Tag Archives: agents

The Role of an Agent

At a recent conference, an author and an agent presented a case study about how they met at a writer’s conference, signed an agreement and the agent then shepherded the writer through the publication process. At one point, the writer made an offhand comment advising authors not to expect much in terms of marketing support from their publisher.

The comment set off an audience member, who began questioning the agent. He wanted to know why she didn’t help with marketing. Wasn’t that her job? The questioner became increasingly belligerent as the agent tried calmly to explain that marketing is not the agent’s job. I felt bad for the agent, though she handled the questions in a professional manner without getting ruffled.

The exchange reflected false perceptions some unpublished writers may harbor about the role of an agent. The agent explained her role was to advocate for the author. She championed the author’s work by contacting publishers and pitching the author’s manuscript. She negotiated the contract with the publisher and pushed for the most favorable terms for the author.

In this case, the author’s editor left the publishing house in the middle of the project and it stalled. The agent used her knowledge to locate the person at the publishing house who had the authority to assign a new editor and got the project back on track.

So what is the role of an agent? Here’s a simplified version:

  • Represent the writer.
  • Shop the writer’s manuscript to editors at publishing houses.
  • Secure and negotiate a contract with a publisher on behalf of the writer
  • Track the publication process with the writer
  • Troubleshoot any problems that arise
  • Negotiate subsidiary rights to the writer’s work.

Many agents will offer strategic advice to the writer. Some will sit down with the writer at the outset of the relationship and discuss the author’s long-term goals and then work to help the author achieve these goals.

For a more detailed description of what agents do, read this blog post by former agent and author Nathan Bransford.

Another great resource is literary agent Rachelle Gardner’s blog. Rachelle blogs daily about agenting, writing, and publishing, and never fails to give mature, sensible advice.

In this super-competitive field, where publishing contracts are hard to come by, a lot of frustrated writers vent their fury at agents. I don’t doubt there are rude agents, just as there are bad apples in every profession. I have to say I have had nothing but positive experiences with agents, and this is coming from a writer who has been rejected every time. Agents know good writing. They know writing that sells. They appreciate writers who take the time to read their submission guidelines, submit appropriate work and take the time to write a decent query letter.

I’ve had one-on-one interviews with agents. One resulted in a submission. Though it was rejected, the agent gave me some advice on the opening chapter that resulted in revisions that saved the manuscript. I thanked her when I saw her the next year at the same conference.

It’s easy to blame an agent for a writer’s lack of success. They’re the gatekeepers. Do they make mistakes? Do they reject bestsellers? Sure they do, but we all make mistakes. I’ve got a couple of manuscripts somewhere that I hope never see the light of day.

Some critics say agents are tied too closely to the publishing industry and are quick to defend everything publishers do. That’s valid, but it’s a little like saying lawyers are tied too closely to the court system. That’s their bread-and-butter.

At the same writer’s conference, I had the good fortune at lunch to sit next to a New York-based agent. I had nothing to pitch, so I was relaxed and we had a nice chat about writing, publishing and the changes in the industry.

Let’s remember agents have a job to do and play an important role in the publishing process.

What are your experiences with agents?

 

 

 

 

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Reflections on a Writer’s Conference

Another CAPA-U conference is in the books and the daylong event featured a powerful keynote, a thought-provoking agents’ roundtable and a variety of workshops related to craft, publishing and marketing.

CAPA is the Connecticut Authors and Publishers Association. CAPA is made up of aspiring and published book authors, journalists, freelance writers, poets, and playwrights, as well as editors, agents, publishers and other professionals who meet regularly to enhance mutual growth and success.

The 2012 CAPA-U kicked off with a moving keynote by noted Connecticut author, professor, and editor Lary Bloom, who spoke about his struggles to find a way to write about his experiences serving in Vietnam. Bloom was a supply lieutenant in the U.S. Army. His childhood friend and Hebrew school classmate, Harmon Polster, was in the Air Force. Polster’s plane was shot down and he was officially MIA until recently when his bones were identified. Bloom finally was able to express his experiences through a play, Wild Black Yonder, that premiered at the Katharine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center in Old Saybrook, CT.

