Thursday, May 26, 2005

The answers (or at least some of them)

The return rate for responses was about 74%. Of that number, 46 agents asked to read some or all of the book (about a 6% rate that did not vary throughout the process). Out of that 46, only 3 finally asked to represent me. A happy ending? Not yet, because one agent had a reputation for bilking would-be writers out of fees (no agent should ask any money up-front), one had a troubled business history, and the third had no experience in the business and was starting out.

What did I learn from my research? For one thing, just because one agent turns you down doesn’t mean his or her office mate won’t be interested. One or two larger firms (e.g., Stuart Krichevsky) got annoyed when I queried each agent individually (“we’ve already rejected you,” the office wonk peevishly wrote to me). And a few biggies (Wm. Morris and Creative Artists Agency) insisted they didn’t accept unsolicited queries, even as individual agents were responding on their own to my mailings and emailings. I also discovered several things to help level the playing field.

1.) Act like a professional: You have a commodity to sell that others may or may not want to buy. While it’s not very romantic to think of your writing that way, I have never forgotten my college professor who told us how he imagined Shakespeare (the consummate professional) sitting down with Ben Johnson for a beer after writing “King Lear” and celebrating.

2.) Don’t be pressured into anti-competitive positions: I know this will get me in hot water with “The Ethicist” in The New York Times Magazine, but when a prospective agent says “I want it exclusively,” your inner response should be, “well sure, and I want a million dollar advance.” Neither notion is realistic for a first-time book writer. I appreciate it that no agent wants to spend time reading your work, only to find out you’ve given it to a competitor. But since this is a business, the odds are far more likely the agent will turn you down. Remember my 756 agents— slightly over 6% agreed to read the book, and only 3 of that total asked to represent it. Other businesses have to compete for clients, why should literary agents be allowed to set rules that work against you?

3.) Time is not on your side: If you let the agent read it for 6-8 weeks (a usual amount of time it takes to slog through a 100,000 word book), and the agent turns you down, you’ve lost two months! Two agents who had my book lost it! After two months of waiting patiently to hear from them, I finally emailed both. Now I send all mailings with Delivery Confirmation. It’s only an additional 45¢ and it allows you to monitor when the package was delivered (one agent wasn’t home when he got it, and didn’t bother to pick it up from the post office until I told him about it). I then follow up a few days later making sure they know the post office says it got to them.

4.) Looking for love in all the wrong places: Giving your work to one agent exclusively is also bad because, without shopping it around, you don’t know if the agent’s right for you. Are they enthusiastic? Have they sold similar books before? What will they do besides market it to editors? For example, do they have any connections in Hollywood for getting an option on the book? Can they create “buzz” around the property in the publishing industry?

5.) Where have you been published? Of course it’s easier to sell the manuscript of the latest darling of The New Yorker, or the flavor-de-jour from Vanity Fair. Yet a surprising number of novels and non-fiction works get written and published by folks both magazines would likely turn up their very haughty noses at. If you’re looking for big dollars and a marquee publisher, you’re going to need those kinds of pre-publication credits, not because those magazines sell books, but because they sell writers to editors.

6.) We have a reasonable handling fee/reading fee/editorial fee: The is no such thing as a reasonable reading fee; the agent is going to make money from the sale of your book, so taking a few hours to read some or all of it should not involve an exchange of money. Those agents who try to convince writers the can “fix” your book for a fee are trafficking in dreams. The notion that anyone is going to “fix” your book for a few hundred dollars is simply outrageous and dishonest. Don’t pay any agent to read your book, the most they should ethically ask for is postage to return the manuscript. Since I found that returned manuscripts were usually too dog-eared to use again, I simply sent along a self-addressed stamped envelope to get any bad news (any who wants to represent you will either call or email if the news is good).

What's next?


Blogger Anastasia said...

I tend to not approach agents who - on their websites - list optional extras (their advertisements for their friends who 'evaluate' manuscripts for a fee). To me, this is like they wave the flag of desperation. In Australia we don't have many literary agents that advertise their full servies or client lists on the web and the one's that do (who also have valid client lists), also flog 'evaluation' services of whomever they know.

I know there are many freelance editors out there that are roughing it. In many cases it's a rip off service. Just because an editor chooses to freelance, is not a potential author's problem. Unfortunately, many 'evaluation' services feature freelance editors who aren't affiliated to any publishing house. They may evaluate a manuscript, based on their preference. I've known, through working for a company, many who were creatively frustrated in their editorial jobs and decided on freelance editing but they were also bogged down with their own ego.

Ultimately, in publishing, it's not about ego. It's about a potential sale. Publishing is a business.

3:34 AM, May 30, 2005  
Blogger W. S. Cross said...

Well-put, Stranger. Lovely avatar, by the way.

12:09 PM, July 06, 2005  

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