Monday, November 13, 2006

Jane Dystel explains "an agent's job."

A couple of weeks ago, a woman came to me for representation. She had been offered a publishing contract by a small academic publisher who had sent her their contract. When the woman saw the contract, she felt many of its terms were unfair and she went to a friend of hers to ask if she should get an agent. The friend advised that “the purpose of an agent is to bring buyers and sellers together. Once a seller has a buyer, then the agent’s job is basically done.”

Frankly I was stunned, to say nothing of very annoyed. We are not in the real estate business – which is what this person, who happened to be a published author – had made it sound like. In fact, we do a great deal for our clients in addition to selling their books, and, as the business has changed over the years, we seem to be taking on more and more of what the publisher used to do.

First, of course, we help authors develop their idea. In the case of nonfiction, we help them refine their thoughts and produce a book proposal, which we then edit very thoroughly. In the case of fiction, we work with the author to develop and outline and craft a well written, saleable manuscript.

When we have a product that is ready to show, we submit the material to a number of publishers simultaneously and often sell the project in an auction; we negotiate the deal with the publisher and explain everything clearly to the author, advising him or her on what we think s/he should agree to. We collect all monies for the author on signing, on manuscript acceptance and at any other time designated in the contract.

I contact each and every one of my clients currently writing a book at least once a month to make sure everything is going well with their project. Too often, I have found that writers are reluctant to come forward when they are in trouble in one way or another.-Several years ago, for example, I found out that one of our novelists’ mother was dying of ovarian cancer. This was slowing her down, understandably, and I had to inform the publisher. As it turns out, the book was over a year late, but I was able to work the new deadline out with the publisher and the result was a brilliant novel. On another, more recent occasion, my client found out she had breast cancer and was reluctant to tell anyone until I called. Again, the delivery of her manuscript was easily postponed.

Of course, when there is a problem of any kind with the publisher, I am there to intervene and be the buffer between the two so that their working relationship can remain a good one.

Once the manuscript is turned in, I make sure the editing and acceptance moves along. Sometimes, we even get involved in the editing process if we feel the publisher is not doing their job. I find out the publishing schedule for the writer and make sure, when there is a cover and page design, that the client has a “say” in how everything looks.

I get the promotion, publicity and advertising projections from the publisher and discuss them with the author if I don’t think enough is planned (and more often than not these days I find myself trying to help the author supplement inadequate publishing plans for the book). In addition, I sometimes work with the publisher on finding the appropriate month in which to publish, especially when my client and I feel the publisher hasn’t given that a great deal of thought.

I review all royalty statements and query the publisher when I see anything my client or I think is unclear or wrong. (Publishers keeping too much money in reserve for returns is a typical example of something we catch often.)

And there are other miscellaneous “above and beyond” situations that always arise: the time I had to have a member of our staff edit one of out novelists’ novels because the “editor” felt it was “finished” and we knew it wasn’t; the time one of our food clients was nominated for an important award and I had to fly across the country to be there with her to make sure she was okay no matter which way it went; the time another client really needed me at her publishing party in LA and I went and returned home in 24 hours. These were all important things to my clients; as a result, they became a priority of mine as well.

After that first book is successfully published, we go on to work with the author on what kind of strategy to use in submitting his or her next idea.

So, in our case at least, my new client’s friend was wrong. Or maybe she was talking about the real estate business...

28 comments:

  1. Thanks for the great posting. My critique group will love this one. Now, back to my job--writing.

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  2. I'm slightly surprised that you don't have "negotiating the contract on behalf of my client" as the number one job here as a separate issue from actually marketing the manuscript. I know most aspiring novelists and authors tend to view agents as the person who sells the manuscript, but once you're established with a publisher, contract negotiations (in my experience, anyway) are a bigger deal (so to speak).

    Best,
    Mark Terry
    www.markterrybooks.com

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  3. Mark, of course you are absolutely right. I take it as a given that I negotiate all of my client's agreements. In fact, this is the part of my job that I enjoy the most -- I am absolutely passionate about my clients' rights and think it essential that they be treated fairly in their contracts. We have precedent agreements with every publisher and solid relationships with the contract departments at each house. Negotiating the best possible contract is of absolute importance. Thank you for your reply.

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  4. Though in its early stages, this is a great blog. Thanks for opening my eyes to all an agency does.

