Agents going off the rails

10 April 2014

From Janet Reid, Literary Agent:

A while back I posted a question from a writer who seriously wondered if her agent was dead or abducted by aliens (no contact for months on end.)

In my reply I mentioned that kind of thing has been happening more often. That observation sparked some interest and some requests for elaboration.

. . . .

Back in the day, and I mean back before email, the internet and Twitter and, let’s face it, transparency, the career path for becoming an agent was starting as an editor at a big publishing house, and learning how the biz worked. There are those who traveled a different route of course, but they were the exceptions, not the norm.

That has changed almost completely.

Many younger agents are starting as agents. Or assistants who are allowed to sign clients. Or interns who are sure they learned everything they need to know and set up shop as agents when their internship is completed.

. . . .

And they’re often alone and unsupported. By alone, I mean they work as sole proprietors or in remote offices from the main agency. By unsupported I mean they do not have someone sitting five feet away who can help them get out of trouble or stop them from getting in to trouble. Of the five cracker jack young agents I know best, ALL started out sitting close to an agent with more experience, an agent who considered it his/her job to guide the younger agent.

And there’s another component to consider. Recently I tallied the lists of tasks I had for each client in 2003. Then I tallied the tasks I had for clients in 2013.

By my count there is three times the work now for each client/book that there was in 2003.

. . . .

So if you’re an agent who’s been doing this forever, and in the last ten years your job has tripled, and your income hasn’t, and all of a sudden there’s this new transparency and people are talking about you on the Internet like you can’t see it, well, sometimes just not dealing with the problems seems pretty much like the avenue of least resistance.

I don’t say this to excuse the behavior. It’s bad behavior. It’s very unprofessional. I’d like to say I’ve never been guilty of behaving this way, but it would not be true.

But what this is has a name: burnout.

. . . .

If you’re an author you’ll want to avoid signing with an agent who is headed down Burnout Ave. How to tell? You ask her clients. Not “is s/he burning out?” but “how’s the communication?” Agents who are burning out generally aren’t communicating well.

Find out how much support an agent has. If things go south, is there someone there to pick up the pieces? A sole prop who goes off the rails leaves her clients in a bigger mess than someone backed by an agency with people who know where the files are.

Link to the rest at Janet Reid, Literary Agent and thanks to Amy for the tip.

PG says a lot of businesses/professions (including lawyers) have a high incidence of burnout.

It’s always a bad idea to deal with a professional who is burned out.

Most state bar associations have resources plus the means of intervening if a lawyer is burning out. None of the associations has a perfect system to the best of PG’s knowledge, but, at least in California, if the bar receives complaints from clients that a lawyer is not returning calls or delivering quality work, the bar will intervene with varying degrees of assertiveness, depending upon the nature and severity of the problem.

PG understands the medical world has similar tools to help a burned-out doc.

However, literary agents are effectively unregulated, except via litigation. As Janet’s post indicates, anybody can offer his/her services as a literary agent. Just released from drug rehab? You can be an agent! Coming out of prison and your parole officer says you need a job? You can be an agent!

PG does not mean to slander skilled, honest and diligent agents. They certainly exist and provide useful services for their clients.

However, when one agent burns out, screws clients and the news hits the internet, all agents collect a little soot.

Where are literary agent licensing laws? Where is the formal, enforceable code of ethics?

Demonstrating some minimal competence and following strict rules for the segregation of author’s funds from agency funds as a condition of receiving a license would set a licensed agency apart and above others. The threat of losing an agent’s license would certainly provide some deterrence for bad behavior. Arbitration of agent/author disputes would be a valuable service a licensing entity could provide.

PG thinks some licenses (pedicurist or interior designer, for example) are silly, but agents receive money, sometimes a lot of money, that belongs to their clients. If publishers won’t talk to authors, the agent is the only avenue through which information flows between authors and publishers. Sometimes this information is very valuable and professional consequences for authors can be severe if the information doesn’t promptly and accurately arrive for them.

Some agents do quit providing services for their clients while still holding onto their right to have the author’s royalties flow through their bank accounts. Or maybe not flow, but rather sit in the agents’ bank accounts for a month or two or three. Or provide a short-term “loan” to cover the rent or cocaine payments.

