Last night I attended a talk at Cornell entitled, “Publishing: A Literary Agent’s Point of View.” It was given by agents from The Wendy Weil Agency, Inc., of NYC, Wendy Weil, president/agent, and Emily Forland, agent.
Among the topics addressed were what an agent is, how to choose an agent, some miscellaneous things to know/think about in the choosing process, query letters, sources that aid finding an agent, a few thoughts on the publishing industry in transition with eBooks. I’ve categorized all that below my summary of the evening since many readers here may already be familiar with those topics.
But first, the hottest thing I heard there was the story of Melinda Haynes. It not only quickened my heartbeat, it pointed up the approachability of The Wendy Weil Agency, and that was part of the bar-setting for what to look for in an agent. A synopsis of Melinda Haynes’ journey to getting published is contained here. The short of it is that Melinda only had two short stories accepted by “The Crescent Review” before hooking up with The Wendy Weil Agency. Emily Forland was the agent at Weil that found Melinda’s gem, “Mother of Pearl,” and she talked a bit about it, the gist being the first few pages of it were so good she was compelled to take it on. And “Mother of Pearl” went on to becoming a big moneymaker for them, was sold to Hyperion Press and was an Oprah’s Book Club pick.
I came away from listening to Wendy and Emily with this: when approaching an agent with a book idea or manuscript, of course it’s good to have credentials—especially to have been published in print, a distributed magazine at least, for example—and better yet, to have a referral; but, even if you’ve not been published, if your query letter and writing is exceptional, there is hope if your submittal lands at a reputable agent who goes beyond, i.e. one that actually reads all of what you send! And these ladies, from this mid-sized agency, seem ones who go beyond.
What an agent is
Basically, they sell rights to books, a.k.a. projects, a.k.a. property, a.k.a. content, to name a few impersonal terms the industry has adopted (the industry being one that acts much as real estate agents do, hence the terms). Agents sell book rights, print rights, eBook/magazine rights, audio book rights, merchandizing rights, translation rights, for examples.
How to choose an agent
Emily put it well, that agents are, or should be, gatekeepers, tastemakers, matchmakers, an author’s first line of defense, sounding boards for next writing projects. Ideally, they should know their authors’ passions and know the markets and the editors to match them to.
Some miscellaneous things to know/think about in the choosing process
Agencies can charge any commission they want, but 15% for an agent is standard and the different rights are negotiable; and if you’re not agented you may get a bigger advance, but you pay for it in the end, pay 50% and give up all rights.
It’s best to sign book-for-book, best to avoid getting tied up in a multi-book deal.
There exists a bent to publish a brand (John Grisham’s books fall into this category, for example). The Weil Agency, for one, is not enamored with that. Some writers/agencies may or may not be. It’s just another consideration.
You shouldn’t have to pay reading fees. Be wary when approaching an agent or other persons/companies offering the service of reading and commenting on your manuscript for the purpose of bettering it before you approach an agent or, if you’re ballsy (crazy?) enough to go straight to a publisher.
Most agencies prefer to have exclusive relationships with authors but it’s not a requirement; however, full disclosure, divulging who you’ve disclosed your manuscript or book to, is required.
One reason not to let rejection get you down: not all agents read everything you send before they respond with a rejection letter.
Know the agency’s preferences. Most agencies are taking online queries/submissions, and The Wendy Weil Agency is no exception, but they prefer written queries. And query content may vary. For the Wendy Weil Agency, in addition to query letters, they require a partial manuscript for non-fiction; a full manuscript or several short stories if you’ve not been published or partial manuscript if you have; partial manuscript for memoirs. They’ll respond to all written queries but only to e-mail queries that they’re interested in.
The query letter itself: the thing that sounded good to me regarding the importance of them was how Emily put it, that they’re basically a first presentation of your voice. Your voice. Man, I like the sound of that. And after that it’s this: professional and to the point; distinctive (not gimmicky, hokey, weird, or just plain insane); include your background; tell about the project that you’re writing; include a description of your project; add a paragraph stating the themes of the book and why it’s unique; and state your credentials. Like all agents, they’re bombarded with godawful query letters and beg us to stop it! LOL! I can identify. There must be nothing better to an agent than a right-on query letter and a gem of a manuscript.
The agent has to be able to work with the writer, and the query letter tells a lot about character: are they decent and polite people, boors, cads, rattleheads, sane or insane? Wendy made a joke about there being a good kind of insane. I don’t remember it exactly, but I can see how it would be not a problem if they were big moneymakers!
And of course referrals are one of the best ways to go. In life in general, that goes without saying. It’s always good to know someone who knows just the right person to lend you some assistance. Helping others get ahead, a subchapter of the Golden Rule?
Sources that aid finding an agent
Look at the acknowledgements in books of authors you admire (the company you’d most like to be in). Some authors thank their agents and that can be something to pick up on.
Literary Marketplace. Lists all agencies worldwide and what they require. Found in libraries and via a subscription online.
A few thoughts on the publishing industry in transition
The publishing industry is in transition with eBooks/readers and the role of the agent is evolving, and it’s pure speculation as to what it will end up to be. It’s got to hurt publishers, agents and writers with eBooks at $10 and printed books at $25, for example. But I’m sure they’ll find a way to rake in dough. I actually hope so, because I hope to be part of the pecking order that gets paid for words.
Cornell’s Goldwin Smith building, where the event was held