Wednesday, 13 July 2011

READER QUESTIONS ANSWERED #2

Hello, dear readers! Today we're still working through the questions that I put off answering during Shadows on the Moon release week, and by a lucky coincidence both of today's questions are publishing related. First of all Rebecca asked (via comments):

"Do you have to get an agent before you get published or can you go straight to the publisher with your book if it is a trusted and well-known publisher? And if you do need an agent how do you know which ones are trustworthy, because generally I don't know the agents of authors I like?"

I'm going to assume that you're talking about writing children's or YA books here because that's my area of expertise. Children's and YA publishing is distinct from adult publishing in that many well-known, successful authors represent themselves with no help from a literary agent, and many children's publishers still accept submissions from unagented authors. In fact, I found my publisher and started revising The Swan Kingdom with them before I got an agent. So no: you don't HAVE to get an agent before you can get published.

SHOULD you try to get a literary agent before you get published, on the other hand? In today's marketplace, I think the answer is definitely yes. You see, no matter how reputable and NICE a publisher is, and no matter how much they like your book, a publisher is still primarily a business. They need to make as much money as possible from selling books, and the less money that they give to you, the author, the more money there will be for them.

This sounds really awful, and as if I'm implying that publishers are out to con authors. That's not the case at all. They don't want to con anyone. But like any good business people, the contracts department of your publisher will want to get as much as possible for the smallest amount of money. That's how you make a profit. A publisher's most straightforward, standard, boilerplate contract - the one you get as an unagented author - will basically take all your rights (world export rights, translation rights, audiobook rights, film and TV rights, ebook rights), and pay you an advance against royalties for them, plus a percentage of profits. The advance will be the smallest one they think is fair, and the percentage of profits will be low as well. And that's it. Everything's out of your hands from then on. And usually there will be clauses in there which are to the publisher's advantage in other ways, such as one that states the publisher gets first refusal on anything else you write in the future, and that if they decide to buy your next book, it will be 'on the same terms'.

An agent, on the other hand, will get stuck right into that contract and extract every right that they think they can sell on your behalf for more money. And if an agent sells, say, your audiobook rights, you get all of that money minus only the agent's commision (usually between 10-15%) right away, rather than having to split that money 60/40 or 70/30 with your publisher, and then have them subtract that money from the advance which you still need to repay (it's more complex than that, but I don't want to waffle on too long here).

Your agent will bargain for a larger advance and a bigger share of profits, and they will make sure that there are no sneaky clauses stating that the publisher gets to hang onto your next book for a year before rejecting it. They will be your advocate in every part of your career, and it's in their interest to make sure you do well, because they make no money unless YOU make money.

Basically, unless you are an industry veteran with years of experience in the business and a very logical, analytical mind, who doesn't mind brangling and arguing with professional legal staff at your publisher, you are going to want to have an agent.

So, how do you find a reputable agent? Well, you go and get a copy of The Writer's and Artist's Yearbook or The Writer's Handbook for this year (buy a copy, get one second hand, borrow it from the library), and you look in the Agents section. They're all listed there - including their contact details, whether they accept unsolicited submissions and who their clients are. If an agent represents a well-known author, an author that you admire, they are likely to be an excellent agent. Some agencies are new and have no well-known authors in their stable - this doesn't mean they're not good too. In fact it can mean that they are more likely to take on new authors as they seek to build up their client list.

Before you approach an agent, do a Google search on them. Most agents now have websites. Does everything look solid and professional on their site? Is the site really out of date? Are  there any silly spelling mistakes, grammatical errors or things that strike you as odd? If so, back away. If not, great. Now, look more closely. Is there any mention that the agent charges ANY kind of a fee, for any of their work? If so, cross them off your list. NO REPUTABLE AGENT should charge to read a manuscript, or for any other aspect of their work. Good agents make their money from the percentage they charge once you've started earning. If they can't get by on that, they're no good.

Have a look at other Google results. If you come across anything dodgy, like people complaining that the agent has charged them hidden fees, or lied to them, then again, cross them off the list. The same goes for any worried or unhappy feelings if you do approach them and they agree to be your agent. Your instincts are good, and if you feel anxious about your agent instead of calm and happy, then they're not right for you. A bad agent, a neglectful one or an uncommitted one can do a lot of harm to your standing as a writer and your chances of making a good living. This might sound crazy, but I'm completely serious: a bad agent can be worse than no agent at all.

Be prepared to be rejected by agents in just the same way that you might be by publishers. Agents are just as exacting, and they won't take on work that they don't think will sell. But once you get an agent, your chances of being published - and what's more, WELL published - will shoot up. Good luck!

Today's second question comes from Megan, via email, and asks:

"I was wondering if you could give me some information on how to get a book published, because I've written something and quite a few people have read it and said it was really good. Now I want to see if I can get it published but I don't know how to. Can you give me some info please?"

Here's where my cunning, time-saving plan comes into things. Megan, see all that info that I just gave to Rebecca about getting an agent? If you want to get published, you need to do everything that I've just said there. Do your research, find an agent, and THEY will then deal with the practicalities of finding you a publisher.

NOTE: Just as with agents, if any publisher asks you for any money whatsoever - run. The number one law of publishing is that money flows towards the writer, not the other way around. Any person in publishing who tries to take money from you is a wrong 'un.

OK, I hope this was helpful, guys! Thanks for tuning in, and come back on Friday.

5 comments:

borky_qk said...

Really good advices, although they are not for me.

Rebecca Lindsay said...

Zoe: Thank you, this is really helpful because I don't know a lot about how to find agents and all those "rules" with publishers. I'm definately going to mark this page as a favourite to look over it again and I'll have a look at those books you suggested. I think I finally understand the proper process now, lol. Thanks :)
Also, just away to begin reading SOTM and can't wait!! :)

Megan: Good luck with your book and getting published :)

Vivienne said...

You are like my personal writing guru! This post is extremely helpful and puts a few things into perspective for me. Thanks Zoe for being so wise.

Zoë Marriott said...

Borko: I'm glad you liked it:)

Rebecca: Once you've got your hands on a copy of one of the books listed (preferably the Writer's and Artist's Yearbook, as it's the more comprehensive) it's a really great idea to read all the articles, as they'll give you a much more in depth idea of how publishing works.

Viv: Thanks! Can I charge for that, or is it strictly volunteer work?

Isabel said...

Such a helpful post, if you're trying to just learn the basics. None of the information is too overwhelming and complicated. I'm going to show this to my mom, because she's also looking for a new agent right now. Her previous one just retired.

Also, best of luck to Megan! :)

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