Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Can a Book Offer Help an Agent Fall in Love?

At conferences we hear agents repeatedly proclaim that in order to be willing to represent an unpublished author in this highly competitive, very tight fiction market, they need to LOVE the author’s story and voice. The author needs to be congenial, easy to work with, promotable, and being educated in the business is a terrific plus.

What if an unpublished author comes to an agent with a valid publishing offer in hand? The agent isn’t unduly impressed with the story or the author’s voice, but otherwise the author has the complete package. Given this situation, does the agent still need to LOVE the author’s work?

I assume that from the agent’s POV, this offer comes with certain drawbacks. The offer’s on the table and the agent doesn’t have time to work with the manuscript to strengthen it and there’s no time to send it out to other publishing houses with hopes of generating other offers and the coveted auction, but it is a guaranteed sale the agent did nothing to generate.

Given that the best agents are all about building author’s careers, when approached by an unpublished author with a contract in hand, does the agent still need to LOVE the story and voice to happily and competently represent this author? Does a contract help the author attain her dream agent, or could it even be a handicap?

Here’s what a few prominent agents had to say:

This really depends on the agent. For me, the advance and the contract are only one piece of the puzzle; I’m an advocate for the client, no matter how much $ is involved. It’s harder for me to be an advocate on a book that I’m not in love with – so that’s another factor to consider.
Jeff Kleinman

It really depends on the agent (and how much they want or need the commission). I've only agreed to rep an author with a deal on the table once, because I loved that book (and continue to love the author's work), and I get at least half a dozen such opportunities each year. For me, it really does come down to how well I connect with the material. Because I plan to rep an author for the life of their career, I don't want to get stuck reading a book I don't like or can't connect with (by an author I may not respect) once a year. Book deals are a lot of work, and an agent's job isn't over after the deal is closed. So it's not worth it to me to spend my time on material I don't like.

That said, every agent has his/her price. If the offer on the table was a quarter million dollars, well, that would certainly be worth reading and working with material I didn't care for! But in my experience, these offers on the table are always quite low, because publishers don't tend to offer very much money to first time authors who don't have agents.
Cameron McClure
Donald Maass Literary Agency

In short, my answer to this question is YES, an agent certainly still needs to be in love with the author's work even if there is an offer on the table. Personally, and at our agency, we're looking for lifetime relationships with our authors so we want to know we are the right champion for the author's work, and that we are a good match for that author for their long-term career and not simply the short-term finalization of a contract.

I can't lie - an author presenting a project that already has an offer is initially attractive. But we've had to turn away authors in the past who came to us with publishing offers because we didn't feel that engaged by their writing style and what we saw our futures together career to be.

There's an important reverse to note here as well. That is that if an author decides to shop their work to publishers in the hopes of first getting a publishing offer and then coming back to find an agent, is that if the "offer" falls through, the agent cannot go back to the editors/imprints who have already told the author no. Often, it is the case that the author did not select the appropriate editors at the different imprints because they are not as familiar as an agent is with each editor's interests. At that point, the agent is severely handicapped because he/she cannot go back and approach the imprints who have rejected the manuscript. So, an agent is always wary when an author begins to shop their manuscript to editors before going to agents.

I always appreciate receiving submissions that say something to the effect of, "Edie Editor has expressed an interest in seeing my work, but I would like to secure representation before formally submitting my materials to editors." I'm far more attracted by the fact that an author has made contacts (through writers workshops for example) and then can hand them over to me so that I can maximize the success of the submission.
Kelly D. Sonnack

Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agenc


Arkansas Cyndi said...

Very interesting responses. I have a friend who won the GH, had an offer on the table, and still had trouble getting representation. (I'll not name the author or book) Book is now on the shelf at B&N and BAM, but I wondered about agent thinking on authors with offers.

Thanks to the agents for answering.

Lise said...

I appreciate all the agent opinions on the question you posed. However, my own question is how do agents feel about an author who already sold one or more books (that perhaps they would not have liked if they had been presented with them) but that author comes to them with a different, new project that they do love? Do they go from this "square one"? How do agents handle situations that arise when their author client presents them with a NEW work that the agent does not care for? It would seem to me that every agent cannot possibly love EVERY book that every one of their clients writes. How is that situation handled?

I would love to hear some thoughts from the Five Scribes on these conundrums!

Melanie Atkins said...

Interesting topic. Thanks to the agents for answering.

Delta Dupree said...

Great agent comments, great blog!

I was in this very situation: an offer, no agent and looking for one.
The agent I found took me on. Let me say she'd sold quite a few books in erotic romance. She is a reputable agent. Needless to say, we are no longer married I think our joining was a mistake on both our parts. Me wanting an agent badly and rushing to get one. The agent, who knows--because she didn't fall in love with the story? The publishing business (agents, editors, copyeditors...)is subjective. What an agent loves doesn't necessarily mean editors will love the same work and vice versus.

Keri Ford said...

Great post. This is such a hard place for everyone to be in. You're more likely to sign with an agent before you find out much on how that person operates when that sale is waiting for you.

Cindy Procter-King said...

Very interesting! I've heard pros and cons of both positions. I've heard agents say YES to contact them if you have an offer on the table--I have friends who got their agents that way--but generally the agent still wants to love the author's voice and work before they'll agree to sign the author.

I've been agented, and it didn't work out, even though the agent said she loved my work and voice. Yes, she loved my work and voice - as long as I sold within a year. And with me doing most of the work of contacting editors (through conferences and contests) myself. She was with a reputable agency, too. Was. She's no longer there, and I have no clue where she went.

My long way of saying that even if I had an offer on the table, I wouldn't want an agent signing me if she didn't truly believe in my work, if she didn't believe in a give and take relationship where we could actually discuss the industry without fear of reprisal, and if she or he didn't think they could be there with me for the long haul.

Theresa said...

I have to agree with you, Delta, it IS a tremendously subjective business. I know of several very good writers who had great, reputable NY agents and despite the agents' best effort, they couldn't sell them.

It's a tough industry--one that is ever-changing, which is why I feel networking is so important! I realize conferences are a real luxury we can't always afford, so that's why I read blogs and I try to pass on info through Five Scribes.

We have to keep up with the current industry attitudes 'cause what worked a couple of years ago, may not work now.

And let's not forget, there are ALWAY exceptions to the rules. I myself, intend to be an exception--if the opportunity presents itself. Did I mention that we need to have strong egos too?

Lise brought up a great question as to what happens if an agented author writes something her agent declines to represent. Is that book dead, or can the author get a second agent?

Perhaps one of our agents will pop in one of these days and give us the answer to that one.

Chin up. There are many routes to publication, we just have to mate talent, with opportunity and luck, and then we'll get the golden publishing apple--MORE work and different conundrums!

Donnell said...

T, you have such a way with words; you *must* be a writer. Intriguing post. I would love to hear additional agents slats on these questions. Maybe they'll pop in ;)

Edie said...

Excellent post! I know I'd want an agent to fall in love with my book if I get an offer.