Monday, July 5, 2010

The intricacies of the author-agent relationship

I live in New Zealand but have a London agent who is trying to place my first novel. (She tried to do so unsuccessfully about five years ago but as the market has changed is now sending it out again.) My agent has been extremely helpful in making suggestions to improve the ms, which has involved quite an investment of her time which I'm very grateful for. The one problem I have with her, exacerbated by the fact that we only have an email relationship, is that she isn't very communicative. I believe from author friends that this isn't unusual. There's no question of finding another agent: beside the fact that she's invested a lot of time already and I so wouldn't want to deprive her of giving her the opportunity to sell my novel, I write in a genre which has a limited number of agents interested in representing it and she was the only one who was interested!

Could I therefore ask you the question I should really be asking my agent but can't: what kind of response time is to be expected when an agent sends a ms out to publishers? It would be really helpful to know, as currently I'm writing the second of the series, but if the first one doesn't sell I need to start writing something else.

I also have another question. The first time my agent tried to sell the novel, she sent it out to mainstream publishers in the UK, the US and Australia. After that I asked her if small presses were an option, and in her usual cryptic way she intimated that that would be a good idea but that she wouldn't be doing it herself. I tried a few, with the intention of bringing her in at the contract stage if I could raise some interest, but couldn't sell it. I left things there and started working on something else.

Earlier this year, I had the manuscript assessed by a leading writer in my genre, with the intention of figuring out what had gone wrong with it so I could avoid those errors in the future. To my surprise, the writer really liked the manuscript and couldn't see why it hadn't got a publisher. I did some rewrites at her recommendation and after that she suggested I go back to my agent and see if she would send it out again. My agent suggested further rewrites, I did them, and it's now gone out again to mainstream publishers. However, if she can't place it, the question of small presses comes up again. The writer who critted the manuscript says she would really like to see the novel in print and has offered to make personal introductions at small presses, which of course is fantastic. My question is one of etiquette: when I approach the small presses, do I say at that stage that the novel is represented? Or is that just weird given that I'm making the approach myself? Alternatively, do I produce my agent, as if out of a hat, if we get to the contract stage? As my agent has done a lot of work, I don't want to cheat her out of a commission even if she doesn't do the work of hunting down the small presses herself.

1. I'm guilty of being not-so-communicative; I suspect most agents and publishers are. It's not because we don't want like our authors; we just have a lot of them and we're also running a business and trying to keep the lights on. Being an agent means answering to many masters and sometimes the best way to manage it all is to just not write back to every email. However, when authors ask questions that need answers, we're usually there. It's just the day-to-day fuzzy-warm stuff we're not able to do (unless we have very few authors). And then there's the fact that the email inbox can be simply overwhelming sometimes. So you're right to not slough off your agent on that score.

2. You haven't said what genre you're writing in but I'm going to guess it's spec fiction/fantasy or possibly a subgenre of romance. Given that you mentioned a series, I'm leaning towards the former. The reason why I'm trying to identify a genre is that it helps me answer the question about how long the reading takes. If it's spec fiction or fantasy - particularly fantasy - it's probably big (well over 100 000 words). And if your ms is big, so is everyone else's. This slows down the reading time. Children's publishers are often quicker to respond than grown-ups' publishers because the manuscripts are shorter. Publishers of large books take longer. And if it's your first novel, it will take longer still. We do prioritise reading: my clients' manuscripts always take precedence, especially if they're on deadline. A publisher will always read the contracted manuscripts and the new manuscripts by authors on their lists before they read first novels submitted by agents.

3. Regarding the small presses: if your agent doesn't want to submit the book to small presses, she should explain why, particularly if she hasn't been able to place the book with a large publishing company. It's an unusual attitude, but perhaps the small presses in the UK aren't as good as the ones here - I'm no expert on that market. And you shouldn't bring her in at the contract stage if you find a publisher yourself - not only will you have done the work in that instance, but it can put the publisher's back up if an agent suddenly materialises to look at the contract. Moreover, it's difficult for an agent to come in at contract stage when they haven't done the deal. So I guess you could ask for contract advice and pay commission if you want to do that, but only if you want to. You're not cheating her out of commission if it's a deal she didn't do.

The crux of it is that if she hasn't been able to place you with a large publishing company and declines to send the ms to small companies, she's effectively saying she's no longer representing you. You can then do whatever you wish - represent yourself or find another agent to send it to small presses. But your relationship with her sounds like it's over if she can't find a large publisher.

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