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Agent Sarah LaPolla on how authors can stand out, negotiating offers, and the state of publishing

20 May 2017

From Nathan Bransford:

Sarah LaPolla is an agent at Bradford Literary Agency, where she represents a mix of middle grade, young adult, and adult books, with a focus on literary fiction, science fiction, magical realism, dark/psychological mystery, literary horror, and upmarket contemporary fiction.

. . . .

NATHAN: Let’s cut to the chase. What’s the best way for an author to get your attention?

SARAH: The easy answer – by not trying. The bells and whistles are usually a turn off. When it comes to queries, the only thing that really gets my attention is a good story. That will always speak louder than gimmicks. And even if there is a particularly clever gimmick, or even if I know the author in some way, it doesn’t necessarily mean I’ll request a manuscript if I don’t love the story first.

The other way authors get agent attention is via Twitter – and with the popularity of pitch contests, this is just as useful in connecting with agents as querying is. I’m as introverted online as I am in real life, so I don’t speak for all agents here, but the best way to get my attention on Twitter is just be yourself.

I don’t follow or respond to everyone who replies to my tweets, but I’ve developed friendly relationships with authors over time. There are always names I recognize, and when I see those names in my query inbox they do get my attention a little more!

But replying to every single tweet or pitching your book on social media usually gets my attention in a bad way.

One of the most important element of an agent’s job is negotiating offers. How do you go about this? Do you call editors up and yell “ONE MILLION OR GO HOME” and then hang up?

Oh man, I wish! It’s generally way more civil than that, and I’m among a very email-friendly generation of agents and editors, which I am grateful for.

I might receive an initial offer on the phone, and go over basics (advance level, territory, royalties, subrights), but it all stays pretty non-committal until I can hang up and call my author. Then the bulk of negotiations are finalized via email (usually), and it’s a lot of “let’s see what I can do… OK can’t do that, but can definitely do this… and we’ll add in that, but… OK…. OK… cool cool cool” until there’s a deal! Haha. Isn’t it all so glamorous?

It’s when there are multiple offers and there’s an auction where I break into a sweat and the more Hollywood-style bargaining comes into play. At that point it’s about maintaining composure, staying honest with everyone involved, and ultimately letting my author trust their gut after I give them all of the information they need to decide what’s right for their career.

It seems like we’re in a moment in publishing where there are a handful megabestsellers and lots of other books are languishing. Have you experienced this, and has it changed how you approach your work?

This is an interesting question. I started in publishing during the “OMG what is digital?” panic and that was around the time the class divide (if you will) became more apparent in books. So by the time I started taking on my own clients, publishing had come out the other end of that.

My own approach to agenting never needed to change. The agents I interned for and assisted largely had midlist authors, and they were excellent authors who provided their agents with a livable wage (even by NYC standards!). If I were in grad school, I’d attempt a thesis comparing the declining middle class with the declining midlist!

I think what’s happening in publishing is true across all industries right now. There are A-list pop stars, and the ones finding their following on iTunes and YouTube. There are Hollywood blockbusters and reboots galore, and then there are screenwriters desperate to get their original material into festivals.
. . . .

What do you look for when you’re considering an author who has previously self-published a book or forty?

New material, mostly.

If an author is querying a book they already published, it raises questions – Why did you self-pub in the first place? What were your sales figures? What are you hoping an agent will do for you? I want all of those questions answered in the query.

Sometimes authors only self-pub because they think it’s the path to a traditional deal (it isn’t). Other authors self-pub because they didn’t feel they needed a traditional deal for that particular project, but now money is coming in and they have this new book that might be more mainstream and they need help.

I don’t begrudge anyone for self-publishing, but if they’re now approaching me for representation, I need to know the full scope of that decision and where they hope to go from there. Which comes back to “new material.” If you already self-pubbed 100 books and you’re approaching an agent, be prepared to send them a project that’s all-new, never-been-published that they will be able to send to traditional publishers while helping you manage your previously self-published backlist.

Link to the rest at Nathan Bransford


32 Comments to “Agent Sarah LaPolla on how authors can stand out, negotiating offers, and the state of publishing”

  1. “a focus on literary fiction, science fiction, magical realism, dark/psychological mystery, literary horror, and upmarket contemporary fiction”

    This is called a payment focus. If it pays, they’ll focus on it.

  2. Felix J. Torres

    I like the “not trying” part.
    That way, when/if they contact you, you can be the one saying, “Sorry. We aren’t currently accepting unsolicited representation offers.”

    • “What’s the best way for an author to get your attention?”
      “By not trying.”

      I can do that. Watch me not try.

      Of course, I’m already losing out to people who didn’t even bother to snark about this post.


    • she’s poorly communicating what she’s trying to say… dont doll up the package, just give a gist of the story. She’s saying ‘if im interested i’ll let you know. ‘ Fair enough.

