Today, EE Cooper, author of the upcoming YA thriller VANISHED, talks about the agent-author relationship.
It is sometimes said that it’s harder to get an agent than it is to write a book. It certainly can feel that way in the query process. When an agent finally indicates interest it’s easy to say yes without taking time to pause to determine if this particular agent is the best fit for you. Is this the person you want as a business partner in your publishing career? It’s important to remember that the agent is not doing you a favor when they offer representation. They are signing you because they believe in your book and believe they can sell it. This is a mutually beneficial relationship.
First, it can be useful to review what an agent can do for you:
- Submit your work. A good agent is seeking not simply to sell your manuscript, but to sell it to the person/publishing house that is the best fit for you. This means they need to know the editors, their likes and dislikes and working style.
- Review and negotiate contracts. Publishing contracts are complicated documents. You may feel you’ve been asked to sign over a child in return for some magic beans. And you are often not in the place to negotiate; you’re so thrilled with the idea that someone wants to publish your work it’s possible you would agree to anything. You want someone who knows what to look for and can work with the publisher to get you the best deal possible.
- Run Interference: Not sure how to handle a revision note? Hate your cover? Wonder why you haven’t heard back from your editor? Your agent can be your go-to person for trouble shooting problems and allowing you to be neutral Switzerland above the fray.
- Sounding Board: The most common question you may have is: Is this normal? Your agent can answer the questions you have along the road to publication and talk you down when you freak yourself out. Trust me. You will freak yourself out. (At least I hope I’m not the only one.)
- Foreign Rights and Film Sales: Admit it — you want to see your book in French and on the big screen, maybe both — a French movie might be ideal. Your agent is the one who along with a co-agent can promote your book in foreign and film markets and negotiate contracts.
- Brainstorming/Revisions: Depending on your agent, they may help you pick through new ideas and offer you editorial feedback on early versions of your manuscript. (Not all agents do this. If this is something you want from an agent be sure to discuss this with any potential agents during your selection process.)
Writers are often in awe of agents, especially during the early stages of their career. Agents are not magical creatures. I’ve had the chance to meet several through various conferences and trips to NYC and I can vouch that they’re human. Often with great senses of humor, an impressive ability to drink whiskey, and always able to make great book recommendations. They’re great to work with, but they are not superior to you as the writer.
The indomitable agent Janet Reid (Fine Print Literary Management) once told a writer on her blog who was worried about “not wanting to make trouble with her agent” to remember: “you are not a goddamn beggar at the banquet of publishing.” There’s a reason I think she’s a smart woman — writer’s could do worse than to read her blog for advice. Too many writers talk to friends and fellow writers about concerns about their agent, or how things are being handled without talking to the person in the best place to answer that question. While friends and fellow writers might have advice the person who can help you resolve the question is your agent. If you feel uncomfortable talking to them, that’s a problem. This is YOUR career. No one will care more about your publishing future than you — don’t sit back.
So what do you do if you have questions or problems? Here are some questions you might want to discuss with your agent.
So you’ve signed me as a client; what happens now? And what do you mean you want me to change_______? (the ending, the opening, a character etc.)
Your agent may have suggested changes to your manuscript before they send it out on submission. This is likely something you will have discussed with them before you agreed to have them represent you. The most important thing to do is to step back and listen. Why are they suggesting these changes? What do they see as the advantages? If you feel strongly that those changes are not congruent with your vision of the manuscript you need to speak up. Discuss. If at the end of hearing their reasoning you still don’t feel it is the right choice for you, that’s okay. You may convince the agent of your view, or you may decide to go separate directions. This isn’t a battle — it’s a discussion.
If this is your first book, one of the best questions you can ask is “now what?” Your agent can walk you through how they will submit your book. What is their approach going to be? What are your expectations? How will they communicate with you during this process?
So where are you sending this manuscript? Why aren’t you sending this manuscript to this particular person?
You agent can share with you where she/he plans to submit your manuscript and their reasoning for choosing those editors/houses. I would be reluctant to work with an agent who didn’t want to tell me where my manuscript was going. If for some reason you terminate your relationship with the agent and work with another, the new agent will need to know where your manuscript has gone. Some agents send any rejections as they come in. Some only provide you with an update when you ask. Some will forward any emails they get from an editor; others will just give you the summary. You can ask how they will communicate this news to you and what your preference is. Keep in mind however, that submissions is your agent’s job- you don’t need to micromanage this process. If you don’t trust that they are doing it correctly then your bigger problem is why is this person your agent?
You may have a particular editor or publishing house that you want your manuscript sent to. Perhaps it is an editor you met at a conference, or a dream house that you want to work with. Tell your agent where you would like it to go and then sit back and listen. They may agree to send it on or they may feel there is a better editor/house to start with.
Why hasn’t my book sold yet? What’s happening?
While your book may sell within days-it more commonly will likely take longer. I will warn you now — the waiting sucks. For me every time the phone rang I thought: “is this it?” every email ping made my heart race. I suggest that you spend this time working on a new book and/or taking up a hobby to consume your time, such as building perfect scale models of various major cities out of toothpicks. It is perfectly fine to ask for an update. This does not need to be done a daily basis. Ask your agent what is the best way to reach them: phone? Email? Ask them how long you think it will take to hear back from editors — if they say three weeks, mark it on your calendar and then fill your time until that date passes and then ask for a check in.
