Literary agents

PaphraguyJanuary 13, 2004

Do gardening book authors really need agents?


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If it's a small book with a small publisher, you may be able to get away with not having an agent, but I strongly recommend having an attorney review any contract before you sign. My agent is well worth the 15% she gets paid. Here's a quick rundown of how an agent has helped me over the years:

1. An agent placed my first book with a bigger house--one that does not ordinarily read manuscripts unless they are represented by an agent.

2. She negotiated a better book deal and made changes to the publisher's standard contract to benefit me.

3. With the second book, she negotiated a better advance than I would have been able to, because by this time I was friends with the editor and it's hard to talk money with friends (an agent can threaten to "walk" and shop the book to other publishers--I would not have had the guts to do this)

4. With my newest book, my agent helped me develop a really sound, 20-page proposal that not only got my publisher really excited and got me a nice advance, it also gives me a terrific framework for writing the book. I don't usually write from outlines, but having this detailed proposal where I've already thought through some of the major structural issues will really make the writing much smoother this time.

5. If there is ever a problem with the publisher, the agent can be the "bad cop" and deal with the publisher

6. An agent can offer career advice--like suggesting how much you should charge in speaking fees, whether you should hire a publicist, etc.

7. Some agents handle foreign rights and other rights that can be sold later, without having to share the royalties with the publisher (as would be the case if the publisher bought "all rights".)

Hope that helps--


    Bookmark   January 13, 2004 at 12:30PM
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Thank you for the answers.


    Bookmark   January 13, 2004 at 1:15PM
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Thanks for the great info, Amy!

I have queried a dozen or so agents since July '03 and their replies were basically the typical "thanks but no thanks not our category and good luck". So, a couple of months ago, I queried/emailed Random House and they emailed me back twice about having my agent submit my book proposal to them and to Clarkson Potter as well. The person that I had emailed to, I later found out that he was the Chairman/CEO. Now the problem is, I don't have an agent.

So I'm back to square one and that is in search of an agent all over again but this time as soon as I mentioned Random House to the last 2 agents I contacted, they were ready to represent me to Random House/Clarkson Potter. One is even ready to "spice" up my proposal right away. Does that sound normal? Has anyone heard of Clarkson Potter publishing house?

Once again, thanks a bunch! You have been very helpful.

    Bookmark   January 13, 2004 at 2:18PM
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Sounds like they want to represent you because you practically have a done deal on your hands and they won't have to do much. Don't wait too long to make a decision.

    Bookmark   January 13, 2004 at 4:07PM
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Clarkson Potter is terrific--do a Google Search for Mary Jane's Farm. They just signed a 2 book deal with her for--are you ready?--1.3 million. (actually, maybe it was three books)

(although we can talk about the downsides to big publishing houses another day...the short version is that it's the same reason you shop at your friendly family-owned neighborhood nursery instead of the Home Depot plant section.)

Agents, like editors, are fallible and there are many publishing legends about people saying "no" to books that went on to be hits. The Chicken Soup books are one such story.

So it does not surprise me that an agent who said no before would say yes when they heard a publisher was interested. And yes, of course the agent would want to help polish your proposal--but if you have concerns about their suggestions, ask (nicely) and make sure you agree with the direction they want to take the book. But it is important to get the proposal right, because most editors will not want to keep looking at new versions of the same proposal--if they say no once, they move on.

Publishers like to work with agents because they speak the same language and because agents serve as the first cut, weeding through the unpublishable work so the publishers don't have to.

I'm not sure what the Random House e-mail said, but keep in mind, that could be their standard response. I hope not, but it's a possibility. I try to keep my expectations low in this business so that I am always pleasantly surprised by small successes.

Good luck!

    Bookmark   January 13, 2004 at 8:31PM
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Thanks Eddie and Amy for your replies!

I'm also keeping my expectations low but keeping my hopes high. Both the agents have read my proposal and have asked for the full manuscript and some photo samples.

Like I have mentioned before one agent is eager to "spice up" my proposal, which she already has and said that it should be in the mail later this week. My book contains over 100 photos (my own photography) in color and according to her, illustrated books are one of her fortes and suggested that we should work on it before they lose interest. Both are from very reputable agencies (or so I have heard).

