Publishing 101 Part 3: The Agent
Welcome to the third installment of my series about the publishing industry. This segment is about the Agent. The bulk of this article largely contains anecdotal material about how and why I have an agent for my young adult books (who gets a 15% commission) and do not have one for my adult books—at least not yet—and my experience with said agent.
But before I get into that, I’d like to present some practical information. I’m a member of LinkedIn (the free part of it, anyway), a business-related social networking online site. Not too long ago a writer friend of mine alerted me to the LinkedIn Group: Authors, Writers, Publishers, Editors, & Writing Professionals. If you’re a member of LinkedIn, I’d suggest you join that group—and if not, I’d suggest you join LinkedIn (the basic membership is free) and sign up for that group. Much information has been shared and discussions are lively.
One recent topic, in fact, is: “What is the best way to get an agent?” As you might expect, there are many paths to this goal. One member offered this potentially useful website: Association of Author’s Representatives (www.aaronline.org). Its FAQ section is very good and offers detailed guidelines in describing what an agent does, questions to ask an agent, and what to expect from an agent. I must say that I thought this site did a very good job summarizing things. Other organizations offering similar information include Poets and Writers (www.pw.org/literary_agents?gclid=CKnykvDUw68CFYMRNAodIT8jZA), Writers Net (www.writers.net/agents.html), Literary Portal (www. sites.google.com/site/literaryportal/literary-agent-directory), and Author Link (www.authorlink.com/agents/agentssearch.php). These are not the only ones; a keyword search “Literary Agent Directory” will produce quite a number. These are ones that stood out for me.
Okay, to those of you remaining for the anecdotal section of the column, I’ll begin, as Paul Harvey would say, “The rest of the story.” An agent acts as an advisor—advising on the development and burnishing of a manuscript (if necessary), and contract negotiations; an agent also is au courant with what’s happening in the industry, who’s buying what, what editorial policy and personnel changes have been made, impact thereof, and can suggest options. What an agent can’t do is sell a manuscript. An agent can only put it in a position to be considered for sale. An editor who receives a manuscript from an agent, as opposed to receiving an unsolicited manuscript, knows that the document before him or her is at a professional level of quality—otherwise it wouldn’t be offered. From that point on, then it’s a question of suitability—“fit” if you will—with editorial needs and projections, its sales potential, and other factors outside of a writer’s or agent’s control.
Signing with an agent is in many ways similar to a marriage—though this is of a business nature and the contract can be broken much more easily (usually by a letter in writing with a 30-day termination notice). It’s important to know that even if the relationship is terminated, any books sold by said agent during that contracted period remain with the agent/agency in perpetuity. This means that the agent/agency will continue to collect any and all royalties from the book or related rights sales of the book (the bulk of which would continue to be passed on to you, the author). That’s why it’s important to make sure you’re comfortable with an agent. In my case, I’m fortunate that, by living in Brooklyn, I was able to personally meet agents and through that face-to-face meeting figure out whether the relationship would work. This option isn’t available for a lot of writers, that’s why the organizations listed earlier in the column are useful.
Okay, I’m now going to begin the story of how I got my agent. I won’t be offended if you decide to read no further. In 2005, I was a book editor who did writing on the side—within a year I’d be full-time freelance writing. At the time, aside from my article work, I was focused on only writing young adult (y/a) histories. I had ghost written five successful histories that had as authors of record some famous writers. So, having anonymously proved my ability, I wanted to break out on my own.
The kids’ market is rather clubby and in order to make any headway in it you either have to know someone, know a lot of someones, or be very, very lucky. Though I knew a few editors in that market, I felt I would be better served by an agent. So I began by asking the authors I had worked with who was their agent and if they’d be willing to introduce me. It turned out some didn’t have an agent, some had but the agents weren’t taking new clients, and some were happy to make the introduction. Meetings were scheduled.
I had a number of meetings, but the one that resulted in me finding my agent began with a mistake. It occurred at the Sterling Lord Literistic (SLL) agency. Five minutes into my talk, the agent held up her hand and told me to stop—she only handled adult books. She asked me to wait, left her office to talk to a colleague and then returned, saying she’d introduce me to George, who was responsible for the children’s market. Introductions were made. I then handed him copies of letters of introduction I had from the authors for whom I had done the ghost writing, along with copies of the books, asked him to read the letters and once he was finished, then we would talk. Fifteen minutes later I not only had an agent, I also had a project that he sold within a month to HarperCollins.
