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Whose Fault is it When the Manuscript Fails to Sell?
Contributor
Written by
The Agent
June 2010
Contributor
Written by
The Agent
June 2010

Just how much is an agent responsible for, anyway? Erin Hosier enlightens us. "I just finished listening to the webinar you did with Amanda Moon on May 7th. I’ve published two books, and still, I learned a lot. You made a comment about 48 minutes in about the relationship between writers and agents, that sometimes the agent does all s/he can do but “the writer can’t make it happen,” and that often this happens when people “aren’t writers first.”

 Maybe you couldn’t go into much detail there, given the kind of forum you were participating in. I wondered if you might be willing to be more candid. Part of the reason I joined SheWrites is to learn how I can be a better, smarter advocate for my work and build more effective relationships with agents and editors and the publishing industry." By now we’ve heard a lot about the changing landscape of publishing, where agents do more editing than ever before, and that editors do less close editing and more of everything else. Now more than ever, if you’re serious about getting published, your manuscript or proposal has to be as perfect as humanly possible when it comes time to submit it to publishers. It simply is not enough to have a great platform, but a sloppy or unoriginal proposal. It isn’t enough to have a compelling idea if the execution feels rushed or you haven’t seen the idea all the way through or anticipated the challenges. It’s also not enough to be famous if you’re not willing to trust your advisors, to work with a writer if necessary, and to promote the book when it comes out. I’ve worked with all kinds of writers – journalists, novices, experts and their co-writers, celebrities who want to do it alone, novelists with MFAs, novelists without. Many of the memoirs I’ve sold have been written by people who never necessarily anticipated they’d be authors. Rather, they had a life experience that seemed worthy of a memoir. What published memoirists often have in common is a consistently compelling voice and a willingness to take direction. More often than not they trusted what their agent or first readers told them, made the changes that were suggested, weren’t precious about lost paragraphs, sections, titles, chapters or first impressions. In other words they were able to take direction, but then take that direction a step or two further. And hopefully they accepted that there are still also no guarantees. Sometimes this work comes down to personalities. I’ve worked with writers for whom every editorial pass was excruciating. They often want to get together in person to discuss why such and such isn’t working. They want to argue their point to me or later, with an editor who has rejected them (“Why can’t the manuscript be submitted at 650 pages? There was that one thousand page novel that sold last year for 2 million.”) Whatever the issue, it can feel like a standoff. I usually try not to devote more than three editorial passes (anymore) with an author, and if we’re still at an impass about the work at that time, I will often move ahead with the submission, accepting the possibility that I could be wrong and acknowledging after all that it is my job to do the author’s bidding. In other words, I have gone out with projects that I was pretty sure were not going to make the cut, but I knew it would appease the author to get the feedback from actual publishers. No one is always right, but if I have invested my time and hard work into your manuscript or proposal, having been drawn to it in the first place because I had a hunch I could sell it, then I can usually predict how and where it will fit into the marketplace. If something doesn't sell, or sells for significantly less than the author was hoping for, I’m sure there are times when she feels that I have failed her. That's something that weighs on me and most of the agents I know. But it's a difficult line - you can't write the book for your client, and you can't force a publisher to say yes. If you’re in it to be a serious author, you do need to click with your agent. You absolutely do not have to be friends with them, but you should respect that they’re on your side and therefore the side of the book. You should shop around for your agent, and ask other clients or editors about their experience with that person. You should familiarize yourself with the competition, the marketplace, the latest competing titles, whatever you can do to feel more secure in your choice. You should listen to their advice, keep an open mind about editorial changes, and challenge yourself. You should prepare yourself for inevitable rejection, always. And above all you shouldn’t let your book project be the source of your self-esteem. I often think that publishing a book is the hardest thing you will ever do for the least payoff. While it's not coal mining, it is brutal work, and unless you're one of the lucky few, readers can feel like a handful of dear friends instead of the legion of admirers you deserve. It's not for everyone. But I want you to know that we share your frustration - the editors, publishers, publicists and agents - many of us struggling writers ourselves, and eager to be your best costumer, and no matter what, your advocate.

