Monday, June 10, 2013

Publishing Company News

Today I read about two individuals who are leaving traditional publishing houses to start up literary agencies.

I sincerely wish them both well and good luck with their ventures. Having said that, a thousand questions popped into my mind. These are things that should enter any writer's mind before they shop for a literary agent, so I'll go ahead and list a couple of them here. If you don't like the answers a given literary agency gives you, don't sign up with them. In fact, if they post their terms on their page and those terms don't make sense from the writer's point of view, I wouldn't contact them at all.

What percent? Historically, agents received 10% of the writer's paycheck from the publisher (both the advance and royalties.) This has crept up to 15% and stuck. Most folks would, perhaps rightly, contend that an agent will get them a bigger advance than they would on their own. But the royalties? For all time? Where is the justification for 15% there? Not arguing, just asking. What would be the added benefit of having an agent over, say, a literary contract lawyer, who actually fully and completely understands contract law from his client's perspective, not from the publisher's perspective? A literary contract lawyer will charge a one time fee, based on how much time and trouble it is for her/him. And then s/he's gone. If s/he charges $800 to vet a contract for you, it won't matter if you're negotiating a $5000 advance or a $750,000 advance. And then you get all the royalties from your work. Forever.

I have to admit, I did cringe a bit when I heard the news. One of the reasons I cringed is that I have heard many stories about agents and editors settling on a contract with a writer that was actually worse than the worst-terms boilerplate for the publisher. With an agent on your side, you wouldn't think that it would happen, but it does. Editors mainly edit. They don't practice law. Having an editor leave the editing business and go into agenting ... well, I have my doubts.

Next question:  Will they ask for rewrites before they're willing to send your work out? In this case, if the editor was very good at their job, I'm more comfortable with that than I would be with an agent whose history and education I have no clue about. Having said that, I'm wary of anyone who would take on a writer because of that writer's compelling writing who then turns around and asks for a major rewrite. Little stuff, oh yeah. Bring it on! If I change the character's name in the middle of the story, let's go ahead and fix that and save us both some embarrassment. But I don't want to go with an agent who is trying to groom me into becoming the sort of writer s/he believes will sell better (or who will write like s/he would like to write themselves.) That says that they see potential, but won't work with me until I'm better. I'd rather get better on my own, with my own learning process, than under the direction of someone who is supposed to be selling manuscripts to publishers, not reading and critiquing almost-there manuscripts for their stable of writers. Seriously. I've heard of agents bad-mouthing their authors to publishers, calling their work commercial dreck, smut, etc. If an agent doesn't love, really love, my work, I don't want to have them represent me. And if they're asking for extensive rewrites, especially with the idea to make it more commercial, they don't love my work. End of story.

Stuff to think about before signing on with an agent. There's lots more questions. I hope that writers who see two new literary agencies on the horizon don't start setting up their submission packages before they've settled these and other questions in their minds.

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