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When Agents Want You, and Vice Versa

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When Agents Want You, and Vice


by Linda Carlson


You don’t have to be a
big-name publisher to have respected literary agents knocking on your door
these days.


Often exasperated by the committee
decision-making, lack of personal attention, and focus on the bottom line that
they find at huge publishing companies, agents are more apt to take a second
look at—and send a manuscript to—publishers that issue as few as five or ten
books a year.


“We have that glorious dream that
we will find the qualities that have somehow faded from most of the major
trade-publishing experiences,” says Jean Naggar, a Manhattan agent with three
decades of experience.


And are publishers like some PMA
members a dream come true for agents? “Indeed, we are finding that smaller publishers
are willing to take more risks,” agrees Sandy Dijkstra, who runs the San
Diego–area Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency, which has sold such bestsellers as <span
class=95StoneSerifIt>The Joy Luck Club

and Stellaluna.
“They invest more passion and more energy in each title they take, giving the
author a greater chance to make a dent in today’s market.”


A specialty publisher may also be
a better fit for a given manuscript, even one written by an established author
with a relationship with a large publisher, adds Elizabeth Wales of Seattle’s
17-year-old Wales Literary Agency, which has an active client list of more than
50. “Size should not be the criterion in determining which publisher to


And smaller publishers may offer
authors a relationship. “Things may be more personal at smaller houses, with
more interest in the author’s input about the cover, the book design, and
public relations,” said Jill Marsal of Dijkstra.


Then there’s commitment.


“The big publisher I worked with
promised the moon in terms of promoting the book, but after it was out for a
month, I never heard from them again. A year later, I’m not even sure they
would remember my name. At a much smaller company, the marketing person still
emails me weekly 18 months after the book’s release,” says Eileen Kennedy-Moore,
a Princeton-area clinical psychologist. “When I met the publisher for the first
time at a conference, she greeted me with a hug. No one at the big publisher
ever did that!”


That’s exactly what many authors
want, another writer comments, slightly tongue-in-cheek. Randy Powell, the
award-winning Seattle author who has seven young-adult novels published by
Farrar, Straus & Giroux and a contract for three more, observes, “Editors
forget how needy writers are. The writer puts his heart and soul into a novel,
and deep down, the writer wants the editor to think he’s a genius and tell him
so. And he wants the publicity department to treat him that way.”


More seriously, Powell cites
another advantage smaller publishers offer: they are less likely to pressure
authors to be trendy.


Agents also note that the lower
break-even point at smaller houses means a better chance of getting a talented
author in print. “Since many publishers these days acknowledge that they need
to project sales of at least 10,000 copies, it’s paramount in many cases to
find publishers who can publish a book that has fine qualities but will perhaps
sell no more than 5,000 copies,” Naggar says.


Of course, agents know there are
downsides to working with smaller publishers, especially houses unaccustomed to
dealing with them. Contract negotiations can be time consuming, particularly
when it comes to rights and the right of first refusal on second books.
Advances are smaller. Royalties are often what one agent considers
“substandard.” Publicists may not have the contacts to get much press. Perhaps
most serious, distribution in big-box chain stores can be limited when
publishers’ budgets are too small to pay for premium placement or co-op


Then, too, problems that bedevil
agents dealing with large houses may also arise in small publishing
companies—the editor who was championing a title leaves; the company is
acquired. One agent remembers working with a small publisher whose entire staff
left when the company was “subsumed and then digested” by a major house, with
the result that the orphaned book did not get any of the promised hand-selling.


Issues That May Arise


For their part, some smaller
publishers are ambivalent about agent relationships, often because they are
unsure about the reputations and experience of the agents who contact them.


“You can call yourself an agent,
but that doesn’t mean you know what you’re doing,” commented Kent Sturgis,
publisher at western Washington’s Epicenter Press and a former PMA president. “Agents
don’t have to be members of the Association of Authors’ Representatives.”


This professional association
requires that members have worked as literary agents for at least two years,
have executed 10 contracts within the previous 18 months, and be sponsored by
two current members. A directory of members is at <span


Some PMA members say agents have
tried to bully or intimidate them into larger advances or higher royalties, and
one long-time member points out that reputable agents suffer when others make
such rude comments as, “I’m a New York agent, I know what’s customary, and you
don’t because you’re small/you live in a backwater/you’re ill-informed.”


At Scottsdale’s Poisoned Pen
Press, which works regularly with agents, they get the same treatment as anyone
else submitting a proposal, president Robert Rosenwald says. “I tell them they
need to be comfortable with the fact that we don’t look at simultaneous
submissions; we pay no more than $1,000 as an advance for any book; and we
stick to the clauses of the contract that mean the most to us: usually world
book rights.” Annual revenue from foreign rights amounts to as much as 5
percent of Poisoned Pen’s sales, Rosenwald reports, adding, “We insist on the
right to publish a second book on the exact same terms and conditions as the
first one.”


Advances and royalties are also
the issue when Ellora’s Cave Publishing in Akron, OH, deals with some agents.
The house will issue more than 500 romance titles as e-books this year, along
with 180 as trade paperbacks, with agents representing about 4 percent of its
authors. As publisher Raelene Gorlinsky explains, “Agents are used to working
with big New York print publishers and may not be familiar with what is
standard for small presses or e-publishers. They may not be well informed on
royalty rates common for digital books. And they are not generally happy that
we, like most e-pubs, do not pay advances.”


Focusing on concerns about agents,
smaller publishers also mention that some agents do not appear to study a
publisher’s niche before making a submission. “Their goal seems simply to make
the sale and get an immediate cash advance before moving on to the next
manuscript on the desk,” said one member who has worked at small presses across
the country. Also, some agents negotiate hard for advances that are never
earned out, in part because the authors, busy with their next projects, refuse
to do any promotion once books are published.


