Guest Post: Ask Agent Jennifer

Due to boring circumstances beyond my control, I will not be online much in February. Fortunately I’ve been able to line up a number of stellar guests to fill in for me. Most are writers, but I also thought it would be fun to get some publishing types to explain what it is they do, teach you some more about the industry, and answer your questions, as well as one or two bloggers.

Today we have Jennifer Laughran, with whom I have spent many hours IMing about Very Important Matters. She’s pobably the best handseller of books in the land both as a bookseller and an agent. Truly she is phenomenal. Pay close attention to what she says. (Except about what the next big parnormal thing is. Clearly it will be werequokkas!)

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Jennifer Laughran is a literary agent for children and YA books at Andrea Brown Literary Agency. Her clients include the legendary Daniel Pinkwater, the 2009 Morris Award winner LK Madigan, and #1 New York Times bestseller Calef Brown. She’s also been a bookseller basically forever and can play “You Are My Sunshine” on the musical saw. If you want to follow her on Twitter, you can: @literaticat

Jennifer says:

Justine asked me to stop by and answer some questions about Literary Agents. Because I am one. And because she knows I am a sucker for procrastination transparency. Ahem. Anyway, this will be a sort of FAQ, and I will be happy to tackle additional questions in comments.

I can only speak for myself, of course, so please remember that these are my opinions only — don’t take them as gospel, do salt to taste. And if I am using jargon or being mysterious, feel free to ask me to clarify. Also remember that I’m an agent for children’s books and YA specifically, and may not be able to speak to other segments of the industry.

SO, WHAT DOES A LITERARY AGENT DO?

A literary agent is an authors advocate. We act on the authors behalf to present and sell their book, negotiate their contract, get their money, and sometimes be a bully for them. Some of the things that come up on a day-to-day basis:

Read/Critique/Edit client manuscripts

Write pitch letters and/or create compelling proposal packages

Keep up relationships with editors (We have a database about about 350+ editors that we do business with that needs fresh info to stay relevant, so we have lots of meetings in person or by phone/email/etc to keep abreast of publisher needs/interests)

Pitch projects to editors

Follow up with editors (sometimes again…and again…and again)

Negotiate favorable advance, royalties, subrights etc for clients

Read contracts and re-negotiate finer details. (We have hundreds of contracts on record and we’ve worked with every big or mid-sized publisher, so we can compare older contracts, see what the best deals are we’ve ever gotten – as well as what the publisher won’t budge on – and use those terms as precedent when we are negotiating.)

Act as fiduciary — we hound the publisher (sometimes again…and again…and again) for the checks. When the check comes, it comes to us, then we pay you less our commission. Tax forms come from us.

Act as intermediary between author and editor if there is any unpleasantness — terrible cover for example, or author is running late on a due date, or whatever. (This is important – author/editor relationship should be all about the lovely books. The upsetting business stuff is for the agent to deal with. Basically we want them to see you as a wonderful artist, not a whiner or a jerk.)

Help shape your career — help you figure out what’s working and what isn’t, what might be a good next project, if you have multiple projects, what good timing would be for them, etc.

Talk to you about whatever you need advice about. Publicity woes, sales figures questions, revision crisis, general neurosis, etc etc. I don’t talk to all my authors every day, of course, but I do talk to at least a different 2 or 3 of them every day, either by email, phone or IM. (Some are deep in revision or doing other stuff and won’t emerge for months — some need attention now. I don’t necessarily chase after them, but I do respond immediately when they ask for me.)

Read and translate royalty statements, and follow up on discrepancies.

Get rights reversions on older works, or help client to do so.

Sell foreign/film/subrights with the help of co-agents. Follow up on those sales/checks etc.

Deal with permissions (ie, some acting company wants to use your story as the basis of a children’s production, or some testing company wants to use a paragraph of your story in an SAT test, or something – each of those people has to pay you or get the payment waived depending on the circumstances).

Read slush and fulls – discover new talent! This happens AFTER work.

WHY ARE YOU A LITERARY AGENT?

