve read it and have not been able to confirm this claim. The story just didn’t interest me. If I were an editor I would turn it down, because I wouldn’t have the enthusiasm to edit the beast. I’d leave it for somebody who likes that sort of thing. Whereas I’d ask to see the full manuscript of a DIE HARD-type novel. Exploding helicopters simply work better for me than exploding corsets.

Carrie asked:

In my public speaking class, we always made notes of the highlights on index cards and used that to stay on track and on time. Would an agent or editor be offended if you had note cards for the interview?

Randy sez: Any editor or agent who would be offended by note cards is the wrong person for you. If I sat down with an editor and I needed note cards, I’d start out by saying, “I’m a writer, not a fast-talker, so I hope you don’t mind if I have a few notes to help keep me on track.”

Most editors would appreciate that:
a) You have enough self-awareness to know your strengths and weaknesses.
b) You have the social skills to turn a liability into an asset.
c) You came prepared to get down to business and have done your best to not waste their time.

That’s all for today! I’m heading out the door shortly to grab a couple of filing cabinets from Craig’s List. I really don’t enjoy doing organizational stuff, but it’s definitely time to get more space to keep all that paper out of sight. My current filing cabinets are half-height (and full) and I’ve decided to switch to full-height ones that will hold more stuff with a smaller footprint.

I expect that I will be exceptionally crabby for the next day or two while I rearrange my office.