December 06, 2003

Answers on Editors and Agents

Someone asked several questions which they were afraid was stupid:

How does one become an agent or editor and What classes must one take in school?

Also, why can't a writer be his/her own agent? If I was my own agent, then I wouldn't be sending unsolicited manuscripts...

And, Just out of curiousity, can you have more than one agent/publisher? Or do you sign some sort of contract?

There are no stupid questions

Usually to be an book editor (and many magazine editors) means you usually take English Literature in college and then move to New York City and take a grunt position at a publisher. Slowly you work your way up the ladder, from maybe copyeditor to editor's assistance to finially editor. It's a difficult road to take, since NYC is expensive and the number of editing jobs are few and far between.

One of the things that helps to increase the odds is that while in college, you arrange to do internships at various publishing houses. This means you need to find out which colleges can set up such an internship and then hope that the publishing house actually is using interns that summer. This means research into information that I don't have.

One way you might start is calling a publishing house and asking for the Human Resource office and then ask which colleges they work with to set up internships. If you don't have the guts to do this, ask your guidance counselor at high school to do this -- or some other fearless individual.

And agent takes a similiar track. She finds a literary agency that wants low-level people and serves an "apprentice-ship" to learn the ins and out.

Part of the reason they have people work up the ladder this way is that while you will learn basic skills in college, like what's a good novel, there are business ins and outs that they don't touch. How is a book produced? How is a book sold? How is it marketed? Who are the mover and shakers in the industry and what are their tastes?

There are people that have tried the "be their own agent" routine. Bad idea. Even if you gain the interest of an editor with your book, you don't have the know-how to continue the pretense. Once the ruse fails, you look like an idiot.

Besides, the reason you get an agent is someone who knows things you don't know to expedite the purchase of your book, and to protect your interests during the contract negoiation, and being able to get results if something goes wrong.

You want a good agent. A random person like yourself, your mom, your next door neighbor (unless its Richard Curtis) will do nothing good for you and might do huge harm.

You can have more than one agent/publisher, but not per book.

Basically what happens is that you approach an agent and ask them to sell your novel. (They're investing time and effort in your career, so they would like to sell ALL your novels. It's standard practice that once you get an agent, you keep her.) She takes it to the publisher, who buys it.

Now the contract arrives. Standard contracts has the following clauses.

One says: Agent (fill in blank) is the agent for this book and will continue to be the agent for this book until it goes out of print. This means if you get a new agent, you're still stuck with your old agent on any books that she sold for you in the past.

The second one says: The publisher has first option on your next book. This means that if you write another book, you HAVE to offer it to the publisher. There is time period, but its usually set like "six months after the publication of the book in this contract." So if you sell a book in year 2000, 99% of the time, it will be written and polished at the time of the sale. You might be already working on another novel, or have a second novel finished. You can offer that second novel to the publisher as part of the "next book option" but they have until after the first book is published...which might be in 2001. Often, though, they will decide much sooner than that.

If your first publisher turns down the second book -- thus filling the option clause -- you can then offer it to another publisher. This is how I ended up with two publishers. My first publisher -- ROC -- wanted me to only write SF, so they turned down my fantasy book. I then sold it to Baen. Currently my options for ROC read "next sf book" and my Baen options read "next fantasy book." Or something like that.

Many agents operate on a "gentleman's agreement" which means you verbally agree that they will respresent you. They do this because they know that they will be protected by the book contract.

Also when you enter into agreement with a NYC agent, they have contacts around the world that also work with you. So while I have agent x in NYC, I also have agent y in Hollywood, and agent z in London. If Y or Z sells rights in they're area, they split the sale with agent x. Again, the book contract drawn up will name X AND Y or Z as the agent on record.

Posted by wen at December 6, 2003 12:16 PM

Thanks, Wen. Very informative.

Posted by: Joel at December 7, 2003 03:06 PM