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How to assess whether an agent is savvy about publishing contracts?


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#1 zenpicker

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Posted 09 May 2014 - 10:02 AM

There seems to be a never-ending tide of young people setting up shop as agents - some having been "hatched" inside an established agency, but some not.  They may have enough industry contacts and drive to be worth pursuing, but I worry that a young agent won't have the necessary chops to negotiate a smart contract should they actually sell your book.  

 

E.g., what about negotiating the bit about whether rights revert to you if the pub lets your book go out of print?  That's one point I've heard can be neglected even by experienced agents.

 

I guess my concern is mostly for entry-level and less experienced agents.  I assume that an agent who's done 30 deals is pretty smart as a negotiator.  Are there questions one might ask during an offer conversation that would get at this?  Other ways to get a sense?

 

 


 

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#2 sharpegirl

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Posted 09 May 2014 - 12:08 PM

Newer agents can be great, but I would personally only go with a newer agent if they were working in an established agency. Often, newer agents in established agencies have more experienced mentors who can step in or help out when needed. Also, established agencies often have contract managers. 

 

If someone's set up their own shop with only a few years of agenting experience, it would make me nervous. Mostly because there's a high rate of turn around in this business, because agenting doesn't pay a lot--especially in the first few years. If a newer agent in an established agency quits the business, often the agency will assign you another agent. If a newer agent who set up his/her own shop suddenly quits the business (and it happens) then it leaves a lot of writers out in the cold--and often their books, too, if they're still on submission. Now, there are a few exceptions to this: my own agent was not an agent before starting her own agency. But she had 20+ years experience as an editor at Macmillan and had worn basically every publishing and editorial hat you could. She had all the connections and knowledge already and she became one of the top agent in kid's lit within a few years of opening her agency. So she was a pretty safe bet :D 

 

Even if an agent has thirty deals, it's more important to look at the KIND of deals, rather than just the number of deals. One agent could have 30 deals, but 25 of them are to smaller presses who take unagented submissions and don't offer an advance, and only 5 of them are to bigger, advance paying publishers. Another agent could have only 15 deals, but half of them are six-figure, multi-book deals to Big 5 Imprints and the other half are foreign deals for those books they sold so well in the domestic market. There are a lot of factors to consider, when choosing agents to query. If you don't have a Publisher's Marketplace membership, I recommend getting one for the months you research/query (it's $20 a month). That way you can see all the deals that the agent's you're interested in are reporting, and see what imprints and editors are acquiring from them.

 

It's also important to keep in mind that an agent's job extends far beyond contract negotiation. They manage your career, they're your cheerleader, your biggest advocate. If the publisher gives you an awful cover, they can step in and try to fix the situation. If you and your editor disagree on changing a huge plot point, you can talk to your agent about the best way to talk to your editor about it. If your book gets pushed back over and over, an agent can step in and be like "What the heck, y'all? You're not treating my author right." There can be a lot of hiccups on the journey to publication, even after you get a book deal. Your agent is the one who helps smooth the way. 

 

Good luck! 



#3 AQCrew

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Posted 09 May 2014 - 12:15 PM

These are all great, sophisticated questions.

 

Honestly, this is where going to one of the big agent conferences is extremely valuable.

 

You can meet over 100 agents during the course of one weekend, and in doing so, you quickly realize who you'd want to work with and who you wouldn't -- even if they offered to rep you.

 

You cannot rely on client referrals because repped authors have zero incentive to say anything bad about their agents -- even if they secretly feel like they are trapped in a mediocre agency relationship, but are too scared to attempt to change horses in the middle of a race.  There's no reason to tell you this, and often, they are in denial about it themselves.

 

There are A LOT of issues that can be neglected by agents -- and large sales volume does not always equate to agents getting great deal terms for their clients.

 

Unfortunately, we think it's a game of who knows more... if you feel you actually know more about favorable deal terms and contract issues than an agent -- then you definitely don't want to sign with that agent.  And yes, savvy unpublished writers CAN actually learn more than many "agents" out there by talking to a wide variety of authors about their book deals and their contracts -- again, conferences and networking are great for this.  