8 ways to know if you have a good agent

8 April 2014

From Nathan Bransford:

The author/agent relationship can be a tricky one. There are good agents and bad agents out there, and yet from the author’s perspective it can be very difficult to know which type you have. Many authors talk themselves out of their reservations about their agents simply because it’s hard to know if your concerns are warranted. And, of course, many writers just feel lucky to have an agent in the first place.

So how do you know if your concerns are justified?

. . . .

2. Your agent should be a good communicator.

By good communicator, I don’t mean that they necessarily reply immediately, though that is always appreciated. Agents are very busy, and even some very good agents can be afflicted with publishing time. The publishing industry can sometimes move slower than a line at the DMV. (For the record, I always tried to get back to my clients within 24 hours and I know many successful and busy agents who stick to a similar timeframe).

What’s more important than punctuality is that when you have a question, your agent answers. When you ask for something, your agent delivers. When you want to have a serious conversation, the agent is there to have it.

A good agent doesn’t dodge, doesn’t hide, is straightforward with you and tells you things you may not always want to hear. If you feel like you are constantly pulling teeth to get the most basic questions answered, you may not have a good agent.

. . . .

6. Your agent should pay you on time and send you contracts in a timely fashion.

Most agents have clauses that stipulate that publishers send payments to them, then they take their commission and send you the balance. This is normal.

However, that means it’s all the more important that they send your payments and contracts to you on time. Be very wary if you encounter strange delays.

. . . .

At the end of the day, having a bad agent is worse than having no agent. You have to be able to have faith that your agent has your best interests at heart and is good for your career.

Link to the rest at Nathan Bransford

PG says the agent should only receive money to which the agent is entitled by way of commission. All payments belonging to the author should be sent directly to the author from the publisher without passing through the agent’s hands.

The agent adds no value by handling money that belongs to the author. At best, there is an unnecessary delay in the author receiving his/her royalties. At worst — you can fill in any number of disastrous scenarios.

Even if your agent is on the fast track to sainthood, during the course of a typical New York publishing contract – the life of the copyright which is likely the author’s lifetime plus 70 years – your agent will go to her/his heavenly reward and somebody else less saintly, probably someone the author doesn’t know, will start handling the author’s money.

The Rise of the Hybrid Agent

1 April 2014

From Good Ereader:

In all of the recent debate surrounding traditional publishing versus self-publishing, both models appear to be emerging as valid options for books. But while the Big Five aren’t closing up shop entirely any time soon–despite recent mergers and rumors of future mergers–and self-published authors continue to earn accolades and income, one entity in the publishing industry has been largely overlooked: literary agents.

Agents, once considered the first-round gate keepers to getting your book published, have had to look for new ways to continue their relevance in a rapidly changing book market. Some agents, such as Deidre Knight of The Knight Agency and Scott Waxman of Waxman literary, were the first to embrace digital publishing as a viable option for their clients, citing the desire to get a client’s book “out there,” regardless of the interest from publishers. Ebook-only or digital-first became an opportunity to not cast aside a quality book that just hadn’t found its place in the market.

What first grew out of a desperate need to not dismiss a book that agents felt strongly about has now grown into a viable first option for many authors and agents.

. . . .

Paper Lantern Lit, grew out of a desire to work with authors to develop their books in a way that would appeal to a larger readership. “We wanted to come in and work with really talented writers and help them to develop their stories,” explained Hillyer.

Once the work was complete, PLL would then shop the books to publishers, just as any literary agency would do. But with the advent of ebook readership, the company realized that a much more streamlined process would be to release the ebooks first in order to build a following for the books, just as those same publishers once did with hardcovers. But unlike self-publishing services, PLL’s The Studio works with authors in the same type of royalty structure that a publisher would, absorbing the cost of services to later be compensated by royalties from the sale of the books.

. . . .

“There’s a space in between self-publishing and traditional publishing where we can live.”

