Make Yourself Irresistible, Part 1

Understand How Agents and Publishers Work

There’s a cartoon that shows an editor sitting across a desk from a man who looks like Charles Dickens, and the editor is saying, “Make up your mind, Mr. Dickens. Was it the best of times or the worst of times? It could scarcely have been both.”

For new writers who want to be published by big houses, now is both the best and the most challenging of times. This is why:

  1. Like the rest of the arts, publishing must tread the tightrope between art and commerce. Publishers want books that they can publish with pride and with passion, but to survive, they must publish books that sell.
  2. Cost, conglomerates, competition, technology and the globalization of culture and commerce are changing publishing faster and more radically than at any time in its history. Nobody is in control of this accelerating transformation, and nobody knows where it is leading us.
  3. In the age of information, content is king, but synergy is the power behind the throne. The six conglomerates that dominate trade publishing want books that they can recycle in as many ways that they own as possible. There are more ways to make money from your ideas than ever, so when you’re considering what to write about, try to come up with ideas that you can profit from in as many forms, media and countries as possible.
  4. This is the age of the mass-market hardcover, heavily discounted million-copy selling blockbusters. It’s cheaper and more profitable for publishers to print 1,000,000 copies of one book than 10,000 copies of a hundred books. The advances lavished on bestsellers leave less money for new writers who need it, and the more publishers pay, the more they push.
  5. Books, like authors, agents, booksellers, and publishers tend to come in two sizes: big and small–bestsellers and everything else. And it’s getting harder to sell small books to big publishers.
  6. During its short ride on the publishing merry-go-round, your book will have seven lunges to grab the brass ring of bestsellerdom:
    • a huge, highly publicized advance
    • intense in-house enthusiasm
    • rave pre-publication reviews in trade magazines
    • large subsidiary-rights sales to the movies, book clubs and foreign publishers
    • reviews in consumer media
    • an all-out promotion campaign
    • and glowing word of mouth and word of mouse recommendations

If a book hasn’t started generating momentum by the time it is published, it will either stay on or fall off the merry-go-round, depending on:

    • the reception the first printing receives from reviewers and book buyers
    • handselling in independent bookstores
    • and the author’s ability to promote it

Small wonder that most books, good and bad, fail.

  1. Independent bookstores are being supplanted by superstores that mark down prices and stock up to 150,000 titles.
  2. Publishing your book will be a personal, complex, collaborative enterprise. A multitude of things can go wrong during the publication of a book; something will. Publishing a book perfectly is practically impossible.
  3. If you have an idea for a book now, it will probably take one and a half to two years for your book to reach the bookshelves. Even without the cost of the advance and the first printing, the average investment a major publisher makes in a book is more than $50,000. So publishers try to protect their investments by holding down advances and royalties, and by keeping as many subsidiary rights as possible.
  4. What are editors buying?
    In fiction, they are looking for three kinds of books:
    • genre books such as mysteries and romances
    • literary novels that are well-crafted and character-driven, but hard to sell when they’re by newcomers
    • and of course, bestsellers, which may be either of these.

In Elmore Leonard’s novel, Get Shorty, an aspiring writer asks a Hollywood producer what kind of writing makes the most money. The producer replies: “Ransom notes.”

In publishing, bestsellers make the most money. And publishers compete vigorously for them. Fiction, more than nonfiction, is a brand-name business, depending on well-known names.

  1. In nonfiction, publishers will take on almost anything for the general public that will sell in bookstores and that ideally has other markets such as schools and non-book outlets. Nonfiction runs the gamut from frontlist humor and novelty books that make a splash and then disappear to evergreens, backlist books that sell year after year.

    The French writer Andre Maurois once observed that: “In literature, as in love, we are astonished at what is chosen by others.” 

  2. The response to writing is subjective. Agents and editors turn down books that become bestsellers.
  3. Even with the obstacles facing new writers, publishing is remarkably open to new ideas, writers and books. The author Barry Lopez once said that “Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive.” What hasn’t changed at all in publishing is that people still want to be entertained and enlightened by books with timeless, universal ideas. It is easier than ever for the right book to change the world.

How an Agent Can Help You

Literary agents supply ninety percent of the books published by the major houses. So to understand how publishing works, you also have to understand how agents work.

  • Your agent is a mediator between two realities: you and the marketplace.
  • Your agent is a scout who knows what publishers are looking for.
  • Your agent is a midwife who can provide editorial guidance that will help you give birth to your idea.
  • Your agent is a matchmaker who knows what editors and publishers to submit your book to and, just as important, which to avoid. Your agent will continue to send out a manuscript until it is sold or until the agent has tried all likely publishers.
  • When a publisher makes an offer, your agent is a negotiator who hammers out the most favorable possible contract for your working marriage with your publisher. The contract, which is between you and your publisher and which you must understand, approve and sign, enables your agent to act on your behalf and receive income earned through the contract. The agent then deducts a commission, usually fifteen percent for domestic sales, and forwards the rest to you.
  • Then an agent serves as the liaison between you and your publisher on editorial, financial, production, and promotional questions that arise during the publication of your book.
  • Your agent is your advocate in helping to solve problems such as a late or rejected manuscript, a bad jacket design, or your editor leaving the house.
  • Your agent is the focal point for selling subsidiary rights. For film and foreign rights, your agent may appoint co-agents.
  • Your agent may be a rainmaker who can get you writing assignments.
  • Your agent is a mentor about your writing and your career. In what may be desert of rejection, your agent is an oasis of encouragement

Why an agent can help you

  • Like publishers, agents reject more than ninety percent of the submissions they see, but agents also receive more rejections than writers. By absorbing rejections and helping you with the financial aspects of your career, your agent helps free you to write.
  • As a continuing source of manuscripts, your agent has more clout with editors than you do.
  • Your share of subsidiary rights income will be greater if your agent, rather than your publisher, handles them.
  • Your agent enables you to avoid haggling about rights and money with your editor, so you and your editor can concentrate on making your books successful.
  • The selling of your books deserves the same level of care, skill, knowledge and experience that you lavish in writing them. An agent can’t write your book as well as you can, but you can’t sell it as well as an agent can.
  • Since editors may change jobs and publishers may change hands at any time, your agent may be the only stable element in your career. Like publishers, agents are motivated by love or money, or both, and need big books to make big bucks. Agents love to get excited about their books and authors and must do a good job if they expect to work on the author’s next book.
  • Publishers and agents start working with a writer in the hope that they will establish a permanent relationship that will grow more profitable and creative as the writer’s career develops. They both face the perpetual challenge of finding books.

    Most agents, including us, must find new writers to make a living. So the harder it gets for agents to sell books, the more eager they are to find writers whose work they can sell. You can find an agent in just three simple steps:

  • Write a salable novel or a proposal for a nonfiction book.
  • Research agents through your professional networks, the Association of Authors Representatives, directories, writer’s conferences and organizations, and online.
  • Contact them in a professional way as their listings in directories recommend.

***Continue to Part 2***