So I’ve been following QueryFail. (Waits for screams of horror to die down.)
QueryFail, if you haven’t heard of it, is the latest internet storm to break over the industry. Let me ‘splain. No, there is too much, let me sum up. Basically, a group of literary agents got together on Twitter and decided to offer a free service to aspiring authors: explaining how not to get a literary agent. So they tweeted examples from personal experience — poorly-written cover letters, creepy “gifts” accompanying novel samples, authors who flat-out lied and got caught. (Complete archive here, in multiple formats. If you download the .rtf, remember to read it from the bottom up!) Everything was carefully anonymous; no author identifying info was given, and most of the examples were spoken of in general terms, with the exception of cover letter quotes. (Here are some examples, with analysis, from participating agent Elaine Spencer.) Many authors were amused and pleased by this information, and considered it valuable.
Many more authors… well, went ballistic.
The result was AgentFail, one of several attempts to “get back” at the QueryFail agents by posting all the things agents do that authors hate. A few of these complaints were legitimate; however, the vast majority seemed to be general beefs about the existence of agents as a class, coupled with a bit of Speshul Snowflake-ism. Also, a lot of authors felt strongly enough about the whole thing to post manifestos lamenting how agents are destroying literature, and so on. Fun times.
I’m still a debut author, so I don’t have the perspective that a longtime pro might have on the subject of agents. I’m well aware that some authors, particularly older ones who’ve seen a lot of contracts in their time, prefer to do without agents. We’ve all heard the stories of how Author X had a dramatic falling-out with Agent Y, fired the agent, and then went on to great financial reward on his own. And I’ve heard all the usual stuff about how the internet has flattened the publishing hierarchy and now any author with sense self-publishes rather than give the profits from their hard-earned work to middlemen like agents and publishing houses, blah blah blah.
(…Yeah, OK, so much for my attempt to appear neutral.)
Look, I’ll just say this. I would not have a career if I didn’t have an agent. Oh, I’d have one in the figurative sense; I’ve made a little money from short stories, and I’ve always considered myself a professional. But I wouldn’t be making enough money from writing to pay the rent and buy groceries for a few months — which, for those of us who aren’t Speshul Snowflakes, is kind of important.
How do I figure my agent was crucial? Let me tell you how my book deal went down.
So I had an agent already, right — Lucienne Diver of the Knight Agency. She agreed to represent me based on my first novel, and we chose to keep working together even though that novel didn’t sell. So I sent her The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms when it was done. That was May 2, 2008. (No, I don’t have a phenomenal memory, I just made note of it in my personal blog at the time.) By May 8 it had been sent off to 5 publishers. Stuff started happening a week later, and by May 19 there had been three offers — that is, three publishers expressed an interest in publishing my book, and paying me to do so. Inorite? “Excited” is an inadequate word for what I felt around that time.
But that’s when the real fun began. Because, see, when a book gets multiple offers, agents like to hold an auction to sell the rights to the highest bidder. So mine did, set for May 22. Throughout that day — I was at work — my cellphone rang nearly every hour, with my agent calling to give me the auction play-by-play. I wasn’t Twittering back then, but if I had, I think the tweets that day would’ve gone something like this:
- nkjemisin Holy crap, Pub House A offered $ per book, on a 2-book deal.
- nkjemisin OK, Pub House B just upped that to $$, but they want three books. 3?? I can write 3. I CAN WRITE ANYTHING.
- nkjemisin OMG, Pub House C just said $$$!
- nkjemisin Residuals? English-only rights? What the hell does that stuff mean?
- nkjemisin Pub House B dropped out; too rich for their blood. A vs. C celebrity deathmatch!
- nkjemisin Is this normal for the fantasy genre?
- nkjemisin is laughing hysterically. $$$$?!?!?! SRSLY?!
- nkjemisin We have a winner. Pub House A for $$$$$ per book, 3-book deal.
- nkjemisin Anybody know where I can buy smelling salts? Oh, never mind, too late. ::keels::
So, let’s recap what we’ve learned here, kids. Here’s what I gained by having an agent. a) As soon as I finished a novel, it landed on the desks of publishers. Like, days later. I once submitted to one of the publishers that accepts unagented manuscripts; it took almost 2 years for me to get a response. 6 days is waaaaaay better. b) My novel got on the desks of many publishers at once. See, many publishers have a “no simultaneous submissions” policy, which is completely understandable; who wants to go through the trouble of reading a whole novel, only to find out it’s been sold to someone else? But this policy doesn’t apply to agents. c) It got on the desks of publishers who don’t take unagented manuscripts; this describes 4 of the 5 publishers my agent sent it to, actually. This too makes sense; most editors don’t have the time, personnel, or storage space to handle a typical slushpile. My three offers came from among those 4 “no unagented subs” publishers, which is why I say I couldn’t have sold this novel without an agent — I couldn’t have even gotten it in front of the editors who wanted to buy it.
Anyway, then came d): the novel got multiple offers and went to auction.* This I definitely couldn’t have handled on my own. Oh, logistically speaking, yes, I probably could’ve talked the editors involved into making multiple offers and multiple bids. I do salary negotiation all the time in my day job. But the first principle of salary negotiation is that it isn’t personal — and here is where I would have failed, failed, failed, because of course it was personal, it was only my lifelong dream on the line, the novel into which I’d poured years of blood sweat and tears, and there’s no way in hell that I could’ve maintained the appearance of professional detachment. I would have turned into a gibbering mess at the first offer (actually I did do that, but no one saw it, thank goodness), and in so doing given away the fact that I wasn’t well-versed in the going rates for novels like mine, and wasn’t prepared to play hardball to get that rate higher. I also would’ve had to ask questions about the details which revealed my ignorance of up-to-date industry terminology and “wiggle factors” — incentive clauses, electronic rights, reversion and remaindering. It’s a bit like haggling with a street vendor, or in a flea market — the instant you reveal how desperately you want Object X, or the fact that you haven’t a clue how much Object X is really worth, your negotiating power vanishes.
There are many authors, no doubt, who would be capable of maintaining an appropriately detached pokerface, and who have that level of insider knowledge… but not many. For authors like me who lack these things, agents are essential.
So here’s my opinion on the matter: if you’re an author, unless you’re a very experienced one, you absolutely need an agent. In fact, let me frame this more clearly: you’re an idiot if you think you don’t.
And to bring this back to QueryFail, if you don’t have an agent and you’re having trouble finding one**, then it behooves you to listen to what those agents have to say about making a successful pitch. It may also behoove you to listen to what agented authors have to say, since they’ve managed to successfully find representation. I’m not so sure it behooves you to listen to what unagented authors have to say. Not because they’re inferior or unworthy or anything like that — I was one of them not so long ago, remember. But because until you’ve gotten an agent, and seen firsthand what a good one is capable of, you really can’t appreciate her value.
* If you’re wondering, no, my case wasn’t typical for a novel sold in the fantasy genre. I was very, very lucky. SF author Tobias Buckell has stats on what’s more typical for first sales. And yes, I think my agent is the main reason why things went so well.
** And if you’re not sure how to tell the good agents from the crap, I would strongly advise you to become a regular follower of Writer Beware, and carefully read their advice and resources on avoiding scammers.