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.

The Agent/Author Relationship

I have a question regarding protocol and approaching a publisher directly. I currently have an agent who represents specific projects -- as opposed to representing ME -- and we were recently within a fraction of an inch of a book deal (my first). The publishing team decided to go in a different direction with the book, and assured us it was not an "author issue." Whatever.

I truly enjoy working with this agent, and feel she has my best interest in mind...most of the time. While I do understand this is a business first and that I'm lucky to have an agent at all, my only complaint is that she is not as proactive as I'd like. She runs a small agency, has mountains of work to do for her published clients, and I, therefore, tend to get less time and, in my mind, opportunities.

Can I help? Can I contact publishers on my own after making sure my proposal matches what they publish? If so, can I tell them to contact my agent if there is any interest? Does having an agent make me a stronger candidate or will I simply look foolish?

I don't wish to burn any bridges -- with my agent or a potential publisher -- and I hope to continue working together, but I do get tired of the waiting game and feel I can at least gain exposure and possibly establish a relationship with an editor.

As any agent will tell you, some of them have a more "hand-holding" approach - meaning they spend more time communicating with the author - and others do not, and spend the vast majority of their time working with the editor and publicist to make sure the book is successful after it sells to a publishing house. It's almost entirely dependent on the agent's personality, which is very hard to get a grasp of at first.

A good rule of thumb is to never go over the head of your agent (who is there to protect YOUR interests) without his/her permission. This is a good question to ask: "Should I call the editor about a concern I have?" Another good rule is that if you do have a strong working relationship with your editor and the agent isn't involved in that part of the manuscript, never mention money. As soon as money, deals, contracts come up, direct the editor to your agent.

I do talk to my editor and I do talk to my agent, and the first question I ask is, "Am I interrupting something? I know you're very busy." To my editor my questions are entirely editorial with a few notable exceptions. It just so happens that my editor is not a fan of agents (as many editors are not, viewing them as people who just drive up the price of the novel) and I only got an agent because I got an offer from her first (she accepts unsolicited submissions). So, I'm fairly sure she likes me better than she likes my agent. On occasion I've said to my agent, "Do you think I should go bug ___ about this?" (it being a contractual question) and she usually says to go ahead. This is a matter of the personalities of the three of us - writer, agent, and editor - and the balance between them. We all want the book to be successful, but we all have slightly different views of how that should come to be.

If you're wondering whether it's appropriate to "bug" your agent or editor about some issue that you have, it's perfectly fair to outright ask them if they mind the interruption. Be as brief as possible, and thank them for their time. Eventually you will get a feel for their personalities and when you can call them and when you should put it off until the next time you speak.

To answer your question, which is "Can I help?" the answer is generally that they will tell you if you can. I asked that question once and didn't really get a response, which meant "no." When the time DOES come for your input, show your dedication and respect, and you might be asked for more.

To answer your second, implied question, I can't tell you if your agent is doing a good job or not, but there are long waits in publishing. A "what's going on?" call is acceptable as a client after a few months, and you can ask where she submitted, but this is something that will take its own course. Worse comes to worse, she can't sell the manuscript anywhere, which either means she's not a good agent or she was wrong and the manuscript isn't strong enough to be sold. It's in her interest to sell every manuscript she accepts, and for as much money as possible, so she's not working against you. When she exhausts every possible option (if it comes to that), she'll tell you.

Last point: If you have an agent, do not approach publishers on your own. She will be insulted and it's the wrong thing to do.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

My hazy return

I'm back from England, which was fun and informative (I'm a big British history fan), but probably would have been a lot better if I wasn't sick with a bad cold and fever the whole time. Well, some things you can't control. Comments are back on.

A couple observations about the English book market:

(1) I saw my first-ever book vending machine in the airport. Awesome.

(2) With everything outrageously expensive in London against the dollar, I was surprised at how reasonably books seemed to be priced. While other products just seemed to have the same price as in America (1.00 for water) only it was in pounds so it was doubled (really $2.00 for water), books generally had lower retail prices than they do here, to reflect that the pound is worth more than the dollar and always has, even though the rates were much better when I was in Oxford in 1998. One novel that cost about $13.95 here cost 7.95 quid there, which was astoundingly fair.

(3) From the bookstores I was in (and believe me, I made the time for it, especially the used ones), it seems that the British are more into trade paperbacks than we are, an important cost-saving measure that I'm surprised we haven't done here. I saw new books that are only available in hardcover here in the States on sale as gigantic trade paperbacks on the front shelves. The downside, of course, is that you'll kill the spine with a huge book like that, but the book is lighter and costs a bit less.

(4) I saw a lot of books that had a glossy plastic cover over them. When I saw people reading them in the underground I thought it was just a library thing, but in a used bookstore, there was a giant pile of donations and most of them had the same plastic cover. Maybe British readers can tell me if this is something that's done regularly. It seems a nice way to protect the book.