Thanks, you guys have been very helpful!

    Bookmark   January 14, 2004 at 8:40AM
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bloodythumb(zone5? tulsaok)

I am currently in the market for an agent to help get my new book "Atkins-the death of compost?" out on the shelves by fall. It is a sequel to my first novel- "The Grapefruit Diet, and the rise of the compost pile" I think that will be my niche- diet/gardening books filled with revelatory and apocalyptic issues regarding the future of humus. For more of my work check out "Compost tea and heart health" still to be found in the out of print section on Amazon.

    Bookmark   January 18, 2004 at 2:56AM
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Well, finally my spiced up proposal is on its way to the editors at Random House and Clarkson Potter. She made some contacts with them via telephone before mailing my proposal. She said that after receiving my proposal, it might take a week to 4 weeks to hear from them and she will be "right on top of it". I always thought that it took much longer than 4 weeks to hear anything from publishers.

To Amy or any published author, how long did it take before your agent heard anything from the publishers?


    Bookmark   January 18, 2004 at 11:15AM
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It varies widely. Four weeks is about right. When there's an agent shopping the manuscript around, the editors know they need to be on their toes and make a decision. But I know published authors whose proposal sat on their own editor's desk (as in, the editor who had published their previous book) for months! On the other hand, the editor who published my previous book was always able to get back to my agent within a week or so. Keep in mind that before they can make an offer, they have to run it by several people and maybe even get it on the agenda for a staff meeting.

Do your very best not to call your agent and ask for updates...they will call you as soon as they hear something. It could take several rounds with different publishers, and retooling of the proposal in between--that's not at all unusual.

    Bookmark   January 19, 2004 at 6:36PM
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Thanks, Amy!

They can take their time because I'm not in a big rush, just very curious. I'm hoping for the best! I'm actually beginning to see the benefits of having an agent.

Once again, thanks, you have been very helpful and have a great day!

    Bookmark   January 20, 2004 at 8:15AM
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pinetree30(Sierra Westside)

My experience has been a little different. I have never had an agent, but have tried to handle everything myself. My first book sat around H-M Co. for a year before earning a rejection. Plus another year with another publisher. Then I sent it to a university press, and it was quickly accepted and published. That press then commissioned me to do another book thast I would not have thought of doing. With my third book, I started sending strong, detailed proposals with good market research data. It was picked up by one of the first round of publishers it was sent to, and published 1.5 yrs later. The fifth was caught up in a sort of bidding war between two major university presses, and I chose the one I did because they let me keep the copyright in my name. The sixth was commissioned by a small high-quality publisher who like my second book, and wanted something with the same tone for a much-bigger market than no. 2 was written for. It has done very well and is the standard of its kind in California with no real competitors.
the least substantial of these books sold the best -- 25,000 copies in its eleven years. The one that is most respectable scientifically sold the least -- maybe 2,000 since 1996. Selling books about wild native trees is not easy, unless they are new renditions of tired old field guides, so there is usually not much money in it. I am aiming my next book at people who travel to places where bristlecone pines grow, and I am planning to self-publish it. I don't want editors to come between me and my words, and I've had enough editing experience to know when I need to make changes. I'll probably sell fewer books, but I'll make the author's 10% plus the publishers 40% or so; and I'll get to say what I want to say. Seems worth a try, anyway.
P.S.-- Authors Guild members can get free vetting of their contracts.

    Bookmark   January 20, 2004 at 4:57PM
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Thanks for sharing your experience, "pinetree30"!

    Bookmark   January 21, 2004 at 8:39AM
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It has been 3 weeks since the editors received my proposal and my agent finally emailed and informed me that it was still at the publisher's and might take another month or more to hear from them again because according to her sometimes a publisher would like to hold on to the book for a few months, so more folks can read, review the proposal and then collectively make that final decision. She told me to hold on tight, don't worry about anything for now and will let me know more as soon as she hears from them again.

I was calm and patient at first in the beginning but with this new information I'm now starting to feel a little nervous and concerned. Is it good news or bad news? I don't like rejections but I know that is reality. She had also submitted my proposal to a bunch of other publishers as well.

Thanks for listening/reading!

    Bookmark   February 15, 2004 at 8:22AM
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