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Comments
  • Kim Green

    I remember the first few stories I submitted to magazines and public radio outlets. I wore my tender little writer's ego so far out on the sleeve, I couldn't bear to see a single precious little phrase changed. Clothing was rent. Tears were shed. A decade later, my ego is, seemingly, forged of iron instead of tissue paper. At this point, I see a radio feature or magazine profile as a collaboration between me and a smart, capable editor who supplies a valuable second pair of eyes and a strong sense of BS-avoidance. It took many edits to get to this point, but I'm certainly the better for it. It seems to me that a journalistic thick skin might translate well to an author-agent relationship. I hope so, because I'm just beginning to submit queries. Fingers crossed...

  • Che Gilson

    I had to laugh at the little example of “Why can’t the manuscript be submitted at 650 pages? There was that one thousand page novel that sold last year for 2 million.” The answer of course is because you aren't them, and until you are cut 200+ pages :)

    Nothing on the page is sacred, it's a process and and changes are often made.

  • The Agent

    Hi Suzanne - Thanks for giving the L.A. perspective. I love hearing about talent agents - it's a totally different world in some ways. There are still some literary agents of course who scare the shit out of their clients AND don't take their calls, but still manage to be great salespeople. But let's assume you're my client and I'm not calling with any news: I know it's frustrating and it's the #1 complaint from authors every time I talk about the job. Agents know. What I would do if you're needing a pep talk is simply email the person with your very perfect line, "I never know where that line is between being proactive/involved in my career and being an annoying client." He or she will get it. I will write a future post about this...

  • Suzanne Barston

    Erin, this is all excellent advice. Thank you.

    I think it's because I spent most of my life as an actress first/writer second, but the nature of the agent/client relationship in show business is not usually as much of a power struggle. Here in LA, you are BLESSED to get an agent of any decent caliber; you do whatever they tell you to do and don't ask questions (until you're a series regular on Grey's Anatomy or something; then you have a smidge more of a platform). So when I switched full-time to writing and went in search of my first agent, I was over the moon that I got an agent as amazing and respected as mine is... she worked so freaking hard on my proposal, and we edited the hell out of that thing - it took about 6 hard months to get it ready for submission. And I met every note, every editorial suggestion, with a loud "thank you ma'am, may I have another?" But again, that's probably just my post-traumatic stress from the acting biz.

    Anyway, my point is - it surprises me to hear that writers give agents any kind of trouble with edits. I would assume that if you go with an agent you trust, you would trust that they are out for your best interest - I figure it's my job to write, their job to sell... so they know better than I what is going to grab a publisher's attention.

    However - what I find frustrating is the lack of communication. I'm waiting to hear about the status of a potential deal right now, and it's driving me nuts. I know that my agent will contact me when there's news, but still... how do I keep in touch without nagging her? I never know where that line is between being proactive/involved in my career and being an annoying client. Le sigh.

  • Rebecca Rasmussen

    Love this post :)

  • Erin Hosier

    Victoria, it depends on the project. If the book is the author's first, lately I've seen more agents encouraging memoirists to write the whole thing before submission. If the author has published before or the material is especially timely - if the memoir has a "hook" that makes it new and exciting, then I'd still go with a tight proposal with a well-written table of contents or outline that shows editors where you plan to go. The one or two sample chapters included in the proposal are key. The writing, as always, is key. Over the years, I'd say most of the memoirs I've sold have been on proposal and those were between 50-100 pgs.

  • Victoria Costello

    I really appreciate your thoughtfulness and savvy on the creative and business sides of publishing. Having now been in a back to the drawing board with my agent on a memoir submission I really appreciate the agent's role in honing the pitch, which I realize is all in the Overview of the proposal.

    I have a question: What do you think is the "right' amount of actual memoir pages that should go out with a submission these days...realizing there's no one right amount but if you had to say????

  • Kimberly Caldwell

    There's a lot of good advice here. Thanks!