How To Get Published, Part 7: Working With a Literary Agent

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Welcome back to the How to Get Published series.

This installment assumes that you've signed with an agent. If you've exhausted your list and you haven't found an agent and still wish to publish, you'll need to wait for the next installment. Similarly, some will decide to skip the agent step altogether, and you'll find the next installment on small presses and self-publishing more helpful.

So, you've signed an agency agreement -- now what? Sometimes, an agent will ask you to do an edit on a manuscript or proposal, and it's in your best interests to do so. They are trying to make it as strong as possible for the sale. But after that, your work is somewhat done for the moment.

Up until this point, you've been taking a very active role, and now is your time to step back and let your agent guide the sale. This is not to say that you can't help brainstorm and throw out a few publishers you'd love to work with, but if you trust your agent (and you should), you'll know that she is putting together the best list possible of publishers who might want your book.

Your agent will have a particular method -- she may make a few calls to specific publishers and offer them a first look. She may send it out to a list of ten possible publishers and wait for offers. Your agent will probably keep you in the loop by telling you which publishers are looking at your manuscript or proposal.

I have always found this part of publishing the worst part. On the first day, you're really excited over the idea that this! could! be! it!, but after you get your first rejection, the reality that having an agent doesn't guarantee a sale and that all you have now is a new hoop to jump through can be a bit nerve-wracking. My advice -- let yourself feel whatever you're going to feel and remind yourself that this is a finite space. Either the book will sell or not sell, but you will not need to endure this anxiety indefinitely.

If your agent receives more than one offer, they may auction the book, taking the best offer. If you receive one offer, your agent should still close up loose threads with other publishers still holding your book. Again, your agent will keep you in the loop and ask your opinion before they make any binding decisions.

If you are publishing with a small press or big six publisher (in other words, anything other than self-publishing), your offer will come with an advance -- that's pretty much the only information you learn with the offer. Your advance can be tiny -- $1 -- or enormous -- $1 million. You may be thinking that everyone obviously wants the million dollar advance, but not so fast, my friend.

An advance is money you can live on while you work on the book. It is an advance payment of money the publisher believes the book will earn once it hits the shelves. Usually, the larger the advance, the more money the publisher believes they will make in the long-run. But what if the publisher is wrong and the book tanks? Just because the publisher thinks the public is hungry for this book doesn't make it so. If the author can't produce sales that warrant the big advance, their next book will receive a small advance... or no advance at all. In other words, their career may somewhat be over before it has begun.

As an article in New York magazine points out, it's better to have no sales record than a bad sales record.

With smaller presses, the advance will probably be smaller as well, but the trade off is passion and personal attention. It's not that the big six publishers don't bring that passion to their authors, but it is difficult to be a midlist author at a large publisher and not get lost in the shuffle. Think of it like the coins in your purse -- you don't put a lot of thought into the pennies, though you probably care about your quarters -- and all of those coins are jumbled around together. Publishers also need pennies -- all those pennies add up -- but they don't put their energy and marketing dollars into pennies.

The other thing to consider is royalties. You do not begin to see royalties on the book until the publisher recoups the advance. Which means that the advance may need to last for a very long time -- more than two or three years from the signing of that contract depending on the size of the advance and book sales (and how long it takes a publisher to get the book out on the shelf). Hence why I said back in that first installment that book publishing just isn't a good way to try to support yourself exclusively.

So, you hear the advance amount and you agree to the deal and now your agent's true work begins. Your agent will negotiate all the various aspects of the contract, trying to retain as many rights for you as possible and make the contract work in your favor, down to how much time you have to do edits to the rate you'll be paid in the future if the common royalty rate for e-book sales change. Seriously, there is so much to consider, and this is why I made that point a few installments ago that publishers want to negotiate with agents and not you. And frankly, your agent is going to do a better job at retaining rights and making your world better than you'll be able to do negotiating with the publisher directly -- even if you think you're qualified because you have a law degree or an MFA.

After the contract is negotiated (which can take a bit of time), you will sign the contract and start talking directly with the editor and/or publisher.

Um... okay... though here is another possibility, and it's worth talking about in case it comes up. What if you're having problems with your agent? What if everything seemed fantastic when you signed with her, and now things are unraveling and you're not working well together at all? Not being able to sell the book is not the sign of a bad agent (since not all books will sell), but if you are feeling uncomfortable, getting a sense that your agent doesn't have your back, or your agent is blowing you off, you do have the right to end that relationship and start over from scratch.

There will be details in your agency agreement stating how to end the relationship (always in writing!) and how long you have to wait to look for a new agent (usually 30 days), as well as what happens if your agent already had a deal in hand for you. There should be a very good reason for why you are ending the relationship and not a general, "maybe she's not doing a good job and someone else could do better."

Okay class, any questions on what was discussed here? Please leave them in the comment section below and I will answer them in the comment section below. Keep in mind that I have a lot of topics to cover, so your question may be answered in a future installment (see below). So keep your questions about that period of time when you're trying to sell the book.

Heads Up and Looking Back: topics that will be covered in future installments or that were covered in past installments

1. Before You Even Get Started

2. Are You Ready to Be an Author

3. How to Write a Non-Fiction Book Proposal

4. Why You Need an Agent

5. How to Get an Agent

6. Querying Agents

7. THIS POST

8. No Agent? Other Paths to Publication

9. What to Expect After You Sign a Book Deal

10. Be Your Own Publicist

11. A Mishmash of Leftover Questions and Answers

Picture credit: Mia3mom from Flickr under a creative commons agreement.

Melissa writes Stirrup Queens and Lost and Found. Her book is Navigating the Land of If.

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