Book Business

What if You Get a Book Deal on Your Own and Then Want an Agent?

What happens if you get a book contract before you have an agent? What if, by some miracle, an editor sees your work and wants to publish it? (1) would having a publisher interested in my work make an agent much more likely to represent me, and (2) would it be appropriate to try to find an agent at that point (when a publisher says it wants to publish you)? My fear is that querying an agent and receiving a response could take several months, but I’d need to accept a potential contract with a book publisher right away (I would think). Is it appropriate to ask the editor to speak with an agent on your behalf to speed the process?

This is a great topic, but there are a few questions within the question. Let me try to break it down.

How do you let the agent know of this situation? Believe me. An agent is likely to read an email (even if originally sent to an assistant) that has a subject line with the sentences, “Contract offer in-hand. Are you interested in representing me?

Many times we have had authors approach us with contracts in hand and seeking representation. Usually a ready-made deal will get an agent’s attention, but there are questions we will ask:

(a) Who is the publisher? There is a big difference between a major company and your local independent publisher. Not all publishers are created equal. (Do some serious due diligence concerning your particular publisher.)

I remember a situation where the publisher who had made the offer to the author was not well known in the industry, they appeared to be a startup, and the terms in the contract were onerous. This was not a publisher we could recommend the author work with. We declined to represent the project. The author signed the contract anyway, without an agent. A few years later the author came to me detailing their regrets and wanted my help to get out of the contract they signed! Not a happy ending.

There are also packagers, subsidy publishers, and vanity presses that can easily confuse a new writer into thinking that their contract offer is similar to getting a contract offer from Penguin Random House. This is not a criticism of those companies but merely to present their contract offers as a contrast to what is offered by traditional publishing. Do your due diligence and practice discernment.

It is one reason why The Christian Writers Market Guide has one section for “Book Publishers” (aka traditional) and another section for “Independent Book Publishers” (aka nontraditional).

(b) Is this a real contract offer or an editor who said they were interested? This is a big difference. I once had a writer literally beg for representation because an editor had said they were interested at a conference (and when I wrote “literally beg” I meant with all the fullness of what that phrase suggests–on their knees pulling at my arm). Found out later the editor had been stopped in a hallway and after hearing the author’s pitch said to the writer, “Sure, I’ll give it a look if your agent sends it to me.” (FYI: That is not a contract offer.)

(c) What is your content? To maintain our integrity, we would still need to see your book. We never will represent someone’s work without seeing it first. Our company becomes associated with that material. If your contract offer is from a major house, trust that we will not sit on the content for long. There is no need to ask the editor to get involved at this stage. It would put them in an awkward position, especially if they would prefer working with a different agent! Also do not ask the editor which agent they prefer. I repeat, you would be putting them in an awkward position. Better to ask, “I’m thinking of working with Steve Laube as my agent. Are there any red flags that you feel comfortable sharing with me?” (I anticipate a few jokes in the comments with that set-up line.)

(d) Who are you? We may have never met or talked. We need to find out if you are who you say you are. If we have met in the past, remind me of the context.

If your first book was contracted and the publisher is talking to you about a second book, but you now think you should have an agent in your corner, please contact one. There any many instances where the first book was done solo but the subsequent deals had professional help. 

I have a client right now whom I met at a conference. The writer pitched their idea and I thought the idea intriguing, but I challenged the writer to “blow me away” with their sample material and send it to me. At the same conference the writer connected with an editor at a major publisher. That editor became quite enthused and worked directly with the author for a few months refining the project. I did not know this was happening and was simply waiting for the proposal to arrive at our office. Good news is that the editor and publisher offered a contract. The author immediately contacted me with the deal in hand. I asked a few questions, including:

(a) “Can you send me the material that got the editor so excited?”

(b) “Have you agreed to contractual terms yet?” Fortunately the answer was no. NEVER agree to terms with a publisher if you want to have an agent become involved. If you do, the agent is handcuffed in their ability to adjust certain rights and terms to your benefit.

(c) “Why do you want an agent? You already have a deal in hand!” The author said, “Steve, I know my limitations. If I were to represent myself, I would have a fool for a client.” We signed and have been working together ever since.

I also want to make sure the writer knows what an agent does for a client beyond the sale or the book deal. It is a myth that all an agent does is have exotic lunches and influence editors with their wiles and force of personality. In today’s publishing labyrinth, an author needs a guide. I firmly believe that every author needs a good agent by their side. But that is a post for another day.

 

[An earlier version of this post previously ran in March 2012.]

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Learn the Lingo

The opening scene of the Meredith Wilson musical The Music Man begins on a train, as a bunch of salesmen debate the best sales techniques. One salesman, however, insists repeatedly, “You gotta know the territory.” That applies not only to selling “the noggins, and the piggins, and the firkins,” but …

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Don’t Know Much About Editors

A literary agent is not an editor–or a publicist. That may seem obvious to some, since the words are all spelled quite differently. But I occasionally get a submission from an aspiring writer who wants me to act as one or the other. I have been an editor (of both …

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Barriers to Effective Communication

By Steve Laube

It has been said that ninety percent of all problems in the universe are failures in communication. And the other ten percent are failures to understand the failure in communication. In the publishing business, or any business for that matter, this is so true. There are a couple common barriers to effective communication, assumption and expectation.

