Before you sign

Now that I am querying the Glimmerlings & the Book of Sleep, my middle-grade fantasy, I'm researching everything I can find on agents. There are a lot of great articles on the Web. One in particular, from writer Sarah Ockler, author of Twenty Boy Summer, which just came out two days ago--congratulations, Sarah!--offers must-know information about agent representation. Sarah was kind enough to allow me to repost her article here. Take a read and pop by her blog when you get a chance.

Literary Agent Offers: Don’t Settle!
Sarah Ockler

You’ve perfected your query letter, done your agent research, and sent your letters to a targeted list. You’ve crossed your fingers, rubbed the genie lamp, kissed your lucky troll doll. You’ve gotten requests, sent out partials, sent out fulls. You may have even suffered a few (or many) rejections along the way.

But then… what’s this?

An offer from a literary agent to represent and sell your work?

Congratulations! An agent! A real agent! You’re on the road to publication! He’ll sell your book for millions of dollars! She’ll rocket you to best-sellerdom! He’ll get you on Oprah’s couch with the literary elite! You’ll thank her in your acknowledgments and become BFFs for life! Right?


Making an Impression

As writers, we spend a lot of time trying to make a good impression on potential agents with our polished prose, personality, and professionalism. We’re so excited (rightfully so!) when an agent responds to our efforts—especially if we’ve already endured a few (dozen) (hundred) rejections—that we forget one very important point:

An agent interested in representing your book should work just as hard to impress you.

If an agent makes an offer, she’s already excited about you and your writing. She’s in love with your book, and believes she can sell it. She probably already has editors in mind that will love the project as much as she does. See? Your good impression was a success!

Now, it’s her turn.

Your agent works for you, and should have your career and best interests in mind always. Accepting her offer is the beginning of a long partnership—one that you must consider as seriously as you would any long-term commitment or career decision. Enter it with both eyes open.

Pre-Literary Counseling

I don’t know what the author/agent divorce rate is these days, but I bet it’s higher than failed marriages and, in some cases, more complicated. The souring of a literary partnership isn’t always predictable, but having an honest, two-way conversation up front might help you avoid future drama.

Before accepting representation from an agent:

* Thank him for the interest in your work.
* Let him know that you’re excited about the opportunity to work together.
* Tell him that you’d like to take a few days to think things over and prepare your questions.

Don’t skip this crucial step because you’re worried that questions will scare him off, or that the offer won’t last. This isn’t a TV promo, it’s a potential business partnership. His offer is on the table, waiting patiently for your consideration and ultimate response. It’s not going anywhere unless the offer or the agent isn’t legitimate, in which case, that’s not the person you want representing your work.

Questions to Ask Literary Agents

Craft questions to help you learn about the following:

1. Working and communication style. Some agents offer more personal attention and career development than others. Some are heavily involved in the editorial and revision process, while others are more interested in selling and contract negotiation and will not spend a lot of time reviewing your work. Certain agents encourage you to call them informally and often, while others will rely more on email communications or scheduled appointments. What do you prefer? Don’t enter a relationship with someone whose working and communication style will overwhelm you, confuse you, or leave you wanting more.

2. Ideal clients. Ask the agent to describe her ideal client. Of course it will be you, but beyond that, get specifics. This will give you another perspective on her working style and help you determine whether you’ll be a good fit. If the agent likes clients who are highly involved in brainstorming ideas for their next projects and career path, but you’d prefer someone who just focuses on contracts and managing the author/editor relationship, this agent isn’t for you. Similarly, if you’re looking for a lot of hand-holding and the agent tells you she likes clients who leave her alone to do her job, that’s not a match.

3. Client load. The number of clients an agent has and wants will impact his time. Some have as many as 60 (or more!) clients to manage. If you want an agent who can provide personal attention and a more hands-on approach, look for agents with fewer clients.

4. References. Ask the agent to put you in touch with some of his current clients. You can ask them for firsthand accounts on what it’s like to work with the agent before and after the sale. You can also look at the blogs and Web sites of the agent’s clients to see if they’ve said anything about their agent experience. If an agent is reluctant to provide you with at least one client reference, be wary!

