Agents: to know them is to love them

Do you need an agent to sell your book? How do you find a good one? In November 2003, The nasw-freelance list featured a discussion on this topic with much advice from experienced authors. Highlights (and there were lots) are collected here. The original thread can be found in the freelance list archives, beginning with the subject "Agent Query" and ramifying into "agents" and "book proposals."

C. BLAKE POWERS ASKED: Has anyone out there had any experience with literary agents and the like? I ask because right now I have several children's books written and am working on a non-fiction book as well, and a fiction book may well be in the offing. Given the uncertainty I have about navigating the waters of the literary world, I am wondering if an agent might not be a good idea, especially so I can concentrate more on the writing end. Any ideas, comments, or suggestions? Do I Need an Agent? Yes, Yes, Yes, and Maybe Not

MATT BILLE: My experience is limited, but so far what I've gleaned is that an agent may not be required for getting nonfiction published, espcecially if you're well-known in your field. It is, however, almost a necessity to have one for fiction. The reason is that major fiction publishers are deluged with thousands of manuscripts per day (not at all an exaggeration) and your chances of being noticed in the pile are pretty slim. What normally happens is that someone right out of college with thousands of manuscripts to read will give it a quick glance and, unless completely stunned by the brilliance of your proposal, will generate a form rejection. (Someone did an experiment a couple of years ago be sending Marjorie Rawlings' novel The Yearling, a Pulitzer Prize winner, to 28 publishers after changing the title and author's name. None of the editors recognized it. All 28 rejected it.) An agent who knows some fiction editors has a better chance of making sure your stuff gets read by the right editors at the right publishers for the particular genre.

A good agent can help you shape your proposal(s) and can help you get them read.

ROBIN MEJIA: Yes, you want an agent. My personal experience is limited — I'm getting going on my first book and just started working with mine a couple months ago. He's been very helpful even this early, though, for exactly the reasons you suggested. He knows the book business, which I don't.

In general, a good agent can help you shape your proposal(s) and can help you get them read. He or she will know which editors to target and which houses. And he or she can call them and tell them that your very interesting proposal is on the way. Equally important, he or she knows book contracts and can help ensure you get the best advance for your books.

LYNNE LAMBERG: For the nonfiction and fiction books for adults, yes, an agent should know which editors at which houses are most likely to be interested in your proposal. An agent likely will be able to negotiate a higher advance for you than you could do for yourself, and will vet the contract to try to get you the best deal on reprint and foreign rights, where you may earn more money. You may need more than one agent. Some agents don't handle children's books at all.

JEFF HECHT: You definitely need agents if you want to sell fiction; many publishers won't consider unagented fiction. I strongly recommend agents if you are doing trade nonfiction books — i.e., pop science. An agent will know which publishers want what types of books, and usually can find a better home for your book than you could alone.

Agents are not necessary to sell nonfiction books to specialized markets, such as textbooks or heavy-techy stuff such as computer books, if you can identify the few possible publishers yourself.

Agents are not infallible, and don't always find all the pitfalls hiding in every contract. Nor can they identify what publishers are about to be gobbled in a hostile takeover that will leave you with an orphaned book and no forwarding address for the editorial department.

Editors see agents as screeners who can be trusted not to waste their time with junk.

AARON LEVIN: My view is that agents really help. Without one, your proposal is just one more bit of slush in the pile. For a start, editors see agents as screeners who can be trusted not to waste their time with junk. For another thing, a good agent can help you shape your proposal so it will be more interesting to an editor. Finally, an agent who knows the publishing world can target your proposal at the publishers who are most likely to be interested. That saves time that you'd waste sending it around randomly on your own. I don't know any book writer who doesn't have an agent.

BERYL BENDERLY: I have had three different agents at different periods of my career, and I am convinced that a good agent is invaluable. Not only do they find publishers and negotiate deals for you, they also watch over your book as it makes its perilous way to print. In today's unstable publishing scene, this is very important.

MAURY BREECHER: Literary agents would like us all to believe that they are essential, that we can't sell our books without them. If you are writing non-fiction that is not true. Anyone good enough to be a member of NASW has the background and expertise to interest many, (not all, I still haven't cracked Random House/Crown) editors at major book publishing companies. In my experience, many will respond to short e-mail queries asking if they would be interested in seeing a complete book proposal on: Name your slant and topic and then explain in one paragraph why you — and your co-author if you have one — are the right experts to write the book.

