Category Archives: agents

4

A few words about cookbooks and agents

I participated in a cookbook conference last Friday and sat on a panel with four other agents who also represent practical nonfiction, including cookbooks. The discussion centered around the agent’s role in the current market and how that role has changed with the shift into electronic publishing.

It was a really thoughtful and informative conversation that lasted almost an hour and a half. We had a lengthy talk about the cookbook as object and whether that is something that will continue into the future or go the way of the VHS tape. We all agreed moving away from the book is a long way away, if it ever happens at all, and that there is still a great benefit to holding a book in your hands, cooking from a book rather than a computer screen, and sharing books as gifts with friends and family.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the discussion centered on the agent and author relationship, and the question of how important is it to have an agent in a market where so many writers, bloggers especially, are going it on their own. I strongly believe that (and I think, based on feedback, made a persuasive argument for) authors need agents now more than ever. A savvy agent who understands the nuances of the market’s language and culture is critical as they oversee every aspect of an author’s entire career, focusing on the big picture, as well as the smaller details that can go astray at any point in the process.

What really jumped out at me, though, was the concept of how much book negotiations have changed in the recent past. Each and every negotiation now, even with publishers we’ve dealt with for many years and have boilerplate contracts with the best negotiated terms possible, is fraught with challenges that include new and changing digital royalty rates, author deliverables that previously didn’t exist (one agent mentioned a major publisher had asked that the author deliver along with their manuscript 20 minutes of the author on tape), and which rights will be retained by the author versus the publisher.

This might sound simple, but believe me when I say it is not. The landscape has been described as The Wild West, and we are using our collective years of experience to secure the best deal and contract terms that are possible in a market where publishers are pushing so hard in one direction to keep rights in their control and agents are pushing so hard in the other.

The good news is we are making progress with every deal. Each new contract offers an opportunity to renegotiate contract language we aren’t happy with, or get an author an improved digital royalty, or at least the ability to renegotiate the royalty in the future. We are always striving to protect our clients and maintain a positive working relationship with all the publishers we do business with. I’ll admit it can be precarious, but we have leverage because publishers know the value of our long, successful client list.

All this to say your agent is your friend and will be there to guide you through this sometimes messy and difficult process of being a book author. I’d love to know your thoughts on the agent-author relationship in this new market and also on cookbook as object and its future. Do you think cookbooks are going to go away, or will there always be room on your shelf to display your favorite stain-filled tomes as a badge of cooking honor?

9

Know when to walk away, know when to run…

I warn you, I’m feeling crabby this week.  Christmas is in ten days and I’m woefully behind on my shopping and general preparedness.  Sure, I’m not like Jane who’s finished buying everyone’s holiday present by July 4th weekend, but I like to give myself a little leeway and not have to deal with the last minute rush to buy, wrap, and decorate.  This year, I’m so swamped, I can’t even run out during lunch to visit the shops in Union Square Park.

I know, I know, I should be grateful that business is booming at a typically dead time of year.  And in theory I am.  Unfortunately, I’ve been busy with a slew of difficult contract negotiations that have me yanking at my already unmanageable hair.  In general, difficult contracts don’t make me all that crabby.  The difference right now is that the negotiations are unnecessarily difficult—lots of lawyerly requests for language that does nothing but overgild the lily  without adding anything of substance to the deal.  Or, worse yet, a negotiation that has taken weeks of pointless back and forth for something we advised our client to walk away from in the first place.

To be clear, we don’t often advise our clients to walk away from any deal that has the potential to make money for them.  That would go against their interests and ours.  But we draw the line at allowing our clients to be treated unfairly or exposed to onerous terms and liabilities without a strong word of caution and a push in the direction of “run, don’t walk away from this deal.”  It pains us when our advice is not heeded because, usually, we’re right.  And even when the most dire consequences do not materialize, a process that starts out as contentious and unreasonable usually continues to be so up until the bitter end…of the book project that is.

So, while we like to keep our clients busy and happy and in funds for their own Christmas shopping, sometimes the only thing that makes sense to us is for them to walk away no matter how tempting it might be to take a bad deal.

Here’s my question to you guys:  If your agent is suggesting that you walk away from an offer—whether it’s a publishing offer from a house that wants your first born in exchange for print publication of your work or a chance to collaborate with a celebrity housewife on her juicy tell-all, say— and you are not in desperate financial straits that leave you without choices, would you listen and take his/her advice?

P.S.  Boy, you guys really don’t have any interest in headlines, do you?  I’m gonna call it a tie between Tamara and Sarah.  Send me your addresses at miriam@dystel.com for your prizes, ladies.

