Clare B. Dunkle

The Business of Novel Writing

Clare B. Dunkle's facts about agents

Alligator in the Stuttgart Zoo

First of all, hold hands and chant with me:




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 of books.

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 help you.

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 readers.

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 me again:




And now you know the reason why.

"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.

All webpage text copyright 2003-2014 by Clare B. Dunkle, unless attributed otherwise. All photos copyright 2003-2014 by Joseph R. Dunkle, unless attributed otherwise. You may make one print copy of any page on this site for private or educational use. You may quote the author using short excerpts from this website, provided you attribute the quote. You may use the photos in both print and virtual media to promote the author's books or events. All other copying or use of this website material, either photos or text, is forbidden without the express written consent of the author.