Link to the rest at Good Ereader

Spread ‘Em Wide

27 March 2014

From an agent via Brillig:

One of the reasons I have spoken a lot this week about royalties:  well, information is the mother’s milk of literary representation, and along with the quality of the book itself, the three most important pieces of information we can use to sell an author are (1) the author’s bibliography and biography (2) reviews (3) sales history.  Furthermore, if you want to gauge how much the market might pay for an established author you have to have a handle on actual expenses for printing books vs. actual revenue from selling them rather than royalties paid. And how do we figure out what an author’s sales history is or how much revenue and expense the publisher has in printing and selling books, in both print and electronic forms?  Well, we gather that information from royalty statements.

And I learned early in my career at Scott Meredith that sales information isn’t well kept by stacking piles of paper in a filing cabinet.  Those Penguin statements I was telling you about, that told you only the quantity of books “sold” in any given six month period — well, back then we had many Ellery Queen books available in Penguin doubles, and if someone wanted to figure out how many Ellery Queen novels were sold, it meant collecting years with if little sheets of paper and manually adding up columns and columns of figures.

Suffice to say when I finally had a computer at my desk in the early 1990s, things changed.  I could at least put the figures into a word processing document so they could be added without having to retrieve little pieces of paper from the filing cabinet.  Eventually that gave way to tables within the word processing program, and eventually to tables in a spreadsheet.

And for a variety of reasons, not just out of habit, we continue today to process every incoming royalty statement on to our computers, just like I started to do over 20 years ago when I first had a computer on my desk.

. . . .

Publishers make mistakes.  It doesn’t hurt to check their math, and spreadsheets enable us to do this.  Assuming, of course, that we set up the spreadsheets correctly.  There is this tendency to trust that the computer generated very official looki royalty statements the publishers provide always have the correct royalty rates.

As discussed in my previous post on current royalty statements, most are still seriously lacking in cumulative information on copies shipped and copies returned, and it’s still very 1989 in needing to track that information someplace other than on piles of paper hiding in a file drawer for years or decades.

. . . .

Each publisher’s royalty statements are different, and the royalty scenarios can be different within a publisher for mass markets, trade paperbacks, hardcovers, audios and e-books, so we have to have lots of different spreadsheet formats.

The benefits are invisible.  The company that is doing the Mistborn video game needs to go to its bankers and needs information on Mistborn copies sold for Brandon Sanderson, or the screenwriter with an option on Elizabeth Moon’s Remnant Population needs some information to present to producers with her screenplay, or we want to rough out a profit & loss statement to try and guess how much money DAW books can pay for the new Jim Hines, and we can do those things quickly and easily because we have impeccable spreadsheets.  But it is very easy to separate out those benefits from the time, heavily concentrated during the twelve weeks of royalty season, when it seems like we do nothing all day but spreadsheet royalty reports.

. . . .

High maintenance.  The information doesn’t flow up-hill on its own, so every time a publisher comes out with a new edition of a book we have to set up a new table and then plug the information from that table into at least one location in a summary table.

Link to the rest at Brillig

Yet another way Big Publishing is stuck in the Seventies. In the 21st century, friends don’t make friends key numbers into spreadsheets.

They’re not fancy, but Amazon provides monthly royalty reports in the form of spreadsheets. You don’t have to be much of a numbers guru to set up a master spreadsheet that will update all sorts of analyses, complete with graphs, when you load another month’s worth of sales data from Amazon.

Then suck those numbers into a database where you can really rock.

Who Are Literary Agents and Editors Anyway?

24 March 2014

From author Kathryn Craft via Writers In The Storm Blog:

In response to a tweet promoting a recent Twitter submission event, I received the following response:

“To put it delicately, f*** the agents and editors. Never pander to what they’re looking for.” (Asterisks mine.)

I would like to thank this “delicate” tweeter. His 92-character comment is so chock full of negativity and cynicism that it will easily power three blog posts here. I delight in the opportunity to turn this kind of whine into gold.

Since it is conference season, this month I’d like to address this tweeter’s obvious assumption that agents and editors are “those who are trying to keep him from publication.”

. . . .

This is what I know to be true about agents and editors.

• They are often…wait for it…friendly. They work in a people-oriented industry, they love hanging out with writers and other avid readers, and they love building interpersonal relationships within their professional networks.

