Archive for September, 2011

Literary Agent Blogs

September 22, 2011

I attend a lot of writers’ conferences. Most of the people I meet there, not surprisingly, are looking for agents. You can always find well-attended classes and workshops that have to do with the steps the writer must take to find an agent; subjects  like:  making effective pitches, how to compose  query letters, and how to write non-fiction book proposals.  A lot of the readers of my blog are looking for answers to help them get published. I try to do that, but frequently I seem to indulge myself in rants of one sort or another. I thought it might be nice to talk a bit about some other agent blogs. It’s a good way to get the kind of information you are looking for and to learn a little more about how agents think. There is a  longer  list of agent blogs along with other publishing and writing related blogs at

 Here are some agent blogs that I think  are pretty good and have a lot of substance.

 Guide To Literary Agents.    Chuck Sambuchino is the blogmeister of this extremely popular blog for writers sponsored by Writers Digest. His site has lots of interviews and posts of agents talking about their life and work . It also includes guest posts by writers giving tips on how they found their agent. It is one of the most widely read blogs about publishing.

 Nathan Bransford.   Nathan was a literary agent for many years until he left last year for greener pastures in the tech industry. He is still an indefatigable blogger on all matters related to book publishing.  This blog won the best publishing industry blog in 2009.  Check it out.

 Rachelle Gardner.   I love this blog. It has  sound tips and advice.  But a lot of blogs have that.  Rachelle’s personality really shows through. She has warmth and a very encouraging manner.  Rachelle is relatively new to agenting. She started in 2007. She is associated with Wordserve Literary Agency in Denver. She specializes in the Christian market. But at least one Jewish – secularist- humanist- former Berkeley radical agent (me) really likes this blog.  

 Laurie McClean Agent Savant.   Ask the Agent had a great interview with Laurie last year about genre fiction. Laurie specializes in this. In case you didn’t know, “genre fiction” is a term of art for: romance, science fiction, fantasy, mystery, and thrillers. She also works in teen fiction. Agent Savant is filled with tips and thoughts about writing and publishing in this genre. When I need information about genre fiction, I always go to Laurie for advice.

 I’d be interested in hearing from you what you think of these agent blogs and if you have others to recommend.




Advertisement Agrees to Collect California Sales Tax

September 11, 2011 has finally agreed to start collecting sales tax for California beginning 2012. Legislation enacting the agreement was passed overwhelmingly and with bi-partisan support by the California state legislature last Friday and is being sent on to the governor. withdrew their ballot initiative to exclude them from the requirement to collect the tax.

If old age has not eroded my memory, I believe that this struggle began in 1999 at a dinner on Fourth Street in Berkeley with representatives of the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association and Lenny Goldberg, a progressive lobbyist in Sacramento.

The booksellers’ argument; unassailable from perspectives of policy, economics, and even morality, seemed to be doomed by the powerful and implacable forces of the Internet mania of the time, and the political power of Silicon Valley. At first we were treated with a combination of condescension and contempt. But more often we were simply ignored. The democratic majority supported us and passed several pieces of legislation. But there was always unanimous opposition from the Republican minority, who saw it falsely as a tax increase and from governors Gray Davis and Arnold Schwarzenegger, who opposed it for opportunistic reasons.

There was always a modicum of support from larger retailers like Macy’s and Walmart along with the commercial shopping center interests. But they were always reluctant to get out in front of this issue until the very end.

The principle at stake was whether tax rules should be applied evenhandedly.  Paradoxically we had a profoundly conservative position; that is if you consider conservatism as being against government interfering in economic activity, in this case picking winners and losers and distorting the free market through tax policy. I never quite understood why conservatives consistently opposed this principle.

Tax policy is still riddled with special breaks for large interests, probably even more detrimental and egregious  that the Amazon sales tax issue. But it is nice to know that every once in awhile, government will do something right in spite of powerful and implacable forces. It doesn’t happen very often, but  it demonstrates that ordinary people can do extraordinary things.

Thanks California independent booksellers. Now let’s collect some of these taxes due and fix the pot holes and start hiring teachers.


More Misconceptions About Literary Agents

September 7, 2011

Last week we did a blog post on writers’ misconceptions about the literary agents. Here are a few more.

1) I went with the agent who promised me the six figure deal. Most of the agents I know won’t do this, but I still hear about it from writers. It’s pretty hard to predict what kind of publisher advance a project will draw these days. What I can predict is that the advance offers will be a whole lot lower than they were several years ago. It’s important to have an agent whom you can trust. Anyone who employs this kind of enticement is pretty suspect.

2) A good agent can get me a lot more money.  This is a little complicated. An agent can work with you to develop a concept that is more attractive (and valuable) to a publisher and can help you compose a book proposal that will  generate excitement from an acquiring editor. If there is competition for your book from several publishers, an agent can employ some sophisticated  bargaining strategies to help improve a deal offer. And an agent can negotiate contract terms that may address issues affecting future royalties. But if you are in a situation with only a single publisher making an offer, one must assume that the publisher knows in advance how much she is willing to pay for a project. The job of the agent is to find out what that number is. In spite of what they may tell you, agents are not in possession of alchemical powers that will turn lead into gold.  An agent can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.

