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
- 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
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
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
- 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.
- 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:
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.