Thursday, March 29, 2012

And Now Some (Non-Sarcastic) Advice on Book Publishing: On Agents

Yesterday, I wrote The Sarcastic Guide to Book Publishing. Today, I'm ready to be sincere.

I've read many beautiful books that were rejected by agents, or accepted by agents and then rejected by editors, or even accepted by editors but subsequently dropped or lost in the shuffle of published books.

I know many writers who've published a first novel and maybe a second, but then were cut loose from publishing -- because of markets and sales -- and some lost heart.

There are many brilliant writers out there who have done everything right, put in the long and brutal hours with language and story and character; and yet, their books aren't on shelves. I respect these writers.

And I especially admire the ones who find a way to keep returning to the page. They are unsung and yet there's some pure grace in their daily commitment.

I've been lucky. I'm supposed to veer from that sentiment because it's what women famously say about any success. Luck. But it's the truth. I've had books rejected as well -- the hardest perhaps was my first, but many since. Yet I've had successes to buoy me. And my luck is linked to my bullheadedness.

(Now, I don't have really sound advice on self-publishing. I have one book, originally published by HarperCollins, and rights now belong to me again. The Nobodies is a Kindle Book on Amazon. I have another novel that I once again own rights to and haven't really proceeded to make it available again. I know that there are options here in self-publishing, but it's best to get that advice from someone with real experience in that field.)

And now ... let me give some practical advice... on agents. (I've said much of this before but here it is again, in bite-sized portions.)

Advice on Agents

Everyone's road to publishing is different. I'll tell mine -- the quick version -- and then get to the advice and why you SHOULD worry your pretty little head about your profession. At the end here, I give A LIST OF TIPS. Do with them what you will ...

My agent is Nat Sobel. He's been well-known in the industry for picking emerging talent from lit mags. And this is, in fact, where he found me. I'd pubbed a story in NEW DELTA REVIEW. Jill McCorkle awarded it a prize.

I was desperate at this time, I should note. I was a firm believer in the American short story and would never think of writing poetry or novels, which 100% of my books to date consist of. Novels! I held them in great disdain. If you can't write it in 20 pages or less, why call yourself a writer? Novelists simply lacked self-restraint. (I was young.)

But I'd heard, mainly reading Andre Dubus' BROKEN VESSELS, a great essay collection, that if you write stories, the agents will come calling, and when they do, they'll want only one thing A NOVEL. Don't give in, Andre told me. And I believed I never would.

However I'd published a dozen or so stories and had come close to publishing the book, but was dealt a harsh blow by a small press -- long story -- and so when Nat came calling, I was soft.

He asked if I was working on a novel.

I said, Yes and by sheer coincidence the novel was based on the short story he liked.

He said he wanted to see the first fifty.

I said I'd need to polish them but would get them to him in a month.

The story was 11 pages long.

I wrote the first 50, had friends read 'em, then sent them, assuming Sobel would "sign me" and then he'd sell my collection of stories while I kept putting him off on the novel that I'd be secretly ignoring forever.

He said that he loved the first 50 and couldn't wait to see the rest.

That's when I became a novelist.

A great way to become a novelist, actually, because I never sat down to write my first novel.
I sat down to write the first 50 pages of an undeniable novel I never intended to finish.

Over 10 years later with Nat, and my 18th book came out this year ... Not a single story collection. I stole from the stories to quilt novels.

I still haven't been "signed". My agent and I don't have a contract. He's been great to me, and I couldn't ask for better support and smarts and occasionally he'll bark for me when I need someone to bark.

I also have a manager in LA, Justin Manask. Over the years, I've become close with him, too. I rely on his take on my ideas, and I love having him on my side. He and Nat worked in concert, for example, to sell both film rights and book rights to PURE, which happened almost simultaneously.

I've learned over time to be suspicious of agents, however -- some of them -- and here are a few things -- some very basic -- to keep in mind.

1. First of all, I divide agents into two categories -- The Don't Worry Your Pretty Little Head About Agents and The Others.

Personally, I'd say BEWARE the DON'T WORRY YOUR PRETTY LITTLE HEAD ABOUT IT agent. They tend to not want any suggestions from you. They keep you out of the loop, purposefully. You're never sure who they're sending to or the timeline and they make you feel invasive for asking. They tend to tell you that this is something you don't have to worry about. It's THEIR job to know these things. They seem like they're protecting you -- the Artist -- from the headaches of big, bad publishing.

Now, maybe this is exactly what you want. But, for me, I want to know things. I want to be part of the discussion. I want to be involved ... In fact, it is MY profession as well, this publishing industry, and I'll worry my pretty little head one way or another so I may as well do it in consultation with the agent.

That said, I do let Nat work his magic. I don't get in his way because I respect his expertise, but, too, we talk about my suggestions and ideas. We work together.

2. NEVER pay an agent upfront. The agents should get 15%, standard, sometimes a little more for overseas deals. If you don't make money, they don't. This doesn't mean that you shouldn't possibly take tutorials with teachers, attend conferences, workshops ... With certain books, I still pay to have my work read by an outside editorial type and/or writer. But this has nothing to do with my relationship with my agent.

3. It's good to know if your agent has good overseas contacts and can sell those rights, if you agree that that's a good idea ... or if you want to sell those rights as part of you pub deal.

4. It's good to know if your agent has good LA connections. (Options and what not should still be 15% -- your agent and the LA agent should split that.)

5. It's also good -- from my perspective -- that if I make something happen, like a glossy mag piece, that I don't have to give 15% to my agent. But if I get a deal and ask him to step in to negotiate a better deal, I do give 15%. Some places -- and this is your call -- ask to make 15% on everything you earn as a writer, and I can see a certain rationale there if they are really raising your entire profile... But, frankly, Nat doesn't represent my poetry, for example; it pays so little, so he shouldn't really make 15% and doesn't ask to.

6. Some agents get involved in promoting you -- more like a manager -- after a book pubs. Nat doesn't and, well, I think this is simpler. Post pub can be a crazy heated time ... But I can see the upside of an agent who takes that on ...

7. I like an agent to be in NYC. There are some good non NYC agents but they've got to see it as something they should overcome. One thing I can't do is be in the city, having lunch with editors, hearing what their concerns and interests are ... I think of my 15% as paying for that access and attention, those well-built relationships.

There are other things ... I'm sure ... Write in questions over at Facebook in the comments section, and I'll try to answer ...