Now, before you start screaming and reaching for a baseball bat or a weapon of precision destruction, you have to keep this in mind: it took me 28 years to get to that point and, more specifically, six years (the latter being the period when I did the ghost written y/a histories). It was also important to have those letters. Face it, when someone like Philip Caputo writes, “I was impressed by your ability to condense an enormous amount of complex material and to present it to a young adult audience without over-simplifying.” Well, agents and editors are going to pay attention.
So George agreed to take me as a client. The contract itself is a simple, plain-language document just two and a half pages long. He represents me for all of my young adult projects for which his company takes a 15% commission. This applies to all projects in the category, whether he alerts me to something or I land a project on my own. Now, you may think that’s unfair, but it’s not. Finding work is just one of an agent’s jobs. Just as important, and in some cases even more important, is his role in contract negotiations.
As it turned out, my timing couldn’t have been better. George had been looking for someone to write the y/a adaptation of Simon Winchester’s Krakatoa. SLL had sold to HarperCollins the adult manuscript and George felt the material was ideal for the kids’ market. It turned out that my skills as a writer and photo/illustration researcher was exactly what he needed. He handed me a copy of Krakatoa to read, which I began to do on the subway ride back home. When I got home, I called him and said I agreed with his assessment. The result was The Day the World Exploded, released in 2008 and one of the last non-fiction books published by the HarperCollins y/a division. That success was quickly followed by … nothing.
Much to my surprise and to George as well, the non-fiction y/a market all but dried up. The only assignment I was able to land was a Tecumseh biography, part of Sterling Publishing’s line of biography titles. That project turned out to be a double-hit — but on the downside, the pay was low, and it was formula writing. In other words, I had to closely follow the style set forth in previous books. And given how I had to reference things, I felt I was more writing a master’s thesis than a biography.
Ironically, I was able to survive because of my adult military history writing — something I never expected to do! That came about through former colleagues; we had all worked together before our employer filed Chapter Seven bankruptcy. As it turned out, six of the 10 books I’ve written to date came from those colleagues, three from George, and one (my first book under my name) I did on my own. And it’s not that George and I didn’t try! George has more than 40 years in the industry. He started out as an assistant publisher and worked his way up to publisher of a major paperback house before going off to be an agent. An agent is only as good as his Rolodex, and George knows a lot of people. But he was getting no positive feedback regarding non-fiction projects.
In 2009 we did some brainstorming and came up with the idea of doing a 10th anniversary y/a book on 9/11. We thought it was perfect—kids who were four or five years old that year would now be in their early to mid-teens. We developed the thought, I contacted a designer I knew and we put together a dynamite full-color package. George shopped it around. It got rejected by everyone.
In 2010, we had another meeting, this time in the agency’s library. We looked through the shelves of client books to see what might be there. That’s when I saw Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. I thought it had potential, as did George. He knew the woman who had just been hired as a senior editor at Henry Holt for Young Readers. Sounded like a perfect move—adaptation of a classic work presented to a recent hire who wants to look good to her new boss. We met, made the pitch, she agreed, got approval from her boss … and the contract negotiations took a year. You read right, a year.
Now, I had been around the barn enough times in my writing career to be wary of doing too much work on a project without a signed contract. So despite assurances that the project would go through, I did very little until the final month before the contract was signed. Of course, the publisher still insisted on the original deadline. The result was Saga of the Sioux, quickly written book that turned out different than what I originally planned. Then, two months after Saga’s release in October 2011, George contacted me and said that Holt wanted to know if I would be interested in writing the young adult adaptation of Bill O’Reilly’s Killing Lincoln. The manuscript and illustration package had to be delivered by April 1, 2012. I got a copy to read over Christmas. Terms were agreed by mid-January 2012, and I delivered finished manuscript and visual package on March 26.
I plan to meet George the end of April to discuss the next step. Will keep you posted.