Agent Q&A Day!

Usually I run these over at The Knight Agency blog, but we’re experiencing some technical difficulties over there, so I’m going to do a Q&A here instead.

For those of you unfamiliar with these, it’s very simple. Just leave your questions about publishing, writing, getting an agent, etc., here in the comments of this thread. I will return late tonight or early tomorrow morning and answer at least three of them, though I try to do more if time allows.

So, what would you all like to know? Go ahead and ask! And don’t forget to check back to read the answers, even if you don’t have a question of your own. Someone else might ask something you never realized you wanted to know.

ETA: Q&A closed for this session. All answers are posted below each of the questions. Thanks to everyone for participating!

42 thoughts on “Agent Q&A Day!

  1. What sorts of submissions are you craving for 2013? What sort of impact do you think a new genre like New Adult will have on the publishing industry?

    As always, thank you. Us writers really do appreciate it. 🙂

    1. I’m excited to see a shift toward more science fiction in the market, both within the genre and melded in with other genres, so I’d like to see more of that. I’d also love more historicals, both in the romance genre and more mainstream; middle grade; contemporary romance; and women’s fiction.

      I’m holding my opinion on the concept of New Adult. Those books always existed within the adult genres, and I’m not sure there’s much point in labeling them as a separate entity.

  2. Recently, I’ve spoken to a few young writers who are following the self-publishing route. How do agents feel about this and how does previous self-published books affect a writer’s career with an agent?

    1. Self-publishing can be a great choice, but writers need to understand the work involved before they go that route. They’re taking on all the roles — or having to hire people to handle them — that would normally be covered by the publisher, such as editorial, copyediting, layout, cover art, marketing, distribution, etc. It’s not an easier way to get published, just a different one, and writers need to have a plan in place to make their book stand out. It’s feasible, but still a great deal of work.

      If you self-publish with an eye toward going the traditional route later on, keep in mind that your self-published work will only really help you if you sold a major number of copies–thousands, not hundreds. As an agent, I will take on previously self-published authors, but generally for new projects, not existing ones. There are exceptions, of course, but it’s case by case.

  3. How does a writer build up trust with an agent before he signs a contract? or even shows the agent his work? also, how much reading of new writers — outside submissions — does an agent do? Do agents ever scout out talent and try to build a relationship in which the unknown author comes to trust her? My impression is that agents are far too passive when it comes to acquisitions and vigorous about selling.

    1. Finding an agent is like finding any business professional to work with. You need to decide if they are someone you want to approach and work with, and the chances are you’ll do so by researching a bit and asking for recommendations, just as you go about finding a lawyer or a dentist, etc.

      An agent’s job is to sell their clients’ projects. That is what we are paid to do. We don’t get paid to attend conferences or blog or read submissions, but most agents still do those things in an effort to meet writers, help educate the writing community about the publishing industry, and to continue to build their lists. That said, I barely have time to read all the submissions I get as it is. My first priority has to be my existing clients, and submissions after that. And I also need to read published work to keep up with the market. The system works the way it does for a reason. If I came across something interesting by chance, and the writer also happened to be seeking representation, that would be lovely, but to go out purposefully and seek out clients that way would be looking for a needle in a haystack and not a good use of time.

  4. Lately I feel like some books have movie deals before the book is even on the shelves. As an agent, what’s your dream for your client? Is it high sales, a movie deal, a musical, dolls, or high sales on book after book or something that falls inbetween?

    1. Movie deals are lovely, but they are very, very rare. Even if you hear that a book has been optioned for film that does not necessarily mean a film will actually get made. Most options expire before anything comes of them. Also, the movie deals you hear about generally involve a very specific type of book — big concept, highly visual, with a similarity to whatever the current hot genre is. Most novels aren’t suitable for film at all, or at least not in an obvious way. Best-sellerdom is a more common route from book to film.

      Obviously, I love to sell my clients’ books and have them sell off the shelves. But I’m also in the business of helping writers build careers. I’d prefer a writer to have multiple book contracts, year after year, and a nice constant readership that allows them to continue to sell more titles, than a single bestseller followed by a couple of poorly selling books that make it difficult to get another contract.

