Ask the Agent: Communication Part Deux

I really appreciated all your comments on yesterday’s post. Lots of wisdom there! Related to the situation I wrote about, Katy sent this question:

Is it sometimes true that a new author, who’s just signed with an agent, will find the agent unwilling to try to sell some of her already-written manuscripts? How can that be prevented in the author/agent relationship as it moves forward?

First, I would hope there would be some kind of discussion prior to the agent/author agreeing to work together. Ideally, they would have an understanding about how things were going to proceed.

We all know there’s a possibility that not every manuscript we write, especially our first, is going to be saleable. But many manuscripts can be improved—rewritten, revised, polished—especially after we’ve grown in our skills and become better at the craft of writing. So even if an early manuscript isn’t saleable right away, there could be hope for it in the future, either with improvement, or after you have some success with other books.

I would also hope an author understands that the agent is a business partner. Each partner has a different function. The author’s job is to write books. The agent’s job is to know the industry and help the author make good decisions. If the author doesn’t trust their agent’s advice, they don’t have a very good working relationship.

It’s quite possible that the agent will view one manuscript as saleable, and another as not-ready-for-primetime. It could be the writing, or simply the story idea isn’t very compelling. The agent certainly won’t want to put the writer’s reputation on the line, and their own reputation on the line, by trying to sell a manuscript they don’t think will make it in this competitive marketplace.

However, I don’t think that translates into the agent being a “single book agent.” Some of my own clients have a book or two that may never be published, and I make decisions (in consultation with the author) about which manuscripts to try and sell, which to take back to the drawing board, which to put in a drawer. I still represent the author and their entire body of work. Just because we make decisions about which manuscripts are saleable and which aren’t doesn’t mean we’re not in it for the long haul. It doesn’t mean we’re only interested in one book. It means we’re going to come on board and help the author make the decisions that are best for their career. By helping the author understand it’s best NOT to submit a certain manuscript to publishers, we’re doing it with their long-term best interest in mind.

I would advise being wary of any agent who jumps in and says, “OF COURSE I’ll try to sell ALL your manuscripts!” What if your first few tries were really not very good? Would you really want manuscripts that DON’T represent your best work circulating through publishing houses? Editors can sometimes have very good memories; I doubt you want them to see a future (possibly much better) manuscript from you and immediately think, “Oh yeah, I remember this writer… she wasn’t very impressive.”

So, back to the original question above. Is it possible an agent might be unwilling to sell your early manuscripts? Well, yes, but hopefully it doesn’t come across as “I’m unwilling” but instead is a conversation between agent and author in which they come to an understanding and agreement on the best way to proceed. Again, if the author disagrees with the agent’s approach and advice, then they shouldn’t sign with that agent.

The second question above, “How can this be avoided?” Well, I suppose you could make sure you don’t write ANY manuscripts that aren’t saleable! Failing this, a bad situation can be avoided by having appropriate conversations with the agent PRIOR to agreeing to representation.

It all comes down to the same point I was making yesterday: Good communication is vital to any successful working relationship.

Rachelle Gardner is a Christian literary agent affiliated with WordServe Literary Group in Colorado.

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  • Marcie Gribbin

    >WHEW!!!

    I was getting a little jittery without my morning Rants and Ramblings. Thanks for posting this! It’s like caffeine for a writer’s brain! ;)

  • Cheryl Barker

    >Rachelle, there is a lot of wisdom in what you’re saying. Kudos to you for watching out for your clients’ reputations.

  • Kim Kasch

    >I wrote a book of poetry, when I was in the 7th grade, so are you saying this might not be saleable?… :)

    It’s hard to be objective after pouring your heart and soul into a project – that’s why it’s a great thing to have another partner look at the project with a fresh eye.

  • Richard Mabry

    >Rachelle,
    One of my acquaintances, a full-time independent editor in the ABA world, tells me that there’s a general consensus among his colleagues that it generally takes at least three completed books to “get it.” I’ve decided that the first book (or two, or three) may be like the first waffle–the one you throw away.
    Thanks for the post.

  • Katy McKenna

    >Thank you, Rachelle! I have notebooks full of angsty poetry I wrote in high school, but you won’t be seeing it anytime soon. Actually, you’ll never be seeing it. For all you do for me, that seems only fair. :)

    I do plan, however, to inflict it upon my children who will dispose of my files someday. Tee, hee.

  • Dan

    >IMHO, one of the most important things an agent does for her clients is sell them–the client, not the book. When your focus is on selling the client, you want to make him or her look their best, since agents only make money when their clients do.

    One of the things I’ve been looking at while evaluating potential agents is honest communication. If a book is going to make me look bad, I want an agent who’s going to say, “Dan, you don’t want to put this out there, because…(insert reason here.)” If I’ve written something that reeks, I’d rather hear about it from an agent than from an editor.

    Of course, honesty doesn’t have to mean ugliness. To quote one old sage I’ve known, “you can call a spade a spade without calling it a darned old shovel.” :)

    D.

  • Lisa Jordan

    >When signing with an agent, you’re partnering with that person to make the most of your writing career. Communication is a vital part of that trust relationship. I agree with Dan in that you can be honest without being hurtful.

  • Amy Jo

    >As usual, great information. Thanks for the follow-up! Hope you have a very productive (and blessed!) day! :-) Amy

  • lynnrush

    >Great info. I look at it as a long term relationship as well. A partnership. The only way to succeed is to talk, talk, talk. Or in most cases, email….does anyone even talk anymore? LOL. No, seriously, IMHO that’s how it should be.

    I was approached by an agency and had the, “Oh yeah, we’ll represent you on anything….we’ll try and sell it…..” attitude. After further investigation, I chose not to go that route.

  • Jessica

    >Or the first few pancakes, in my case Richard! :-)
    Great post, as usual. I’m glad you keep bringing up the discussion thing because it makes me very nervous but I know it’s necessary for a good, working relationship.

  • Rosslyn Elliott

    >Richard says: One of my acquaintances, a full-time independent editor in the ABA world, tells me that there’s a general consensus among his colleagues that it generally takes at least three completed books to “get it.”

    Richard – I’ve give some thought to this idea of a writer’s apprenticeship period. I think that we all pay our dues, but we do so in diverse ways. We have to pay our dues in life experience to be able to write in our chosen genres. We also have to enter some kind of apprenticeship in our craft. I have friends who are currently writing their way through their apprenticeship, as you describe. I have other friends who went to grad school in creative writing or in literature and paid their dues by study and massive amounts of reading. Either way, it’s seriously hard work, and worthy of respect. What matters is knowing how you did your own apprenticeship, so you can recognize whether you may have apprentice-level work that you shouldn’t submit.

  • Timothy Fish

    >Book 1: I have something to say, here it is.
    Book 2: I have book writing licked. I can write anything and it will be great.
    Book 3: That didn’t turn out so great. Let me see if I can go back to the basics and do this thing right.

    First projects are a learning experience and second projects frequently fail due to overconfidence. By the time we get to the third project we not only have the experience of the two previous projects, but our level of humility is closer to were it should be.

  • Marian

    >Writing is fun, but publishing is business. I know I’ve got a manuscript or two which I don’t want to see, much less get published.

    Thanks for the post!

  • Camille Cannon (Eide)

    >Yeah, as the mom, I always eat the first two pancakes – you know, the ones too light in the middle, too dark around the edges, the ones I tried to cook before the pan was just the right temp? The ones you HAVE to cook just to sop up the extra oil so the next ones will be just right? And by the time the fam comes around, all they see are the pretty golden ones and they think I’m the perfect cook. Hmm.

    Pancakes for dinner sounds really good.

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