FINDING A LITERARY AGENCY
One of the most-difficult things for authors is navigating the conflicting advice about breaking into the publishing industry. I recently sat down with Richard Lawrence, President of one of the longest-lived and most-successful literary agencies, Eaton Literary Agency; Ruth, an employee of a literary agency in New York; and Bob, an editor with one of the major publishers in the United States.
Ruth and Bob asked that their companies not be identified. “We’re inundated right now,” said Ruth, “and are not looking for submissions at the moment.”
Richard explained that Eaton Literary Agency’s mission is to get as many new authors published as possible, and kind of karmic repay for those who helped him when he was young. “If we accept extra work for presentation to publishers, we just hire more agents to help us with it.”
The topic we discussed was new authors. Richard’s and Ruth’s agencies have very different approaches. Ruth’s agency does not offer editorial services to authors. Her agency accepts authors on the merits of their works and whether or not she feels she can place the authors’ works as she receives them.
“One of the most-discouraging things about working with authors,” says Ruth, “is that we have to deal with their misconceptions fostered upon them by well-meaning but often blatantly wrong high-school English teachers, college professors, friends, relatives, how-to write books, magazines, and local writing clubs. One woman contacted me just last week, after we rejected her work. I explained to her how fiercely competitive the market is. Lots and lots of people write these days. I explained to her that her work showed a lot of promise, but that it needed a great deal of editorial work before traditional publishers would take it seriously.
“She said, ‘My English teacher told me it’s your job to work with me on my manuscript until it’s ready to go to publishers. That’s how you earn your commission.’
“I explained that no agent can provide extensive editorial services without charging for them, and that our agency works with professional writers – those authors whose works are already publisher-ready. We do not offer editorial services. No agency I know offers them without charging for them. Charging for editorial services is the only way agencies can afford to offer them.”
Eaton Literary Agency does provide editorial services, if they see a manuscript with a strong potential but that needs editorial work before it could be considered by publishers. But they, too, are plagued by authors who believe bad advice. Richard said, “Just last week, an author called me, irate, because we offered editorial services on her work for a fee. I was surprised, since our clients are usually very grateful to work with us. She said, ‘Agencies do not charge for editorial services. It’s their job. That’s how they earn their commissions.’
“I explained that agencies earn commissions by finding the right publisher and negotiating contracts for their authors’ works, but editorial services are above and beyond that service, and that no agency can offer editorial services without charging for them.
“She said, ‘That’s just not true. My creative writing teacher told me so. I demand that you give me these services for free.’
“I suggested that if she knows of an agency that provides extensive editorial work for free, that’s who she should work with.”
Ruth burst out laughing. “So now I know where the author came from who demanded we work on her manuscript for free. You sent her to us!”
Of course, Richard did not directly send her to them, but this sort of ignorance seems rampant. From the ensuing conversation, it became clear that agents and publishers hear from many demanding authors who do not behave professionally.
Bob, the editor with a major national publisher, broke in. “Publishers like manuscripts that come from agents, because we know they have been screened. Good agents send us only professionally written manuscripts, which cuts down tremendously on our time. I know if I get a manuscript from Ruth or from Richard, the manuscript will be ready for our consideration – Ruth because she works only with established authors and Richard because he provides professional guidance to authors who probably would not otherwise have a chance with traditional publishers.”
Sometimes publishers will deal with only one agent, if they are impressed with the quality of the work. One publisher strongly prefers to receive manuscripts only from Eaton Literary Agency.
Ruth became suddenly sober. “It’s a shame, too, that many authors do not realize how they are harming their careers by being demanding. Agents talk to each other and to publishers and producers. That’s what we do! So if you get a bad reputation for being demanding and difficult to work with, or if you insist on believing advice from nonprofessionals, that reputation spreads like a bad rash throughout the publishing industry, and once you have a bad reputation, it’s difficult to remedy.”
Today, there are many ways to become published. Self-publishing may satisfy your ego, but it is usually a financial dead end. Traditional publishing is where the big money possibilities are for authors, and agents are the gateways to traditional publishing. All three of the people I interviewed stressed how important it is for authors to play well with others, present the best-possible manuscripts to publishers, and be very wary of advice from well-meaning friends, publications, and teachers who are not actually involved in the publishing industry. If you get advice from an established literary agent or publisher, consider it very carefully. It may change your life.
If you have a question about a company’s integrity, the Better Business Bureau is always the best way to check out any company.