The most powerful way to bring the horrors of war to the reader, he said, is to personalize them. This hit Bloom after talking to Polster’s widow. “The story I would tell affected only a few people. But I had to keep reminding myself that it was a worthy enterprise—that the small story stood for a much larger tragedy,” he said.

Bloom’s stirring keynote was followed by the agents’ roundtable. Of course, the two leading topics were the Department of Justice lawsuit against Apple and the Big Six publishers and the growing impact of Amazon on the publishing industry. The agents were universal in their criticism of the DOJ lawsuit, which they said was based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the agency model and the economics of publishing.They saved their harshest criticism for Amazon, which they described as a company that cares nothing about publishers and authors and is bent on driving publishers out of business by taking a loss on book sales to gain market share.

In response to a question about the changing role of agents, several agents said they are more valuable than ever to authors. Agents are the author’s advocate. They understand the business and are experienced at negotiating the most favorable contracts for their author clients.

In addition to the learning that goes on, a writer’s conference is an opportunity to renew old acquaintances and make new contacts. It was fun to catch up with old friends and find out what they were working on and to meet new people. In fact, one of the sessions featured an agent and author who met at CAPA two years ago and the meeting led to a book deal for the author.

I have to do this more often.

What do you find the most beneficial impact of a writer’s conference?

 

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Get More Out of Writer’s Conferences

I am excited about the upcoming annual CAPA-U Writer’s Conference this Saturday in Harford, CT, sponsored by the Connecticut Authors and Publishers Association (CAPA), a fantastic organization composed of a group of dedicated independent authors and publishers. This is my third CAPA conference and I’ve met agents and talented writers and editors, while expanding my knowledge of the craft and marketing.

Advance planning will help writers get the most out of these conferences. Writers should ask themselves some key questions:

  • Who is the sponsoring organization? Is it a reputable organization? Is the agenda/schedule available? Are the workshop topics appropriate for a writer of your level?
  • What do I want to get out of a writers’ conference? What are my goals?
  • How can I meet other writers and establish connections?
  • Do a have a novel (finished manuscript) to shop? If so what agents do a want to meet? What will I say when I meet them?
  • What workshops should I attend.

So many questions…where to turn for answers?

Here are a few tips for writers to get the most out of conferences:

  • Study the agenda carefully. Choose workshops based on where you are as a writer. If you’ve just published a first novel, workshops on marketing and maximizing social media may be for you.
  • Dress appropriately. Business casual is the norm. Wear comfortable shoes, not sneakers. Don’t walk in wearing a pair of jeans and a rock and roll concert tee-shirt.
  • Get there early, collect your materials, and network. You don’t want to walk into a crowded general session late and slink into a seat in the back of the room.
  • Bring business cards or a marketing piece. Make sure it has your contact information, website or blog address.
  • Select the right agent, if there are opportunities to meet with agents. Review the agent bios and go on their websites. Pay attention to what types of authors and genres they represent.
  • Some conferences allow authors to sell their hard-copy books. Take advantage of this.
  • Select a mix of craft and business workshops. Take a notebook with you and take notes.
  • Network at every opportunity. I found my book editor because she happened to sit down next to me at lunch during a writers’ conference and we got to talking.
  • Be as positive as you can be when you meet with an agent. These meetings can seem like cattle calls. You only have ten minutes or so to make a good impression. Be friendly, tell the agent about yourself and your work and engage the agent in a dialogue. Be interesting and engaging. Smiling helps.
  • Never vent about frustrations you have experienced in getting your work published or represented by an agent.
  • Volunteer to “cover” a session for the sponsoring organization’s newsletter. Volunteer newsletter editors have a thankless job and are always looking for articles. You will make two new friends–the editor and the presenter you write about.
  • Make sure you are familiar with the work of authors you came to see. Check out their websites.
  • Be nice to everybody. Treat the volunteer who gives you your name badge and conference packet with the same respect you show to the author you came to see. A minute of boorish behavior can undo a lifetime of good will.
  • Prepare an elevator speech. Don’t make it long–30 second to a minute on who you are and what your work is about.
  • Take an interest in other people’s work. Actively listen to the other writers you meet. Get their contact information and drop them a line telling them it was nice to meet.
  • Don’t let a lack of interest by an agent ruin your day. Agents must be selective. Your work might not be appropriate for them.
  • Don’t walk around with hurt feelings and a scowl on your face because an agent doesn’t take an interest in your manuscript. It will happen more often than not.
  • Finally, if there is a reception where drinks are served, watch your alcohol intake.

