Friday, February 20, 2009

A short essay on how a book gets made and what an agent is for

I'm leaving these questions together because they're linked. They're also the first two questions from the reader who posed the question below, about gender balances in publishing.

You may wish to put on a pot of tea.

Late last year I was lucky enough to sign a contract to publish my first book. It's a novel, and it's a small publisher, but not I think a completely obscure one -- as in, I've see their books in bookshops and in the book review pages, and they're distributed by a bigger publisher.

First question: I was 'recruited' to this publishing house by their Publisher, who, from what she's said, spotted my short stories & poems in anthologies/journals. We emailed for quite a while before she signed me up -- I got the impression she was checking me out, and she certainly proved to me that she 'got' my writing. But almost as soon as I signed the contract, this Publisher handed me over to an Editor, who I hadn't dealt with before. The three of us had a meeting in January, and -- and I know this will sound patronising, but so be it -- I found that this Editor is at most maybe half my age (I'm 54. The Publisher, I'd guess, is 40 something).

Am I unfair to be concerned? I've been writing away for decades. This girl can't have been editing for more than a couple of years. She was pleasant and likeable, but the Publisher did most of the talking. I just don't feel inclined to trust this younger girl like I do the publisher. Am I being unreasonable? And should I say anything? Age aside, should I take it personally that the publisher has palmed my book off to somebody else?

You've hit the jackpot: a publisher has followed your work and offered you a publishing contract. In these times of desperation for novelists, this is a big deal. But, sadly, you don't seem to think it's a big deal - but I don't think you're being completely unreasonable, mainly because you may not realise how the book production process works (and I'm surprised your agent hasn't told you).

Unless the publishing company is very small - small enough to only publish one or two books a year - the publisher is not going to be able to edit a book themselves (I'll use the incorrect plural for convenience). A publisher who edits is the exception, rather than the rule. Typically, the publisher's job is to commission or acquire books, and that's what your publisher has done. Once the book is acquired, the project is then passed to an editor who will hold its hand through to the print date. So what happened to you is normal. Your publisher will still be involved, but there's just no way they could project manage and edit the book as well as do the commissioning part of their job, unless they're prepared to never sleep. An editor's life is focused on the deadline; publishers have different work arcs.

So that addresses your concern about whether you've been palmed off: you have, but for the right reasons. Your publisher will still be involved in the project, but she has other things to do - like work with the designer, publicist, sales manager and marketing department - in order to support your book.

The second concern was that the editor isn't experienced enough. You're within your rights to ask the publisher - not the editor - about which books the editor has worked on in the past, so you can ascertain whether it's a good match. But it's wrong to presume that her youth means she's not experienced. Some editors I know started very young and were no less capable because of it - they just knew that they wanted that job and they got onto it right out of university. Editing is about 90% talent and 10% training anyway - you can't really teach the former, and just because your editor is young doesn't mean she's not talented.

Also, given the previous post post about money, you're unlikely to see many men - young or old - in in-house editorial jobs and you're also not likely to see many older women. The amount of money on offer to editors - and it's a union award - guarantees that it's going to be dominated by young women. Most of the editors who want to make more money end up going freelance once they've established themselves. So if, after you enquire about your editor's experience, you're not happy with the answer, ask for an older freelancer. It's still probably going to be a woman.

Second question: not long after I signed up with this Publisher, I found an agent. She wasn't involved at all in figuring out the contract for this book - we found each other afterwards. But some of my advance for this book will be paid later (when I hand in my final manuscript, and when it's finally published). Do I need to pay my agent a portion of these advances if she wasn't involved in this contract? And, if not, can I call on her for help with this book at all, if I need it? I haven't actually signed anything with this agent yet, but she has said, via email, that she's 'delighted to represent me'. Where does this mean I stand with her? Is there usually a contract with agents? How do I know when she's 'officially' my agent, and is that retrospective?

An agent should only earn commission on a contract he or she negotiates for you. So you shouldn't pay your agent any commission on this book - and that also means you can't ask her to help you with it, because it wouldn't really be fair to ask her to work for free. If you do want help on this book, you may want to come to an arrangement with her - a reduced commission rate, perhaps, or paying commission on just a portion of the advance.

However, if you haven't signed an agency agreement - most agents have them - then she's probably not officially representing you. I don't officially represent anyone until they've told me they're happy with the terms of the agency agreement and we've both signed it. If your agent doesn't have an agreement, though, you need to find out what the commission rate is before you agree to be represented by her.

I find it curious that you felt the need to get an agent after your contract with the publisher was all sewn up. No doubt you'd like representation for future books but the timing is unusual. Some authors look for representation once they have an offer from a publisher and before the contract stage, but not usually once the contract is done, when the agent can't do anything for them on that book.


Anonymous said...

An editor in her forties would probably have 20 years experience-- in mid-career-- and would only be about ten years younger than the author.

I'm a 46 year old editor and found that very funny.

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