      Except for this, many a gifted writer adorns, or sends in a red envelope, or writes in calligraphy a phrase of whatever else on the story pitch to the agent.
      I know. Many send me their manuscripts unsolicited. I have to say, I am touched by their adorning [I wouldnt disrespect their sincere offering as ‘gimmick’.] what they send. And though I cannot read mss and return their ms to them unread, I send a note of one or two lines encouraging.

      Out here, we adorn wire, fence line, barns, porticos with dried bundles of certain flowers to signal the range hands of one thing or another, we put fallen feathers of hawk and eagle on old cracked fence posts, tie a red ribbon on the ankle of the ailing colt for good luck in healing. Many more.

      I know that our ways are not the ways of certain people who have lived far too long away from the bounties of the land…but I would frankly even in the city hate to think that how a person, or creature, or manuscript is dressed, is reason to snarl about it, rather than inquire who and what this person, creature, ms is made of.

      Just my .02

    • I’ve actually done that. I once got an email from an agent I’d never heard of, whom I’d never queried, declining to represent me. I sent back a verbose and gracious email that said, in essence: “Thank you for contacting me. I have had a really very bad week, and I regret to say that I am not accepting unsolicited rejections at this time. Since that is so, I’ll expect your standard agency contract by snail mail, which my attorney will check to see if I can accept your services.”

      In response I got a repeat of the original email. My crit partner and I laughed a lot.

      • best story ever Deb. How completely weird. You rang my doorbell to tell me you werent going to ring my doorbell? Really.

  3. ” If you already self-pubbed 100 books and you’re approaching an agent, be prepared to send them a project that’s all-new, never-been-published that they will be able to send to traditional publishers while helping you manage your previously self-published backlist.”

    No. Just no.

    • Beat me to it, Matt. The last thing a successful self-publisher needs is to let an agent in on that part of their income stream.

      If the new books raises awareness of the author, it’s the author’s hard work that created that backlist, and the agent had nothing to do with it.

    • Not just no, but H*LL no.

      These agents are certainly dancing fast to try to stay relevant, though, aren’t they?

    • Right? Because clearly an author who’s self-pubbed 100 books needs help managing their backlist.

  4. Years ago when self-publishing first started to gain some serious momentum, Sarah LaPolla was one of the most aggressively anti-self-publishing agents out there. Her tweets actually are a huge reason I decided that the trad process wasn’t for me. They were beyond snarky. They were bitter. She basically implied the self-published author was untouchable and referred to self-publishing as “cheating.”

    Welp. This cheater hasn’t forgotten. And I’m thankful in a way for her and the other agents who drove many authors away from the traditional paradigm. Life is damn good as an untouchable. (Also, I have a really wonderful agent who makes great money helping the self-published also make great money with their subsidiary rights. Pretty cool to know there are agents that pivot and change with the times. They do exist)

    • I think agents should have to prove they have strong connections with houses plus negotiating mojo, because, after all, that’s how they show they’re worth the money: can they get more than the boilerplate contract? Do they get higher advances than the average? Do they keep rights for authors that would normally be grabbed?

      Maybe the only agents who deserve 15% are the ones who have power to do all that and more. The ones who pretty much just submit should get 5% or 10%. If the only function they serve is to be the conduit required by publishers in their “only agented submissions” rule, why 15%. That higher rate should be for agents with proven negotiation power and legal savvy.

      If they can’t negotiate better terms or higher advances, then what’s the point?

    • I remember all of those tweets too. I submitted to her and she passed. It was a good thing too because after I saw the tweets about self-publishing, it only made me want to self-publish even more.

  5. I’m having trouble following her ‘logic’.

    “… the only thing that really gets my attention is a good story. That will always speak louder than gimmicks …” yet then she says: “The other way authors get agent attention is via Twitter.” I thought she said ‘no’ to ‘gimmicks’.

    “If you already self-pubbed 100 books and you’re approaching an agent, be prepared to send them a project that’s all-new, never-been-published that they will be able to send to traditional publishers while helping you manage your previously self-published backlist.”

    If they’re doing well with their ‘already self-pubbed books’, then this so-called agent doesn’t need to touch the profits for things she didn’t have a hand in making profitable. Sorry if I not seeing this as others are, but this is just an ‘agent’ in it for herself and whatever will make her some bucks.

    (If what BelleAC above says is true, this little piece might just be that agent’s way of trying to whitewash her past actions/words.)

  6. Yeah, nah. Those twitter pitch parties don’t work. I did one once and most agents didn’t even know it was going on.

    • Also, if it’s hard to condense your story into a 250-word query letter, odds are not good that you’ll be able to successfully pitch it via Tweet. Seems like the only types of stories that are well-pitched that way would be the “X meets Y” or “X in space” or “X but with zombies” type stories. And some books can be broken down that easily, and that’s fine, but if you’ve got a more complex and/or non-high-concept book, Twitter just isn’t a good format to explain it.