• They are often young and idealistic—but not necessarily. Some are middle-aged and idealistic, some old and idealistic. Agents come in all sort of idealistic ages. But the constant is that they are believers—and they are willing to go to the wall for what they believe in.

. . . .

• They are underpaid. Think about it—they are making money off of the income of writers, who may only be next to dancers in the least amount of money paid per hour of preparation and professional effort…which means that much of what they do is done for love.

• They are smart minds and sensitive souls, highly attuned to story and the human condition. They are avid readers who are so eager to find their next great read that they are willing to spend their nights and weekends slogging through any number of queries to find the one that touches them in some important way.

• They are negotiators and peacemakers who are willing to take on the day-to-day business of creating a good book so that you can do what only you can do best—which is to write and promote the work you love.

. . . .

• And yes, they are gatekeepers. Agents may close the gate for so many reasons, all of which should inspire gratitude in the writer: the submission isn’t aligned with their interests, they think it’s great but don’t know how to sell it, the writer isn’t ready for prime time, or they just don’t have time to take on a new client right now. But once all of those aspects align, the agent or acquiring editor is the one who can be counted on to be at that gate to open it—for you!—and see you through the maze of traditional publishing.

Link to the rest at Writers In The Storm and thanks to Laura for the tip.

Query Question

22 March 2014

From Janet Reid, Literary Agent:

I am with my second agent now and I feel like her interest is waning because my book hasn’t sold yet. I have a feeling she might drop me soon. I’ve been a busy writer in the meantime though, and I have written two more books. If she were to drop me and I were to query the other books (which have not been subbed), should I mention that I have had two agents in the past? Also, my agent has had my second book for over a month now. How long should I wait before sending her a nudge about it?

A month?
Wow, what a slacker.

. . . .

Third, if you’ve had two agents already, you’re a terrible risk for anyone else absent some grievous form of Bad Agent Behavior (losing interest doesn’t even register here) and most likely seen as a difficult and troublesome client.

Link to the rest at Janet Reid, Literary Agent and thanks to Amy for the tip.

I think my agent’s dead, what to do?

27 February 2014

From Janet Reid, Literary Agent:

Last summer, after a flurry of kind, flattering emails in which a reputable agent told me repeatedly how much she loved my novel, I signed a contract with her. I was over the moon.

In September I sent her a last revision with the changes she had suggested. I didn’t hear back, so a few days later I sent her a “did you get my revision and what’s the next step” email.

She responded rather tersely in comparison to the earlier emails, but I figured she’s a busy, sought-after agent and now that I’ve signed on, she’s getting down to business. She gave me the first-round list of editors she planned to submit to and said she expected to hear back from them very soon. That was on October 1.

Since then I’ve waited. In mid-January, I finally sent her a brief, polite followup email asking for an update. No response. A week later, I sent a second polite followup email. It’s been about a week, and again, I’ve heard nothing back from her.

Yesterday, I left a message on her cell phone, and again, no response. I haven’t yet worked up my nerve to call the agency directly, although I’m guessing this is what I have to do now.

In the meantime, I’m stuck wondering what happened to her and where does it leave me? Do I have an agent? Is my novel out there being considered? Or did she get terrible responses back from the editors and decide she hates it after all? Does she regret signing me on? Is that why she’s gone AWOL on me? Is she seriously ill? Dead? Did she quit her job? If she has dropped me, shouldn’t she let me know? And if so, what responsibility does the agency have to me or I to it?

First thing to do is pour yourself a soothing beverage and realize It’s NOT You.  The agent has clearly gone round the bend for some reason, and I’ll bet you a pair of furry shark slippers and a full length manuscript critique that it has nothing to do with you.

Agents lose their minds with increasing frequency. I’m not sure why. I’ve had a few bouts of The Bends myself wherein I’m sure my clients thought (or hoped) I was dead cause at least then they could find someone to return their calls.  Generally I’ve picked up the pieces, apologized profusely, learned from the situation and tried not to repeat it.

Link to the rest at Janet Reid, Literary Agent and thanks to Margaret for the tip.

New Publishing Clashes with Old

19 February 2014

From agent Janet Kobobel Grant:

 I was staring at a dinosaur–an old-school publisher.

