The Scoop on Agents
by Lisa Ekus
You’ve got a GREAT cookbook idea, have put together an outline, and believe there’s no other book like it on the market. You excitedly send material to a publisher, and eight to ten weeks later you get a form letter stating that the publisher only reviews submissions from a literary agent.
That’s if you get an answer at all …
So how do you find an agent, and why do you need one?
Look to the IACP, the Literary Market Place directory, and a variety of online resources. Talk to your colleagues. Read the acknowledgement pages of cookbooks. Network.
But that’s just the beginning. You have to understand what an agent does. Then you have to select the right person with whom you can create a fruitful, long-term relationship.
Why an Agent?
Simply put, the literary agent’s role is to represent you, your book, and your best interests. Your agent is the first person to truly understand what makes your idea and vision of your book special, conveys that message to the appropriate editor, and eventually sells your book to a publisher. Agents know the players, the field, the ins, the outs. By having representation, it tells an editor that you and your idea have already been vetted by a professional who thinks enough of you and your book project to “take you on.” Agents offer third party endorsement and respect in the industry.
Crafting Your Proposal
I review inquiries within four weeks of receiving them, and I turn down better than 50 percent of what I receive. Why? If it’s a good idea and a well-written proposal, but I don’t personally like it, I’ll reject it (nicely). The material must also be well written, well presented, and interesting to me. Sometimes it’s a good proposal but a conflict with another client and project I’m already representing. In that case I may give an author other agents to approach. But often I receive proposals that are incomplete, not well researched, about a subject that’s been done to death or even illiterate. Those are easy to reject. Do your homework — know what your competition is, do a marketing and PR summary, have a full list of the recipe titles and a reasonable representational sample of actual recipes — fully tested! And, spell check and proof your material numerous times.
If I’m intrigued with a concept and feel it’s viable in the marketplace, I will then work with an author to create a solid proposal package. This often includes collateral material that helps support your position (article clippings, press releases, a press kit, or a video tape). The bottom line: Your agent should work with you to produce the best possible package to interest a publisher. This can take a few weeks, months, or over a year.
Keep in mind that your agent should know:
- What books are on different publishers’ lists and submit proposals that enhance those lists.
- When to send a proposal as either an exclusive or multiple submission and to look for the best fit for you, starting with an initial list of publishers, based on their personal interests and publishing program. Within 48 hours of a proposal’s return, it should be out to another editor. It can take anywhere from a few weeks to a year or more to sell a proposal. Proposals should always be “out there” circulating. If it’s sitting on your agent’s desk, it can’t sell.
- How to communicate with you regularly on the status of activity. This includes reviewing rejections, giving you necessary pep talks, making revisions that may be requested by a publisher, and knowing when to revise or terminate a project.
A Publisher Is Interested: Now What?
Once a proposal is accepted, negotiations begin. Most new authors come to realize that an agent is there to negotiate the finer points of their contracts. As an author, you want your relationship with your editor to be as positive as possible. Contracts are best left to a third party. Think of it as the division between the creative (you and your editor) and the business (your editor and your agent) side. An agent is your buffer, but also your advocate, always looking for more: more advance money, more public relations and marketing, more design input, more photographs, and so on. Your agent is also your reality check as to what’s reasonable and possible.
Your agent will review the whole contract and consider questions like:
- What is the advance? Are there any bonus clauses?
- What about royalties and the splits on subsidiary rights sales?
- What kind of discount will an author get on buying books?
- Will there be an option clause and what will it cover?
- What about electronic rights?
These are just a few of the many issues covered by contracts.
After a preliminary discussion about an author’s preferences, the agent goes back to the publisher with requests. Each publisher has certain clauses they will not change (called boilerplates), but most are flexible within reason. It’s a give and take, and I know where I can give, as does an editor. Remember, your agent works for you and should be communicating regularly and often through the negotiation process. Authors have the final say on what we accept or reject. I will give my opinion when I think we have obtained the best possible deal. Once a deal is set, on average it takes two to three months from verbal agreement to signed contracts and the first advance check. All of these are factors to consider, discuss, and negotiate. A good agent will then work with you and on your behalf through all stages of the publishing process, not just the sale and contract negotiation. They are your advocate for all issues and concerns.
Building Your Relationship
I continually work with both already established authors and new voices to develop ideas. These ideas either originate from an author or they start out as a concept that a publisher has initiated. Agents are often called to find “the right author for a project.” Make sure your agent knows all your areas of expertise. Knowledge of the industry, editors and publishing houses, as well as key trends are the significant areas of expertise that an agent lends to your project. Advice, recommendations, inspiration, and consolation are also necessary components of a strong author-agent relationship. I think of myself as a combination pitch woman, negotiator, and mother — which includes nurturing and nagging! Find the person you work best with, someone who is accessible, responsive, and reliable; and most of all, someone you trust.