On the plus side, smaller
publishers like a good many aspects of working with agents:


professional proposals.
are particularly helpful with guiding new authors through the proposal stage
(getting the right stuff together to meet our requirements for a solid
proposal), and with understanding contracts and reasonable terms for our
industry,” reports John Kober, publishing director at Minneapolis’s Free Spirit
Publishing, which Kober says is fortunate in being contacted by agents who
understand the company’s niche and respect the quality of its publications. Gorlinsky
agrees: “Overall, the quality of agented submissions is higher than the quality
of the average unsolicited author submission.”


contracts is usually easier with an agent, the Ellora’s Cave publisher adds,
because the agent has experience in the industry and handles the book as a
professional, without the personal emotions an author might bring to
discussions. Also, she notes, agents understand that disagreements arise with
publishers and will work for compromise.


realistic author expectations.

Agents can explain the basics of publishing to authors, so that authors who
might assume their books will be front and center at the chain stores will
understand that publishers have to pay for those slots. Agents can also provide
an overview of what high rankings on Amazon.com and search engines cost, and
why even large publishers spend that kind of money on only a few titles.
Dijkstra—one of many agents who warns that books can be “lost” at the largest
publishers—tells authors that a smaller publisher’s resources will be less in
total, but “if you have the right project, maybe they’ll be largely allocated
to it!”


Experienced, reputable
agents help authors understand how to increase sales. “All authors tend to
believe in their books to an unrealistic degree,” notes Naggar, who encourages
her authors to take responsibility for some of their own promotion, including
Internet publicity. Dijkstra agrees that, regardless of a publisher’s size,
authors need to be proactive and to establish strong and positive relationships
with their publishers and publicists.


Other reasons publishers like to
work with agents? Contacts, creativity, and savvy.


“I wouldn’t know where to start,
who to contact, for things like selling foreign rights,” Gorlinsky says. “The
Ethan Ellenberg Literary Agency presents proposals from foreign publishers to
us for approval and shops the reprint rights for books.”


Similarly, Sturgis works with
Seattle’s Wales to sell reprint rights and, through her subagents, movie rights
to his company’s books. It was Wales who sold rights to Epicenter’s
award-winning Two Old
to Harper Collins, and who also sold rights for more than
two dozen foreign editions, which helped the book sell 1.6 million copies worldwide
by the end of 2006.


Sturgis and Wales also brainstorm
projects that Wales may eventually sell to larger publishers. “She’s the one in
New York several times a year,” he points out. “She knows what publishers are
looking for.”


Linda Carlson (lindacarlson.com)
is the author of 11 books, all published without agents. She writes for the <span




What You Need to Know
When an Agent Comes to You


style=’font-size:11.0pt’> Creativity, in terms of contract provisions and
marketing, can overcome an agent’s objections to a modest advance and limited
budget. Offer low initial royalties if you must, but put significant
escalations in the contract—and make them start as early as possible, perhaps
after sales of 2,500 copies. Outline an innovative promotional campaign, one
you can guarantee personnel and dollars to implement. Make the author a partner
in promotion. As Kevan Lyon of the Dijkstra agency points out, “Often authors
are willing to work hard. Publishers of all sizes could take much better
advantage of their willingness to sell their books.”


style=’font-size:11.0pt’> Don’t assume that the agent is out to gouge you. This
attitude can make getting to an acceptable contract difficult for everyone and
put a strain on the working relationship.


style=’font-size:11.0pt’> Make tradeoffs. If you sense huge potential in a
title, recognize that the agent and author may be unwilling to sell you
everything, especially if the agent has a well-established system for selling
subsidiary and foreign rights. Be reasonable about rights to the author’s next
title. As one agent said, “If you don’t show enthusiasm, commitment, and
creative marketing for the first title, you may lose the second book anyway.”


style=’font-size:11.0pt’> Be aware that some successful authors turn to agents
at the contract stage, so you may need to deal with an agent after you’ve
expressed interest in a book an author submitted. Randy Powell, the young-adult
author, says he recently consulted an agent because contracts are getting more
complicated, especially in terms of subsidiary rights, and he wanted help
negotiating. He also wanted his backlist titles to continue selling, and he
recognized the need for someone with extensive experience in foreign rights.




What You Need to Know
When You Approach an Agent


If you have a book with
strong sales that you think has even more potential, or an author or a designer
and an idea that doesn’t fit your company’s list, you may want to hire an
agent. Some tips from Elizabeth Wales:


·      The agent’s commission (which
could rise to 20 percent if subagents are involved) may be money well spent if
a book gets picked up by a New York publisher or optioned for television or

·      It’s wise to be as selective in
approaching an agent as you want agents and authors to be when approaching you.
Look for one who represents books like the book in which you want to sell

·      Options for television or films
are relatively hard to come by and payments can be quite modest—as low as
$5,000—but they’re gravy.

·      If you establish a relationship
with an agent that results in a sale, understand that the agent will not pitch
all your titles for rights sales. “I’m not your permanent subsidiary rights
person,” Wales added. “You’ll still have to contact me and sell me when you
have another breakout book.”

·      Because larger publishers are
increasingly interested in packages, working with an agent to refine a concept
and add a writer, designer, illustrator, or photographer to the team can be an
effective way to generate offers. “A package reduces a publisher’s need for
staff or freelancers, and it saves both time and money,” Wales notes, adding
that a package can demand higher royalties because it reduces the publisher’s
costs and because the publisher knows the royalties have to be split among the
team members.




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