Thursday, December 31, 2009

Housekeeping and a Question

First, a reminder -- today is the last day to enter the contest to get the first ten pages of your manuscript reviewed. We've received a good number of entries so far, and I look forward to compiling our "best of" list based on your recommendations.

In the midst of reading and responding to the entries, I found this question in the mailbag.

I recently ran across a fairly controversial anti-agent blog post, where a writer argued that you should always submit to editors first and get an agent after you have a contract in hand. He argues that none of agents who take writers without a contract are good, and in the comments says that writers should submit to publishing houses directly even if they have a clearly stated "no unagented submissions" policy. Could I ask your take (and Alicia's) on this post, as editors?

I'm not going to link to the blog post mentioned in the question. Suffice it to say it was a mix of nonsense and insight, with more of the former than the latter.

What I will do, instead, is respond to what I think the real questions are.
1 - Should you submit to editors before agents?
2 - Do you need a contract to get an agent?
3 - Is it okay to ignore "agented only" guidelines?

The short answers are Maybe, No, and Almost Always No. I'm guessing you want more information than this, though, so let's look at the rationale behind the answers.

1 - Should you submit to editors before agents?

That depends on the project, your target market, and your own preferences. If you're targetting a line that's open to all submissions, and if you feel comfortable handling things like contract negotiations and money disputes, then you can probably skip the agent. But I can't advise anyone always to do it one way or the other, and neither can anyone else, because this is a case-sensitive situation. Figure out your target, study their guidelines, and see if you can get some behind-the-scenes information on things like their boilerplate contract and maybe a sample royalty statement. Then you can answer this question for yourself, based specifically on your needs and circumstances and abilities.

2 - Do you need a contract to get an agent?

No. It might help you land an agent if you have a deal on the table, but then again, it might not. What if your deal is with a house or editor this agent rarely works with? Maybe they'll want to branch out, and maybe not. What if your deal is subpar, and the agent knows it, but you've already agreed to some bad terms? Then they might know they can't help you much -- not only that, but the work involved in unraveling what you've already done might be more than they can take on. What if the agent already has a full load? Then your deal will have to be stellar to grab the agent's attention, and it's unlikely you'll get that kind of offer on your own.

On the other hand, it can't hurt. Approaching agents with an offer in hand might be enough to get you out of their slush and onto their desks, and that gives you a leg up on the competition. It's not a guarantee of representation, but it might get you an extra look. There are plenty of other ways to get that extra look, though, the best of which is to write an unforgettable book.

3 - Is it okay to ignore "agented only" guidelines?

I have to give this one an, "Almost always no," instead of an, "OMG, are you fucking kidding? NO!" because sometimes special circumstances will get you around the agented-only requirement. Maybe you met an editor at a conference. Or dinner party. Or your kid's dance recital. And the editor invited you to submit directly after asking you about your work. Or maybe your best friend has written 20 major bestsellers for them and gave you a personal recommendation. Or maybe there's some other weird planetary alignment that grants you a free pass in the form of direct, expressly stated permission from an editor to submit without an agent. In that case, go for it.

Otherwise? OMG, are you fucking kidding? NO! You don't get to ignore the rules just because you don't like them or they don't work to your particular advantage.

There was some other nonsense in the post referenced by the questioner -- my favorite being the blogger's contention that only new agents ask for rewrites before submitting. That's laughably wrong. There are agents, legends in this business who revise for *years* before letting an editor anywhere near the client's work. These people have reputations for delivering only the finest manuscripts in near-perfect condition, and they generally earn deals commensurate with that kind of work. (A friend of mine is working with one of these agents, a guy so well known that I'm sure all but the freshest beginners have heard of him. Someday, maybe we'll invite her to do a guest post on their collaborative process. But first she has to finish the revisions he asked for -- a year and a half in the making, and still going -- and then we'll have to let her come down from the stress-and-xanax high.)

There's probably a follow-up post to be made, something on the agent's role in publishing as a whole. But before I write it, maybe you should all have the opportunity to ask questions about agents. With so much bad information floating around, I'm sure there are plenty of questions lingering out there. If you want to remain anonymous and don't want to post in the comments, remember that you can email us directly at editorrent at gmail dot com.



Livia Blackburne said...

Lol, hilarious, insightful, and informative. Thank you :-)

Livia Blackburne said...

Since we're asking questions, what are good ways to research prospective agents? I know the general advice to look at the website, previous sales and deals, etc, but I know less about specific places/websites to go to for that information (hopefully websites that don't charge too much money for a subscription :-P). And is there anything more specific to look for besides what have they sold recently and in what genre?

Leona said...

Ditto on Livia's comment.

I can't figure out why there's so much negativity on the side of writers against agents. They make their money by making us succeed. It has to be sour grapes or one bad apple, blah blah blah.

