Step 2: Find a literary agent
In my previous post, I went into why and how writers connect with publishers when they do not have a literary agent. In this post, with the help of two up-and-coming authors, Ruuf Wangersen and Jon Gliddon, I go into the details of having an agent. The consensus seems to be that you can get by without one, but that it is more difficult. Here is a reminder of what publishers such as Packt and review aggregators like GoodReads have to say about getting published: 1) find yourself a literary agent, 2) get published, if necessary by yourself, 3) get reviewed, and 4) keep marketing. So now the question is – what’s so difficult about getting literary representation?
Skip to the next post: The Creative Process & Publishing III – Meet the Four Brothers Buksalesnikov
Where to look for a literary agent
Literary agents, and the agencies they are part of, are listed in both handbooks I consulted (left), and with the various unions or guilds representing writers. But therein lies another problem – you have to find your match. Literary agents, like actors’ agents, are people who have multiple skills. Many have one leg in publishing and another in the world of writing, and some are writers or editors themselves. They bring publishers and writers together. If they have a good “eye”, they can bring an unknown, but talented, author to the attention of the world. Generally, you would not know their names. A famous few are:
Some very lucky sign-ups
Literary agents, agencies and publishers can themselves becomes superstars because of who they discover and represent.
- When the literary agent Christopher Little signed up an unknown writer, Joanne (J.K.) Rowling, in 1995, she was newly divorced, living in a one-bedroom Edinburgh flat, and had a six-month-old daughter to take care of. He secured the author of the Harry Potter books a six-figure book deal, which put her on the road to fame and fortune.
- In 1968, Colin Smythe had been a publisher for just two years, and Terry Pratchett was a reporter on the Bucks Free Press. He started by publishing Pratchett’s first five books, and then became his agent in 1987 when Gollancz took over the publishing. Their association, up to Sir Terry’s death in 2015, lasted 47 successful years.
- In 2004, a small, unknown publisher, Quercus, based in London, UK, bought the rights to an obscure Swedish crime novel, Men Who Hate Women, that had been written by an unknown, deceased author, Stieg Larsson. Mark Smith, co-founder of Quercus, had recruited Christopher MacLehose, who had a reputation as a master at finding foreign fiction by writers such as Henning Mankell and Haruki Murakami and turning them into English language hits. MacLehose secured for Quercus the global English language rights for Men Who Hate Women that became The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. And the rest, as they say, is history.
What agents do
One of the jobs of an agent is to find you a publisher by properly packaging and presenting your book manuscript to them. Publishers are few and manuscripts are a dime a dozen, so they rely on agents who know the market to present them with a shortlist of options, and part of that is wrapping up the book as an appealing proposal.
The proposal is a way of obtaining income, for both the writer and the agent, whose income is derived from commissions on book sales, not from fees charged directly to clients.
A literary agent represents writers and their written works to publishers, theatrical producers, film producers, TV producers, etc., and since they represent both your book and you, as a flesh and blood human, there needs to be a match between you, much like you need to find a match when you get into a relationship.
What do they charge?
This changes year on year, so the numbers below are for 2017 and 2018. Agents are paid a fixed percentage (usually 20% on foreign sales and 10-15% on domestic sales) of the proceeds of book sales that they have negotiated on behalf of their client, and 10% maximum on script sales. (Fixed percentage source: Introduction to Literary Agents, Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America – SFWA, rtrvd. 2018-07-01) This means that if the writer gets $1000 from foreign sales of their book, the agent gets $200 of that in commission.
Part of the service is working out the contracts for the book production and sales, which, if you are not au fait with the legalese, can cost you dearly. An agent will be expert in terms and conditions, copyright, and authors’ rights. They will have a thorough understanding of the writers’ particular market, and of the particular writer.