  5. Hi Nephele. I have a contract with a publisher, but not an agent. Is there a point in a writer’s career when you believe he or she absolutely must have an agent, i.e. with international distribution, foreign language rights, etc.? Thanks so much!

    1. Only you can really determine if you need an agent. It depends largely on what you’e publishing, the type of publisher, and whether you’re happy with the status quo. Some publishers handle foreign rights, etc., and give the authors a piece of the pie. But an agent who can hold onto those rights and sell them individually will net you more money at the end of the day, since the agent’s cut will be smaller than the publisher’s cut. Also, not all publishers are aggressive in their pursuit of foreign rights. You might also want an agent if you feel there are areas of your contract you’d like negotiated to better advantage, or if you’d like to publish with a house that does not deal directly with authors.

      All that said, you can still have a nice writing career unagented. If you’re happy with your publisher and that relationship, and how they handle your work, then keep on going as you are.

      1. I’m just a one-time-published writer who managed to sell the book without an agent, and let me share my experience (mistake!). I did not try to get an agent when I sold the book. I hired a publication attorney to review and rewrite my contract, so I’m not completely without sense, but I did not approach agents. My book came out in the teeth of the economic collapse (October 1, 2008) and my publisher went bankrupt while I was still on book tour. I discovered afterward that I had no contacts in the publishing world. Does a disastrous publication experience help in your query letter? Nope, not even in hardback.

  6. I was on Twitter #askagent & #tenqueries last night. Eric Ruben passed vehemently on 9 and told a tenth to pursue with another agent as it might be good but not his style. I expressed concern over the ratio and was told the market was very difficult and he had best selling authors that weren’t selling at the minute. Does the market feel the same to you? Are you now passing up projects that might have been chosen in previously more buoyant markets?

    1. The market is getting tighter because publishers are having a more difficult time getting books into stores. With Borders gone, there are just fewer outlets. It’s harder to break out new authors if you can’t get their work in front of readers. So no, the market does not feel the same. It’s much more of a challenge to sell books. Where a few years ago an editor loving a submission would mean an offer 99% of the time, now they have to go through several levels of meetings and approvals before they can offer on a project. And that passes down to agents.

      Agents also see a truckload of material every single day. Our inboxes are inundated, and we only have so much reading time. We can’t read it all, so we need to be very specific about what we’re looking for. If the query is badly written, we’ll assume the book is, too. If we don’t represent the genre, there’s no reason asking to see the project, even if it’s great. We are looking for a very narrow subset of what’s out there, not just good material. That’s why it’s important to research the agents and query those whose interests match your project. And you need to get that work as polished as you can, because you are definitely competing with every other project in the submissions pile.

  7. Hi Nephele, I’ve heard from writers that it’s good to get interest from a small pub and use that to get agent representation. But I’ve also heard from agents that it can limit their options if you’ve already submitted to publishers. Any ideas on this topic?

    1. Interest from a small publisher might get you a faster read from an agent, but it won’t necessarily get you an agent. We still have to like the project and feel like we can sell your work, beyond the small pub offer. So yes, it can work, but it isn’t necessarily worth doing just to land an agent.

      Most of the publishers that take unagented materials aren’t an issue for agents. What limits our options is when writers meet with editors at a bunch of conferences, the editors ask to see the projects, and then reject them. Those are generally editors from the big houses, and once an editor says no, they say no for the imprint, meaning we as agents can’t resubmit. So if an editor from Penguin/NAL tells you no, that’s no for NAL. Even though that might not have been the appropriate editor for the project. That’s when our hands get tied, and the number of places to submit start to shrink. It’s hard enough to sell a project without taking on one where we know we’re starting with a handicap.

  8. I’ve got quite a few beginning writers reading my site, with many looking to get published. Could you explain exactly what a literary agent is, what you do, and why you recommend an agent to writers?
    If you decide to answer this comment, I’ll repost it on my blog as a guest post so that all my readers can read what you have to say.
    Thanks so much – from The Effective Writer.

