Friday, March 16, 2012

The Scoop on Agents

By John Gilstrap


Last week, our friend and frequent-poster Terri Lynn Coop posted the following comment:


"You've talked about becoming agented and querying. However, what happens once your novel or non-fic is sold to the publisher.
What kind of deadlines are there? How firm are those deadlines? What role does your agent play after the publishing contract is signed? What sort of public face does your agent and publisher expect you to maintain from contract to release (is there a difference between fiction and non-fiction)? When do you see your advance?"


It's a great bunch of questions. I'm going to take a shot at some answers.  The underlying assumption of my answers is that this is a first published book we're talking about.  The rules don't change a lot after you have a chip in the game, but they do change a little.  I'm also going to juggle the order of the questions a little:


What role does your agent play after the publishing contract is signed? 


Understand that a lot of negotiation goes into what a publishing contract looks like.  What rights will be sold?  More importantly, what rights will be retained by the author?  Is this a one-book contract, or a multi-book contract?  What will the pay-out schedule be?  If it's a multi-book contract, will they be individually accounted or jointly accounted?  (Joint accounting means that Book #1 would have to earn back its advances before you could start earning advances on Book #2.  It's by far the least preferable method, but first-timers often don't have a lot of heft there.)


The agent is the go-between for all uncomfortable transactions.  For example, in fifteen years, I have never discussed money issues with an editor, and no editor has had to tell me to my face that I wasn't worth the money I was asking for.  The agent keeps the creative relationship pure.  Beyond that, if everything goes well, the agent doesn't have a lot to do after the contract is negotiated.


But things rarely go well.  What happens if your editor quits or gets fired?  What happens if you really hate the cover, or if the editor is getting carried away with his editorial pen?  On a more positive note, the agent will continue to pursue foreign publishing contracts, movie deals, etc.


What kind of deadlines are there? How firm are those deadlines? 


Deadlines are part of the negotiation process.  You'll have to agree to respond to your editorial letter by a certain date with a corrected manuscript, and then you'll have copyedits and page proofs, all while making your commitment to deliver the next book in the contract if it's a multi-book deal.  I consider deadlines to be inviolable.  I've had to push the delivery date by a couple of weeks once, but I hated doing it because it inconveniences so many people, and it makes me look unprofessional.  Here is another instance where a track record of performance keeps people from losing faith in the author.  For first-timers, blowing a deadline can kill a career.  Remember, by blowing the deadline, you technically violate the contract, which the publisher would have the authority to void.


Writers need to understand that publishing calendars are set 12 to 18 months ahead.  Working backwards from those dates are the in-house deadlines for the production side of things (cover design, copyedits, publicity, ARCs, reviews, and a thousand other details).  If a deadline is blown by as little as a month, publishers may pull the author's book from the calendar and replace it with another, thus potentially adding months to the publication date.


When do you see your advance? 


This is another  negotiated deal point.  Advances are paid out in pieces.  There's always one piece on signing.  After that, the milestones vary from author to author, often depending on the horsepower of the agent, and on the "importance" of the author.  Other payment milestones can include: submission of edited manuscript (this is the "D&A payment--Delivery & Acceptance); hard cover pub date; softcover pub date; and even, in some cases, some period of time after the pub date.  If there's a second book in the contract, there'll likely be a payment milestone for the submission of an outline for the second book, followed by submission of an acceptable manuscript.


Meanwhile, if you're happy at the publishing house, sometime while writing the second book of a two-book deal, your editor and agent will start negotiating the next deal.


What sort of public face does your agent and publisher expect you to maintain from contract to release (is there a difference between fiction and non-fiction)? 


This is where the issue of an author's platform comes in.  If you're a celebrity writing your autobiography, the pressure will be high to be out there to flog it.  Similarly, if you've written a book about a presidential candidate during an election year, the publisher will press hard for you to have media face time.


On the other hand, if you've written a novel featuring a feline crime solver (or about a freelance hostage rescue specialist), chances are that you couldn't buy publicity outside of your local newspaper.  In that regard, an author's public face is only as public as the author wants it to be.


I think that's all of it.  Okay, Killzone comrades, let's hear from you.

9 comments:

  1. Good overview, John. As you said, things can change a little bit after the first book. The biggest change would come if the first book didn’t do well. But let’s stay positive. I wanted to expand on the term “editor”. In general, the first editor involved with any book deal is the acquisition editor. This editor’s job is to evaluate the proposed manuscript and determine if the publisher wants to buy it. The acquisition editor is the central contact at the publisher, at least at the beginning of a deal. And this editor is also the person who might make general suggestions on plot and character changes if needed. After the manuscript is completed and accepted by the publisher, the manuscript is handed off to the copy/line editor who helps clean up grammar and punctuation, and also tries to spot discrepancies and general content errors.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I found that the process of submitting the "first final" draft of my second book to printing was much faster after I had proven myself with the first book.