When I say “old-school publisher,” I’m not referring to just a traditional publisher; I’m talking about a publisher who apparently isn’t used to working with agents. I hadn’t sold a project to this publisher for decades, but one of my clients had created a proposal for a book that seemed a perfect fit for this niche publishing house.

As I anticipated, the publisher offered my client a contract. But the agreement reflected an old-school mentality toward authors. In essence, the publisher wanted to retain complete control over every aspect of publishing with no guaranteed input from the author. For example, the publisher could hire a writer to make the manuscript into whatever the publisher chose, and the author would foot the bill for that writer–all without the author having any say in whether a writer should be hired; who that writer would be; or how the manuscript would be changed. The publisher also proposed a two-book option at the same terms as the current contract; the ability to put in the book an ad for any product the publisher chose without the author’s input; an out-of-print clause that guaranteed the book would never go out of print, etc.

I rolled up my proverbial sleeves and went to work on making the contract a document that reflected a process an author could live with.

. . . .

Then the dinosaur (probably the executive team) woke up and realized this wasn’t a contract it wanted to honor. The publisher withdrew the offer.

When I asked why this decision had been made, I was told that my client probably should self-publish because she was unrealistic in what the role of an author was, that she didn’t trust the publisher so how could the relationship ever work?

What a perspective! As I was negotiating the contract, the editor would explain that certain egregious clauses existed to protect the publisher from “worst case scenarios.” Yet, when I added or changed elements of the contract to protect my client from worst case decisions on the publisher’s part, the publisher declared my client a perfect self-publishing candidate.

Link to the rest at Books & Such Literary Management and thanks to David for the tip.

PG sometimes gives agents a hard time, but sends kudos to Janet for pushing to turn a terrible contract into something her client could live with.

In this case, the publisher withdrew its offer, which was probably the best outcome for the author, given the publisher’s attitude and style.

An author or any other prospective party to a contract can learn a lot about who they may be doing business with through the negotiation process.

Most of the time, during contract negotiation, each side is trying to show their best face because, at least at the beginning, each side had the idea they wanted to do business with the other.

The behavior of each side is unlikely ever to be better than it is during negotiations. If the opposing party is a jerk during negotiations, they’re probably going to be a bigger jerk after you enter into thc contract. If the opposing party is rigid and unyielding during negotiations, ditto after you sign. If the other side doesn’t give serious consideration to your concerns during negotiations . . . you get the idea.

Unlike selling a used car, where you’re done with the purchaser once you get the cash, entering into a publishing agreement is the beginning of a long-term business relationship.

If you think a tough publisher was hard to deal with during negotiations, wait until after you sign the contract. And, remember, since most old-style publishing agreements are for the length of your copyright, you’ll be linked to that difficult publisher for the rest of your life.

PG has mentioned before that, as a class, publishing contracts are the most unfair and one-sided of any of the many different types of contracts he’s dealt with over his legal career. Plea bargains for drug dealers are more balanced than some publishing contracts he’s reviewed.

The good news for authors who want to work with a publisher is that a few publishers understand their contracts can make or break a deal and are introducing far more reasonable terms into their boilerplate. The bad news for authors is that most publishers haven’t reached that point yet and some will go bankrupt before they do.

However, from the publisher’s viewpoint, if most authors sign whatever the publisher puts in front of them, why not load up the contract with everything the lawyers can think of?

One thing a smart negotiator always keeps in mind is the “or else” option. Negotiation theorists call this BATNA - Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement. If the parties are unable to agree, what will happen to each of them?

Most publishers think their BATNA for most failed publishing contract negotiations is to move on to the next sucker author who wants them to publish a book.

Until recently, most authors saw their BATNA as going back to the long and soul-crushing process of trying to find a publisher.

As Janet’s article indicates, the self-publishing BATNA is in the process of significantly changing the negotiation dynamic between authors and publishers.

PG was interested to note that the publisher Janet describes suggested self-publishing was the best alternative for Janet’s client if the client didn’t like unreasonable contract provisions.

PG doubts he would find much common ground with this publisher, but he does agree with that suggestion.