5. Sales and non-sales. You should have a good idea of the agent’s track record for selling books before you query him or her, but you can ask about additional details after you’ve received an offer. Understand how the agent treats your manuscript if it doesn’t sell—does she set it aside and get ready to shop around your next project? Does she revisit the original project later or help you revise for another round of submissions? Or does she drop you as a client if she can’t sell it in a certain time frame?

6. Genres / specialties and co-agents. You may query an agent with your adult historical fiction manuscript, but what if you decide to write a middle grade novel in the future? Non-fiction? A paranormal romance? A teen guide to surviving the zombie apocalypse? Ask the agent if she represents other genres you may be considering and if not, if she has a partner, co-agent, or referral for you, should you decide to write something different. There’s nothing wrong with using a second agent if your primary agent doesn’t represent what you want to do next, but it’s an important question to ask before you sign on.

7. Finances. Most agents will take the standard 15% fee from the monies that you earn (may be higher for foreign rights or other special circumstances). Be sure you understand the rate, and ask about how the money is distributed. Generally, the publisher will send your advance and royalty money to the agency, which will cut you a new check, less their 15%. Ask about how (and how often) your money is managed and distributed.

8. Breaking up. No one wants to think about ending a relationship before it even begins, but asking about it now could save you and your agent heartache (and legal fees) in the future. Find out about the agency contract and how and when either party can dissolve it. Also, ask about what happens if your agent leaves the agency, is unable to work due to illness, injury, or death, or if the agency itself dissolves.

It’s tempting to give an instant YES to that well-earned agent offer, but remember, an agent making an offer is already interested in you. She’s not going to change her mind just because you’re asking questions or taking a few days to think about it. Just the opposite, actually. By doing your homework, you’re showing potential agents that you’re professional, committed, and serious about your writing career—all qualities that make you a better client.

Danger! Bad Agent Warning Signs

If the agent you’re considering exhibits any of these behaviors, get thyself back to the querying board:

* The agent is uncomfortable or terse in answering your questions, or responds with canned marketing-speak designed to evade your research.
* She’s reluctant or refuses to provide client references.
* He makes you feel like you’re wasting his time or like he’s doing you a favor, or he pressures you into making a hasty decision.
* She charges a fee to read, consider, or submit your work, or charges more than the standard 15% fee for domestic sales.
* He charges for or refers you to a paid editing service or “book doctor,” or charges for these services in-house.
* The agent or agency is listed on Writer Beware’s Thumbs Down Agency List or has a negative rating on Preditors & Editors: Literary Agents.

You should also Google the agent and agency’s name to scope out any bad press or client comments about them. If you do find any negatives, evaluate them carefully, considering the source and not jumping to conclusions. One ranted-about experience doesn’t mean the agent is bad or even at fault. But if you find numerous complaints or warnings, you probably want to steer clear.

A Not-So-Perfect Union

Even with your questions sufficiently answered and agency contract signed, sealed, and delivered, stuff might happen. Your book doesn’t sell. Your agent doesn’t responded to your emails. You’re having problems with your editor and your agent hasn’t stepped up to mediate. You’ve experienced a misunderstanding or miscommunication, or someone has made an outright screw-up.

Like in any relationship, things aren’t always sweet and rosy. It doesn’t mean that you have a bad agent, that you’re a bad client, or that it’s time for a divorce. It just means that you need to pick up the phone. Be open and honest with your agent about how you’re feeling, and see if you can find some common ground.

It’s unrealistic to expect constant perfection, but you should expect a willingness to communicate and a commitment to resolve issues as they arise. Sometimes what feels like an insurmountable obstacle turns out to be a laughable misunderstanding. Sometimes it doesn’t. But either way, it’s worth checking out before you make a hasty decision.

Ultimately, if you do decide to part ways, let your agent know that your seeking other representation before you jump ship. This is a business and should be treated respectfully, even if you’re the only one being respectful. If the partnership isn’t working and you just can’t reach an agreement, be honest about your intended departure and try to leave on good terms.

