Business of Novel Writing
Clare B. Dunkle's facts about agents
First of all, hold hands and chant with me:
MONEY ALWAYS FLOWS TOWARD
MONEY DOES NOT LEAVE THE AUTHOR.
THE AUTHOR NEVER WRITES A
CHECK TO ANYONE.
If you learn nothing else
about agents from my page, learn this simple fact: An agent who
asks you to pay him any money from your own pocket is not the kind
of agent you want.
Writing books for pleasure is the
greatest hobby there is. Writing books for publication is a business.
An author has to follow the law, save the right receipts for tax
purposes, pay Social Security, read and sign legal contracts, meet
deadlines, forfeit earnings if she breaks those deadlines, risk
lawsuits, and undergo audits. She has to navigate the complexities
of the publication world, understand its economic realities, and
handle demands for rewrites without hysteria.
No one in this business cares about
your hopes and dreams. They don't go to work in the morning
to make you happy. No one has to tell you all the things you need
to know, either. If you fail to learn about the dangers of this
profession, you are the one who will suffer. No one is obligated
to help you in any way. You are self employed. If you need help,
you will have to find someone to help you: usually your accountant
and your agent.
My goal for this page is to tell you how to think about
agents: who they are, what they do, and why they succeed. I'm
not going to tell you who your agent should be, not even if you
write to ask me. Excellent up-to-date sources out there
will help you choose your agent. The most important of these is
a webpage called Writer
Beware. You should also have access to resources like the latest
copy of Guide to Literary Agents, which list contact information
for people and agencies in the publishing business.
Agents know the money side
They know which manuscripts went for top price at auction this
week and which publishing houses are reorganizing. I dropped my
agent a note the other day, mentioning an author friend of mine.
My agent wrote back to tell me about my friend's new multi-book
deal—who had negotiated it, who had bought it, and how much
the advances were. That insider perspective is what makes my agent
fantastic. When she sits down to negotiate my manuscripts, she knows
how much publishing houses have been paying that year for similar
kinds of stories.
Does an agent teach you things
you still need to learn about writing? No, not in my experience.
Your agent helps you put together a great career. She shops
around the manuscript, makes that deal, worries about the fine print
on the contract, and gets in touch with her colleagues in Germany,
Japan, and England to sell the story in those markets, too. Her
role in your life is to tell you, "Let's not go for
this deal. Your story could earn twice as much somewhere else."
Or "This is where you want to be. This house will take good
care of you and get you the attention you deserve."
Because the most important publishing
houses have their headquarters in New York City, many agents
work there, too. They spend years building up a network of editors
at different houses who trust their good judgment. The best agents
can say to an editor, "I have just the manuscript for you,"
and the editor already knows it's going to be good. My agent
passed one of my manuscripts to an editor I had never worked with
before. The editor started reading the manuscript that very same
night and started putting together her offer the next morning.
Why might an agent refuse to represent
your manuscript? It has to do with her relationship to her editors.
Each agent has a certain circle of editors who trust her to send
them manuscripts they like. This means the agent will only represent
a manuscript if she thinks her editors will like it. If she sends
an editor five poor manuscripts in a row, she knows that editor
will stop reading her stuff. That would undo all the hard work she
has put in to build up their relationship of trust.
There are two main reasons
why an agent will refuse to represent your manuscript:
1) You have sent him a fine
query letter about a fine manuscript that doesn't match up
with the interests of the editors he works with.
Most agents list the types of manuscripts they want to see in print
sources or on their agency webpages. If you send a hard-boiled mystery
to an agent who represents romances, you have just wasted your money
and the agent's time. He is not going to fall in love with
your mystery. He won't even read your whole query letter.
He doesn't know any editors who want mysteries. He just can't
An agent thinks about the sale. Your
book may be beautiful—truly lyrical and lovely—but if
the agent doesn't think she can sell it, she won't offer
to represent it. Some books are hard on the reader. Some have limited
appeal. The agent has to make these hard choices because if she
doesn't sell, she won't eat. The moral of this story:
don't put all your eggs in one basket. Keep working on new
manuscripts. Selling a later one may help you sell the first one
that's a little harder for agents and readers to handle.
2) You have sent him a query letter about a manuscript
that he feels is probably not fine.
Out of thousands of submissions, an agent accepts a handful of
new clients a year. He doesn't have to take chances on work
that doesn't sing. If your query letter doesn't hit
the right notes to pique his interest—even worse, if your
query letter is poorly written—the agent will not think, What
can I do to rescue this manuscript from its mistakes? He will simply
say no thank-you and move on to the next submission, looking for
something he can love.
Securing an agent is a frustrating
task. How can you tell you're on the right track?