      • True. And my guess is they’re actually looking for high-concept books so this is a good way of weeding them out.

    • Have you ever read the rules to one of those twitter pitch parties? They all have a very “Dance, monkey!” feel to them.

  7. she says she hasnt had to change anything re agenting over the years. and she can tell which books are going to be YUGE. Really.

    Just as an aside, conceit is a weird thing, the last step on the ladder at the top will not hold conceit’s weight and breaks. Read The Master Builder. Or re the beautiful architect Daedelus murdered.

    her idea of ‘preparing the author’ for whatever she thinks will be end result of their ‘making a living’ off writing… Just my opinion, I kept thinking, if agents like this all filled with bragadoccio [sp] really wanted to help authors, they would stop this c of authors being paid 2x year, books being consigned instead of sold to outlets.

    But no, agents have had [note past tense] the little side throne to the publishers’ big thrones of the past, whereby ‘little throne’ agent piling up authors and getting that 2x year payout from 15%-20% of ALL author proceeds, they make far more than ‘a living’ themselves. Even as their authors do not.

    What a sales pitch. Come be with me, be published, I make money in perpetuity as does your publisher, but you do not. That 8% first proceeds of wholesale is shameful, and a good agent will tear that contract to pieces.

    Frankly, reading an agent’s inflated sense of self as in this ‘interview’ just makes me double my efforts to bring new, young and old authors to indie publishing, leaving agents like this in the dust. There is no reason for YA, Children’s authors and novelists in all genres not to indie publish. In fact parents often love carrying many children’s books around in their dig.device rather than lugging the books.

    This woman seems imo bitter and angry. I can understand it. The very ground she stands on is not just shifting; giant sink holes are appearing, and will continue.

    Ive had an agent for 28 years, one of the most effective and kind of all agents. Ive print deals with trad pubs NY, many translations, and I indie publish also. Im old, but my agent is even older. One day, depending on how Creator plays us, I’ll be looking for an agent to take over already agented works. I would not even remotely entertain the ‘interviewee’ in this article. Never.

    Why? because I can already see the dollar signs rolling in the interviewee’s eyes, for herself.

    I am not at all daunted by agents who think they can pre-cull or who are in the delusion they are ‘curators’, for their claims are false puff. Ive addressed agent groups. I know the lay of the land.

    There are agents who are merely horse traders. And there are more unethical, arrogant, ‘right here in river city’ blathering, self-shining horse traders than there are honest, knowing ones who can see the potential in a mare, gelding, stallion, not just the latest fad in what horse buyers might say they want to buy –as driven by a marketing campaign made up by a johnny one note who an agent goes along with because thar’s money for the agent, and the publisher in them thar hills, but barely any for the creator.

    Parasitic endeavor comes to mind about many an agent and publisher toward artist. Writers are like fine horses, healthy and muscled and heartful until a parasitic group nests on them. Even tho that insectness cannot be disguised even when wearing formal tux, remedy is disinfectant. For the calling of writing. For actual horses who will be eaten alive by parasites if not treated effectively.

    A fine agent is an educator. Not a Hobson’s Choice huckster dressed up and waving their rollodex around trying to impress authors who are yearlings and dont yet know the complete lay of the land. A good agent educates editors, has wide ranging contact with book buyers and readers through actual conversations of many kinds. Knows far more, through author, also, about what readers are hoping for from publishers.

    Agent like this one, imo, eminds me of old coal miners round these parts long ago who kept throwing away that crystally white stuff, while stacking up and carting off the coal.

    Most agents are not visionaries; but the ones who are, are worth the time… and the relationship which is true friendship, not an ‘im busy what do you want’ sense many agents give authors once they’ve signed with that author.

    If one wants an agent, treat it seriously; look for humanity, vulnerability, strengths, not just track record. Many a horse who won a derby collapsed from being whipped, drugged, rode far too hard… all for blear-eyed money by its ‘owners’ who think feed and water and ‘training’ is equal pay compared to the amount of money owners hope to rake in.

    Its not all about the money. It’s about cherished relationship, hopefully lifelong, with someone who sees beyond the surface deeply, what youve got in you, takes pride in it, helps to bring it forward, and fights for authors’ rights, not just the same old sloppy go along to get along agenting

    • Felix J. Torres

      Agents = Pilot fish.
      If you see an agent a hungry shark won’t be far away.

  8. On a more positive note, The commenters over at The original post don’t seem to be swallowing the Kool-Aid.
    I also remember Sarah Lapolla claiming that self publishing was cheating, and telling us how self published authors have a chip on their shoulder.