An Affirmation to Remember

If you’ve got an agent offer, that means you’ve achieved what most people never will—you’ve written an entire book. It didn’t happen overnight, and you’ve certainly poured a lot of blood into it. Give yourself and your hard-earned accomplishment the respect you both deserve—don’t settle for the wrong agent just because she’s the first to show an interest in your work. There are hundreds–possibly thousands—of hard-working, dedicated, talented agents out there waiting for your query.

This is your writing career, your passion, and possibly your life’s dream. Take your time, do your homework, and find the right agent to represent you. You deserve it!

There are many publishers out there for writers and this Board doesn't pretend to know everything about all of them. I just want to remind everyone that BEFORE you sign ANY contract on the dotted line, you should always check out everything you can about the company you are considering before making any commitment.

How long has the company been in business? Does it have a good reputation? Check it out on the Preditors&Editors website.

Is it a traditional publishing company or is it a self-publishing or vanity publisher where the authors pay to have their own books published? Will you have to pay any money up front to have your book published? (If it's a traditional publisher, there will be NO out of pocket costs for you. The publisher takes all of the risks.)

How will your books be distributed and to whom? Are they going to be carried by the big distributors -- like Ingram? Will they be carried by Borders and/or Barnes & Nobles? Will your books be submitted to the big reviewers like Publisher's Weekly, School Library Journal, and The Horn Book?

How many of your books will be in the first print run? How many free copies will you receive? What will your royalty rate be and will it be based on the retail sales price of books or on their net earnings? (Net base means you get about half of what you would get on gross sales totals.)

How much money are they offering you for an advance and when do you get it? You should get part of your advance at the time of signing, then depending on the book and the terms they set out, you should receive part when the full book is submitted and the rest when the full book has been edited and is ready for publication. Do not make the mistake of agreeing to receive your advance after the book is published. It could take 6 years (or more) or it might even never make it to publication!

Make sure there are no hidden costs for you to pay! Traditional publishers always pay YOU, not the other way around. Otherwise, you are signing up for a "self-publishing" deal, or are using a "vanity publisher." Neither of these options will give you much, if any, help in distributing your books and you pay for the costs of the publication yourself.

By doing your homework before you sign on the dotted line of any contract, you can protect yourself from a potential financial fiasco and know when you do make that sale that you have made a GOOD sale -- one that you can be proud of.


Big Plain V said...

Great article, Mr. Prince, a lot of it applied to me.

One thing I never expected was to be in a continuing state of perceived unworthiness after I signed on with an agent. I'd like to see an article on how to deal with that.

K. M. Walton said...

I just printed that out because it was so good. So informative. So logical. Thanks for bringing it to us.

Prince Balthazar said...

BPV--maybe you need to have a heart-to-heart with your agent? Are you not getting the attention you expected?

Kate, it is a great article. Have to thanks Sarah Ockler for writing it.

Elise Murphy said...

This was well worth sharing . . . thanks for tracking it down. It's hard to imagine having any power in this kind of relationship when you're just so excited to have an agent interested. It's such a great reminder that you ARE important, or the agent wouldn't be knocking at your door.

My little bit of funny agent-getting was that I was on vacation (internet free) when my offer came in. I missed two emails and a phone call. It was so exciting to know that she had kept trying. In our first conversation I apologized for taking ten days to get back to her and she said, "We were kind of wondering why you didn't want us."

Big Plain V said...

Nothing like that, Ron. I guess I always had this fantasy that when you signed with an agent, they'd become your BFF and you'd be able to chat on the phone and share secrets and whatnot.

Instead, it's like this serious business relationship with business calls made only when there's actual business to deal with. It's intimidating in a way, cuz I'm a pretty relational sort of person. Can't complain with the man's track record, though, and ultimately, that's the only thing I really care about.

Prince Balthazar said...

That's a great story, Elise. Your agent must have been scratching her head.

V--I see where you're coming from. But you're right. First and foremost it's a business relationship. Looks like your agent just wants that. Which is totally fine.

I think I'd like that kind of relationship because I'm not really Mr. Social (although people think I am.)

As long as he gets back to you in a prompt fashion and answers your questions, you're good. But I do understand how you thought it'd be a looser, more fun kind of relationship.