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Writing Excuses 6.8: What Does an Agent Really Do?

Writing Excuses 6.8: What Does an Agent Really Do?


Key points: What do agents do? Everything! "All the stuff that I don't want to do, so that I can write what she does all the business stuff." Revisions, target submission list, submissions, auctions, negotiations, contracts...

[Howard] This is Writing Excuses, Season Six, Episode Eight, What does an agent really do? With agent Sara Crowe.
[Dan] 15 minutes long because you're in a hurry.
[Howard] And we're not that smart. Sara joined us a couple of episodes ago to talk about query letters, and she's back to talk about what it is an agent does and why you probably need one. Dan, what does Sara do for you?
[Dan] Man. Everything. What does Sara do for me? She does all the stuff that I don't want to do, so that I can write while she does all the business stuff. She negotiates contracts for me, she seeks out new contracts, particularly with foreign rights and movie rights and things like that, that I don't have the first clue of how to start. She talks to editors. She knows the market better than I do. When I have a new idea and say, "Hey, I have this great idea, what do you think?" She'll either say "That's cool" or "Are you serious?" Then she'll know where to send it. She'll say, "Yes, I think that would work, and I know exactly which editors would be most likely to read it." She does all kinds of wonderful things.
[Sara] Thank you.

[Howard] Well, now you've given us the pitch. What... Sara still needs to tell us some stuff. Sara, when you call an editor, what do you do? How does this work? I have no clue.
[Dan] Well, let's not start at calling an editor. Let's start it right at the very beginning of your relationship with an author. What is your job as an agent? What do you do?
[Sara] Well, let's see... So I... If I find a book that I love, I first work with the author on it, sometimes doing some revisions... Usually doing at least one revision. A lot of that... I think the benefit of agent revisions which are really different than any other type of revision... I'm not an editor, but I'm somebody who has submitted who knows how many books at this point to editors and seen editors' feedback... Seen so much editor feedback on so many projects that I do think that agents are able to think ahead to what an editor is going to see in a manuscript... What's going to be... What might be sort of a hole for them that we might be able to fix before we show it to them.
[Dan] I can corroborate that. I've got a book coming out next year called The Hollow City. I sent that to Sara, and she said, "This is good. But we need to fix it up." She gave me some pointers, and I went through it. I sent it back. She said, "Okay. This is good. This is better. I can send it to these people. But if you make it better, I can send it to more people." Because she knew who would be inclined to like it at that stage of its development. So we refined it a little more, and widened the audience among editors that she was familiar with.

[Sara] Definitely. Then what do I do? Then I really think about what editors there are for it. I make a submission list, which is based on lunches with editors and research on... Looking at Publishers Marketplace a lot, seeing what they're buying, knowing from my own agency and others what other agents are selling these editors. Putting together a great targeted list of editors that will love this book as much as I do. For me, as soon as I read a submission, if I love it, it usually means that I already have two or three editors that pop into my head that will also love it. If I can't think of five editors, then I probably am not... I know that even if I like it, I can't sell it. So that's an important distinction, too.
[Dan] Now I've got a story to tell there, too. I've got a book, famously known among listeners of the podcast as the Vampire Bunny Book. It's called The Night of Blacker Darkness. It's very weird. One of the reasons that Sara is such a great agent and such a great fit for me, is that she liked it as much as I did. She came up with a list of these are the editors that I think will like this book. So we sent it out to them. Each of them came back and said, "I like this book. And everyone else at my publisher thought I was crazy." Which means that she knew those editors really well, and she found them all. We haven't been able to... Well, we actually have sold that now in Germany. But the point is she knew exactly which editors that would appeal to, and found them very easily.
[Sara] It gets... It certainly gets easier in time. I've been... I've had my own list now for more than six years. Before that, I was assisting Ellen Levine and before that Ender Wiley. It takes a long time to build these relationships. I think... Even being online now, so many editors are on twitter now, which is helpful too. Sometimes you'll find out this small tidbit of information, something they're looking for.

[Dan] Okay. So you've come up with a list of editors. What happens then?
[Sara] I submit it. I talk to them, but I also have prepared a written pitch, much like your pitch. Often I use the... If the author's pitch was great, I use that. But mine is probably a little different, I enable to be a bit more of a salesman, talk for the authors.
[Howard] Well, you can fine tune it for that editor. If you know that that editor...
[Sara] Exactly. I fine tune it for the editor, and I'm able to say things about the author that might particularly appeal to that editor. Maybe some book that that editor edited that I think that's the reason I picked her. I try to make that clear. So then we send it out, and then we wait. Then comes, hopefully, negotiation. So depending on how many offers we have...
[Howard] I have to confess. In listening to what you do... I mean, I've spent the last four, maybe five years going to science fiction conventions, going to these sorts of events, and meeting people. I can't imagine knowing that many editors personally. You've spent... What, 10 years? Just building this list, building these relationships so that when you've got a manuscript, you either know where is going to sell or that you just don't want to represent it. That's kind of amazing.
[Sara] Yeah. I mean... I certainly make... I've taken on things that I won't be able to sell. But that's the other thing, I think. I really don't give up. I've had things that I've sold after a year. Some things where I took on an author for a project and we didn't sell it, then we sold their next project, and then we went back. So I have a pretty good track record that way. But I certainly have taken on things that I just love. Even knowing how hard they're going to be to sell.
[Howard] Vampire Bunnies.
[Dan] Yes.
[Sara] Well, I enjoy working with Dan. But I probably would have taken that on, just... if he had just sent it to me.

