FAQ on Literary Agents and Publishing

An Adler & Robin Books, Inc. Report
Adler & Robin Books, Inc.

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Do I need an agent?

Strictly speaking, no. This is hard for a literary agent to admit, but your chances of selling a nonfiction book are as good with an agent as without. The truth is good book proposals get sold no matter who does the selling. However, an agent makes the process easier, faster, and hopefully, more lucrative.

How much do agents charge?

This varies from agent to agent. Typically, agents receive a 15 percent commission on the books they sell and everything relating to that book, such as excerpted magazine articles, audio tapes and films (but not speeches and personal appearances). Agents usually receive 20 percent for overseas sales. 

But there are variations on that theme. A small number of agents charge a reading fee just for looking at your work. Many literary agencies charge for long distance phone calls, photocopying, messenger services and other incidental expenses made on the author's behalf. These are costs you should ask about before you work with an agent. Sometime agents bill authors directly for these expenses; sometimes these charges are deducted from the authors' payments.

Still other agents don't always charge a commission; instead they review and market your proposal on a hourly fee basis, earning a fee regardless of whether they sell your proposal or not.

Most literary agencies also receive a 20 percent commission on foreign sales because they have to give a portion of the commission to the overseas agent.

Some agents are also "book packagers," agents who develop book ideas and put the idea (in the form of a proposal) together with a writer and publisher. For this, these agents can receive up to a 50 percent commission.

What exactly does an agent do for this 15 percent?

Different agents do different things. Agents pitch your proposal or manuscript to publishers, try to get you the best deal, and negotiate your contract. They manage your business affairs with a publisher once the book is sold. Some agents actually edit their clients' book proposals, and give other substantive assistance as the proposal is being crafted.

But why is an agent worth the 15 percent commission?

The answer to that question could take pages. But here is a short list of benefits an agent provides:

An agent will edit or critique a book proposal before it is submitted, helping a good proposal evolve into a great one.

Because agents have had long relationships with particular publishers and editors, an agent can sell a proposal faster than a writer can. Proposals submitted by agents go to the top of the pile.

Agents' familiarity with publishing companies enable them to target book proposals to the most appropriate companies.

A literary agent's negotiating skills can, hopefully but not always, get the writer at least a 15 percent larger advance, thus making the agent's commission immediately worthwhile.

An agent does the tough negotiating with editors, so that the writer's relationship can be completely cordial.

Agents know what clauses in a publisher's contract should be changed before the author signs. As more and more publishers become part of multi-national corporations, publishing contracts are becoming vastly complicated. There are plenty of issues to watch out for in a publishing contract: the advance, royalty rate, option clause, subsidiary rights, foreign rights, cover art, copyright, the reserves-against-royalties clause, the audit provision, out-of-print provision, freight pass-through provision, and who pays for future revisions, to name a few.

Agents take care of all the business aspects of the writer-publisher relationship including: handling contract disputes, collecting money, getting money from publishers when it's overdue, reviewing royalty statements, and ensuring that publishers meet their contractual obligations. Agents relieve writers of all business worries, so that writers can do what writers do best: write.

Agents are interested in writers' long-term success and provide valuable guidance (not to mention moral support) for a writer's career.

Your agent will be there even if your book's editor leaves the publishing company. That's a comforting thought, because editors switch publishers all too quickly; your agent can bring the new editor up-to-date on you and your book.

Agents who work on a commission don't earn any income if they can't sell your proposal. They have a great incentive to get the best possible deal for your book.

What should I look for in an agent?

Some of the same things you look for in a spouse: trust and compatibility. Like marriage, an author-agent relationship is voluntary.

Financial solvency is important. Agents are not immune to the vagaries of the economy.

Whether an agency works with large, medium or small publishers is important information. An agent who has relationships with all three categories of publishers has an increased chance of selling any given book. Small publishers often are better at marketing certain kinds of books than large New York houses. Small publishers take a keen interest in everything they publish: They are less likely to let a book become orphaned once it's published. Large publishers, on the other hand, usually pay larger royalties and have more to spend on marketing and promotion (if they choose to.)