    1. This is way too big a question for a Q&A. People write whole books on this subject. Better for your readers to research more generally and read some books on the publishing process.

  9. I am a first time author, and I will soon have an urban fantasy novel ready with a few unique features.I feel very strongly about first finding an agent, and then a traditional publishing house.Once I get past the writing, I’m lost.Could you be so kind as to advise? Thank you!

    1. It sounds like you need to do a little research. There are tons of books on publishing and how to get an agent/get published. You might also check some online communities such as and for information, forums where you can ask questions and where they discuss various agents, etc. You need to figure out what agents represent what you write, if they’re looking for new clients, and what their submission guidelines are.

  10. How do you feel about Prologues? If a submission has a prologue, do you automatically reject it? Is there a consensus among agents about Prologues?

    1. I won’t auto-reject for a prologue, but generally they are unnecessary. I’d say 95% of the time, the prologue is actually lazy writing and that information should appear in the book somewhere else. Start your book at the start. That said, there are some prologues that work very, very well. But you need to make sure yours is one of those…

  11. Hi Nephele and thanks so much for doing this!

    With the upcoming merger of major Publishing Houses continuing the previous trend, we’re looking at a possible issue of even fewer buyers for manuscripts. What impact do you foresee in traditional publishing sales from the writer’s perspective?

    Another aspect of that question:

    What do you see the effect being on acquiring agents/editors: are we pushing the same amount of water (submissions) into an even smaller funnel (acquisitions) than before due to market and saleability restraints internal to the industry, itself?

    Again, thank you so much!

    1. The merger of publishing houses isn’t a new trend. This has been going on for decades. Random House and Penguin is just the most recent, and it will mean the same thing it has always meant; a merger of imprints, eventually, and probably less places for books to find homes. But then there are also fewer bookstores through which to sell them.

      Ultimately, readers drive demand. At the end of the day, we will continue to sell as many books as the market will support. If book sales rise, imprints will publish more books, regardless what name appears on their masthead. If people read less, the industry will shrink accordingly.

  12. Nephele, thanks so much for doing this. I am just starting to query agents and I need to know a bit about the etiquette. Last year I queried an agent at an agency and she asked for a partial, and then rejected it, formal rejection letter. So say I see another agent at the agency that is accepting queries in the same genre, is it okay to query them? Or should I assume that you all talk about the projects you receive. In an agency like yours, it’s confusing who to query, especially if you are reading the same genre. Any advice? BTW, I used Chateau for my WP, and love it.

    1. Most agencies will note on their websites/submission guidelines if they will accept submissions on the same project to different agents. At The Knight Agency, our queries go through a submissions manager, so a no on a query is final for the agency (unless you make substantial changes to the project, at which point you could query at a later date). With manuscripts, if we reject individually, we reject for the agency. If something has promise but just isn’t our taste, we’ll ask the other agents if they’d like to consider it, so that information does get shared.

      If an agency does not list their policy, it’s fine to call or email with a polite inquiry as to whether another submission to a different agent is acceptable.

  13. Hello and thank you for the opportunity!
    As a first time author, I was excited and on fire after receiving rave reviews from beta readers. However, I keep hearing how impossible it is to gain an agent. How long so you suggest trying/how many rejections until it is worthwhile to self publish?

    1. Whether or not you self-publish shouldn’t have anything to do with rejections from agents. These are two separate questions. You need to decide first if you want to go the traditional route or to self-publish, understanding the hardships and the benefits of each. If you want to be published by a publishing house, and choose to query agents, you should continue down that path. If agents reject your query, the question is not when to self-publish, but why you’re continuing to get rejected. Does your query letter need work? Does your manuscript need revising? What about your project isn’t making the grade?

      Self-publishing is a fine choice, but it is just as much work–actually more work–than going the agent/publishing house route. You take on all the jobs that a publisher would handle. Ask yourself if that’s what you want to tackle. How will you get your book noticed? How will you get readers?

