Friday, 3 August 2018

Dealing with Literary Agents


Many new writers are desperate to find an agent to represent their manuscripts to publishers. They believe that only via an agent can their work be ‘discovered’ and published. Getting published this way certainly results in success for some authors, but my experience might result in you changing your mind if you are desperately searching for an agent. Over a long, successful literary career in children’s books, I’ve had three agents; however, I have managed to place all my manuscripts – fiction and non-fiction – by myself.

It was easy enough to find my first agent (Ms X) and to have her represent my interests. Ours was a verbal contract; she was to place my work and to charge 10% of my income if successful. It didn’t take me long to discover that I knew more than she about the Australian children’s book market. In fact, I soon discovered that I was the first – and only – children’s author she represented. This was pre-computer days, so our communication was via phone and letter. However, Ms X was difficult to contact by phone, and she did not answer letters. One day, while I was attending a writers’ festival, I saw her and tried to engage her in conversation. At the time she was accompanying a highly regarded author; in passing, she promised to ring me ‘soon’. There was no phone call. Consequently, I wrote her a polite note letting her know I preferred to go my own way. I have no idea whether she ever sent off any of my manuscripts to publishers. The bottom line was that she did not sell anything I wrote.

For a long time after this, I continued to represent my own interests and was very successful, sometimes placing up to seven or eight book manuscripts a year (mostly to the educational market which was flourishing at the time). However, a time came when I was very ill and needed help. When I rang Mrs Y, a highly regarded agent, and told her I had four contracts that needed to be negotiated, she expressed surprise that I’d contacted her. ‘Di,’ she said, ‘you know more about publishers than most writers.’ When I explained why I needed her help, she agreed to represent me. Before long the four contracts were signed and delivered.

I then began sending manuscripts to her. A publisher was interested in a joke book I’d compiled but, because the jokes were culled from various sources and were not ‘original’, the company offered only a paltry royalty which I would not accept. Mrs Y was unable to change the publisher’s mind, so the manuscript was withdrawn. She submitted other manuscripts of mine, but without success, though I managed to place some manuscripts and she negotiated those contracts. Royalties and royalty statements began to come in via this agent. It was fortunate that I took the time to check the statements because there were mistakes in payments. Mrs Y had negotiated a rising royalty on contracts, which meant that after a certain number of books were sold, the royalty would rise from ten to twelve and a half percent of RRP. My sales on several books exceeded the ten percent number; however, the publisher had not paid the twelve percent. Mrs Y had not bothered to check my contract against the statements. It was then I realised that not only was she not thorough in handling my affairs, but she was over-worked with too many clients. As well, she had not managed to place any of my manuscripts. I decided to terminate our relationship, though she continued to handle royalties on those books she had negotiated contracts for.

Notwithstanding these two poor experiences with agents, I nevertheless decided, many published books later, to secure the services of an agent who might be able to sell my manuscripts overseas. Mrs Z had a good reputation and had even managed to negotiate film rights for a colleague, so I wrote and asked her to represent my overseas’ and local interests. No problem there. The problem, however, was Mrs Z’s lack of communication. She was very slow to respond to emails (when she did) and phone messages went unreturned. On the positive side, it seemed that she did have publishing contacts, especially in America, and, when she bothered to contact me, she did let me know where my manuscripts were sent, and how the overseas’ publishers had responded. Unfortunately, Mrs Z was unable – as I had been – to place any of my novels overseas. Meanwhile, in Australia I had managed to interest a publisher in one of my books; however, the publisher was dragging its heels with a contract. It was when I caught Mrs Z out in a lie about communicating with this publisher, I decided the time had come for us to part company; thus, I wrote her a short yet hopefully tactful letter terminating our verbal contract.

Not one of the three agents – all respectable and with many clients – managed to place one of my manuscripts. However, I have placed over 130 children’s books in the past 30+ years. Yes, it is more difficult these days to get publishers’ locked doors. But it can be done. I do it all the time, even when publishers’ websites indicate they don’t take unsolicited manuscripts and will only accept them through an agent.

Getting an agent is sometimes as difficult as getting a book acceptance. Agents can be, so I’m told, very helpful. Some are more proactive than others, but some, I think, represent too many clients and as a result are over-worked and not as effective as a writer can be who is talented and determined to have her books published.
© Dianne Bates

Di offers a twice monthly online magazine for those in the Australian children’s industry. Go to www.buzzwordsmagazine.com to receive a free copy. If you decide to subscribe ($48 for 24 issues pa), Di will send you a copy of her article, 'How to Get Both Feet Past Publishers' Locked Doors.'


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