Your agent should hear back from editors. I would be concerned if my agent submitted my manuscript and then never heard back. It would make me question how strong their relationship is with those editors. The submission process can take a long time. Editors often have to get buy-in from others in the house before making an offer. Editors also have piles and piles of work on their desk, which means they may not be able to read your manuscript as quickly as they would like. Your agent may need to ping them to get an update if it is taking longer than expected.
Why haven’t I heard from you?
What do you do if your agent seems to be missing in action? No word, you’ve sent emails and nothing. Is it a case of “they are just not that into you?”
First, remember that while this is your only agent, you are not your agent’s only client. It is possible your agent is busy with a tricky deal, at a conference, on vacation (who let them have a personal life?) or dealing with a more pressing issue. While we all want to be special snowflakes, it’s useful to remember there are many snowflakes. Agents get busy. They have lives of their own that may involve children, significant others, health issues or moves. The fact they haven’t reached out may have nothing to do with you.
This is a time to use the phone. Give them a call. Let them know it’s important that you hear back. How much time until you hear back? I think it depends, but a week is certainly reasonable in my opinion. If you still haven’t heard you may consider contacting the main number of the agency to see if the receptionist knows if the person is out of town.
If you’ve reached out via phone and email and still aren’t hearing back it may be time to reconsider the relationship.
I don’t think you’re the agent for me. How do I fire you?
There may come a time when you realize that you and your agent aren’t working well together. Perhaps they aren’t in touch (see above) or they seem to have different views of where your manuscript should go, or they haven’t followed through on promises. It may be time to end the relationship.
First, consider having one more conversation. Prepare for this talk. Outline what you see as problems in the relationship and have specifics in terms of what behavior you would need to see in order to want to stay. (I need you to return my emails within a week. I need you to follow-up on this contract by X date.) You want to be detailed because is you say something vague such as I want you to be more responsive — you and your agent may have very different ideas of what that looks like.
However, relationships do end. It may be that the relationship can’t continue. It may be sad, but you’ll survive. (And so will the agent.) Make certain you’ve read your agency contract. How do you need to terminate this relationship? Your agent may have a period of time where if they get an offer from a publisher they still retain the deal. You may need to send written notice to the agency. Follow the requirements of your contract.
Remain professional. Publishing is a small business. Many of these people know each other. Friends are there to bitch to — publicly airing your grievances — not classy. Stay classy.
I think my agent is amazing. How do I be the best client ever, and does it involve sending whiskey/chocolates or both?
Representing your interests is your agent’s job. You do not need to lavish them with gifts for doing their job. Having said that, letting them know you appreciate their hard work and time is never a bad idea. Send a personal thank you note. At the holidays consider sending a small gift. I often send knitted things. This isn’t about sending the most expensive gift. It’s about reaching out to thank someone who you enjoy working with.
Most importantly, be a “good” client. What makes a good client?
- Meet your deadlines and if you can’t, give people as much of a head’s up as possible.
- Be reasonable in your requests — no one likes a prima donna.
- Keep the drama on the page when possible. It’s okay to have an occasional meltdown with your agent. However, ask yourself if all you need is a shoulder to cry on — is there someone else who can take on this role?
- Respond to emails or requests in a timely manner. If you can’t- send a message and let your agent know when you can follow-up.
- Be professional in public — think before you tweet/Facebook/spout off at a conference. Don’t make others embarrassed that they’re connected to you.
I can vouch that there is nothing better than having a great agent. Knowing there is someone who has your back builds confidence and makes you feel like you finally “have people.” Writing is an individual creative act, but publishing is a collaborative business. Having a business partner that pushes you to be the best can’t be beat.
This is where I give a shout out to my agent Barbara Poelle who is so much awesome that I can’t express it without a musical interlude, interpretive dance, and pom-poms. I am also currently knitting something for her.
EE Cooper’s YA Psychological thriller VANISHED is out May 12, 2015. The School Library Journal review said: “This novel tackles themes of friendship, deception, obsession, and love….With early hints of John Green’s Paper Towns that slowly morph into Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl .” A review that made Cooper so happy that she printed it out and rolled around on it.
You can find out more about EE Cooper at http://eecooper.com
Here’s a bit about VANISHED:
Gone Girl meets Pretty Little Liars in this fast-paced psychological thriller full of delicious twists and turns.
Friendship. Obsession. Deception. Love.
Kalah knows better than to fall for Beth Taylor . . . but that doesn’t stop her from falling hard and falling fast, heart first into a sea of complications.
Then Beth vanishes. She skips town on her eighteenth birthday, leaving behind a flurry of rumors and a string of broken hearts. Not even Beth’s best friend, Britney, knows where she went. Beth didn’t even tell Kalah good-bye.
One of the rumors links Beth to Britney’s boyfriend, and Kalah doesn’t want to believe the betrayal. But Brit clearly believes it–and before Kalah can sort out the truth, Britney is dead.
When Beth finally reaches out to Kalah in the wake of Brit’s suicide, Kalah wants to trust what Beth tells her. But she’s swiftly realizing that nothing here is as it seems. Kalah’s caught in the middle of a deadly psychological game, and only she can untangle the deceptions and lies to reveal the unthinkable truth.