[Howard] Okay. Let me ask... I'm going to ask two questions here. Dan, before you were... What's the relation? What happens? What do you call that? Before you signed with Sara?
[Sara] I guess so.
[Dan] Yeah.
[Howard] Before you signed with Sara. There we go. That's the word I was looking for. Sorry. The parser is off-line. What did... Or how did you feel when an editor that you sent to rejected you?
[Dan] It broke my tender heart, Howard. No. It's hard.
[Howard] Okay. All right.
[Dan] It's hard every time. You just think, "Well, dang it. Now I have to do this again."
[Sara] I'm curious. I think that...
[Dan] That's usually what happened, was... It didn't necessarily represent to me, "Nobody likes me." It represented, "Oh, crap. I have to do all this work again."
[Howard] Okay. Now, Sara. When you send out a manuscript and editors say they don't want it... You probably get rejections a lot on the stuff that you send out?
[Sara] Yeah, of course. I don't think there's any... Even things that I've sold at auctions with five publishers, there were four publishers who said, "No, thank you."
[Howard] Okay. So as somebody... I have yet to submit a manuscript to anybody. But as somebody who's considering someday doing this, I'm thinking, "Do I want to do this myself? Do I want to keep the agent's percentage? Or do I want to let someone like Sara filter from me all of the pain and anguish of having to go back to these editors?" I can't imagine...
[Sara] Some of my authors don't want to see the notes, but most of them want to. I do think, and I don't know if this is true but I think that the rejection letters that I get from editors probably have a little bit more information than the letters that editors send directly to authors. So I think that I do... I'm able to...
[Dan] Oh, definitely.
[Sara] Get more feedback for my writers than they would get if they were just sending into the slush pile.
[Howard] See, I'm thinking in terms of just workflow for a writer. If a writer submits to an editor and gets a rejection letter, the writer has to get back on the submission course and submit again.
[Dan] Well, yeah. The Blacker Darkness, that book is a great example of this, because that was the one I was trying to sell forever. I submitted that all over the place.
[Sara] I'll admit I'm still going to try and sell it while he's doing other things.
[Dan] She has to admit it's so weird. But once I had sold Serial Killer, I put Blacker Darkness in a drawer somewhere and forgot about it. Then years later, I started to think, "You know, I think that book is pretty good. Let's try to sell it again." Instead of having to go out and do all that work, I just sent it to Sara and said, "You handle this for me." Then, months later, she wrote back and said, "Well, nobody wants it." I go, "Okay." It didn't have any of that emotional work.
[Sara] Yeah, and now we're going to try again, because it sold in Germany.
[Dan] I didn't have to do any of the effort to go into it.
[Howard] That is very, very attractive to me.

[Dan] Before we leave the submission process, there's one point I want to make here. We're talking about Sara submitting to many editors at a time. I, as an author, cannot do that. And never could. It was one at a time, and they would reject it and they'd send it back. That's one of the, I think, big benefits of an agent is that they can send it out to 10 people at once. Then if more than one of them wants it, they can fight... In a nice way. It goes to auction, is what that is. That's what happened with us in Germany, which helped a lot. So, anyway, submission process, we talked about that. An editor says yes, I like this. Then what happens?
[Sara] The scenario plays out differently with every situation. If I have one publisher who loves it... I'll just take my most recent thing, where I sent out a book, and I just really liked... One editor... It's a realistic contemporary YA... All the... I got really great response right away because I think people were excited that it wasn't sad. Anyway, one editor read it in a night. She called me the next day, said, "I love it, and I'm taking it to a meeting next week." That's great, and not great, because I knew it would give none of the other editors that had it any chance to read it, and wouldn't really let me know where everybody was. So anyway, she did offer the next week, and I had to tell all the other editors, but at the same time the things that this editor said about the book, the reasons she wanted it really, it made the author and I feel completely secure and feeling like this was the right editor for the book. So then we asked her for a pre-empt, to take it off the table, and we did that. So other than... The other thing we could have done was to give the other editors like two weeks, and then try to have an auction, but... Sometimes... So that's what a pre-empt is. Otherwise, maybe if there had been a longer period of time... She loved it, two other editors loved it. If I have three editors were going to make an offer, or more, then I set up an auction date. A closing date for when they are going to have to give me their offer, and then we have an auction.