For a low-cost resource with a lot more on attending writer;s conferences check out this book by authors Bob Mayer and Jen Talty.

Writer’s conferences will advance your knowledge of the craft, expand your network of contacts and possibly help you to land an agent. I recommend writers attend at least one writer’s conference a year and more if resources allow.

How do you get the most out of writer’s conferences?

 

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The Story Behind the Story: “Memoirs of a Geisha”

Often, the story behind how a writer develops a novel from idea to finished product proves as interesting as the story itself. As writers, we are eager to learn how writers approach the craft. A great case study is the story behind Arthur Golden’s brilliant 1997 novel, Memoirs of a Geisha.

Memoirs of Geisha is a first-person account of the life of a geisha in Kyoto, Japan, beginning before World War II and continuing after the war.

Golden, who studied Japanese language and culture, came up with the idea for the story while he was working in Tokyo. He met a young man whose father was a successful businessman and whose mother was a geisha. “After returning to the U.S., I began work on a novel in which I tried to imagine this young man’s childhood,” he said in an interview with BookBrowse. “Gradually I found myself more interested in the life of the mother than the son and made up my mind to write a novel about a geisha.”

He conducted exhaustive research on the topic and drafted an 800-page manuscript. While he was preparing to revise his draft, Golden’s grandmother offered to introduce him to a retired Kyoto geisha. The woman took Golden on an insider’s tour of the geisha district of Gion on Kyoto and arranged for him to observe and photograph the daily ritual of the geisha being dressed in her kimono. She spent time with him explaining the life of the geisha.

After his interview with the geisha in Kyoto, Golden threw out his entire 800-page manuscript and started over. He wrote a 750-page draft in the third person. Agents were interested, but begged off after reading the draft. “I didn’t think the writing itself had scared them away,” Golden said in the interview. “And the subject matter is so fascinating–or at least it was fascinating to me. The way I saw it, if I’d failed to bring the world of geisha compellingly to life, I’d done something dreadfully wrong. And in fact, as I came to understand, my mistake was having chosen to use a remote, uninvolved narrator. So you see, I’d ended up writing a dry book precisely because of my concerns about crossing four cultural divides.”

So Golden found himself having to begin again after completing two lengthy drafts. By this time, keep in mind Golden had already invested six years in this novel. He made the important decision to tell the story from a first person point-of-view. However, he also decided to add a translator, who is identified in the beginning of the book. Golden explained the role of the translator in the BookBrowse interview:

“In writing a novel from the perspective of a geisha, I faced a number of problems. To begin with, how would Americans understand what she was talking about? Even fundamental issues like the manner of wearing a kimono or makeup couldn’t be taken for granted if the audience wasn’t Japanese. When I’d written the novel in third person, the narrator had had the freedom to step away from the story for a moment to explain things whenever necessary. But it would never occur to Sayuri to explain things–that is, it wouldn’t occur to her unless her audience was not Japanese. This is the role of the translator’s preface, to establish that she has come to live in New York and will be telling her story for the benefit of an American audience. That’s also the principle reason why the novel had to end with her coming to New York. It took me a number of tries to find a believable way of getting her there.”

Here is the entire interview with Arthur Golden.

What lessons can writers take away from Golden’s experiences? First, research is important. Golden took the time to research a tradition in Japan that is very much a closed society. Secondly, even the best research will not necessarily produce a credible narrative voice. It wasn’t until Golden made the crucial decision to change from third-person to first-person narrative that he discovered the true voice of the geisha. Third, writers should stick with projects they believe in. It took Golden 15 years from inception to publication of his novel.

Memoirs of a Geisha is one of my favorite novels. It takes awhile for the story to develop, but it is a fascinating, well-crafted novel that teaches the reader much not only about the culture of the geisha, but about the human condition.

Golden received a degree from Harvard College in art history, specializing in Japanese art. In 1980 he earned his M.A. degree in Japanese history from Columbia University. Following a summer at Beijing University, he worked in Tokyo, and, after returning to the United States, earned an M.A. in English from Boston University.

Have you faced challenges similar to these in drafting your novel or work-in-progress? How did you address them? 

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