1

The Unsold

Apropos of Stacey’s post about knowing when to say when, I’m squaring off with the unwelcome possibility that a book I love is on the verge of not selling. I can tell you that we came quite close at several houses, that there were editors who loved it, that all parties agreed that the author was prodigiously talented, that revisions were made and made again. And yet.  We’re now discussing the possibility of e-publishing, this author and I, and so it seemed thematically appropriate that Edan Lepucki should publish her follow up post to Do it Yourself: Self-Published Authors Take Matters Into Their Own Hands in The Millions.

My client is still mulling it over, but Lepucki has decided not to self publish for the reasons she lays out here. I’m with her on most of these: I too read books released by major houses; I’m part of the publishing establishment (and hence about as far from a “hater” as one can be); I work with literary fiction and I am a thorough-going champion of the small press.  But unlike Lepucki, I am perhaps less concerned with the validation that a contract confers. True, I am not an author, so my stake in this is different. I am certainly ambitious for the people and projects I represent, but I don’t set much store by what a client calls “the fantasy” in which book deal, stellar reviews and robust sales are the inevitable outcome of hard work, attention to craft, and talent.  Indeed, it is because I am not an author that I can attest that the system by which books are acquired and sold is an imperfect one, and there are good books, very good books, that go wanting. Like this one.

So, whether or not my client will decide to e-publish is still up in the air, but in the meantime, he is administering himself a crash course in the uses of social media, which will help him whatever transpires. I’ll keep you posted. Meanwhile, I am curious to hear what you think of Lepucki’s decision.

3

Handle with care

While Jane’s off gallivanting around the Middle East riding camels and taking in ancient history on her very well-earned vacation, I’ve been holding down the fort here at DGLM.  Really, the fort runs pretty smoothly on its own, but given the general state of my piles (I turn my back on them and they procreate), I find myself a bit more overwhelmed than usual this week.

So, instead of one of my lengthy, ruminative blog posts that I know many of you look forward to like the season finale of Dancing with the Stars (right? right?), I give you this link I came across a couple of weeks ago on the Huff Post.  It’s about the care and handling of agents, once you bag one, but I think it applies to most professional interaction, which mostly boils down to “don’t be annoying.”

Certainly, not being annoying is something we at DGLM are always striving for with abysmal levels of success.  And, we really do understand and empathize with our more neurotic clients when their craziness overwhelms their common sense, but we are also absurdly grateful when writers are well behaved and pleasant to interact with.  So, take a look at the piece and let me know which of these areas you find most challenging.

21

Further to the Hating

So. Reading through the colorful replies to Jim’s post “Hate on me, Haters” post has been humbling, eye opening and sometimes funny; it’s clear that this is a maddening business for all concerned. In fact, my unscientific guess is that if some intrepid positive psychologists were to study the relative happiness of those involved in the writing world, they would find high levels of frustration, envy, disappointment, and anger.  Plenty of it justified. There are lots of flaws in the way publishing operates. Is the discontent more pervasive than in other lines of work? Hard to say.  Fortunately, it’s rare that anyone’s life hangs in balance. When my closest friend and I trade tales of job-related angst, her noncompliant patient suffering from chronic disease (she’s a doctor) usually trumps my short-sighted publisher. Usually.

Perspective aside, if we could somehow ameliorate one of the worst bits of a rough process, namely the rejection, what would you want to see in a rejection letter? (Aside from a detailed critique, which is just not practical.) More candor? Folks are right that agents and houses lean heavily on certain empty-seeming phrases: “did not fall in love,” “could not get excited,” “don’t know how to sell.” My revised one-size-fits-most form letter would read something like this.

Thanks for your query. This is pretty good. But some combination of your writing skills, my interest in the subject matter, and my assessment of the commercial potential of this project means that I’m just not that interested in pursuing it any further.  Another agent may disagree, land you a significant deal and make this a best-seller, but as bad as I will feel about having passed, you will feel infinitely better for having been right all along. Good luck.  Try not to let form letters get you down.

Anyone want to write the rejection that they’d want to receive?

25

Hate On Me, Hater

It’s so easy as an agent who blogs to delve into horror stories or just list things we hate it when authors do. I hate when authors send really mean responses to rejections. I hate people who address me as Dear Sir/Ma’am. I hate when every single piece of slush I receive in a day seems to be describing the exact same book. I could go on. But I won’t! Why?

Well, first of all, I love getting lots of comments on my blog entries, and asking people to name books they hated really seemed to capture your attention. Also, someone responded to a “Dear Author,” letter this morning to tell me I’m an asshole. So clearly, there’s some hate on the other side of the fence.

So without naming names (especially if they’re ours!), go ahead and exorcise those demons: what do you hate about agents? Share your horror stories. I KNOW you have them.

