Thursday, April 03, 2008

More on Editors vs. Agents

Many editors are not fans of agents.

Most editors will not accept unagented manuscripts.

Please help me understand how this makes sense.

I'll respond to this as a post because I think this is an important request.

With the sheer volume of submissions for publication today, agents have become an additional buffer for the overworked (and trust me, they are overworked) editor. If a novel arrives from an agent, it generally means that at the very least, the novel is going to be the correct genre the editor is interested in, is going to be professional and free of spelling and grammatical errors, and have some literary value. For this reason, editors increasingly rely on agents to provide them with quality material as opposed to looking in the slush pile, and major publishing houses have taken on company wide "no unsolicited submissions" policies (meaning, you need an agent) to prevent the mail room from collapsing under the sheer weight of paper. Editors are subject to the policies of their higher-ups, so that means that not every editor may agree with the policy, but they have to follow it.

When I've spoken to editors outside of my work, they've had mixed feelings about agents. Some like them for the reasons above. Some like them because agents are publishing professionals - they get things done quickly and efficiently, and they understand the ins and outs, and they keep the author from calling every week to see how copy-editing is going. A few don't like them because they know the agent will drive up the price of the book, and the more the advance is, the more copies the book must sell to break even or make a profit (most books barely break even). Some authors, on the other hand, are so eager to be published that they'll sign on the dotted line to any amount, whereas the agent needs the advance as a major source of income and wants it to be as high as possible.

The truth is no one knows how much a book is worth until it goes on bookshelves and starts selling, and that's long after the publishing company has invested at least tens of thousands of dollars in it. Some of those costs are non-negotiable - the book is going to cost money to edit and print and ship. The flexible number is the advance, which can range from $250 to several million. The publishing company, perhaps rightly so, feels that the author wins whether the advance is low or high, because if the book is good, it will sell and the author will make money from royalties. The agent and the author know that the book might not sell, and want all the money they can get up front (which is why it's called "an advance" - it's an advance on future royalties) because the advance isn't returned if the book doesn't sell.

Like any business (and publishing is a business), it all comes down to money. That may sound self-serving, but editors and agents and full-time authors have to pay their rent and their bills and their health insurance just like anyone else. Publishing is already an extremely low-paying industry, so everyone fights for what they can get. Oh, and they also want the book to succeed. You have to be fairly altruistic to be in publishing anyway, because the hours are so long and the pay is so low most of the time.

My first book (here's hoping on the next 3 we're currently pitching to different companies) basically sold at a loss. The advance was so ridiculously low that the hours my agent put into contract negotiations means she lost money with her time, as did I in writing it. Even though it will undoubtedly recoup its advance and I'll see royalties, the royalty rate is an industry bottom (7.5%) so the book would have to be a bestseller for me to see any money and for my agent to see her 15% of that money. We agreed to the contract anyway because it was my first book, and other books will hopefully follow it, and the money will slowly increase until it's substantial. It takes a lot of faith, both in the part of my editor and my agent, to maintain me as a client/author. In other words, I'm lucky for every last penny.


moonrat said...

thanks for this. so many good points.

Anonymous said...

At what point can/does an agent tell her author, "You know what, this book ain't selling, I'm out of here?" How many failures-to-sell can/will an agent take before letting go of her client?

Unknown said...

I don't always comment, but I read your blog regularly. I really appreciate the honesty. It's so much better to be aware of how the industry works, to know how things actually are. It's one more step to us being more professional.

Editorial Anonymous said...

Absolutely. And I'd like to add that I don't mind wrangling money with the good agents. A good agent is an ally and a possible friend, from my point of view.

Adrienne said...

anonymous 2:12 -

I am not an agent but I am an author and have several friends who are authors as well. I am sure it is different for each agent, but in my experience, for the most part an agent signs the author, not the book. This means that if a book isn't selling it doesn't necessarily mean that the agent will dump the client (though of course the possibility is always out there). Rather, the agent will encourage the author to give something else a try, or ask if the author has anything else they could try to sell. I have a friend who signed with an agent because of one book, but actually sold a completely different work of hers instead.

Anonymous said...

Anon 2:12--

I think it depends on the agent, of course, but I've notice a huge increase in the number of writers getting dumped by their agents after a failed sale of the book they signed with.

Or, if not a complete dump of the client, a steady disengagement from that client. Suddenly the clients ideas "aren't marketable" or they're just not "excited" about the next book enough to send it out.

Happens alot more than it should, in my opinion. There's not a lot of loyalty in publishing and because of it it's harder to have it turn into a career.

Does it seem to anyone else like more and more you've got to have a best seller right out of the gate or you're reduced to the back burner of nearly everyone in the industry? Or am I jsut grumpy this Monday morning? :)

Anonymous said...

I noticed this in your last post: "A "what's going on?" call is acceptable as a client after a few months".

So if my manuscript has been submitted to editors I need to wait a few months before I ask for an update? The last thing I want to do is pester my agent, but this seems a long time of silence.

Anonymous said...

I wonder how often publishing houses are unable to break even (in terms of the advance vs. actual sales). I'll assume it pays off since most large publishing houses prefer submissions from agents.

Kidlitjunkie said...

I don’t know who you’ve been talking to, but where I work, we love agents. Agents are the best. They’re the buffer. We can send them to hound tardy writers, and to make sure things get done. When you deal with an agent, it costs more, but things also go WAY more smoothly and more professionally.

Of course, there are cases when the agent is difficult to work with—a personality clash, or an agent who misleads you about something, or something like that—and that makes everything much, much, much more difficult.

But from my experience, most agents are nice people who want to make a good book happen. And I want to make a good book happen. So we work together to make that book happen as smoothly as possible. There’s no real downside here.

suzanne cabrera said...

I'm a little late to the party....considering this post was written over 2 years ago...but I want to add just how helpful I found it today.