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The Best Things In Life Are Free

Dear Betsy:

Happy new year!

Your suggestions to read Susan Rabiner’s book and to put pen to paper on my
book proposal were both so helpful that I’m hoping you might be willing to
provide more sage advice.

I submitted a proposal to a (Major Trade) Publisher and have recently received a
call from their Editorial Director…. offering me a “competitive” contract
around the end of January.


I’m wondering what you would recommend to me at this point. If all goes
well, I have already secured a publisher and don’t know if I should seek an
agent’s representation. It seems to me that a large part of an agent’s job
is to secure a publisher (?). However, I will need someone to aid me in
negotiating the contract and don’t know if this is something best left to an
agent, or if a lawyer would be sufficient. To be candid, I don’t want to give up 15-20% of my earnings if I
have already done much of the heavy lifting. I also do not want to shoot
myself in the foot by not taking my first book contract very seriously. Any thoughts???


Dear Reader: Congratulations on the offer! You ask a common question: Do I need an agent now that I have an offer? No, there are excellent contracts consultants who will ensure you get a good contract and they work by the hour and cost less than lawyers. Done. Except for the following: an agent would have sent your book to multiple publishers and gotten the most competitive offer, your agent would negotiate the contract, run interference if you have difficulties or disputes with your editor/publisher. The agent should exploit your ancillary rights such as film, audio, serial and foreign. Your agent should be a sounding board for new ideas, help shape proposals, wipe your tears and kick your ass. He should get you, get your work, and help you get what you need. The care and feeding of writers is what agents do — of course, they come in all stripes and perform their duties differently. Is it worth 15%?

[As an aside, the chapter on proposal writing in the Rabiner book is really good. I’ve recommended to lots of writers and they always come back with results. I’d prefer to recommend my own writing book but I don’t have a chapter on the nuts and bolts of proposal writing. My chapters are about mental illness, masturbation, self-promotion and so forth.

People, help me out here: should this writer get an agent?



16 Responses

  1. I think that getting as many people involved in a book, the better. I think that agents also help a bit in marketing (a lot have blogs and big followings) and can help an author from burning bridges. Because the agent is in the admirable position of being able tell said author that they are acting crazy, before the author actually takes the crazy to the publisher or the public. It seems to me that there is a lot about publishing that might drive a person crazy.

    • I would not want to represent myself in negotiations with a publisher, for the same reason I would not do my own brain surgery. I wouldn’t know what I was doing.

      It’s like do-it-yourself home projects. Maybe you can achieve decent results hanging your own wallpaper for the first time. But it’s likely it you’ll waste a lot of wallpaper, time, and effort in the process of learning how to do it, and the results you achieve won’t be half as good or quick as that of an expert, experienced, wall paper hanger.

      I cannot be an expert at everything. Nor do I have time to do everything that needs to be done in my life. So I choose to put time and effort into what’s most important to me and get advice and help from experts on other stuff in my life. I educate myself so that i can choose my experts carefully and I listen to their advice, but I make my own decisions.

      Seems to me, the percentage I’d give to an expert agent is a good deal. She has an incentive for me to succeed and I have the advice of an expert.

  2. Yes, oui, ja, si. Yes in any language.

    The choice of an agent is the single most crucial move a writer makes — and I say this as someone who has viewed the publishing business from all angles: as an agent’s assistant, an editor and an author.

  3. Of course the writer needs an agent. Because as soon as the writer signs the contract there will be a big re-organization at the publihsing house and the editoral director will disappear forever from the writer’s life and so will his/her assistant and then the art director (in charge of the book’s cover) will go on materninty leave and so will the marketing director and the only person who will talk to the writer is the nice lady at the security desk in the lobby of (Major Trade) publisher’s building. Trust me.

    Your agent is the only constant in the ever-changing death sprial of the publishing biz. You need that.

    Also, if you play your cards right, you’ll get to gaze adoringly at Neil deGrasse Tyson at your agent’s Christmas party.

  4. I think EVERYONE should have an agent. Seriously.

  5. Maybe that will be my next business venture: Agents For Civilians.

  6. She doesn’t need an agent if this is the only book she’s gonna write. But a publisher saying the contract is competitive is like a dominatrix saying you don’t need a safe word.

  7. I’d say search for an agent and sign with one if you feel it is a good match. That will you up to write and promote and will give you all the advantages Betsy mentioned.

  8. I’d say definitely get an agent. It’s clearly a LOT easier to do that now that the writer has a contract looming. I just got my first agent for a nonfic proposal I’d been shopping around and everything Betsy says is true: the person cares for your work, is a sounding board, and helps you both emotionally and business-wise.

    It’s just so nice to have someone in your corner. Easily worth the 15% – and the experience should pay back for itself through subsidiary rights & negotiations, etc.

  9. Of course, otherwise you never get to say, “I’m going to the city to have lunch with my agent.”

    Most fun *ever*.

  10. Partner up with someone who has your back, is a good sounding board, knows the landscape, etc. whether that person is called an agent, an attorney, a publisher or an editor. The name of the guide and the path they take with the talent is exactly what is shaking down right now in publishing.

    My vote? Writer Agents should do the entire deal right through to the e-book publish.

  11. Well, thanks, Bart, for that lesson in Ways Brevity is Not Always Userful. And to everyone else, I appreciate what I’ve learned by reading your answers. I’ve had a similar question in mind, and your answers have provided me with helpful guidance.

  12. Hell yes, get an agent. While the acceptance of what I assume was an unsolicited book proposal is a tribute to the quality of the work, it also is an example of wild ass luck. For that editor to pull that proposal out of the slush pile and “just love it,” defied Las Vegas odds. Agents are equally hard to aquire, and having an accepted book proposal in hand is just about the primo time to query for one. Having an agent is essential for all the reasons given in Ms. Lerner’s response.

  13. I’m in the pro-agent camp. If not for this book, at least for the next one.

    But all the reading I’ve done says a good agent will more than earn that 15% back for you in expertise and fighting for rights you didn’t even know you should be defending.

    All the reading I’ve done also says that a bad agent will screw you over worse than no agent. So, you’re kind of in the driver’s seat now. You have the offer – go find an agent that loves your work and with whom you’re comfortable.

    Good luck and don’t reject the agent idea out of hand.

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