Monthly Archives: June 2009

Agents and the Changing world of Canadian Publishing

Recently I had lunch with an agent friend of mine and the topic of how traditional Canadian publishing is changing came up. There are more writers who are focusing on POD or self publishing routes but who are then seeking out agents to try and publish their second books, and there is great debate about what agent fees and services should now encompass.

In the past, most agents would take on clients, waive fees and just take the typical 15% royalty rate and leave it at that. Not so anymore. It has become quite clear that with the downsizing of staff and editors at publishing houses agents can no longer afford to wait until they sell a book to be paid- the time it takes to pitch books eats up thousands of unpaid hours.

Flat fees for different agent services such as referrals, manuscript evaluations, editing, and the writing of query letters and proposals are becoming common place. You may ask “why wouldn’t I just self-publish if I have to pay for these services?” My answer to that is when you pay an agent for those items you get: quality of work, credibility, and hopefully book sales.

An agent is someone who has skills at speaking the language of books, chasing down editors and publishers who are reluctant to return your calls, and negotiating the best deal for you and your book. They spend hundreds of hours scouring your manuscript, making sure it is free of typos, and presenting the best part of the book to prospective publishers. Self-publishers don’t do that and freelance writers only do portions.

Nowhere else can you expect the whole package- so why not spend a little money making sure you have the best of both worlds?

If an agent asks you for money for certain jobs- don’t walk away fuming. Recognize the time and professionalism that it takes to work on your book and consider paying for those services.
( and if you are so inclined- don’t forget cigars and scotch- that seems to be a trend with me, but hey- I’m an easy going agent!).


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Authors and Agents- How Objective can they be?

The relationship between an agent and an author can be tenuous and precarious, but also filled with amazing success and enlightenment. When you work with an agent our job is to tell the author the facts about their work. Even though an author might say they want a no holds barred viewpoint, when it comes right down to it, no author is really prepared for the criticism and work that might be requested to get their manuscript into salable condition. An author’s reaction can depend on how you phrase the bad news and as an agent I need to be very aware of what kind of person I’m dealing with.

This is where my natural talent for reading people shines through. ( No that’s not my ego talking- just a skill I have nurtured over the years). At this point I’m confident enough to be able to let an author know that perhaps they need to rethink what they are doing. I give them ample opportunity to voice their concerns and opinions about their baby but ultimately they have to have confidence in my professionalism to steer them in the right direction.

I recently had this discussion with a prospective client and we chatted about the question of being objective especially if the client was a relative, a friend, or even a lover. Can an agent be truly objective in that situation? No one wants to be the bearer of bad news especially to someone they are close with, and that can place a lot of stress on the agent and the writer.

If your agent really feels that they can’t be honest with you and your work then what solutions could they offer to make the process work for everyone?

Perhaps the agent could have an external reader ( or another agent) read the potential manuscript and offer their opinion. Then your agent could pitch based on the reviews and not feel like they are treating the manuscript unfairly. Or maybe they could ask a relative or someone close to the client to intervene and give the more distressing news to them-leaving the agent to be the one that can be a support for the client. Or they could suggest another agent that might work better for you.

Whatever you decide, it’s important to know that the publishing world works at a snail’s pace and you have to find the right agent for you. One that will respect your work and give an honest assessment of your skills. And as an author it’s time to realize that you are not perfect and if you can’t take constructive criticism you are in the wrong business!

By the way, on a completely different topic I had the delight of playing a very unique tennis player last week. We played 3 sets everyday for three days in temperatures averaging plus 24, a gorgeous week in Vancouver. Although I did manage to win most of the points, I learned a great deal about different styles of playing tennis and how sometimes I should resist the temptation to hit topspin balls seeing that my height is quite an advantage to the game.

All in all though it was a great week and I was happy to neglect some of my agent duties to take a time out and enjoy all that this city has to offer, especially walking along the seawall after a great dinner at my favorite french restaurant. If you get a chance you should go and sit on some of the benches by the water and enjoy the night air this summer. You won’t regret it.

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Agents and New Clients

Yesterday I signed up a new client. I can’t tell you how exciting it is to do that. It’s so exciting in fact, that I celebrate by going for a long walk, smoking a cigar ( if I have one), and having a nice glass of scotch. Yes that’s the kind of wild and crazy guy I am.

Despite what you may think, the life of an agent is not all glamour and glitz. It’s spending every day on the phone, brainstorming ideas of who to contact to see if they want to write a book, reading manuscripts- some great, some horrendous, and then playing the role of a diplomat between publisher and author. So when an agent signs up a client without any fuss or muss it is cause for celebration.

Our life is a solitary one punctuated by playing the odd game of tennis, watching a movie, or going to a baseball game and if one isn’t careful they can become old before their time. But I wouldn’t have it any other way.

I like what I do, I just wish there was a regular paycheck involved. But you can’t have everything.

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Advice on Publishing

I was going to offer some amazing advice here, but instead I’m going to quote a few of my favourite people on the process of getting published. I hope you have a sense of humour and take some of these quotes to heart ( especially the ones about getting an agent).

” Do you realize what would happen if Moses were alive today? He’d go up to Mount Sinai, come back with the Ten Commandments, and spend the next eight years trying to get published”- Robert Orben, The Encyclopedia of One-Liner Comedy, 1971

” An author should try to get an agent to represent him. Selling a manuscript cold is the toughest way I know to get published. It can be done, but the odds are against the writer.”- William Targ, Indecent Pleasures, 1975

” For better or for worse, agents have increasingly become the keepers of the gates to book-publishing heaven.” – Nancy Love, Everything you Need to Know About Literary Agents, 1995 Writer’s Handbook

” Until you have canvassed at least 25-30 publishers you haven’t given your book the chance it has to get published.”- Richard Balkin, agent, Writers Yearbook 86

” You have to keep writing, keep submitting, and keep praying to the god of whimsy that some editor will respond favorably.” – Attributed to Peter Benchley, novelist

And some of my favourite quotes:

” This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.”- Dorothy Parker, critic, quoted in Wit’s End edited by Robert E. Dremman, 1973.

” That’s not writing, that’s typing.” – Truman Capote, novelist, appraising Jack Kerouac’s work, TV interview with David Susskind, Open End, 1959

And my friend says that this one seems to mirror me, but I can’t think why.

” I often quote myself. It adds spice to my conversation.”- George Bernard Shaw, playwright, quoted in Reader’s Digest, June 1943

And for those that get an agent- make sure that it’s the right fit for you!

” Look, they’re not interested in a talking seagull.” – What Richard Bach’s agent told him after his novel Jonathan Livingston Seagull (1970) was rejected more than 20 times. The book went on to sell 3, 107,500 copies in hardback, and continues to sell as a mass market

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