10

The pitch session

Every once in a while, when they let me out of my cage and into the general population, I get to attend conferences and meet some wonderful aspiring authors. One of my favorite things to do is attend agent pitch sessions—most recently at this year’s Thriller Fest—where authors have the opportunity to discuss their material, gain advice, and ask agents if they are willing to accept submissions. It’s always exciting and fast-paced, and even though the brain can feel somewhat mushy after two non-stop hours of pitches, I find it to be very rewarding in various ways.

With all this in mind, today I thought I’d give some recommendations on how to make the most of those precious few minutes a writer has with an agent:

  • Practice reciting a concise synopsis of your work. You shouldn’t (and shouldn’t need) to cover every single plot point or every detail about every character in your novel.
  • Do your research. It’s often a good idea to know a little bit about the agents you’ll be meeting with before the pitch session. It should go without saying that this is the easiest way to avoid pitching your young adult novel to the agent who only represents non-fiction.
  • Relax and enjoy! I have had to stop more than one author mid-sentence, hands and voices shaking, and ask them to take a deep breath and start over. Pitching to an agent is understandably petrifying, but at the end of the day, we’re people too. We aren’t going to criticize your work, or laugh in your face, or make you cry. I promise.

Have any of you out there attended pitch sessions? What have been your general opinions and experiences?

5

The Publishing Summer

Between vacation and three day weekends and the like, it’s been ages since I’ve dropped in to blog. I’m sure you all missed me terribly and are much relieved that I’m back in the rotation.

And since the Dystel vacation rotation is in full swing, I thought I’d take the chance to chat about one of my favorite publishing myths: nothing happens during the summer.  It’s all lies.

Let me just do a little boasting here for a second (I loooooove to flatter myself): I got back from vacation last Tuesday and since then have submitted three projects and closed two deals. I know, I know. I’m awesome. But this happened in the season when publishing is supposed to shut down so we can all jaunt off to our summer homes and sun by the pool.

Spoiler alert: most of us don’t have summer homes.

The reality of the situation is that things in summer may be quieter than other seasons because most people take their vacations at this time of year and as an industry we embrace the incredibly rewarding concept of summer hours, aka half-day Fridays. Again, this is presumably so we can get to our beach houses. In practice, when I leave early on Fridays, it’s to go home or go to a park and do reading. I told myself I was actually going to head home and nap last Friday, and I ended up getting through two manuscripts in a row.

In any case, the bottom line is that things slow down the slightest of bits in the summer, but people who aren’t on vacation are probably working just as hard as ever. I know there are authors who really panic about the timing of material going out and convince themselves that if they don’t have deals in place by the end of May, it’s going to be a slog to September, but as far as I can tell, nothing changes all that terribly much from season to season. Much as we might sometimes want it to.

8

Slow summer

My inbox of unread queries is always in flux. It constantly ebbs and flows, the number of submissions on any given day ranging from only a handful to dozens. Either way, it’s something that I am continually immersed in, always reading and looking for the next great thing.

But lately, it seems things have hit a slump.  In most of the queries that I read, the writer isn’t giving me the most thrilling aspect of their book, the crucial element that should make me desperate to ask for more pages. In other cases, it’s unclear if that pivotal element is even there.

This is not to say that every query I’m reading is an automatic rejection, not even close. But I guess I wish that something would cross my computer screen that not only makes me instantly excited and interested, but also shows that the writer is doubly excited and practically tripping over themselves to tell me.

Maybe this is asking a lot, and I know that putting together the all-important query can be daunting, but if you want me, or any agent, to be interested in your book, be excited about it, let it show, and get us excited about it too.

9

Can You Be a Nice Agent?

Awhile back, someone I was trying to sign as a client was on the phone asking me questions about what I was like to work with—how I liked to stay in touch, what houses I sold to most often, what degree of editorial involvement I have, etc. The usual. Then came a question I never thought I’d get.

“Your reputation is for being really nice,” she started. At this point, I’m feeling pretty good about where things are going. She continued, “So how can I trust that if I need you to fight for me, you actually will?”

Well, I never.

I kid. It was a huge surprise, but looking back, it’s a fair question. We’re in the business of being demanding. In some ways, our jobs are as professional advocates willing to do the dirty work so that the author doesn’t have to go through the nitty-gritty business side of things and can focus on their writing.

On the other hand, it’s a business of relationships. Authors also count on us to have a stable of editors who know and trust our taste…and actually want to work with us.

I like to think I’ve struck a balance over the years. At the start of my agenting career, I admit that I was tentative to ask for things. I still did it, but I was perhaps a bit meeker than I should have been. Growing as an agent, at least in part, has meant locating the balance between authoritative and rude, demanding and pushy.

Have I hit that sweet spot? You can ask the person who wanted to know if I was too nice to be an agent. She signed on. I still got it!

As a side note, the reason my blog entry is later than usual this week is that the first one I wrote was struck down by two people here. The reason? They thought I was too mean. Those bitches.