Be prepared to follow-up if you get the go ahead with a complete proposal including two sample chapters, but even more important is the Overview, an analysis of competing books, a PR plan, and an annotated TOC describing contents of each chapter. Beware though. Some editors aren't very ethical. They may have already commissioned similar works and be scouting out yours as potential competititon. It happened to me several times this year. Even a good agent can fall into that trap though.

That said, at a recent NWU meeting in L.A. I asked two agents whether they could negotiate a higher advance and better terms then a non-agented writer. Both said, "Of course." My original agent died several years ago and the one I used with a co-author a few years back didn't click so I went the route I just described. I identified the names and e-mail addresses of editors using the online edition of Literary Marketplace ($395 for a one-year sub). I sent e-mails to 100 editors. Most replied, but only 12 asked to see the book proposal. 10 rejects, four saying they already have something similar in the works. However, two editors have told me that they are presenting my proposal, a book written with a medical doctor, to their acquistion committees this week.

PAMELA TURNER: I've sold 2 children's books (one fiction picture book and one non fiction science book) without an agent. However, I paid an agent/attorney to look over my latest contract and he gave me very good advice and explained a lot of things I didn't understand. You need someone who knows publishing contracts.

Since then, I have signed with an agent. I did this for several reasons: 1) to save myself the time it takes to research all the different publishers/editors so I can do more writing; 2) to get a reading at houses that are closed to unsolicited mss; and 3) to get advice on the saleability of mss early on in the process. Also, I am not that good at negotiations, so an agent will probably get me better terms than I would on my own. The agent I signed with is well known and I probably wouldn't have gotten taken as a client if I didn't already have sales (if not published books) to my credit, as well as numerous magazine articles. She has told me that the market for nonfiction for children is very flat right now, but narrative nonfiction is doing better (basically, a lot of factual info embedded in a fiction story). So I am reworking some ideas along those lines.

So How Do I Find an Agent? And How Do I Write a Proposal? ANNE SASSO: Several people on the list have remarked on the helpfulness of their agents in crafting a sellable book proposal. Yet, when I have reviewed agent websites, they all appear to require a full proposal in order to consider taking you on as a client. What am I missing here?

JEFF HECHT: [You're missing] a working relationship with the agent. Agents don't want rank beginners in science writing (with the possible exceptions of Nobel Laureates). They want some credentials or track record, in books or magazine writing. If you have that track record, or an idea they really like, they'll help. There are ravening hordes of rank amateur writers out there, so few agents offer to read everything that comes over the transom.

If you have writing credits, make sure the agent knows that.

MATTE BILLE: To translate [Jeff's response] into practical terms, it's all about persistence. If you have writing credits, make sure the agent know that. Send him/her copies. If you don't, go ahead and craft the best book proposal you can (plenty of published guidance is out there) and keep approaching agents - via Email if they accept that, via mail if they don't. If you know an established science writer who thinks your ideas are good, asking for a referral never hurts. I also know several writers who have successfully connected with good agents through writer's conferences where agent pitch meetings are offered.

LYNNE LAMBERG: You might start your search for an agent by asking friends or colleagues for suggestions, and then calling or writing agents to see if they're interested in your topic, and if so, what they want to see. You'll prepare a proposal and send it to the prospective agent. If that person is interested in taking you on, he/she likely will have suggestions for further improving the proposal. Feedback from editors may prompt the agent to suggest further changes.

MARK SCHROPE: One editor from Wiley I heard talk a while back said that proposals that didn't come from an agent ended up on the lowest priority pile and did not get full attention. She recommended not trying it without an agent under any circumstances, but that's just one opinion from somebody at a larger publisher.

What's the best way to find a good agent? I've heard one trick is to check the acknowledgements on a book similar to what you want to propose as most authors thanks their agents. Any other tricks or sources? Any way to find out who is good to work with?

LYNNE LAMBERG: The ASJA annual conference, open to all, includes panel discussions with agents; these are a good place to get a sense of how agents work and sometimes whether a particular agent is a person with whom you'd like to work. Check out the website, www.asja.org.

You can contact authors whose books are similar to the one you hope to write, and ask if they would recommend their agent. You are likely to get a candid response this way. Some agents have websites where they discuss their approach and list their clients. You probably will need to interview several agents before asking one to represent you.

ROBIN MEJIA: More effective for me was telling everyone I know that I was getting started on a book. I got referrals from a couple people, and as those people knew both me and the agent, they tended to be good fits. I've also met agents at writer's conferences. To check out an agent, a good online reference is publishers marketplace. It doesn't list everyone but it's a good place to find agents who are still looking for new authors. I have friends who've used some of the various agent books out there, though I didn't.

SANDRA KATZMAN pointed readers to literary agents she knows in San Francisco.