I hadn't heard that only new agents take on work that isn't contracted. Quite the contrary.

I like your answer about whether or not you need an agent. It's like selling a house. The example you've used before on that applies here. Agents handle more of the technical aspects of the business, freeing up more of your time for the creative aspects. IMO>

A question? Why would you waste your time submitting to those who say they don't even look at unagented work???? Seems bass ackwards if you ask me :P

Anonymous said...

I have a burning want to know who that agent is.

Eva, who can't bother to sign into her account right now...

Anonymous said...

I'm posting this for Ian, who is having some trouble managing this from his mobile--

In reference to Livia's question, I highly recommend as a starting point for agent research.

I think I'd rather always have an agent BEFORE a deal. Doing it the other way around could get you an agent who you haven't wooed with your writing. He or she might be ambivialent at best about you, your work, and your career. They didn't have to work to get you the contract, so there's no fundamental basis for an ongoing partnership there. Does that make sense? They have nothing invested in you the writer.



Query tracker is a good site for info gathering. And it's free.


Skeptic said...

Just to piggyback on Theresa's comment about Query Tracker, the annual membership fee - if you CHOOSE to become a member - unlocks all sorts of invaluable options - like maintaining lists of potential agents for multiple manuscripts, and the ability to enter stories in the writing contests held through the QT blog. :) The fee is super low, I think $25 a year, well worth it for maintaining lists of who you've queried and their responses.

Edittorrent said...

Also there's no "review" of an agent, but you can see what they represent, and what their contact info is.

Riley Murphy said...

Well, I suppose (now that Murray has untimely expired) - I'll have to shop around for that next perfect someone to represent me. But will that new agent wear a burka if need be? Drink dirty martinis on a whim? Park an RV on the causeway, so that I get a perpetual water view during out frequent meetings? All-in-all, just appreciate me for the stunningly unique person that I am? NOPE. *sigh* It’s almost as if Murray were a dream. A paragon of made-up virtue. *sigh again* Alas, I guess I'll have to settle for the standard Literary Agent. The one who takes 15% off the top and recites: Don't expect me to teach you to how to write, I won’t advance you money, and I won't act as your attorney, therapist, or publicist.

... Geez, I really miss Murray! :(


Jami Gold said...

Theresa & Alicia,

So... When are we going to be hearing about the contest winner? (Not that I'm anxious or anything, nope...) :)

Jami G.

Dave Shaw said...

Is there any truth to the rumor that the envelope with the winner's name in it will also contain the long-awaited pin?


Jami Gold said...

Dave, LOL!

Okay, now we're all really anxious for the announcement. :) Well, in deference to Dave and others, maybe not all of us, but he's the one that brought it up. Err... Wow, that sounded completely inappropriate. Umm, he's the one that made a big deal out it. No, wait... That doesn't work either. Huh...

Jami G.

Melanie said...

Huh. I tried to post a comment yesterday, but it seems to have gotten eaten.

And I can't remember what clever thing I tried to say... ;p

Probably something like this: thanks SO much for putting together this awesome resource!

Dave Shaw said...

To be honest, Jami, I'm still wondering where Theresa got that picture of me. >:-)

Riley Murphy said...

So that's you, Dave? Geez, you really took the term 'birthday suit' to heart, huh? But, um, why are you so interested in T furnishing a pin? Could it be you crave even more exposure? Hmmm? I guess it's that old male ego thing rearing its ugly...hey, wait a minute here - I'm compelled to direct one and all - back a couple of posts to my comment with the Adam and Eve rebuttal. The one with a head swelling? Remember? Man Dave, thanks for reaffirming my case on this - you're a real pal. :D

Murphy - who’s going to pick Jami up off the floor. For some reason, she read your last comment and laughed her ass off! *shrug* That’s okay. She’s a real complex creature, and that’s one of the things I love about her. ;)

Dave Shaw said...

Murphy, in the immortal words of John Boy and Billy's agent, whose name, strangely enough, is Murray, let me just say, "Love ya! Mean it!"

Jami Gold said...


See? I knew not to trust that halo on the smiley face of your first comment. The horns work so much better. Or are you one of those whose horns hold up their halo? :)

Jami G.

Dave Shaw said...


It's a little known fact that halos need power sources, and the horns are the contacts for them. 0>;-)

Anonymous said...

*hand in the air* I have a question! Well, it's a bit more than a question.

Is it best to look for an agent in your own country first? (I imagine the legal/taxation issues in the contract will be easier to manage).

And if there aren't many agents in your genre in your "home" country, then are there any well-known pitfalls to avoid for either the US or UK? I think these two countries will have the highest number of agents, and therefore the first two outside "home" countries to try and find an agent.

The reason why I ask is my nail-biting choice on where to start if I have no luck at "home".

Kayelle Allen said...

thanks for the tip on agentquery - I'm on LinkedIn and it's helpful as well.