    I'm with a small publisher and as soon as they knew I had a platform and could sell books (with book one sales) they moved SEAsoned: A Chef's Journey with Her Captain, my second book, to the top of the pile and focused all their attention on it as soon as I sent in a final copy (which of course went through many changes with editing). But, I assume, that timelines and deadlines are more flexible with a smaller publisher.

    www.victoriaallman.com

    ReplyDelete
  3. I have a couple questions.

    1. These days, more often than not, a first-time MS needs to be as close to publication ready as possible if an author wants even a sliver of a chance at consideration by an acquisition editor, or an agent for that matter. I get that that's about budgetary constraints for the publisher and not wanting to invest too much time into an unknown quantity. And since advances are based on the estimated production budget (i.e. a 100k advance equals an earn-out sales expectation of around 25k copies, not accounting for product mix) is this new, near-perfect-initial-submission-manuscript reality part of the reason why first-timers are seeing lower initial offers unless there's an auction? Because the copyediting budget is expected to be almost zero?

    2. How much leeway does a first-time author have to refuse some of an acquisition editor's changes and the deal still be on? I'm not talking plot altering changes. Think characterization--ethnicities, minor actions, etc. And is the MS considered acquired before or after the writer has made said changes? Because, as it was explained to me, the acquisition editor extends the offer before the editorial letter is sent.

    3. Is there any precedent for an author to have product pricing set in their contract (e.g. e-books can be priced no higher than 7.99, something like that)and their name not be Stephen King or James Patterson or whatever?

    Thanks so much for putting out this info, John and Joe.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Oh, and one more question, I've been hearing that publishers are now aggressively trying to force first-timers to give up their film and tv rights, and relinquish their digital rights for longer periods of time. Is there any truth to this?

    ReplyDelete
  5. Fletch, my sense is that advances are lower because the risk is higher, i.e., it's getting harder to anticipate traditional sales numbers over time. What this means, in essence, is the author is sharing more of the risk with the publisher.

    First time authors have the least leverage of any party in all this, but nevertheless ought to be educated about contracts and terms and discuss them with the agent

    ReplyDelete
  6. Fletch, to your questions:

    1. Is this new, near-perfect-initial-submission-manuscript reality part of the reason why first-timers are seeing lower initial offers unless there's an auction? Because the copyediting budget is expected to be almost zero?

    I have asked both my agent and editor about this in the past--about the need for perfection in the submission process--and both of them agree that such is not the case. A manuscript has to to tell an engaging story involving compelling characters, and it needs to be told in a voice that demonstrates true skill on the part of the writer. Perfection is not the rule.

    On the other hand, there comes a tipping point where the amount of re-engineering is not worth a publisher's time. My manuscript for NO MERCY, the first book in the Grave series was turned down by a publisher who didn't like the second act, and didn't want to take the time to help me fix it, even though it later proved to be fixable during the course of a single phone call. When I got the offer from Kensington, we knew that I'd need an extra month or two to make the changes, and we built that into the schedule.

    2. How much leeway does a first-time author have to refuse some of an acquisition editor's changes and the deal still be on? . . . And is the MS considered acquired before or after the writer has made said changes? Because, as it was explained to me, the acquisition editor extends the offer before the editorial letter is sent.

    First of all, the acquisitions editor is the same editor that send the editorial letter. That's the person people are speaking of when they refer to their "editor." And the care and feeding of editors can be complicated. I've always worked on one simple rule: "Mr. or Ms. Editor, tell me what you think is wrong, and why. We'll talk about it, and if I think I understand where you're coming from, allow me to fix it. Do not give suggestions for the fix unless I ask for it." My rationale here is simple: I don't want to have to fight to explain to an editor why my solution is better than his.

    A book is considered sold when the offer is accepted. At that time, the author gets his signing payment. After the editorial letter is responded to, you reach the critical phase where the book is "accepted" by the editor. That's when you get your D&A payment. If it's not accepted, and author and editor cannot come to terms, the contract is nullified, and the author pays back the signing payment.

    I have never heard of pricing being built into a contract, and I think it would be entirely inappropriate to do so.

    As to your last point, I really have no idea. To give up dramatic or film rights, though, would be a deal breaker, and I cannot imagine any agent worth his or her salt allowing it.

    John Gilstrap

    ReplyDelete
  7. Got it! Thanks for the straight-dope, Jim and JG!

    ReplyDelete
  8. Thank you! Thank you! In my writing group, we have folks in all phases of pubbed, not pubbed, agented, querying, proposals, fiction, non-fiction, etc. and there's not always consensus or knowledge on these issues. I knew y'all would answer it straight.

    It's like there's a series of doors: your first pub, querying, agent, the deal!, all that stuff between the deal and release, release!

    Thank you for a peek behind the "all that stuff . . ." door.

    Terri

    ReplyDelete
  9. Great post, John. I so agree that answers to many of these questions depends on the publishing house. I know there's little wiggle room on the contracts I sign with Harlequin.
    The point you make on an author's public face not only touches the book currently under contract, but the persona an author one presents to the world. This is important. No publishing house wants to make excuses for an author's actions in public! It is not only important to be in sync with marketing plans but the author's character as well. Hmmm. I might have to blog about this one . . .

    ReplyDelete