But I Assumed

Often one party assumes knowledge that the other person does not know. Or someone without knowledge fails to admit their lack and try to fake their way through the situation for fear of being found ignorant. Simple to fix. Just ask if you don’t know and alternatively make sure the other person knows what you are talking about. I learn something new nearly every single day and hope to continue that streak for the rest of my life.

But even  worse, and more common, is assuming the other party is mad at you for some reason. The fear of that “assumed anger” prevents an open dialogue or at least delays it.

Much of our business comes down to relationships and fear or anger prevent them from being healthy.

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Do You Have a Backup Plan?

by Steve Laube

The question is not if your hard drive will fail, it is a question of when. At least twice a year I have a client who has lost their hard drive to equipment failure. There was a recent story of an editor at Wired magazine who got hacked via a security hole in his Amazon and Apple accounts. He not only lost data, he lost all the digital pictures of his baby girl. He wrote the article as a cautionary tale. As the editor admits, he knew better, but did not follow his own advice. So my question to you is, “Do you have a backup plan?”

Hit the Save Button Regularly

Many think that just hitting the “save” button is enough. Sorry. That only saves the file to your local computer. And if that computer fails, you are toast. While hitting the save button helps with immediate things it isn’t a long term solution. What if someone steals your laptop while you turned your back to refresh your drink at the coffee shop?

Save to an External or Portable Backup Device or E-mail Service

Keeping your files on an external drive or a USB thumb drive is okay. But what if you lose the thumb drive (they are so small!)? Or what if you forget to take the external drive with you…and your computer is stolen from your office, along with the external drive?

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Three Questions About Agents

In meeting with writers on the cusp of their careers or flush with new success, we find that three big questions come to the forefront. Today, Tamela shares her answers:

How do I find a literary agent?

1)      First and foremost, visit the Agency web sites to see which ones are actively seeking the type of work you write.

2)      Talk to your agented friends to learn about their agents. Referrals are a big part of our business.

3)      If time and finances allow, attend a conference or meeting where your preferred agent will be appearing and meet the agent.

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How Can You Manage So Many Clients?

by Steve Laube

I am frequently asked this question. It is perfectly understandable as many agencies carry a sizeable list of clients. A prospective client or even an existing one wonders, “Will this agent or agency have time for me?”

We post a list of our clients on the web site because we are honored to work with so many gifted people. Not every agency makes their client list public. It is neither right nor wrong, it is merely a preference. As of this morning we have over 150 clients on our roster.

Proper management of a client base is all about communication and work flow. The best metaphor I’ve been able to use to describe how a literary agency works is “We are like a major airline that is always overbooked but never flies full. But if everyone show up at the gate at the same time, we would be in serious trouble.”

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Where Is My Money?

Before I became a literary agent I had no idea how much energy this profession spent being a “collections agent.” Recently someone asked us the following questions (use the green button to the right to ask your question!):

What do you do, as an agent, when a publisher does not pay advances on royalties on time as per their legal contract?

What if a publisher is consistently late (months) saying they have cash flow problems and will pay when they can? Shouldn’t authors be able to count on getting paid the amount and on the date stated in their contract?

Is this common and is there anything that can be done or said regarding what seems to be a breach of contract?

This is an excellent series of questions. The full non-answer is “It depends.” Generally publishers are very good about making the payments according to contracted schedules. The above situation is much more dire and is a good reason to have an agent who know who to talk to inside the publishing house. There are ways to approach the situation that gets results, just remember, “Don’t Burn a Bridge.”

However, there are a few possible reasons that authors should keep in mind before getting impatient with a tardy paycheck.

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How Do You Measure Success?

by Steve Laube

A few years ago while talking to some editors they described an author who was never satisfied (not revealing the name of course). It this author’s latest book had sold 50,000 copies the author wondered why the publisher didn’t sell 60,000. And if it sold 60,000 why didn’t it sell 75,000? The author was constantly pushing for “more” and was incapable of celebrating any measure of success.

Recently there has been much ink spilled on whether Indie authors are better of than authors published by traditional publishers. Pundits have laid claim to their own definition of a successful book using number, charts, and revealed earnings. Following this dialogue can be rather exhausting.

I understand the desire to measure whether or not my efforts are successful. It is a natural instinct. If it is any indication, one of our most popular blog posts has been “What are Average Book Sales?” with thousands of readers.

In one way this is a wise question so that expectations can be realistic.

In another way it is unwise in that the cliff called “Comparison” is a precipitous one. I’ve talked to depressed authors who are wounded by numbers. I’ve talked to angry authors who are incensed by a perceived lack of effort by their publisher. I’ve talked to highly frustrated authors who wonder if it is all worth it.

Ultimately I can’t help but think this is all an exercise in determining a definition of success for the individual author. If you can measure it you can define it. That is as long as we know what “it” is.

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Never Burn a Bridge!

The sale of Thomas Nelson to HarperCollins and last week’s sale of Heartsong to Harlequin brought to mind a critical piece of advice:

Never Burn a Bridge!

Ours is a small industry and both editors and authors move around with regularity. If you are in a business relationship and let your frustration boil into anger and ignite into rage…and let that go at someone in the publishing company, you may end up burning the bridge. And that person who you vented on might someday become the head of an entire publishing company.

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