What and how the agency earns its livelihood is something you should know. Read the agent's contract carefully to see what the agency's charges and commission rates are. Comparative shopping never hurts.

Look at the agent's track record. Who has the agent represented? Has the agent represented books similar to yours? Does this agent represent fiction, nonfiction, textbooks, articles, poetry? Keep in mind, though, that agents will not talk about how much they've made for other writers, because that information is confidential.

What is the agent's background? Nobody trains in college to become an agent. Of the approximately 600 literary agents in the United States, all did something different before becoming an agent.

Does the agent show a love for publishing? In other words, do you get a feeling that your agent-to-be loves his, or her, job?

How does the agent present his printed agency material to you? Does this package inspire confidence in the agent's professionalism?

How should I approach an agent?

In a word, professionally. Everything you send an agent should look as neat and organized as you can make it. Most agents prefer the initial contact be made in writing; after all, the written word is the stuff of the book business. Agents have different policies about what they want to see in introductory submissions. For example, some agents want one or two page letters; some want just a chapter and an outline; some want just a proposal; some want the entire manuscript. Check the agent's policy before making any submission. (A phone call to the agency's office asking about the company's submission policy is fine.)

If you are contacting an agent for the first time, you should include return postage and an envelope. It's okay to query several agents at once, but never make simultaneous submissions to more than one agent. Also in the never column: Never fax a proposal to an agent (unless invited to.)

How long does it take for an agent to make a successful sale?

Like most things, that depends. Four to five weeks is the norm, but there are plenty of reasons why this norm gets violated. At certain points during the year, such as August, Thanksgiving, Christmas, publishers' sales conferences, and the annual American Bookseller's convention, the publishing world slows considerably. Most publishers use a committee to decide whether to make an offer on a book; this editorial committee (which, for some publishing companies includes sales representatives) may meet only once a week, or once every two weeks. If your book looks as if it could pose legal problems, publishers might want their legal department to take a look at the proposal. All these factors can slow down the decision making process.

Don't pressure an agent to get quick results on your proposal. It's a sign that you don't trust the agent. But even worse, if you pressure the agent, who in turns pressures the publishers who are looking at your proposal, the publishers may decide to forgo your book rather than have to make a hasty decision.

Some book proposals take a long time to find the right publisher. Don't be discouraged by initial rejections--or even many rejections. The history of publishing is full of stories of books that were rejected by dozens of publishers, but later became best sellers. As long as your agent has confidence in your proposal and in you, your book has the best chance for success.

Should I sign a contract with an agent?

Yes. It's best to have your relationship in writing. After all, this is a business relationship, and affairs that involve money should be spelled out on paper. Some agents want authors to sign contracts right away, at the first meeting; other agents need to have a signed contract only when the agent starts working on the book, either by reviewing draft proposals or by sending the proposal to publishers. Agents can offer one or multi-book contracts. If your agent doesn't offer contracts, at least get a letter of understanding so that the important terms of your relationship are spelled out.

What kind of advance will I get?

That's the most difficult question to answer. Typical book offers range from zero to one hundred thousand dollars. Agents can't --and shouldn't-- predict advances: On the one hand, if the prediction is too high, authors get upset. If the prediction is too low, authors begin to lose faith in the agent's professed knowledge about publishing.

The size of the advance may not be the most important element of publishing contracts, anyway. Under certain circumstances, the royalty schedule may be more significant than the advance. For example, a high advance coupled with a stingy royalty rate on a successful book may be worse than a low advance and a higher royalty rate.

What, then, is a good royalty rate?

