Thursday, March 29, 2012

Agents Bust False Publishing Trends, Part II

Today we continue busting false notions about trends in traditional publishing, with information gleaned from agents at the 2012 Write Stuff conference in Allentown, PA. Our panelists were Rachel Stout of Dystel & Goderich Literary Management, Carrie Pestritto of Prospect Agency, Marie Lamba of Jennifer DeChiara Literary Agency, Lauren Ruth of BookEnds LLC, and Katie Shea of Donald Maass Literary Agency.

Agents are no longer taking on new clients. I can speak from my own experience on this one, as I signed with one of these agents in December—Katie Shea, pictured with me at right—and since then she’s taken on three additional clients. If you seek traditional publication, try submitting to newer agents at established agencies. Since they are still building their client lists they have the time to work with you, they are hungry for a sale, and are backed by the collective wisdom and power of their agencies. Chuck Sambuchino regularly posts “New Agent Alerts” at his Guide to Literary Agents blog.

No one gets discovered in the slush pile anymore.
Lauren Ruth said that like most agents, she interned by reading slush (unsolicited submissions). Her written critiques of the submissions were critiqued in turn by more experienced agents, so that she learned to spot the projects with the potential to fit the agency’s business model. It is true that the slush pile may not be the way to reach agents who represent bestselling clients. Because they already have a dependable income stream from producing authors, their motivation to read slush is pretty low. This seems to anger many aspiring authors, but really, this person is going to be working on your behalf—how thin do you want him to stretch?

Here my own experience can provide another case in point. While I tried all the “leg-up” techniques I could find, including ten years of face-to-face agent pitches at conferences as well as recommendations from well-published authors to their agents, I ultimately gained representation through the slush pile. Why did it work? My project had matured, my query reflected this, and I submitted widely enough that my story found its way to its perfect advocate.

No one gets advances anymore. If no one got advances, there would be no agents, since their income is dependent upon 15% of your royalties. For this reason, an agent will advocate for an author's worth even more than many of today's authors advocate for themselves. While it used to be an author's hope that a decent advance would pay off lean years of dues-paying work, many authors have adopted a model in which they follow up those lean years by paying out their own money to self publish, or give away e-books for free.

Perhaps because of this, the way an author's work is valued has never been more diverse. While one self e-published author gives away books in the hopes that someone will notice her, Carrie Pestritto cited the recent example of an agented debut novelist who nabbed a one million dollar advance. Are these common? No, but that’s not a trend shift—such extreme examples have always been newsworthy because they are uncommon. Katie Shea noted the extraordinary subjectivity of the industry with this example: one of her agency's YA projects received two offers from publishers. One was $7,500, and the other was $75,000!

In this time of great change in the publishing industry, one trend persists. Whether through the Big Six, small independent houses, or self publishing, and whether the product is digital or print, this industry has always attracted editors, agents, and authors who are willing to act on the strength of their convictions. Today’s economic realities may make such gambles more nerve-wracking than ever, but there are still people willing to make them.
Kathryn Craft is a developmental editor at, an independent manuscript evaluation and line editing service. Her women's fiction and memoir are represented by Katie Shea at the Donald Maass Literary Agency. The first chapter of her memoir, Standoff at Ronnie's Place, modified as a stand-alone essay, was published online by Mason's Road, the online journal of Fairfield University's MFA program. She blogs about Healing through Writing.

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  1. This is encouraging to read. Thanks!!

  2. A 75000 dollar advance?! Could you specify what publishing house and author this was.

  3. Thanks for stopping by, Traci!

    C0: You're more interested in the $75K advance than the $1 million, lol? Sorry, I don't know the publishing house or the author. Not sure it's even too polite to ask, unless like as with E.L. James it was in all the press. Even Publisher's Marketplace would put that deal in a $49K-wide bracket and call it "a very nice deal." As moderator of the panel, I was simply trying to assess if there were still advances, and what kind of numbers they were seeing.

  4. After ten years of query rejections, I gave up ... and it was liberating ... but after reading this I may have to go back to the query grist mill ... thanks Kathryn ... thanks a lot.

  5. Christopher: I don't know which of our decisions was more sane! But I just kept thinking, if I give up today, what might have happened tomorrow?

  6. This report on the agent panel was very helpful. Thanks, Kathryn.

  7. You're welcome, Patricia. Thanks for reading.

  8. I appreciate your doing this "homework" for those of us who could not make the conference. It's always interesting to see how different people in the publishing (or for that matter almost any) industry see their business as growing.

    For myself, the thought of doing only self-promotion is wince-worthy enough that I would look for an agent even with a reduction in that field. But not everyone works the way I do. It's all good.

  9. C0: Okay, folks, you're not going to believe this, but I have the scoop on that deal C0 asked about! The author who received both the $7500 and $75K offers read the blog after it was RT'd on Twitter by my agent at Donald Maass, where the author is repped by Stacia Decker. The author's name is Joelle Charbonneau. She wrote to me:

    "As a fellow DMLA client, I thought I'd say hello! I noticed your blog post and figured I could answer the question about who the publisher was for the $75,000 advance. It was Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Children's. I was amused to see it on your blog only because the deal was for me.

    "And yes - the difference between the $7,500 per book offer and the $75,000 per book offer made me read the e-mail from Stacia Decker several times (and even then I admit I read it wrong). It does just go to show in the business that you never know what to expect. Feel free to answer what publisher it was for. I'm happy to share. And still a little freaked!"

    Thanks so much, Joelle, for the info! (Shaking my head here at how the Twittersphere works!)

  10. Congrats, Joelle! As to having an agent, another good reason is NOT having to hire a lawyer for contract negotiations!

  11. Eden: Thanks for stopping by. One great advantage to being a writer in this day and age is the amazing way we can benefit from one another's experience. Glad I could help.

  12. Dani, how true! An unanticipated high for me in having an agent has been having someone firmly planted in my corner. Writing can feel like you're taking on the world alone. You constantly have to shore yourself up. If you wait for just the right agent, you will have found someone not only likes your work, or sees a market for it, but loves it. That is a neat person to add to your team!

  13. Thanks Dani! And to add to your comments about the good side of having an agent isn't just having someone to submit your work or look over the contracts (although Lord knows I am thrilled that someone is there to answer all the legal questions for me), but an agent - at least my agent, is a partner. She is an amazing support system. She reads and helps me edit everything that I write, is a sounding board for ideas and is the best advocate for my work I could ever ask for. I know that the publishing world is changing as is the role of agents. Some authors are comfortable going it alone in this new publishing world, but I tend to be one that is glad to have my agent helping me make the best decisions for my career.

    Oh - and like Kathryn - I queried my agent without having ever met her. Turns out that was the best thing I ever did.

  14. It seems like the publishing world is crazy right now. Everything's shifting and changing. So hard to keep up, so it's nice to hear insider information.

  15. Thanks for stopping by, Joelle, and adding your insights. And congratulations to you and Stacia on that awesome deal!

  16. Gee, I wonder which one she took, the $7,500 or $75,000? (g)

    It's good to know that agents are still in the trenches fighting for authors, and there's still good advances to be had, for the right book.

    Morgan Mandel

  17. Katherine, I was traveling when this two-part post came out and tried (unsuccessfully) to post from my iPhone. Just wanted to say thank you for the insightful posts. And congrats on your agent!

  18. Thanks for stopping by Julie, and for your good wishes!


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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