 

It's never too early to worry about this stuff, but it also takes a certain type of writer who is willing to learn the business side of things rather than just leaving it up to "everyone else".



#4 zenpicker

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Posted 09 May 2014 - 01:09 PM

Great advice!  Thanks.  One agent who seems interested in my work (she's reading fulls of both my books) has been in the business a long time on the editorial side, though I believe not as an acquiring editor, but is relatively new to agenting and has an unclear sales record.  She seems to be highly respected as an editor and a human being, not inconsiderable qualities if the business side is there too.  I will get the Publisher's Marketplace membership for sure, and see if I can ferret more out.  But I am also concerned about the contract savvy, hence this post.  

 

I actually went to AWP thinking I might have a chance to pitch some agents, but it appears not to be the best venue - just too big - so I have indeed been looking for other, smaller events that might be better for meeting agents.  Some of the writers' workshops have a few agents in attendance, but often not my genre, so that doesn't seem like a very good approach (whatever their merits otherwise).  Any suggestions?  

 

Thanks for the speedy reply!

zp


 

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#5 AQCrew

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Posted 09 May 2014 - 01:46 PM

Based on your stated location of US Southwest, we'd definitely take a look at the Writers' League of Texas annual conference.

 

They have a solid line-up of experienced, veteran agents: http://www.writersle...nference-Agents

 

That said, they may not all be interested in your work or your genre -- BUT that doesn't mean you can't chat up industry stuff with them and learn in the process.  And in fact, they likely will appreciate it more than simply being pitched to...

 

The San Diego State University has an annual conference that attracts a huge roster of agents every year.  http://www.ces.sdsu....ine.aspx?id=735

 

If they offer agent "speed dating" sessions, do it; but don't pitch your work.  Use the five minutes to talk about the industry and some of these questions with each of the agents.  It will be a breath of fresh air for the agents, and they will likely enjoy talking to you.  They'll let down their guard more and you'll glean their personality and experience level -- much better than if you spend the five minutes pitching them your work.  And best of all, you will quickly discern who is professional and truly knowledgeable... especially if you ask the same questions about...say... contract issues and negotiating rights... to each agent.  

 

Then, after your speed dating sessions, you can spend the rest of your time networking with the agents who you think are worthy, rather than attempting to make yourself worthy to anyone and everyone.

 

You can also network with editors and ask THEM which agents they would recommend for your genre or your type of work.  Those responses get really interesting.



#6 zenpicker

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Posted 09 May 2014 - 02:17 PM

Again, great advice and much appreciated.  I'm actually in CO, but "Western US" didn't seem to be one of the options for location. ;)  Not that TX is that far away, however....I will check into both the conferences you mentioned.  Thanks so much.


 

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#7 AQCrew

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Posted 09 May 2014 - 02:32 PM

Then, definitely take a look at the Pacific Northwest Writers Association's annual conference in Seattle in July 2014, which is a little closer to CO.

 

http://www.pnwa.org/?page=conference



#8 Jeanne

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Posted 09 May 2014 - 03:29 PM

There is also the Pikes Peak Writers Conference (Colorado Springs)

 

http://www.pikespeakwriters.com/

 

that occurs every April. I believe the 2014 just ended. It has a bit of a slant toward genre but not entirely and is a great place to network.

 

I noticed your credentials, so I assume you subscribe to Poets & Writers? If not, you may want to hit the library and read some of their interviews with agents. They concentrate on agents who have an interest in lit fiction and mainstream fiction. All of the agents I've seen interviewed have great sales records and would be worth querying.

 

Hope that helps.



#9 zenpicker

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Posted 11 May 2014 - 04:01 PM

Thanks yet again for the wealth of ideas.  Lots to research!

 

Jeanne, yes, I do subscribe to P&W and have used their resources somewhat, as well as QueryTracker etc.  


 

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