[Dan] Now describe to us an auction. Because having gone through the process with the German publishers, that was like my favorite thing in the world. So what exactly is an auction, and how does that work?
[Sara] They... So I send out auction rules. Once I know who all the players are going to be in the auction, I send out an e-mail of auction rules. That by 11 AM on Thursday, they need to send me their offer, which should include territory, royalties, any other things they want to say to the author. I think that that's really a really nice advantage to an auction, that authors love, is that the editors write these... They usually fax... They don't fax anymore, they mostly e-mail... Sort of they actually get to hear the editor... The editor actually writes down what they love about the book, and what their plans are for it, which... You don't always... You don't usually get to know up front when you're making...
[Howard] I can see how that process would be something Dan especially would love.
[Dan] Yes. It appeals to my arrogance greatly.
[Sara] So... Then we get those first offers. Then I call... You can make different rules. Our agency, I usually call the lowest bidder first each round. So everyone gives me their first offers, and whoever is the lowest bidder, I call them first. I tell them what the high bid is. They can either top it or they can drop out. Then we just keep going like that in rounds, until we're at final offers. We always state ahead that the author does not have to take the highest offer. So... A few of these... I think almost all. I haven't had that many auctions where the highest offer won. I mean, they were pretty close, but... Sometimes... You want the right editor for the book. So sometimes that's not the person who could get the most money together.
[Howard] This thing that you described, this auction process. That apparently is something that an author just cannot do themselves?
[Dan] Not at all.
[Howard] Editors will not take an author seriously?
[Sara] I don't know. I think that... I think there must be an example of an author having done it, and I think there is, but I just don't know. There's a lot of rules about auctions, and a lot of... Obviously there's just a whole honor system with it of not saying the right... So I think... I think the... There's a lot of money usually in auctions. I think the publishers will be more comfortable just knowing that...
[Howard] Knowing that there is an agent.
[Sara] Knowing the agency.
[Howard] Well, and the editors that you're dealing with when there's an auction all have this relationship with you. Many of them may have been an auction with you before, wouldn't they?
[Sara] Yeah.
[Howard] Okay. Whereas an author, that's never the case.

[Sara] But auctions are not that often. I mean, everybody loves... Of course, that's the dream. But it's not often the case. Because... Not going to auction doesn't mean... I tend to be very fond of trying to... When there's two people who really love it, but the author really loves one of them more, than I'm of the... I usually like to try to make the best deal with that editor. Because you can't really have an auction with two editors anyway. But... It's sort of boring. You have to... One of the rules is...
[Dan] You could have a cage match, though.
[Sara] One of the rules is that everybody gets to know how many people are in. You have to always be... So when they know that there's two, they tend to just keep matching each other, and then you get stuck.

[Dan] Okay. We don't have much time left, but I do want to talk. The other major thing I think in this process, after an offer has been made and accepted, then there's all kinds of contract negotiations that go on. That is where... Another case where I found you to be incredibly useful, because I know absolutely nothing about legalese, about contracts, about all of that stuff. So tell us just a little bit in like 1 minute about that process.
[Sara] Okay. Every agency negotiates boilerplate with the big publishers. So for instance Harper, who both Dan and Rob are working with, Harvey has been around for about 30 years... More than 30 years now. So he has over those years fought with Harper... We've gotten to a point where we... It changes all the time. It's changed... We've been fighting now about e-book royalties. Fighting might not be the best word to use. Going back and forth in a gentlemanly manner about e-book royalties. So... But those are the sort of things. So that when I make a new deal with Harper, I have this boilerplate to work from. Yes, there will be some changes for each deal in terms of royalties and other things, but I know that over the years that we've negotiated a great contract with them. So that's one of the things.
[Dan] So, like with Hollow City, that we have just recently finished the contract for. There were all of the different rights. Audio book rights, e-book rights, world English rights, foreign rights, all these different things. The publisher for the most part wants to keep them, because then they can make money off of them. The author, in most cases, wants to keep them because they can make money off of them. The agent's job is to basically fight for the author to get... To be able to retain as much as possible without losing the editor.
[Sara] Contracts are changing all the time. In the last year, I think it's more than three of the major publishers have changed their boilerplate. So there's a lot of things that they're adding to watch out for. They're all trying to sneak in graphic novel rights for instance and things like that, that for certain authors, you shouldn't give up. So that's the kind of thing that we're...
[Dan] That's... Like you say, that changes all the time. Five years ago even, audio book rights were not a big deal. Now they're huge, because they're so cheap to produce now.
[Sara] You can do your own contracts, you just really should do a lot of research.
[Howard] You just really shouldn't.
[Dan] Well, and some of the famous cases, Neil Gaiman for years didn't have an agent...
[Sara] You need to learn a lot about it.
[Dan] But that's because he had been in comic books forever representing himself to those publishers, so he had a lot of experience with it. Anyway we need to end now. Thank you so much, Sara, for coming on. These have been wonderful.

[Dan] Howard, give us a writing prompt.
[Howard] Okay. Writing prompt. Your agent is actually a warlock, using magic to make your books sell. This has worked in numerous cases for numerous other clients. Unfortunately, something about your book means that this process is going to go horribly, horribly wrong.
[Dan] You're out of excuses, now go write.
Tags: agents, auctions, business, contracts, editors, negotiations, revisions, secret agent, submissions
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