If you’ve been following my “Writing Your Book” series from the beginning, then you know that our book is finished, we have gone through our rewrites, and when we left off, we had gone to a couple of conventions to market ourselves and make some connections with editors and agents who might help us get our book book published. Well, today we’re going to talk a bit about the business realities that face the beginning writer when those offers finally start coming.
Let’s say that the networking we did at MagicalWordsCon has paid off and we have not just one, but two agents interested in representing us. One of them is a young agent from the Big Name Agency in New York City. The second is an older agent from his own agency — Friendly Agency in, say, Ann Arbor, Michigan. How do you decide which of the two is right for you? Well, there are pluses and minuses for both. BNA is located in the heart of big-time publishing, and that can be hugely helpful when it comes time for your agent to sell your book. Negotiations over a lunch in Midtown can be far more productive than phone or internet discussions. Having a young, hungry, energetic agent is a good thing, and when that agent has the resources of a big name agency behind her, she can be a terrific advocate for your work. That said, FA has advantages of its own. You’d be working with an older, more experienced agent who has, over the years, established relationships within the industry, despite not being located in NYC. Chances are that FA, because it is a smaller agency, has fewer clients than BNA, and so you’ll probably get more attention and quicker responses to your work. From a monetary standpoint, there is probably little difference between the two. The industry standard is that the agent takes 15%. And while the NYC agency might have a higher profile foreign sales department (for selling the translation rights to your books to publishers in other countries) chances are that an agency as well established as FA can handle foreign sales, too.
So, again, how do we choose? There are a couple of factors you want to think about. When you’re figuring out who your agent is going to be you want to find someone with whom you have a good rapport, someone with whom you feel comfortable. Your agent doesn’t have to be your best friend, but you and she should be able to work together, speak frankly about your career path, and make business decisions together. No agent will sign with you without familiarizing herself with your work, and so she should also have a sense of where she thinks your career is headed. You need to have a frank discussion about your career path and professional development with any and all potential agents to make certain that your vision of your future matches theirs. I once had an agent tell me that he was excited about working with me, and that he was looking for a more collaborative relationship than most agents might normally want. He thought that we could work together to develop project ideas. I thought, “Um, no thank you.” I didn’t like this idea at all, and so didn’t go with him. In the end, choosing an agent is an intensely personal decision. Yes, you can change agents if your first choice doesn’t work out, but it can be a wrenching decision — almost akin to a professional divorce. Writers might work with several publishers and editors over the course of a career, but most of us would rather keep the same agent. Find someone you like, someone you trust, someone who respects your work, someone who sees you going in a direction that matches your ambitions and goals.
Okay, for the sake of this discussion, let’s say that we go with the young agent from BNA. We hit it off with her when we talked business, and we want that big name agency in our corner. She begins to market our work. She sends it to fantasy editors at the major houses: Tor, Roc, HarperCollins, Del Rey, Ace, Orbit, Bantam, as well as to Baen, which is more geared toward SF, but still publishes fantasy titles, and Pyr, a smaller house that is doing some very nice work right now. You both have high hopes. For a couple of months you hear nothing (which, your agent assures you, is perfectly normal) and then the rejections begin to trickle in. One editor says that he likes the writing but the story is too familiar. He wants something more original. Another says that she loves the story, but that the writing style bothered her. One loves the character but thought the narrative dragged; another loved the story but couldn’t get excited about the main character. Yet another one just loves everything about it — he thinks it’s fresh and entertaining — but he really can’t see how they’d market it. One of them likes it and would love to buy it, but has just bought something pretty similar and can’t imagine the house will want to publish two books that are so much alike. (Yes, I’ve heard every one of these over the years.)
Finally — FINALLY — your agent calls you with good news. One of the houses has made an offer. It’s not the house you necessarily thought you wanted as your publisher, but who cares, right? It’s a publisher! It’s an offer! For your book! You have arrived! Your series is going to be published! “What’s the offer?” you ask.
“Well,” your agent says, “they only want one book right now. They’re not ready to take a chance on a several books with a previously unpublished writer.”
“Oh.” You’re disappointed, of course. You wanted to sell the series. But still, one book is better than nothing. “Well, what are they offering for the one book?”
“They’re offering a $7,500.00 advance split three ways. $2,500 on signing, $2,500 on D&A [Delivery and Acceptance — when you turn in the book and your editor says, yes, this looks good], and $2,500 on publication.” [The term “Advance” is short for “Advance against Royalties,” which basically means that this money you see up front will be subtracted from the royalties you earn on sales of the book. Once sales have earned you $7,500.00 — the term for this is “Earning out” — you will begin to see royalty checks.]
“Oh.” You ponder this. “When do they think it will be published?”
“Probably in June of 2012.”
“Oh.” So over the next twenty months you’re going to earn a total of $7,500.00 from writing. Minus the 15% your agent takes. Minus taxes. Resist the urge to figure out what you’re making on an hourly or per word basis. It’ll just depress you.
“They’re offering a hardcover/mass market deal,” she goes on, sounding inexplicably upbeat, “which is great. The June 2012 publication date is for the hardcover. The mass market paperback will be out a year or so later. You’ll get 10% royalties on the first 5,000 hardcovers sold, 12.5% on the next 5,000, and 15% after that. For the mass market you’ll get 6% on the first 100,000 copies sold and 8% after that.” [Royalties are figured on the book’s cover price. So 10% of a $27.95 hardcover earns you $2.79 (and a half a penny). 6% on a $7.99 paperback earns you just a fraction less than 64 cents. Minus that 15%…]
“Will we sell more than 5,000 hardcovers? Will we even get close to 100,000 paperbacks sold?”
“Well,” she says, “probably not. But these numbers are standard. We get to keep the foreign rights — we’ll try to get it translated in Europe and Asia. And who knows, maybe you’ll get lucky.” She can hear your disappointment. “Believe it or not, this is a very good offer for a first book,” she tells you. “You should be very happy.”
And you know what? She’s absolutely right.
We’ll continue this next week….David B. Coe