      It’s lovely that your beta readers are giving you praise for your manuscript. But an agent does not know you. An agent is trying to determine if they can sell your book to an editor, who will give you money for it. And the editor is trying to determine if they can get book buyers to order that book for their stores. And then people who don’t know you are going to be looking at that book along with thousands of other books, and trying to figure out which book to read, based on a title and maybe a paragraph or two from the back cover, assuming they pick it up to read that far. What makes your book stand out to any of these people?

      This is what your manuscript is up against, both in the agent’s inbox, and if you self-publish and your work is on a virtual shelf online somewhere. There’s a lot of competition. If you want to self-publish, go ahead, but don’t do it just because you’ve decided getting an agent is hard. It’s all hard. A few people have been very successful self-publishng, but they work themselves to the bone. You don’t hear about the ones who worked hard and still aren’t successful — no one’s heard of them, which is part of the problem.

    1. My favorite writing conferences are the ones that offer a diverse program, including some educational programming for the writers–both on craft and business, some face time between attendees and presenters whether that’s in Q&A sessions or pitches or critiques, and some social time for everyone. I’ll add that it’s also nice when the conference gives the presenters some time away from attendees to mingle with each other, be it presenters-only breakfasts, a cocktail party, or a suite where we can go grab coffee or soda and sit for two minutes away from the writers. It’s difficult being “on” all day at a conference, so the opportunity to get away without hiding in your room is appreciated. Sometimes you need a moment to breathe without someone wanting to ask what you represent or where your agency is located.

      The conferences that drive me most crazy, and that I generally don’t do a second time, are the ones that focus only on pitches. I’m not a fan of the pitch session, and I’ve been pretty vocal about it, because I feel like it’s not a great use of anyone’s time. Writers can query me whenever they want. Pitching me aloud doesn’t give me any idea of their writing skills, so it’s a strange format. I understand within the confines of a conference that writers want to meet with agents, but I think they’d be better off using the time to ask questions that they might otherwise never have the chance to ask. But that’s me, and I realize that conferences will go on including pitches, and I will continue to take them. (I add here that I don’t hold my dislike for the medium against the writers; I listen and request material just like everyone else.) However, if a conference schedules me for two days of pitches hour after hour, chances are good I’m not going to participate in that conference a second time. There should be other things breaking up the day. Also, it’s hard to stay alert through two days of pitch sessions back to back.

      1. Sounds like Santa Barbara might be doing all right thus far (is there a hospitality suite? I know I don’t get to go…). There is wine that one night, although I have developed the unforgivable writer’s allergy to red wine.

        I certainly enjoyed our talk at SB (last but one). Never thought to encounter someone with my rather abstract and thorough taste in reading.

        I shall be back in the late-night workshop in 2013.

        1. Santa Barbara does a great job. No hospitality suite, but the agents/editors get lunch amongst themselves in the middle of the pitch sessions, which is lovely. And the cocktail party is a nice chance to mingle with everyone (even if you can’t drink the wine).

          I loved chatting with you, too, and I’m sorry I missed you last year. I don’t know yet if I’ll be there this year, but shall look for you if I am. 🙂

  14. Can you talk about the level of violence or threat necessary to sell a romantic suspense today? Must there be blood?

    1. Honestly, romantic suspense is such a hard sell today for a new author that I don’t think it’s a question of level of violence or threat. The story just has to be extraordinary and fresh and exciting, with a great love story that blends seamlessly into the action — far easier said than done. I think the threat has to feel real, but what that threat is will determine if blood is necessary. Psychological suspense can be much more threatening than the blood and gore variety if it’s done well. The key is to really pull the reader onto the edge of their seat.

  15. Wow! I just read through the whole Q&A, and these are answers are great and detailed. Thanks Nephele for taking the time and I hope 2013 brings you a lot of memorable stories!
    (I know, it’s getting a bit late for new year wishes, but there it is anyway!)

  16. Reblogged this on lisapostonmurphy and commented:
    AGENT Q & A DAY!
    Literary Agent Nephele Tempest from The Knight Agency, recently ran a Q & A on publishing, writing, getting an agent, etc. All answers were very informative and helpful. Read all about it below!

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