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Literary Agents: Worth Their Weight in Gold

Aspiring authors often ask me whether it’s important to have a literary agent. My answer, as an experienced writing coach, is always yes.  Recently, that answer really hit home when my client, Dr. Ellen Weber Libby, e-mailed me to say that her agent, Regina Brooks of Serendipity Literary Agency, had not only found her an ideal publisher, but had negotiated several unusual and important items in the contract.

But let me step back and tell you just one reason why it’s important to have an agent. Years ago, before I became a writing coach or even a published author, I took a class with Barbara Ganim, an expressive arts professor at Salve Regina University. Barbara has published many books, but her first made her no money, because she signed a contract that paid royalties on profits, not income from the book. Apparently, it’s easy to attribute all kinds of expenses to a book and never show a profit. She learned her lesson and found herself an agent to negotiate her contract for her subsequent books.

We actually did not have an agent on my first book, and it’s possible that a couple of missteps on the part of the publisher (printing dimensions and cover) would have been avoided had a literary agent been involved in the process.

There are several things Regina did for Dr. Libby, beginning with staying true to Dr. Libby’s vision. Dr. Libby envisioned a groundbreaking psychology book, something confirmed by several luminaries and old-timers in the field when they heard about her subject—the favorite child and its effect on different members of a family, the adult who was favorite, and society at large.

Regina sent the book to several publishers who expressed interest in this book, but they envisioned a self-help book for a large, mainstream audience. Dr. Libby was not interested in doing that. Says Regina, “I took my lead from Elly. She said she could do a follow up book that is self-help but that she first needed to define the favorite child complex and provide case studies. I saw that Prometheus was selling books in a similar vein and, sure enough, they were interested.”

Dr. Libby signed a publishing contract with Prometheus, and I was surprised by some of the things Regina was able to negotiate for her:

1. Regina says, “With all authors, I make sure they have consultation on cover design, cover copy, publicity materials, anything going out and representing their brand.” Regina negotiated an opportunity for the author to look at these materials before they went out.

2. Most publishers want immediate turnaround for any revisions to the manuscript. Prometheus wanted 72 hour turn around. Given Dr. Libby’s busy schedule with clients all week, that just wouldn’t work. Her literary agent negotiated an extended turnaround time.

3. The publisher also wanted the book sooner than the author felt she could deliver. Regina negotiated for a more suitable time frame for completing the book.

4. Another thing Regina negotiated was that, if the publisher was negotiating world rights, the publisher would be required to send the agent copies of the contract on behalf of author.

Many agents would have moved on in the beginning of the process when publishers weren’t seeing the same picture as the author, particularly since a psychology book won’t get nearly as high an advance or likely sell as many copies as a self-help book. Here’s where it’s important to have an agent who believes deeply in your project and wants to have a long term relationship with you (they’re not just thinking short-term).

Once you have a literary agent, it’s important to appreciate that person. Acknowledge them in your book and blog. Send them thank you notes!

Have a story of what your literary agent did for you? Please share it and thank them publicly! Post a comment on this writing blog.

Have a question about literary agents? Post it as a comment, too.

Lisa Tener

Lisa Tener is an award-winning book writing coach who assists writers in all aspects of the writing process—from writing a book proposal and getting published to finding one’s creative voice. Her clients have appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show, CBS Early Show, The Montel Williams Show, CNN, Fox News, New Morning and much more. They blog on sites like The Huffington Post, Psychology Today and WebMD.

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Comments

  1. Chayah Masters says

    Great information. Thank you so much for the details provided in your posting. I can’t wait for Dr. Libby’s book to be published and even more so now that I’ve learned she’ll be able to maintain the integrity of her vision thanks to her fabulously vigilant agent. Best wishes to Dr. Libby on her first book.

  2. Kathi McKnight says

    Hi Lisa,
    I’m hungry to learn more, as much as I can. Under the assumption that there are no stupid questions, let me ask some from the ‘beginners mind.’ Do you pay literay agents up front if they say they want to represent you? And are many of the expenses that come in the publishing of the book, usually covered in the advance if you are fortunate enough to get one as a first time author?
    Love your stuff, keep it up.
    Sincerely,
    Kathi McKnight
    http://www.TheHandwritingExpert.com

  3. Donna Russo Morin says

    The expertise that an agent brings to any writer’s career is invaluable. While we, as authors, may know our craft, they most certainly know theirs. There is a facet of creative freedom that becomes inherent with knowing someone is out there handling the business side of our careers. I researched my first book, THE COURTIER’S SECRET, for nine months and wrote it in nine weeks. It took me seven months to find my agent, Irene Kraas of the Kraas Literary Agency. It took Irene four months to sell my book, negotiating a two-book contract with Kensington. With her myriad connections fostered through decades of work, Irene is currently working with foreign agents on those critical foreign translations. Regardless of the business acumen an agent affords their client, to know there is someone out there who has answers to all the questions that arise from the crazy industry that is publishing, is a great comfort.

  4. lisatener says

    Donna,
    Thanks for sharing your experience. I just have to add for the benefit of anyone reading this that, while The Courtier’s Secret isn’t released until January 27, it’s one of those books you can’t put down. I loved it. I noticed it can be preordered on Amazon. It’s going to be one of those books on every book club’s list.

    Kathi,
    Your questions are excellent. In fact, they merit their own separate post, so I have answered them in my November 22 post.

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