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  5. I always tell any aspiring writer that a good agent is worth more than they can imagine. I am always beyond impressed how hard Michael B. works for me and how committed he is to my career. I can't imagine doing it without him - AND I really like how he has all the wisdom and experience of everyone at D&G right at hand. To me this is a big advantage of working with an well established agency rather than a totally independent agent.

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  6. Could you expand on what a "precedent agreement" is? Never heard that term before. Thanks.

    Mark Terry
    www.markterrybooks.com

    p.s. Or I guess I could ask my own agent.

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  7. A precedent agreement is one which has already been negotiated in terms of the boilerplate terms from the same publisher as the agreement you are negotiating currently.

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  8. A wealth of information here. Thanks!

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  9. Ah. Interesting. Thank you.

    Best,
    Mark Terry
    www.markterrybooks.com

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  10. Ms Dystel:
    A great post today but I've got a couple of questions.

    How do I -- or anyone else -- break through to you to get the advice and help you mention in fashioning a novel? All agents want a finished manuscript, and then if the first few pages don't attract them, then it's out the door. How do we get a chance for such interaction, except for the second novel after you've published the first.

    Would the fact that a person has a history of successful nonfiction publication help an agent determine to step in and make suggestions in shaping a manuscript?

    I love what you do, I'm just curious as to how a writer obtains that service.

    Please take no offense at these questions as I'm really curious about this.

    Thanks for your time.

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  11. What do you think of publishers who specifically tell authors "You don't need an agent."?

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  12. Thank you very much for this very insightful article. I learned a lot from it about pulishing business. I will check out rest of your posts and look forward to reading more!

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  13. Thank you for having an informative blog that doesn't give us what's playing on the Ipod right now, but instead reveals the nitty gritty of the publishing world.

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  14. Excellent info, Jane. I remember being at a writing conference once where someone teaching a workshop said you could basically either get an agent who would help you groom your writing or else get an agent who was savvy with sales. The possibility of having both seemed out of the quesiton.

    Nice to see it isn't so.

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  15. I knew there was a good reason for querying your agency. One hears all sorts of things about agents of course, but this is an obvious example of what I 'search' for when looking for who to submit too. Sadly, most available information on agents and agencies isn't as detailed in this regard. I knew D&G was well respected and that you know what you are doing, but it's really, REALLY nice to see this kind of information put out for us to see. Thank you Ms. Dystel for laying that all out for us aspring writers. Gives faith in the notion that having an agent is really an indespensible thing. Now to finish polishing my ms to the point one might say, "Hey! This doesn't suck."

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  16. Jane, I liked your blog. Wish you were my agent. Wish I had an agent.

    I can image that innummerable writers are quering for your agency.

    By the way did I tell you that somewhere in the enormous piles of queries at your agency, mine is waiting to be read by your (undoubtebly beautiful) eyes.

    If not something went wrong and I will sent it again. Maybe you will remember when I tell you:

    Mij name is Willem Jansen living in the Netherlands. My latest book is The Siege Of Holland

    Basically it deals with the reaction of the natives of West Europe on a growing number of immigrant muslims.

    (Mail me if you want more information)

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  17. This is a wonderful post! Thanks for sharing what being an agent is about!

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  18. It's a great story, and I'm hungry for the ending. The genesis might lie in the seemingly endless quest to find representation, then taking matters into one's own hands.

    I made a conscious decision to break all the rules and take my case directly to publishers. Sent two letters to two publishers, received two answers and mailed off two manuscripts. If they both come back I'll be in exactly the same predicament as the woman who approached you. I'll make a bad contract decision on a good novel, and publish something nobody reads. Why I keep my day job.

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  19. After reading this excellent, well-written, and informative post, who wouldn't want to be represented by Dystel & Goderich Literary Management?
    I believe that you could give a workshop or speak at a writer's conference because all who were within an earshot of the breadth of your words would greatly benefit. Perhaps you could compose a mini pocket book like so: "10 Steps to Landing the Right Agent."
    You are a great writer and I'm sure you would grab your reader's attention with the perfect title. Many thanks for sharing this.

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  20. It would be a good thing to edit the article Jane wrote for (at least) spelling. This would be a sign that the agency takes words seriously. -GA-

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  22. VERY USEFULL AND CLEAR! Thanks Jane - That really helps!!!

    Donovan

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