  9. a question for pg if he is so inclined…. how is an agent negotiating contracts NOT practicing law w/o a license??

    My real estate agent told be to get an attorney but lit agents are suddenly qualified to negotiate contracts?

    Never understood how this hasn’t wound up in court in a high profile case

    • really good question Ed. Hope PG answers, Wonder if different laws re pub contracts in NY state for instance than say Minn.

  10. “NATHAN: Let’s cut to the chase. What’s the best way for an author to get your attention?

    SARAH: The easy answer – by not trying. ”

    Oh, Lord, set me free!

    Did she laugh to herself after saying this?

  11. So she’s got a BA in Creative Writing, and an MFA in Creative Writing (nonFiction) and she’s negotiating contracts? At the very, very least a simple business degree would be considerably less scary.

    I feel very sorry for anyone silly enough to allow someone with these credentials to represent them in a business deal.

  12. “Sometimes authors only self-pub because they think it’s the path to a traditional deal (it isn’t).”

    If it isn’t, then I wish publishers would quit contacting me when one of my books hits the top 5000 at Zon. It’s a time-waster for me. Because unless it’s a hardcover-only deal with the Big 5, an offer from Amazon imprints, a big foreign language publisher, or an audio publisher, they cannot do a thing for me I can’t do better, faster, and more profitably myself. A NY agent is worse than useless. Letter from agent to indie author, translated: “hey, I see you’ve had some success! I’d like a big chunk of your income in the future. Want to add 4 middlemen to your process and quadruple your book prices so working-class people can’t afford them in the future? Then let’s trade digits!”

    Yeah? I have a digit for them.

  13. What amazes me about agents is that they attract any new business. They now provide very little value in return for an outrageous percentage of an author’s earnings. The main service they seem to offer seems to be to use their relationships with traditional publishers to assist you, which arguably proves to be a disservice in most cases. Publishers nurture the relationship by requiring submissions through agents.

    But, having interested a publisher, agents then proceed to negotiate terms, an area where most of them seem to have no formal training or qualifications and at least a perceived conflict of interest. And they are negotiating with some of the most predatory organisations on the face of the earth.

    • “What amazes me about agents is that they attract any new business.”

      Why do you think they posted that piece but to try to get new writers that don’t know any better to go and give her a tweet? 😉

  14. Publishers have simply outsourced going through the slushpile to agents, and authors pays for it.

    • Then they goofed up because most if not all agents will push trash if they think they can get 15% of anything out of it (and they’ll then shaft the writer by telling them it’s the best deal they could have gotten.)

    • That is right. (And therefore, to answer Darryl, what agents do for writers is “have a phone number.”) The publishers are paying for this choice too, in ways that become increasingly obvious.

      Agents don’t do a very good job finding the winners, for one thing. For another, based on interviews I read with them from time to time, they are clueless about how to use the data at Amazon or B&N to understand their own field. (They think post-apocalyptic and dystopian books are passe and not selling, according to one interview I read a few months ago. Uh, fellas? That’s not at all right.) Furthermore, they are on their OWN sides, not the publishers’. Those interests may be aligned at times, but they are not identical.

      This is part of why new talent development in publishing has become a problem, why they rely more and more on the top sellers they found in the 1970s and 80s, who all have one foot in the grave. That is a business model that is unsustainable. The other piece to that shift was that they were only concerned about this quarter’s financial reports (which is a problem that goes beyond publishing–it’s a problem in much of business these days, and part of why Amazon wins so often, that they will accept a loss for a few years when believing in a distant benefit of an innovative idea). So instead of investing in their own businesses and keeping their first readers, instead of putting a bit of money into promo of new authors’ books to help build careers, instead of paying a minimum of 10K for a first book (which would not be great, but it at least gives an author some hope and keeps him from living in a cardboard box), they cut, cut, cut. But not in smart ways–like moving out of New York City and to a place with cheaper rent, or like cooperating with Amazon’s pricing recommendations for ebooks.

      Okay, sure, so the firing of first readers helped that quarter’s earnings report. But what did it do to publishers’ long-term plans? Hmmm? You say you have no long-term plans? That’s not going to work out very well, is it? In fact, when you all instituted this approach, publishing was the Big Eight. Now it’s the Big Five and half of your business has slipped through your fingers and is now in the hands of us, the author-publishers. So that all worked out just super for you, didn’t it?

      I don’t know why I care at all, but rock-stupid always bothers me on principle, even when it benefits me personally.

      I keep comparing trade publishing to the Titanic. They sighted the iceberg ten years ago, yet they just kept steaming straight for it. Yes, it’s a big boat and difficult to turn, but they never even tried to turn it. (Apparently, they hoped the berg would melt.) They’ve hit the berg, and they still are full speed ahead. The smart passengers are already on the lifeboats and have paddled miles away.

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