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The First Sale
© 2001 by Robyn Amos
This article may not be reprinted or distributed without the permission of the author.


Preparing For The First Sale

When you're ready to send your manuscript off to a publishing house, you have an important decision to make. Do you need an agent? This depends on your career goals and your knowledge of the industry.


You DON'T need an agent if you:

  • Don't want to share about 15% of your earnings
  • Have more than a working knowledge of the market and publishing industry
  • Are not intimidated by the idea of negotiating advances and royalties with your editor
  • Feel you have the confidence to be aggressive when negotiating your contract and following up with industry professionals so you and your book don't fall through the cracks.
  • Have no immediate plans to change houses or write for multiple publishing houses. Most first contracts are fairly standard and with little room for negotiation anyway. If you plan to stay in one place, you're likely to do just as well on your own.
  • Prefer to hire a Literary Attorney who will negotiate the contract for a flat fee. The main difference is that this person will not participate in the planning of your career.

If you're like me and don't have the knowledge or desire to handle items 2 - 4, then that 15% is well worth the expense.


Why DO you need an agent?

At the time of your first sale, you're likely to be too excited to negotiate benefits that will be in your best interest, not just for the first sale, but for future sales as well. A good agent can steer you clear of traps that will cause career-planning problems later.

You can establish a congenial relationship with your editor that centers around writing books rather than money.
Agents have better industry connections and can often move your career ahead faster than you could on your own.


How having an agent has helped me:


Career planning: I have specific career goals and my agent was able to make sure that my contract didn't prevent me from pursuing them. I also compared my progress to that of my peers, both with without agents, I could see where my agent helped me do things better or faster than some of my peers, even those with other agents.

My agent also explains issues that aren't clear to me, helps me avoid pitfalls I might not know exist and she aggressively defends my best interest to my publisher.


If you do decide to get an agent choose wisely:

  • Talk to peers with agents and ask what benefits and drawbacks they feel they've experienced.
  • From the recommendations of your peers and research on your own, make a list of potential agents.
  • Check the names with your national writing organization (RWA, MWA etc.) to find out if they are aware of any complaints against those agents.
  • Call the agencies and interview them. Keep in mind he or she will be working for you.

Find out:

  • how long it takes them to turn around money
  • their personal approach to agenting
  • who their clients are. Don't hesitate to call those clients for recommendations

A bad agent is worse than no agent, so be sure to take your time and choose carefully.


How I Chose My Agent:


I was fortunate to find a good agent, though I chose my agent rather hastily. I waited until after I got THE CALL to look for one. In one sense that made the process easier because I already had a contract, which decreased my likelihood of being rejected. On the other hand, time narrowed my choices. I whittled my list to two agents, one recommended by a peer that I trust and another whom I had heard speak to my local RWA chapter meeting. I faxed letters explaining my situation and the need for a quick response to both agents Sunday night (I received the call the day before Thanksgiving and everyone was out of reach during the holiday weekend). Monday morning, the agent who returned my call first, I went with. I don't recommend this process, but as I said, I got lucky. And I have yet to regret my decision.

After you've sent off your manuscript. The next most important thing you can do to prepare for the first sale is start your next project for that specific line or house.


This is helpful for two reasons:

  1. If they like your work, you want to try to sell them something else immediately. Now you have a contact and the ear of an editor, don't waste the opportunity to prove your not a one book wonder.
  2. If they aren't interested in your first project, but express an interest in your writing style, you have something else for them to consider right away. The editor may be softened by the recent rejection and willing to work with you on your next project.

The First Sale


The Call


If you're anything like me, THE CALL will probably catch you off guard. I can tell you to wait by the phone with a pad, paper, your agents phone number, and a legal dictionary, but as often happens in life, you may not be able to be so prepared. That's why, when your editor calls to make an offer, make sure you:
Don't Agree to Anything. Say thank you very politely, let her know that you need some time to absorb everything, and tell her you'll call back.

Then find out when would be a good time to reach her a few days later.
Write Everything Down. Grab a pen and write on whatever's handy, because in all the excitement you'll probably forget something important. I got THE CALL during my lunch hour at work the day before Thanksgiving. I took notes on a scratch pad from one corner of the paper to the other in random order. Later much of it was illegible, and what I could read meant nothing to me, but it was available for translation later.

Ask Questions. While you have the editor on the phone make sure you ask about anything that may not be clear or confuses you.


The Contract


As I mentioned, I didn't feel I had the knowledge to negotiate my contract by myself, but even with an agent you should do a bit of research on your own:
Talk to other authors from that publishing house and ask about problems or pitfalls. Mention these to your agent if you are using one.
A literary attorney is another alternative if you don't want to use an agent. This is a lawyer specializing in literary law. You would pay him or her a flat hourly fee that would not affect your advance or royalties.


The Option Clause


I found that it's crucial to pay attention to the Option Clause in your contract. I found this to be important because I write Multicultural Romance (MR). This clause affected how soon I could sell a MR to another publishing house. The option clause stipulated that I had to show my next MR book to that publishing house before I could sell elsewhere. It's important to restrict this clause as much as possible, by word count, content, genre etc. Sometimes it's difficult to get around. In my situation, my agent couldn't change this clause in my contract, but what she was able to do was make sure my contract to Arabesque was fulfilled as soon as possible so that my work wasn't held up for more than a short time.


Preparing for the Next Sale:


Once the process has started, it can move very slowly. One way to make use of the waiting time is to get organized and keep busy:


Plan for promotion: Begin thinking of ways to market your book and plan your budget accordingly.

Start a mailing list: Collect a database of all your friends, family, fellow writers, local booksellers and continue to add to it as you go along.

Volunteer in your local organization: This is a good way to meet people and begin to raise support for your book locally.

Meet your local booksellers: Introduce yourself and let them know you're a local author with a book coming out. This way you establish contacts for future booksignings.

Write articles: This not only gives you exposure, it allows you to give something back to the writing community.

Network: Talk to other writers about your career goals to get ideas on ways to achieve them.

Keep writing: The only way to keep selling books is to keep writing them.