An Open Letter to my agent Donald Maass

13 February 2014

From author Delilah Marvelle:

So last month, the CEO of Kensington (my first publisher) had made comments about the self-publishing industry that I felt needed to be addressed. And this month, it would seem I’m 2 for 2 on the self-publishing debate given that my own agent has also stepped into the arena looking to take a swing in the self-publishing industry. (I would like to point out that Donald Maass did NOT represent me in my Kensington contracts, for those of you who were wondering.)

This is my open letter to my agent after he had posted to Writer Unboxed.

. . . .

Dear Donald Maass,
So last week, I was attending a fabulous Indie “Unconference” in San Francisco, learning more about the self-publishing business I’m in, and meeting tons of great professional people, when I stumbled across your blog called The New Class System. Fortunately, I had stumbled on it prior to the event because I was repeatedly asked by other indie authors face to face what I thought of your post given, well…um…you’re MY agent and um…I’m self-publishing.

. . . .

Not surprisingly, people had a lot to say about your post. But few (if any) who commented are actually represented by you. They responded to your post with two fists without realizing that you encouraged me to take up self-publishing and explore a world that I was too damn scared to venture into. You supported my decision to self-publish knowing that a.) you wouldn’t see any money from what I was doing and b.) that I was walking away from a three book contract with Harlequin.

. . . .

The class system you describe did surprise me. Because I think you’re over-generalizing self-publishing by listing it as simple Freight Class and you know it. I’ve been in Coach, Don. You helped me get there. You did everything to ensure I was a success in Coach even though the seats weren’t as comfortable as I thought they were going to be. But I stayed in my seat. Because I knew that by staying in my seat, the conductor would come around and eventually look at me and say, “You look like you should be sitting in First Class.” Unfortunately, that conductor never gave me a second glance, no matter how many times you tried to wave that asshole down for me. In fact, the conductor took it upon himself to leave a window wide open, allowing eight of my books to fly out the window at a digital rate of 8% that I know I should have never signed. It was a digital rate you yourself didn’t agree with, but we were dealing with Harlequin and I was told they don’t negotiate their digital rates. And if Donald Maass can’t negotiate a better deal for me, who could?

. . . .

I have to say, Freight Class is awesome. No one left the window open back here. The seats are bouncy and let me swivel any way I want so I can write and deliver the books in any way I want. And the conductor isn’t sticking his nose in on my business telling me what I can and can’t write. It’s soooo nice. I guess what you’re not seeing is that I learned to appreciate the wonders and the joys of Freight Class after being stuck in Coach Class for so long. I’m loving it back here and I kinda wish you’d actually rename all the classes. Because the people in Freight Class deserve more respect.

. . . .

The cold reality is that readers are the new gatekeepers. They aren’t the agents, they aren’t the editors, and they most certainly aren’t the publishing houses. The readers pay for an author’s ticket to stay on the train, regardless of what class system they’re sitting in. They’ve always been the gatekeepers, but for some reason, a core group of people in New York decided that their control of the industry held more weight than that of readers and authors.

Link to the rest at Delilah Marvelle

I have warned writers away from Don Maass and his agency for almost a decade now

8 February 2014

From Dean Wesley Smith:

I really, really hated how Don tells writers that they need to not practice, not work to become better. He actively tells writers that they must slow down and rewrite a hundred times. And he tells writers that they don’t need to learn business, but just leave all their money up to him. He actually believes that crap and says it over and over in his book.

Just about opposite of everything I say here, huh?

(A side point… Don and I used to be friends, but we are not now and I do not back any of his advice. Don is flat out of touch with anything happening in the new world in my opinion. By the way, Don was a novelist who wrote fast under a pen name and sold a bunch of romances at one point in time. Everything he tells other writers not to do, he did and he sold books. But I guess Don couldn’t hack being a writer. Too much work I suppose, so he turned to the easy money of taking 15% off of writers who could hack it.)

So finally, now, Don put out a post on a public web site about the class system in publishing that just begged people to come at him because his ideas are so stupid, so out-of-touch as to be head-shaking. He finally showed his true colors, the ones I have been warning people about for years.

Link to the rest at Dean Wesley Smith

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