The magic day has arrived. An editor contacts you to say, “I want to buy your book” or an agent says, “I’d love to represent you.” What on Earth do you do?
First, give yourself some SQUEE time. Jump up and down, turn cartwheels, hug your cat. You’ve definitely earned it. Then take a breath, peel yourself off the ceiling, and put on your businessperson’s hat.
You have some decisions to make.
One thing NOT to do. Do NOT rush to Facebook, Twitter, LiveJournal, Blogspot, or any other social media and post the news. Your going to have to keep your mouth shut for a while yet. Feel free to verbally inform your significant other and your immediate family, and perhaps your best friend, but not in writing. Getting this news is a little like getting a positive result on a home pregnancy test–things aren’t for sure yet, and you don’t want to blab it around until everything’s set.
Let’s handle the editor first.
The editor will contact you via phone or, more likely, email. She may or may not say what terms she’s offering–what royalty rates, what rights she wants to buy, etc. Regardless of what the editor says, your ONLY response should be, “That’s wonderful! Thank you so much. My agent will contact you.”
You say this EVEN THOUGH YOU DON’T HAVE AN AGENT.
When the editor asks who your agent is so she can contact your agent directly, you say or write, “I’m finalizing negotiations with an agent at this very moment, and I’ll let you know the moment we’ve worked it all out. Thank you so much!” Since you probably have a manuscript out with an agent or two, this isn’t a lie.
Don’t worry about losing the offer. Publishing moves at a glacial rate, and the book deal will sit patiently on the table for a few weeks yet.
This done, you drop everything and phone the agent at the top of your list to inform her that you have an honest-to-heavens offer. This will guarantee you a fast read from said agent. If this agent turns you down (for some reason), call the next one, and so on, until you have an agent.
An agent will also probably contact you by email, but you might also get a phone call. She’ll be offering to represent your work by sending it to editors she thinks will like it and then argue contract terms on your behalf, using her knowledge of publishing to ensure you don’t get beaten with a firehose. In return for this, she’ll take 15% of any contract she negotiates for you.
The author-agent relationship is a strange one. The agent is initially in a position of power because she has a number of authors who are dying to get into her “stable.” But once the agreement is signed, the agent becomes the author’s employee–one who knows more than the boss in many respects.
Since you’re essentially hiring an employee, you’ll need to conduct a job interview (weird since you were just begging to get noticed a moment ago, but there it is). You need to know what services the agent provides, how much she charges, what extra charges there are besides the commission (there shouldn’t be many–good agents don’t charge extra for office expenses like long-distance calls or postage), what her office hours are, what conventions she attends, and, most importantly, who her other clients are and what publishers she’s sold books to. Are the publishers ones you’ve heard of? Are the other clients happy with her work? (You’re perfectly within bounds to ask for references.)
You might encounter a new agent, someone who has a short or non-existent client list. There is something to be said for this type. Some say she’s likely to be hungry and willing to work extra hard for you in order to balance out her lack of experience, and you’ll get lots of extra attention to boot, where a busy Big Name Agent may not always return calls or give you much face time. My main piece of advice here is to be sure a new agent is part of a larger agency so she has someone to hit up for advice.
Once you’ve talked to the agent and decided you can work with her, you’ll sign a letter of agreement or a contract and you’ll be all set. Another bit of advice: don’t sign an agency contract with a clause that assigns you to the agent for set period of time (like three or five years). If you decide you don’t like the agent’s work, you’ll have no way out of the arrangement, and the only recourse you’ll have is to stop writing until the time period expires. Instead, make sure the termination clause allows either of you to end the relationship with thirty days’ written notice. However, if you walk away from an agent, that agent will still collect commissions from everything she ever negotiated for you.
No matter what anyone tells you, no matter how persuasive they are, no matter what excuses they give, real authors never, ever give money to editors or publishers. Agents only collect their commissions after the publishing company has paid you. (Actually, most publishers send the check to the agent, who cashes it, deducts her commission, and on the same day sends the rest to the writer. By overnight mail, if the author requests it.) If an editor, publisher, or agent ever says you need to send them money, demand the immediate return of your work and look for someone else.
There are absolutely no exceptions to this rule. Not a single one.
The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America has listed on their Writers Beware page an excellent resource for avoiding writing scams. Check out http://www.sfwa.org/for-authors/writer-beware/ .
CAN I SAY IT NOW?
Once you’ve signed the agency contract, you can announce to your on-line friends that you have an agent. Once the publisher’s contract has been negotiated and all parties have agreed to all the points, you can announce to your on-line friends that you have sold a book. NOW is the time to squee in public.
–Steven Harper Piziks
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