Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Stuck in the middle

I haven't had much luck with Australian agents -- apparently Aussie consumers and agents aren't keen on middle grade fiction -- but I have an American agent who is interested.

The contract says she'll have my manuscripts for two years. Is this a fair time frame, or should I be asking her to work on a manuscript by manuscript basis? Are there different ways agents work?

It isn't surprising that you have struggled to find an agent for middle grade fiction: children's books are a tough proposition for most agents to take on. The advances are usually very small compared with grown-ups' books but the amount of work is the same, so a lot of agents - especially those who don't have a particular passion for children's books - won't take on children's authors. And middle grade fiction is actually the toughest kind of children's book to represent - publishers want it but often can't say exactly what they want, as everyone is trying to guess what kids will like next, so for an agent submitting a middle grade novel or series, the risk of not finding a publisher and simultaneously disappointing the author is high. And like all forms of gambling, in publishing we have to spread our risk.

So: congratulations to you on finding an American agent. The USA is a far bigger market - many more children, for one thing, and therefore many more types of books they like to read and which can, therefore, be published. You say that she'll have your manuscripts for two years but don't say what this actually means - that she will represent you for two years only? That she'll give two years to the one manuscript she takes you on for but in that time you can't send her anything else?

It sounds as though this agent is saying she'll work with you for two years but if she hasn't found you a publisher in the meantime, then you'll part ways - and that doesn't sound unreasonable. She's managing your expectations upfront and she is also giving you both an 'out' clause if it doesn't work. And if it does work, she'll probably want to keep working with you, as will you with her.

Two years is a reasonable amount of time for her to have in order to find you a publisher. There are so many publishers in the US that it can take some time to submit to them all, especially if some expect an exclusive. If she is an experienced agent, then she would believe that two years is what she needs to give the manuscript the best shot - bearing in mind that it can take a long time, and sometimes it's the last publisher, the one you least expect, who makes an offer.

Most agents don't like to work on a manuscript-by-manuscript basis as if we love an author's writing and want to work with them, we just want to work with them - we don't want them to think that they'll have to start over for the next book, and nor do we want to do that. It would be inefficient to go on a per-manuscript basis.

But, still, I come back to the fact that I'm not quite sure what the terms of this agreement you mention might be ... so hopefully I've answered your question. If not, please be in touch.

Contracts and nothing but contracts

Do literary agents look at just one book contract without the author having to sign up with them, a one-off deal? I'm asking because an author may have a contract but want someone to look over it, etc? Do you know if literary agents do this?

Yes, they do - at least, Australian agents do. I can't/won't/don't enough to speak for agents from other lands.

Most agents receive the occasional request to look over a contract and, if we have the time, we will do it. Some agents will want to take on the author as a client but some - including me - don't do that even if the author asks. If an author already has a contract then I tend to believe they're past the point of me being able to do much for them - the existence of a contract signifies that the negotiation of advances and so on is over, so my usefulness extends to reading and negotiating the contract. I also don't like to take on clients unless I believe in their writing - the fact that they have a contract is not enough. But that's me. 

The only way to find out if an agent will look at the contract as a discrete action is to ask them - just don't ask all of them at once. Pick one and ask; it's a quick answer for an agent to give so you should hear back within a couple of days at most. If you don't hear back, move on to the next agent.

When agents give contract feedback as a one-off activity, they usually do not also negotiate that contract with the publisher - that responsibility falls to the author. But if you'd rather have the agent also negotiate the contract, you should raise that at the same time as you ask them to look at the contract.