ROBIN MEJIA: I wrote a proposal using two of the many "how to write your book proposal" books. That proposal was good enough to get me several offers of representation, but all of them from agents who wanted me to rework it in some way. I imagine this step is most helpful for first-time authors like me. In my case, along with offering suggestions on how to better structure my proposal, he helped me understand that while my project came out of science reporting, it's really a current affairs book. Different set of editors.

Some agents will charge you for reading a manuscript, which you should never pay. It's a bit of a racket.

JOEL SHURKIN: Two things about agents (I've published nine books and worked as an agent for a couple of years so I do know a bit about it.). It is unfortunately true that it is sometimes harder to find an agent than a publisher. The reason is simply that the world is full of people who want to be writers and are sure the world is waiting with anxious breath to read what they have to say. (F. Scott Fitzgerald warned against writing because you want to say something; write because you have something to say. The flaw in that advice is that you may think you have something to say but that doesn't mean anyone wants to hear it.) Most agents, at least the good ones and the veterans, already have a full load and unless something really wows them, they don't want to take on new clients. They therefore set up as many filters as they can to discourage people from hitting up on them, and to get rid of the dilettantes. As you can imagine, some good writers and good ideas fall into the moat, if I may mix my metaphors. (Some, incidentally, will charge you for reading a manuscript, which you should never pay. It's a bit of a racket). You just have to keep trying and keep pestering as many as you can pester.

Good agents will help you craft a proposal. Mine is a fabulous editor although he will never claim to be. "I think you might consider," he will begin, and the next thing you know, you are rewriting. What an agent does is tell you whether you are producing a proposal he or she can sell, considering the editors he or she knows. If your proposal is turned down by an agent, three things are possible: 1) he or she doesn't want or need the additional client, 2) the agent doesn't know editors who might be interested, which doesn't mean another agent won't, and 3) the proposal sucks. Good luck figuring out which pertains.

And What Are My Chances of Earning Any Money? JOEL SHURKIN: And, you will almost always lose money on the deal.

STAR LAWRENCE: Can anyone dispute the fact that most people only get the advance, if that, out of these things? I can't go down in flames for $2500.

JEFF HECHT: I have earned royalties beyond the advance on all 10 of my published books. Not a lot on some of them, but double or more on others. Now I've never landed a $100,000 advance, and only a couple of my published books are standard "popular science" types. I have received foundation grants that helped the time I put into a couple of books. That said, for planning purposes it's best not to assume the royalties will come rolling in — any more than you should look forward to interviews on Oprah or your own slot on the NY Times best-seller list. Publishers base their advances on how many copies they can be sure of selling in a year or so, and they sometimes overestimate. Worst case they can screw up big time and not publish the book at all (it's happened to me). Writing for royalties is like writing on speculation — it's a risk. It may be a risk that's worth taking, but you have to know that it's a risk.

JOEL SHURKIN: It depends on the size of the advance, doesn't it? I have earned royalties on two of my nine books. One was an early book for a minuscule advance, the other is still in publication years after it first came out. It earned a decent advance and is now in three different editions and my sons went to college on it. In general, however, one in ten published books earns royalties. Keep in mind that just because your book didn't make royalties doesn'tmean the publisher lost money on it. They have a very complex accounting system so that you can come $20,000 under royalties and they are still making money. I assume when I write a book I am working for the [advance] and if it does better than that, it's party time. I want my money, or as much of it as possible, up front. Among other things, that gets the publisher's attention.

JEFF HECHT: We're obviously talking different royalty scales here. I've received few advances over $20,000. Most of my books that earned out had advances under $20,000. Three were for young adult science books, where advances in the $5000-$7000 range were typical when I did them. It's a lot easier to earn out on small advances. Technology books, like Understanding Lasers and Understanding Fiber Optics, don't draw big advances, but have kept on selling, to the point where I have to update both of them (the third and fifth times, respectively).

While I would love to earn out a $50,000 advance and receive royalties above that, I wouldn't count on it. My experience has been that with smaller advances — and a decent publisher and a book that people want to buy — you have a reasonable chance to earn royalties. But I agree with Joel that you shouldn't count on it.

The other hazard is publishing mergers and acquisitions, in which your book gets squished out of the product line. I've been there, and it is extremely discouraging because the publisher usually sits on the book for a year or two or more deciding what to do.

Editor's note: When you finally get that book published and the royalties (or at least the statements) start flowing in, be sure to check the statements carefully, as errors are common enough that you should worry about it happening to you.

Thanks to Cori Vanchieri for compiling this discussion