Ruuf Wangersen comments:
“I offer a weighty caveat that wraps tight round anything I have to say on these subjects (or anything else, for that matter) which can be stated simply: Nobody knows anything, least of all me. But if time served counts, if only for hardening the arteries of unwarranted opinions, I served much more time as an aspiring screenwriter than as an author. For a significant period of my screenwriting days I had an agent, a manager and an entertainment attorney, all at the same time (I’m still rep’d by the attorney, a wonderful guy in Beverly Hills who accepts payment in bags of Kona coffee) (100% Kona only).” (Ruuf Wangersen interview, July 2018)
A successful agent, who has a CV proving experience in the industry, and a list of actual book sales that checks out in the real world, is worth considering even if they charge at the high end of the scale at 20%. The rate of 15% of potential sales is the average rate. As with all purchases, think twice if your agent charges less than 10% (ask yourself why they would do that), and bear in mind that you should check out the maximum commission your agent can charge at the union they, or you, belong to. The Writers’Guild of America (WGA) has a long list of different types of writing for theatres and TV, screenplays, treatments, versions, etc., and what may be charged for them in the current year, 2018.
For writers of books, the American Authors Guild also recommends 15-20% commission for agents, depending on whether the deal is for domestic or local book sales. The following rates are considered to be standard in the industry;
- Commissions on domestic book publishing and performance rights (motion picture, television and live stage rights) agreements are generally 15 percent of the gross amounts payable to the author.
- Commissions on foreign rights agreements are generally 20 percent of the gross amounts payable to the author on foreign rights deals (although some agents charge a higher commission on sales in certain foreign countries where the amounts received are generally very small for the efforts involved). These commissions are generally standard and non-negotiable, although it is best to seek to ensure that the 20 percent royalty rate (as opposed to 15 percent) only applies on foreign sales if a sub-agent is used. (Source: Author’s Guild, rtrvd. 2018-09-10)
What shouldn’t they do?
Here are some examples of iffy practices by agents, taken from the files of Writer Beware, a truly depressing, but necessary, resource for Sci-Fi and other writers:
- Requiring a reading fee with a submission
- Requiring an upfront “marketing” or “submission” or other fee on contract signing
- Requiring writers to buy a critique or manuscript assessment
- Referrals to an editing service owned by the agency, without disclosing the connection
- Pressure to use the agent’s own paid editing services
- Running a contest that’s a scheme for funneling writers into a pay-to-play scheme, such as a paid editing service or a vanity publisher
- Pressuring clients to buy “adjunct” services–website design, catalog space, book cover mockups, illustrations, presence at book fairs, and more
- Placing clients with fee-charging publishers
Getting by without an agent
If you are just starting out, and cannot afford to pay an agent a commission, or you don’t know or trust anyone, or you can’t find one, you’re going to be on the super highway of self-teaching. You will have to learn the ins and outs of book design, editing, printing, promotion, pricing, marketing, contracts, and so on.
Ruuf Wangersen comments:
“The point here is that even when I had all that representative horsepower behind me there were many times I felt less in control of what I was trying to accomplish, creatively speaking, and ironically, further from the goal of seeing a script of mine made into a movie.” (Ruuf Wangersen interview, July 2018)
Ruuf does not have a literary agent for his fiction work at this time and, moreover, he is not looking to retain one. He believes strongly that any new author working to be published is wasting their time looking for, or worrying about, or contacting agents.
“An agent will seek you out when the time is right; and if and when they do so, you’ll be in a stronger position in any number of ways if you’ve gone about it that way. This dovetails naturally into the issue of money and writing (or at least I’m going to pretend it does). “Only a fool writes for anything but money,” Samuel Johnson wrote in the 18th century. If that’s true, and it probably is, I’ve been a fool more times than I care to count.” (Ruuf Wangersen interview, July 2018)
Understand that your work is a product
An important point that Ruuf makes is that, having put his creation in the hands of professionals, he did not feel he was entirely in control of what he was trying to achieve. The creative process, this “birthing” of a book, is a long, exhausting and mentally challenging one. It is particularly challenging in terms of expressing what is in your head. Jon Gliddon compares the process to being a pebble in a landslide.
Jon Gliddon comments:
“For me, and other ‘first timers’ I’ve spoken to, the primary concern is whether the story is good enough. With your first book there is no objective bench-mark you can judge it by. I felt very protective of the first draft; are people going to laugh when they read it or just shake their head? It sounds strange but the book was part of me.