3) A good agent can help me find a prestigious editor. This might or might not be true, but the real misconception is whether or not the writer will be better off with a “prestigious” editor. I believe that the best editor for a project is the editor who understands and believes in that project. This might be the editorial director of a large imprint, but it might also be a young assistant editor hungry for building a list. Recently I spoke to an author whose editor was one of these legendary guys in publishing. The author was unhappy, because he felt the editor didn’t give him the time he needed. I believe that.  I had one client who insisted that I only send his work to the most prestigious editors working at the most prestigious imprints, regardless of whether those editors had any interest in the subject being written about. One of the most common causes for rejection is: “this book doesn’t really fit my list.” A good agent will find you an editor who believes in your book. That is more important than having a superstar.

4) Never work with an inexperienced agent. Since I was an inexperienced agent not too long ago, I fully understand the downside of working with one. There are lots of things in book publishing that a person can only learn from experience. Fortunately I had been in the book business for 35 years when I became an agent and came onto the job knowing quite a bit, but there were still lots of holes in my knowledge. A lot of agents, many in the big agencies, can be pretty young and inexperienced. But this is not always such a bad thing. Some of these agents are pretty sharp and have a good eye for a project. And they are more likely to take a chance on a new writer. In the book business, developing new talent is a thankless but important job and it usually falls to the agents who have not yet built their lists.

Writers’ Misconceptions About Literary Agents

September 2, 2011

Let’s face it. Most of you who have never worked with a literary agent probably think that the 15%  agency commission is  sort of …well…unfair. A kind of baksheesh paid to the  middleman in the literary souk  who can use his connections  to get you access to  the celebrity editor at Knopf. Most published writers will tell you otherwise. Check out the acknowledgements page at the back of any book.  Authors love their agents, and recognize that the agent’s work goes far beyond dickering over deal points.

I’d like to address the subject of  the misconceptions about agents that seem to be going around in writers’ circles.

1) It’s better to be represented by a New York agent. Obviously I’m annoyed by this surprisingly widely held belief, since I live and work in the San Francisco Bay Area. A lot of writers seem to think that getting published is all about the agent’s physical  proximity to editors and the number of times per month they have lunch with them. The famous “publisher’s lunch” is from another era. And it is unclear that this was an important ritual in the acquisition process  even then. All of the editors I talk to  will tell you that the key consideration  of an acquisition decision is whether the book has commercial potential. Publishers are under incredible pressure from their multimedia conglomerate parent corporations to make money on every book they publish. If your book is a bad business proposition, no amount of martinis at lunch is going to convince the publisher otherwise. I talk to a lot of book editors even though I work in California.   They tell me that the most important thing you can provide them with  is a convincing book proposal.  You don’t have to be in New York to do that.

2) It’s better to be represented by a big (prestigious) New York agency. There are no good or bad agencies. There are just good or bad agents. That said,  there are some advantages to having one of these big agencies on your side, but not the advantages that you might think.  At the end of the day a celebrity agent isn’t  going to give you an edge, and can’t  deliver a contract for a project that would not otherwise get published. If you have a big book with lots of subsidiary rights opportunities (movie deals, foreign markets, merchandise tie-ins), it would be nice to have a big agency that could seamlessly handle all these deal elements. But even there, most good independent agents can serve you well.  

And  there is a downside to working with these  big agencies as well. They are extremely selective in the projects they take on.  A lot of these agencies are not looking for new writers. If you aren’t a literary superstar, you might be better served by a newer agent who is building a list and  is willing to take some chances by seeking out new talent.  And always, always, you are better served by an agent who has the time and the imagination to help you shape your ideas and the passion to believe in your talent. You want an agent who will not just flip a contract but who will work with you to develop your career as a writer.  There are some very good agents at the big New York agencies who will do this and other agents who are just too busy. The same is true of independent agents.

3) The agent’s 15% commission is a rip off.  It’s nothing more than payola to help you  get your foot in the door. Actually, sometimes that’s true. I’ve heard a lot of stories about agents who have done very little other than send your proposal around (usually to the same ten editors they like to work with) and then either drop you or flip a contract and disappear. That’s a bad agent. If you are going to give an agent a 15% commission, you might as well make sure that they are earning it. The work of an agent is a lot more than sending out your project and dickering over deal points. A good agent will help you refine your idea in a way that will make it easier to sell, will lead you through the book proposal process, may even provide detailed edits on your novel or memoir, will negotiate the contract, will be your advocate during the publishing process, will help you exploit all the subsidiary rights opportunities for the material in the book,  and will advise you on promotion when the book comes out. A good agent will earn that 15%. So try to find one of those.

I’ll talk about some more misconceptions on my next blog post.