Posts Tagged agents
In idle moments – particularly now, especially in these angst-ridden days of e-book shifts and declining readerships – I’ve been thinking, in a bemused sort of way, about the massive complexity of the publishing industry.
The relationship that should concern most authors is that which exists between author and reader. We’re writing our books to be read by those who adore books, who browse a quaint corner store before stumbling across a neatly packaged labor of love. They’ll read the jacket copy, maybe dip into a page or two, then shell out twenty-five bucks to take it home, spend the next few days in a world you’ve uniquely created. To my mind, not enough has been made of the magic and mystery of this relationship. Individuals reaching out across miles and generations to touch another human being. It’s the essential gist of some damn thing.
But facilitating this relationship is a remarkable, complex machine geared with agents, editors, publicists, distributors, bookstore owners, marketing, book reps…For the aspiring writer, it can be an intimidating prospect, finding yourself awash in this confusing sea of often-competing corporate interests. After you’ve sent your book to a hungry agent, what should you expect to happen?
Every book is slightly different, of course (as is every company) but in general a few truisms apply. First, your agent. You have your book, which was not written (or should not have been written) with the market in mind. You do not know the market, although you think you do. You cannot predict what will sell, although you think you can. But your agent, who has (or should have) a figurative Rolodex filled with forty or fifty editors whose tastes she knows, whose brains she has picked as to the internal workings of their respective companies, will have a sense for the saleability of your book. She should have an ideal editor in mind after reading the first ten pages.
The acquiring editor is answerable to his or her publisher. The publisher is the faceless jefe, the head honcho, the man or woman who (in coordination with a committee of equally faceless VPs), hands down edicts, determines the nautical heading of the company. By and large, the publishers come from the business side of the business. While they may appreciate books as an art form, they are answerable to owners and stockholders, to silk-tied suits around a table, and as such have as their primary concern the bottom line. They want a book to make money. Your book was written out of love, but it will be largely be judged, by your publisher, according to its commercial value.
A good acquiring editor will take the publisher’s directives (“We need more novels that are set in Louisiana. The south is a good market for us right now.”) and communicate them with varying degrees of subtlety to the agents in his or own Rolodex. If your agent feels that the book fits into a publisher’s vision for a particular company, your agent will pass the book along. Hopefully, there will be an offer. The offer from the editor will depend on a variety of factors, including potential interest from other publishers, his or her internal budgets, and where s/he is on his own quota (every editor is responsible for acquiring a certain number of books per bi-annual catalogue).
Interestingly, the weak link in this chain so far (the first in a series) is the lack of communication between book store owners and agents / editors / authors. The on-the-ground booksellers, the ones who are in the most direct contact with readers, typically only communicate with the sales reps sent out by each company. The bookseller will tell the rep what people are buying, but that advice may or may not get communicated up the ladder. As an acquiring editor, I had very little productive contact with sales reps. I’m sure this is the norm rather than the exception.
After finding a customer (in the person of the acquiring editor), your agent negotiates a contract. Hopefully she’s managed to retain some portion of the sub-licensing, including paperback rights, foreign rights, first serial, and film / TV. If not, hopefully she’s managed extra compensation for any of the above. For the next six months or a year, you’ll be working with the acquiring editor almost exclusively, polishing the manuscript to his or her tastes. This process tends to be an intricate dance of quid pro quo. “I really want you to change this, but I only kind of want you to change this.” If you follow direction on the first you can keep the second. This can be an unusually satisfying process. It can also be very frustrating. If your editor is talented, and can see flaws you’ve previously overlooked, you get the opportunity to see your work bettered by another voice, the chance to see your own project through the lens of an intelligent, devoted professional. If the editor’s on the wrong page, you get to see your work potentially eviscerated by someone who doesn’t finally understand what you were trying to accomplish. (The good news: Most editors are so overworked these days, they rarely have a chance time to spend quality time with a manuscript. The bad news: Most editors are too overworked to spend time with your manuscript.)
When the manuscript leaves the acquiring editor’s desk, that’s when the real work starts.