The relationship between an author and a literary agent is multi-layered and rich. Part muse, part accountant, the agent guides the author through the unknown waters of a writing career, from the sublime to the mundane.
The cornerstone of the relationship is strength in negotiation. Basically, the agent’s commission is 15% and that is 15% of proceeds --- whatever the author gets. The agent should be able to get at least 15% more for the author than the author could get for him or herself. That means that everything else, every other benefit of the relationship is, in a sense, free.
The first benefit, aside from strength in negotiation, lies in being part of a nexus, a web of publishing relationships, the editors that the agent deals with, the other authors and even, independent publishing professionals. This web of relationships brings me into contact with online directories and, as I have time, I fill them out. Once such directory is “Who Represents…”, part of Publishers Marketplace. As I filled out an entry for A Time to Heal, a more than twenty-year old, backlist recovery book by Timmen Cermak, M.D., little did I know that a Polish recovery publisher was looking on the internet for the agent for the book, to arrange a translation.
Directories and entries that list clients, even my web site, are all little showcases of books that I represent and can lead to new opportunities in the global publishing marketplace.
Another, more obvious benefit grows out of being a creative sounding board and helping shape the author’s new work. For this, I often use the Socratic method, sitting with an author and asking questions about their experience with the topic (since I only handle nonfiction) until a mutual “light bulb” goes off and what seems obvious finally reveals itself.
I remember sitting with psychologist and dream expert, Alan Siegel, for six hours, drinking coffee, helping to shape the idea for his first book, Dreams That Can Change Your Life.
Once the idea for a new project is shaped and focused, it becomes necessary to express that idea in a blueprint known as the book proposal. rint known as the book proposal.
The Book Proposal is a convention. It is formulaic. A way of establishing common ground among diverse book concepts so they can be judged. A secondary benefit derives from the fact that if an author goes through the exercise of creating a proposal, he or she will have a thorough understanding of the book they are proposing to write. For structuring the proposal, I prefer the model established by Mike Larsen in How To Write A Book Proposal . An agent, who has written dozens of proposals, assists the author in putting their unique proposal together. Because I have experience as a publisher, I can look at a proposal from that point of view and help make it bullet-proof.
Deciding what publishers should receive each proposal is part science and part art. It is based on past relationships as well as knowledge as to who is publishing what. Today, most submissions take place electronically via email.
Assuming you have done your homework well and that there is interest in your project, you will often have to wade through a minefield of questions and qualifications like “How much is written?” “Can the author beef up their platform?”
Today, an author is expected to take the lead in online efforts and social media used to promote their book. The agent will step forward to tutor the author in social media or to suggest classes or coaches who can help them learn how to promote their book online (blogging, email marketing, LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, etc.). Sometimes the first question an ac acquiring editor will ask is “What is his or her platform”. The conventional wisdom is that creating your platform is at least as important as writing your book.
Negotiating the major terms of a book contract is glamorous and sexy: Advance, royalty rate and subsidiary rights splits. Negotiating the rest of the contract is tedious but necessary. Option clauses, noncompetition clauses, right to audit and so on. Agents will know which publishers can give way on which clauses.
Once the contract is signed, the editorial process takes over. Generally, agents will step back and let the creative energy flow between editor and author. However, every once in a while, there arises a profound difference of opinion between author and editor. At this point, the agent steps forward to mediate the process, essentially becoming the author’s advocate to the editor and the editor’s advocate to the author, until the situation is rectified.
The same conflict resolution function takes place during the marketing phase of the book, something that often resembles “shuttle diplomacy.”
Agents are invaluable in helping authors decide what their next book should be and how this might fit in with a longer term career plan. Nowhere else can an author go for objective advice in either of these categories.
Looked at from this point of view, the agent-author relationship is one of the great bargains in publishing. The agent works on commission. On speculation. You don’t get paid. We don’t get paid. Chances are that the commission rate will be absorbed by the negotiating strength of the agent. That is, they will obtain an offer at least 15% better than you could have gotten yourself.
The agent functions as an editor and helps shape the book idea, offers advice on how to develop and build a promotional platform, helps create the book proposal, researches potential publishers, negotiates the major terms of the contract, negotiates the minor terms, smoothes over the editorial and marketing processes and helps maintain the publishing relationship.
Agents are not just dealmakers, they are midwives to the publishing process.
Peter Beren, Literary Agent and Publishing Consultant, is the author of The Writers Legal Companion, California the Beautiful and The Golden Gate. Formerly the Publisher of Sierra Club Books, VIA Books and VP of the Palace Press Group, he lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. www.Peterberen.com