Agents will encourage you if they think your writing has merit,
even if they pass on representing you. Not every agent will give
you a pat on the back, but if you send out a number of letters and
your stuff is good, someone will let you know. An agent may write
you a personal rejection note telling you what she liked and didn't
like. She may ask to see the first hundred pages or first three
chapters before turning you down. Or she may ask you to keep her
in mind for the next one. If you're getting encouraging signs
like this, that's your clue to keep writing. You may place
your second or third manuscript before you place this one.
If you are getting nothing but dozens
of form rejections with not a single encouraging note, you need
to take your manuscript to someone who knows good writing and ask
if your work is professional quality. Look hard at what you can
do to improve your skills and think about the effort you're
willing to make: if your problem is mediocre writing, you will need
to put in years of disciplined work to solve it, and even then,
there are no guarantees. Or you can enjoy your writing for what
it is: a wonderful and rewarding hobby. After all, people who adore
baseball don't have to pitch in the majors to have fun in
a Saturday afternoon game.
How do agents make money?
My agent works for me, so you probably
think I pay her. Wrong! My agent doesn't take money from me.
She takes a cut from the book deals she negotiates for me as the
publishers' checks come through her office on their way to
my bank account. Each time she sells a manuscript for me, we split
the money we make. I get most of it because I wrote the book; she
gets some of it because she worked the deal. If she doesn't
sell my manuscript, she earns no money, even if she works for an
entire year. I have never paid my agent a penny. She makes
money only when she is successful. The agents who support
themselves only from their cut of successful deals are real agents,
the kind you want working for you.
There are two ways to make
money in the publishing world: take it from readers or take it from
writers. You've just heard about the kind of agent
who earns her money from readers: the publishers pay me and my agent;
the readers buy books and pay the publishers back the money they
have risked on me. Please note once again that my agent and I make
our money from the same place: the publishers and, ultimately, the
I have already mentioned on the Basic
Facts page that for every manuscript that becomes a traditionally
published book, approximately 25,000 manuscripts do not. Some people
look at this statistic and see heartbreak. Others see an opportunity
to get rich. There are agents out there fishing for those 25,000
hopefuls, looking for ways to part them from their cash.
The "other" agents
make their money in a variety of ways. The most obvious ones charge
you upfront fees. They send an encouraging note telling
you they'd love to look at your manuscript—but, by the
way, because they're professionals, you'll owe them
25 cents a page. Remember, agents who are making their money this
way do not need to make book deals for their clients. Why should
they go to the trouble? They get all the money they need from fees.
To make it absolutely clear to writers that this is an unethical
practice, the Association of Author's Representatives (the
literary agents' professional society) forbids its members
to collect reading fees.
The more subtle "other"
agents don't start charging fees right away. First, they turn
your head with lots of lovely praise; then they move in with an
estimate of what you'll need to pay them before they'll
be able to land you that great deal. In many cases, they suggest
that you should have the book professionally edited—and, oh,
by the way, here are the names of a couple of editors who do great
work. Needless to say, these editors will probably split your money
with the agent who referred you to them.
The idea that an agent might
send you to a paid editor makes sense, right? No, it doesn't.
Every traditional publisher does editing in-house. They are used
to seeing work that will require a certain amount of revision. A
reputable agent knows that the editors he works with will want to
do their own editing on your manuscript. And, at the end of the
day, the writer is the one who has to know how to write. If the
manuscript isn't good enough to attract attention in its current
form, professional editing won't help it.
Do not trust agents who say
they specialize in new authors. Why would any agent specialize
in new authors? Agents specialize in authors, period. They keep
the same clients for decades. New authors are the least profitable
part of an agent's business. It's her veteran clients
who are bringing her the biggest deals.
If an agent says she wants
to represent you, do several things right away. First,
ask for the names of some of her clients. Ask if you can contact
those clients as references. Research their books in databases or
library catalogs to get an idea how they're doing. Find out
which publishing houses this agent has recently sold manuscripts
to, and then check out those names to see if they're healthy
commercial houses. If the agent can't be specific, or if you
can't find her authors' names in catalogs or bookstores,
you know you have something to worry about.
Above all, part ways with an agent the minute she asks
you to pull out your checkbook. That's not how she
should make her living. She should be making money from the publishers,
who make it from the readers. If she's asking for a check,
she's one of the large crowd of "others" out there
making money from people like you. And that means she's not
the agent who will help your dreams become reality.
Hold hands and say it with
MONEY ALWAYS FLOWS TOWARD
MONEY DOES NOT LEAVE THE AUTHOR.
THE AUTHOR NEVER WRITES A
CHECK TO ANYONE.
And now you know the
"Facts about Agents" copyright 2006 by Clare
B. Dunkle. Short excerpts from this page may be printed if the author
is credited in a full citation.