Thursday, December 20, 2012

Writers Are from Venus, Agents Are from Mars

"Ohhhh ... "
Updated 1/7/24

I didn't have an agent for my first book, which, in light of the disastrous contract I signed, was a mistake. 

So, when I completed a second book I decided to contact the agent who had acted as representative for my first (disastrous) publisher. 

(Small publishers often employ agents to sell their books to larger publishers. You won't get more than a few pennies of royalties when this happens.)

After reading the manuscript, she gave me a call, agreed to represent me, and asked me for the following:

A head shot
A biography
Log lines
Flap copy
A synopsis
A marketing plan
How I intended to reach my prospective audience, and
Whether I knew someone famous, like the Pope, who would endorse my book

I was too embarrassed to admit that I didn't know what half the things on her list were, so I muddled through as best I could. (The Pope would not give me an endorsement, even though my flap copy was nothing short of miraculous.) My ignorance was astonishing, though understandable: I was a writer.

Writers, especially fiction writers, focus on crafting our work. After a long and difficult labor, we give birth to novels. The last thing we need while in the throes of contractions (no pun intended) is for the midwife to ask, “What kind of diapers would you like? Cloth or disposable?” As far as we are concerned, our job is finished when we push out the last line.

This is simply not how the publishing world works. Before contacting an agent, you must not only have a finished work (edited, proof-read, and ready for the printer), you must understand the industry. That means knowing what is going on in the publishing world, knowing what is going on in the book selling world, and knowing what is going on inside your agent's head. In order to do that you must go to your local library and pore through issues of Publisher's Weekly, Writer's Digest, and The Writer. You must read blogs kept by agents and editors in order to familiarize yourself with the lingo of the trade: proposal-to-publish forms, subsidiary rights, and promotion potential. You must become vertically integrated.

Right about now, you are beginning to feel put-upon. Why should you learn everybody else's trade? You have your own. Besides, the publishing industry is complicated, frustrating, and, to put it mildly, embattled. That is why so many writers turn to self-publishing. It lures us into its embrace with promises of instant gratification.

The inconvenient truth is that there is no way to avoid the hard work of promotion – which, in turn, requires an understanding of the publishing industry. Although self-publishing is rapidly gaining ground, print publishers still have the advantage of pedigree. There is nothing that qualifies you more as an author than to be published by one of the big houses. In order to get a publisher, you need an agent. And in order to get an agent, you must not only be able to write the perfect query letter and schmooze at conferences, you must get a handle on how agents think.

The best way I know of understanding what goes on in the minds of agents is to read their books. Buried somewhere in the musty stacks of your local library is a book written by Michael Larsen called Literary Agents: How to Get and Work with the Right One for You. It was published in 1986 (a year in which you may have been a fetus), but it is still the best exposition of what goes on in an agent's mind that I have ever read. In spite of the passage of decades, and a supposed revolution in publishing, the way agents think has not changed.
  • Agents expect to have a salable book. What constitutes salable? Anything that can be successfully pitched. Work on your pitch before you contact an agent.
  • Agents expect you to be “professional.” In the publishing world that means, “Don't take up too much of my time.” If you need to have your hand held, don't contact an agent (yet).
  • Last, but not least, agents expect you to want to make money. (You'd be surprised how many writers simply want to express themselves!) Agents expect you to convince them “that you harbor a consuming lust for success and that you are irresistibly driven to do whatever it takes to make your books sell.”
Until you can build up some lust, and can back it up with a plan that demonstrates that you know what to do with it, hold off on contacting an agent. They aren't in the business for love, they are in it for money – and they can't make any if you don't.

Essential reading for understanding how agents think:

Jeff Herman, Guide to Book Publishers, Editors, & Literary Agents. (Sourcebooks, 2019)
Read the agents' descriptions of the client from hell. (That's you!)

Robert Brewer, ed. 2021 Guide to Literary Agents. (Writer's Digest Books, 2021)
Actually, any year of this publication will be sufficient. Make sure you read the sections on advice to writers (from agents).

Michael Larsen. Literary Agents: How to Get and Work with the Right One for You. (J. Wiley, 1986.)
The 1996 edition of Larsen's book, How to Get a Literary Agent, has more information, but reveals less of the inner workings of the Martian mind. Nor much has changed since the 80s.

Related posts:

What's Your Book About: The Pitch

Beggars Can Be Choosers - How to Pick an Agent

How to Research an Agent

Are You Ready to Contact an Agent? Take This Short Quiz and Find Out

First published on Blogging Authors 12/19/12

1 comment:

  1. I contacted agents too soon. I was so excited I finished my book I jumped in those choppy waters with both feet and no plan. Once you submit your work to an agent or a puplisher, that's your shot. Your advice will help a lot of those eager beaver writers who want to go from clicking away to nodding in delight at their debut novels on the shelves at books stores.


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