“The most difficult thing was getting the story from my head on to paper in an exciting and pacey plot. I had done quite a bit of reading on creative writing and that really helped. But I would say the primary factor in a good book is a cracking story line.” (Jon Gliddon interview, 8 July 2018)
Your voice is really important
Producing a novel is a monumental undertaking which takes sacrifices of various kinds to complete. It means finding your subject, your narrative, the characters, and most of all, a writing style, in other words, your “voice” as an author. Before you have done that, it is unlikely that you will find an agent who understands and appreciates your work, and can present it to a publisher.
“Nobody in the universe see the world the way you do. You are the most valuable asset you have as a writer, and imitating someone else cheats your readers. it’s called ‘finding your voice’. It means you become the best ‘you’ that you can be, and work constantly to grown and develop that voice. The more your voice is trained and honed, the more people will pay to hear it.” (Mike Bechtle in Writer’s Market 2018, p. 67)
Haruki Murakami, the famous and lauded Japanese author, wrote a fascinating introduction to the recently re-published pairing of his first two short novels or novellas, Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball.
Rather disarmingly, he explains that, when he got it into his head to write a book during a strange epiphany, he started writing his first story, Hear the Wind Sing, in Japanese, his mother tongue. Reading it back to himself, he felt unmoved. He says;
“…the vocabulary and patterns of the Japanese language had filled the system that was me to bursting, like a barn crammed with livestock. When I sought to put my thoughts and feelings into words, those animals began to mill about, and the system crashed.” (p.xiii).
As a result, he took to writing in English which, by his own confession, didn’t amount to much, but writing in a foreign language, with all the limitations that it entailed, removed this ‘obstacle’ of the animals milling in the barn.
“I could express my thoughts and feelings with a limited set of words and grammatical structures, so long as I combined them effectively and linked them together in a skillful manner.” (p. xiii)
That is indeed how Murakami’s works, in English and eventually in Japanese (when he reverse-translated them) reads; simply, directly, straight to the jugular, visceral, clear and searingly honest.
So, to find this “voice” is the writer’s challenge, because their voice will be their signature, the thing that the agent will be focusing on to present the work to publishers. Yes, there is the genre, the plot, setting etc., that have to match. But the voice of the writer, expressed through the characters they create, and how they write, has to be an original, something you have not heard before, something that speaks to the reader, directly and forcefully. The agent has to be able to appreciate the voice of the author.
Letting your original voice out
When Junot Diaz wrote The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, in the street English dialect of the Dominican Republic, his was a completely fresh voice writing in English. To someone not from the DR, it was like reading a strange poetry. The same goes for the most amazing Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders, which is written in the voices of the dead. And so it is with many of the most successful and most memorable novels ever.
Once you have not only the data – the manuscript, and the metadata – the understanding of all the related aspects of authorship, thrashed out, you are ready to sign with an agent or pitch to a publisher. This brings me to the final reason for working with a literary agent – you cannot do it alone. It is your own brain function that makes it impossible for you to see your own mistakes and to edit yourself, and, by implication, sell yourself. It is such a counter-intuitive process that most people cannot do it well, if at all.
While it is not good practice for an agent to require writers to buy a critique or manuscript assessment, or refer them to an editing service owned by the agency, without disclosing the connection, or put pressure on them to use the agent’s own paid editing services, manuscripts do need editing prior to submission. A lot of editing.
Ruuf Wangersen comments:
“Would I have self published if I hadn’t found my publisher? Yes. I was convinced that my book was ready and that it deserved to see the light of the photostatic day. Of course the truth is that the manuscript wasn’t at all ready, and once I signed with Montag the editing and rewriting work had only just begun. This is another grim/happy reality every writer needs to confront, even if you elect to go it solo: you can’t do it alone. Your book needs to be edited. Stating the obvious here, but that’s a much easier road if you can find your natural allies in the small publishing world.” (Ruuf Wangersen interview, July 2018)