Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant
Location: Home for the Fourth
While we agents like to think of ourselves as career-makers, unfortunately, we can also be career-killers. I’ll explore that concept this week; I hope the postswill alert you to ways that even good intentions can go so wrong.
But first let me say that the author-agent relationship is based on trust. I don’t intend my posts to instill paranoia in all writers but instead to show you a downside to publishing that we agents seldom talk about because it’s…well, kinda embarrassing. But I figure you’re reading our blog to gain an education. You’ll want to take notes. With that in mind, here we go…The first way an agent can kill a career is through involuntary manslaughter. The agent doesn’t set out to murder a career, but circumstances line up in such a way that the deed is done before anyone had time to realize what was happening. In this case, the agent made an educated guess and it was wrong. Here are some situations in which that can happen:
- Sent projects to wrong publishers and couldn’t garner any interest. Publishers are constantly changing what they’re looking for. Oh, sure, the basics of a publishing house remain constant (some won’t publish anything that’s too sexy or too graphic or too coarse in language while others won’t publish fiction set in a foreign country).But everything else is pretty much up for grabs in terms of what a publisher wants.
How to avoid this murderous mistake: Agents need to stay in constant communication with editors. Sometimes projects are placed because of a comment made during a phone conversation. A few months ago, I was talking to an editor about a project she was making an offer on. As a side note, she asked me, “Do you happen to have anything to submit for our e-book debut lineup?” “No,” I responded. “I’ve looked through everything I have, and nothing seems like a good fit. I do wish I could submit this suspense novel I have that centers around a banker stealing from his bank, but it’s not the kind of suspense you publish.” “Send it anyway, just in case,” the editor urged. I did; Cash Burn by Michael Berrier just released with Tyndale–all from a sidebar to a conversation.
- Chose the wrong publishing house when other options were available. We agents love it when we have more than one publishing house interested in a project. That is to say, we love it while the publishers are competing with each other by increasing what they’ll offer. But then cold reality settles in, and the agent realizes, “Oh, oh, I have to decide which publishing house. The choice I make can mean all the difference in the world to this author.”
How to avoid making a mistake: Being a good agent often resides in making the right choice, but that choice can sometimes be quite nuanced. Knowing what weight to give each reason to decide on a publishing house is where the career-killer agent and the career-maker agent are likely to make different choices. The easy way to make the decision is to go with the guy with the most green out there on the table. But the publisher offering the most money isn’t necessarily the best choice. It might be publisher #2, which is known for having tis ability to place this type of project in significant retail outlets. Or it might be publisher #3, which has the best marketing director in the business. Or it might be publisher #4, which can release the book at a crucial time that the other publishers can’t match. See what I mean? The right choice often is tucked away rather than standing in the middle of the street screaming, “Choose me, you doofus!”
- Miscalculating the future. The future has turned into a dark alley for everyone in publishing. What will the future hold for the industry as a whole? What will it look like for a specific publisher? Who’s poised to maintain strong growth? Who’s being imaginative and gutsy? Who’s paddling as fast as possible but barely keeping up with change? And perhaps the most important question of all: Which publishers are making a commitment to deal fairly with authors in the new frontiers? The agent who doesn’t know the answers to these questions is one likely to commit involuntary manslaughter by placing projects with publishers who aren’t going to be key players. Where a publisher goes, so also tend to go its authors.
How to avoid this murderous mistake: Agents have an obligation to their clients to stay on top of what’s happening in the industry and to be proactive by clearing the way for their clients. An agent needs to understand how e-books are created; what expenses are involved in making them; and whether a client should self-publish or go the traditional route. Once again, the answers are nuanced, not obvious. Keeping up also means understanding what publishers are putting in their contracts. I negotiated a contract with one publisher who insisted on keeping multimedia rights with e-books. I resisted. We talked. Turned out no one in the contracts department knew what that phrase meant. Hmm. That could be a major miscalculation about the future, if the agent just let the contract move forward without challenging why a publisher should have certain rights.
So, you see what I mean? Agents don’t intend to kill careers; that’s really hard on our business model. But these mistakes can take down a career, sometimes in one fell swoop; sometimes over time.
As a writer, you, too, have to make nuanced choices. Which ones cause you nightmares? For example, which project to work on? when to give up on a project? how to approach an agent? which publisher to submit to?