That is an even more difficult question at answer (at least to answer succinctly). Most royalty rates are on a sliding scale, escalating as the sales of books increase. Hard cover royalty rates are often 10% of the listed retail price for the first 10,000 copies sold; 12 1/2% for the next 5,000 copies; and 15% thereafter. Trade paperback rates are occasionally the same, but usually less. Publishers base their trade paperback royalty rates either on net receipts, rather than list price, or just reduce the royalty rate to about half of hard cover. Mass market paperback royalty rates can be 8% of the list price for the first 100,000 copies; then 10% thereafter. Again it depends on the publisher.

Royalties get even more complicated: Textbook, academic and professional book publishers have a system of their own. And most trade and mass market publisher reduce their royalty rate for books sold at what's called "deep discount," large quantities sold to stores or wholesalers at a greater than 51% discount. Mail order sales by the publisher have yet another, lower, royalty rate.

Every publishing contract has to be scrutinized, and negotiated, to get the best possible royalty schedule.

What if I don't like my agent, or I think the agent isn't doing enough to try to sell my book?

First, talk with your agent about the problem. If your conversation is unsatisfactory, and you have not signed a multi- book contract with the agent, you are free to end your relationship with that agent, in accordance with the termination clause of your contract. (A number of authors are agent- hoppers. The principal downside of switching agents often is that you won't have an agent who's interested in and able to help your long-term career as a writer. Of course if your agent doesn't seem to be concerned about your career, that's a reason to leave.)

There are times you may not like your agent because he or she doesn't like a particular book proposal of yours. That is an acceptable and normal reaction. It's not in your interest, or the agent's, to submit a poor proposal to a publisher, because doing so will only hamper your reputation. In these instances, it's worthwhile at least listening to, if not heeding, your agent's advice. But publishing is a subjective business, and you are free to take your idea elsewhere if your agent doesn't want to pursue it.

Most agency contracts require that you allow the agent the sufficient time to sell your proposal once the agent has begun submitting it to publishers. However, most agents, if you ask, will gladly cease making any future submissions to publishers on your behalf.

Any time you lose faith in your agent, you should leave. Trust is the glue between authors and agents. Good agents only want satisfied clients, anyway.

What does an agent not do?

Agents can, at their option, choose to be many things to clients. Mostly, agents are a writer's business representative; agents act to protect and promote a writer's best interests. Agents are not (usually) in the business of: teaching writing skills; rewriting substandard proposals into saleable ones; lending writers money; being a writer's therapist; offering tax or general legal advice; being an answering service for clients; behaving as if any single writer is the agent's only client; publicizing books; taking calls at home.

An agent is a writer's most important ally. While an agent cannot be everything to a writer, an agent can make everything about the writing life (except for writing itself) more satisfying and rewarding.

How long will I have to write the book?

That's something your agent negotiates for you-so be sure to tell your agent ahead of time how long you want to write the manuscript, and include this information in the proposal. Sometimes a publisher may want a manuscript delivered sooner for marketing or other reasons; your agent will negotiate the due date in that case, consulting with you during the process.

I want to continue writing and editing for magazines part-time to keep myself current in the field, and keep my name "out there." Is that a problem?

No. In fact, it's a good idea to continue to write for publications in your field-this keeps your name in the spotlight. Just be certain not to use anything that will appear in your book in another publication.

How long can I expect it will be between when my manuscript is delivered and the book is published?

Publishers work in seasons-that is, books are published for a Spring, Summer, Fall or Winter list, so that they coincide with the publisher's catalog, marketing pushes, and other quarterly events. (Some publishers have four seasons; others have just two or three.) So, if there's a brief period of time between when you deliver your manuscript and the next publishing season, the publisher may wait until the following season before your book is published. Usually it takes three to six months between when your manuscript is delivered and when it is published.

What is the typical first printing?

There is no "typical" first print run. First printings can range from as few as 5,000 copies to 500,000 and beyond. You can estimate what your first printing will be from the size of the advance: The larger the advance, the larger the first printing.

Do you have a question about book publishing you would like answered? We would be happy to try to answer any questions you may have.

Meanwhile, happy book shopping:

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