by Steve Laube
I thought it might be fun to write a series that addresses some of the basic terms that define our industry. The perfect place to start, of course, is the letter “A.” And even better to start with the word “Agent.”
If you are a writer, you’ve got it easy. When you say you are a writer your audience lights up because they know what that means. (Their perception is that you sit around all day thinking profound thoughts. And that you are rich.)
If you are an editor, you got it sort of easy. Your audience knows you work with words and all you do is sit around and read all day. In my editorial days I was often told, “I’d love to have your job.”
But tell someone you are an agent and there is a blink and a pause. If they don’t know the publishing industry they think “insurance agent” or “real estate agent” or “secret agent.” Or if they follow sports or entertainment they think “sleazy liar who makes deals and talks on the phone all day.” I resent people thinking that I talk on the phone all day. (Hah!)
Even at a writers conference I always have someone ask, “What is it that you do?”
An agent works on commission. Fifteen percent of the money earned in a contract they have sold to a publisher on behalf of a writer. I will be bold to say that any prospective agent who asks you for money up front is someone you should stay away from.
This is the category that most people focus on when defining the role of the agent. But it is only one small facet of what we do. Two months ago I published a list of the activities our agency had recently done as a way to help dispel the myth that we are only deal makers. It is how we earn our living but only a small part of our work.
Don’t get me wrong. This is a crucial part of what we do. Our contract negotiations are critical to the long-term health of the publishing/author relationship. Last Fall I taught a course at a conference called “Landmines in Your Book Contract.” Each time I read from an “offending” contract there were gasps in the room. There is a good reason to have a professional review any book contract you are ready to sign.
I’m not referring to our blog but instead to our daily conversations (phone, email, face-to-face) we have with our clients. The industry can be confusing when you first begin exploring its nuances. There was a time in your writing life when you didn’t know the answers either. So back then, who did you ask for advice? But what about now after learning the basics? Now the questions are more complex and the stakes are getting higher.
I spend hours helping a client review their options. For example when B&H Fiction closed two weeks ago we had a number of clients affected. Each one needed to have a full understanding of the implications for their situation and what to do next.
For another client it was wondering how to best work with their particular editor, someone I’ve known for many years. Everything is smooth sailing because the writer asked the right person for advice.
In another conversation last week an author and I discussed her plans for her next book proposal. When to complete the proposal itself and what should be in it this time around – three books? – six books? – one book?
With another client it was deciding whether or not to try and sell his next idea to a different publisher. Not necessarily because of dissatisfaction but because I had multiple editors ask about his work and we had been wondering if their enthusiasm would convert to stronger support at a different house.
The question of whether or not to self-publish an e-book or some variation of that issue is something we often address. Each situation is unique so cookie-cutter answers are of little help to a particular author.
I am not saying my ideas are good, only that I can have a lot of them.
Struggling with the title of your book? We could brainstorm a half dozen alternatives at least.
Stuck in your writing? I often have a client call and we talk through their book to the place where they are stuck and come up with new ideas to break through.
Too many ideas in your head? I ask my clients to send me a “brain dump” of various storylines or book ideas. I can help decide which ones to shelve and which ones to present to their publisher next time around.
Sometimes just talking it through brings clarity to the author. It might not be my idea that worked, it was simply having the conversation that stimulated creativity. It is a lot of fun when that happens.
Let’s be careful with this one. By “friend” I mean someone who is much closer than a business acquaintance but not so close that we look forward to painting each other’s toenails. To use the cliche of culture, I’m not your BFF. But I can certainly be that person in your writing world with whom you can share deeply.
With some clients it is talking through a spiritual crisis. For others a relationship breakdown. It can be the need to have someone know their health problem, one they don’t want publicly known. And even those writers who are buried by self-doubt, they need to have someone they trust who can encourage them in the right way.
Some of these relationships do grow into wonderful friendships. But make sure you keep your boundaries well set and your expectations reasonable.
If you haven’t read this list of ten commandments please do so (Just click the link above). It is a fun way to look at the topic. It is one of our top ten most read blogs ever.
Does this article create new questions for you? If so, either ask them in the comments below or click the green button in the right column called “Ask Us a Question” and we will try to address it at some point.