Agents can come from any sort of background. Agents at my agency have been editors, business-women, professors of literature, literary scouts and more. Personally, I started out and worked for over a decade as a bookseller, buyer and events coordinator for several wonderful independent bookstores in the USA. Because of that background, I have lots of great author and publisher relationships, and know quite a bit about the publishing world. Plus I’ve read about a million books, which definitely doesn’t hurt.

But really, I am a literary agent because I love working with my favorite authors and getting evangelical about my favorite books, and I am very good at selling things. (And modest!)

WHY DO I NEED A LITERARY AGENT?

Most publishers – particularly large and mid-sized publishers – are closed to unsolicited submissions, and only work with agents.

Of course, there are loopholes to this. if you are a tough cookie and you don’t mind doing a lot of footwork, submitting on your own, getting tough with editors and negotiating contracts on your own behalf, you can certainly get published without an agent. It definitely still happens. But I think that most authors like having an advocate in their corner, and prefer to be able to focus on the writing rather than the often-daunting and time-consuming submission and business side.

HOW DO I FIND AND CAPTURE ONE OF THESE CREATURES?

So you want an agent. First of all—is your book finished? Not just “I have enough pages to basically make a book . . . sorta”, but seriously finished, polished, like you could see it on the shelves of a store? OK. Now you figure out what sort of a book you’ve got. This can be general—like, is it a kids book, a science fiction book, a horror book, or what?

Now ask some of your author friends about their agents, and look in the acknowledgments of books you think are similar to yours in tone, and see who is listed after Thank You. Start a list. Then, go on Agent Query or QueryTracker or similar site. Look up agents by type of book they rep. Add more to your list. THEN, take your list and go to the agents actual website and make sure that the info you have is still accurate. THEN, if you’ve established that they are a real agent that is still taking submisisons and has books that are your “type”, follow the submisison guidelines on the agents website. Presto.

WHAT IS THE NEXT VAMPIRE / ZOMBIE / MERMAID / ZOMBIECORN?

I think that if people spent the time it takes to ask dumb questions like this actually WRITING, they’d be a lot better off. JUST WRITE AN AWESOME BOOK. Awesome never goes out of style.

10 comments

  1. Heidi R. Kling on #

    Zompires are the Next Big Thing. And I’ve already TM’d them. ;)
    Great guest post!

  2. cjomololu on #

    Any writer would be lucky to have you in their corner. If I get a tattoo of “Awesome never goes out of style” do I have to pay you a royalty?

  3. Whitney Miller on #

    Awesome agents never go out of style, either. Great post!

  4. rockinlibrarian on #

    Every time I read something by or about someone in the Andrea Brown agency, I get very excited by their awesomeness for a minute and then I remember that I already submitted to them once and they didn’t want me. AH well.

  5. Rebecca on #

    I HAVE A QUESTION! :D

    I know there are about three basic parts to a query letter, and that one of them (usually) includes the writer’s credentials. I also know that a lot of things people think are credentials aren’t necessarily what agents need or want to know about. If you have no previous publishing credentials that would really interest an agent, what do you put in that section of the query?

    Basically, what should you do if you have no credentials? Obviously, it’d be ideal to have some freelance magazine articles, etc., but how much weight do such things carry in a query?

    THANK YOU!

  6. Jo Whittemore on #

    Sage advice from the best agent this side of the Milky Way!

  7. Jennifer on #

    ROCKINLIBRARIAN: That is silly. We declined one manuscript, not YOU. Try again with the next book, if you’re still looking for an agent.

    REBECCA: I only care about publication history if you have a real publication history.

    That is: Traditionally published books, Self-published books that sold over, say, 50,000 copies, TV/Film or playwriting that a broad audience will have heard of, or writing for major national newspapers or periodicals (and not just a ‘letter to the editor’).

    I do expect my authors to be brilliant, of course, but I don’t care about level of formal education. I’d only mention it if you have an MFA in writing (especially writing for children) or is somehow relevant to the subject at hand (you are a doctor, you’ve written a book about poisons).

    If you don’t have credentials, just put “Thank you for your time.” I would much rather have nothing than have a bunch of filler. There is something quite wonderful about a dazzling debut author.

  8. Rebecca on #

    Jennifer: THANK YOU! That is very, very helpful information. :)

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