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Thursday, November 17, 2011

Julia’s Guest Post

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What happens once you’ve signed with an agent? I thought I might talk you through the next bit. Thanks to Lara on Twitter for suggesting this subject.

Agents value themselves by the books they sell. If it’s been a month since I got in something good, I get the foot tap. And if it’s been a couple of months, I get the death mask. When that happens I will send a sniveling email to Sarah saying ‘Where are they? :-(’. And when a book comes in that’s fabulous as it is, and I can send out that week, my goodness, it’s the best spike in the world.

But it doesn’t happen very often. In most cases my submissions are debuts, and inevitably there will be some shaping to do. Maybe there’s a tendency to overwrite or to enter scenes really early and leave too late. Perhaps the concept has some potential but after a bit of refining it would become incredibly exciting. Maybe the story loses its way. Often in a debut manuscript, there’s too much going on and not enough focus on the thing that matters.

A voice might call out, even though the story isn’t there yet. So we help develop: we ask questions, point out issues, suggest solutions. That process may be collaborative and involve close work on the ms, or it may be it a cup of tea and chat about where the arrow should point.

The development process is where we add value – it can be great fun, a real learning curve for both agent and author, and it’s very satisfying when you get the big deal.

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When the book is ready the selling begins. At Greenhouse, I sell into the UK, Sarah sells into the US, and our rights team sells our translation rights. While some territories are shrinking, others are booming, and we share knowledge constantly. In a tough market it’s not easy to get the deal that you want in terms of money, rights and territories. For example, the UK trade is facing challenges so UK publishers are keen to spread their risk by buying world rights. But if I’m fairly sure that a US deal – or a Brazilian deal plus a German deal – will equal a world rights offer from a UK publisher, that supports my decision-making and the advice I give my author. Why sell the whole farm? It’s a big world, and sometimes the six-figure world rights deal isn’t the right offer to take in the long term.

So with a view to how other territories may value my book, I go into the UK. I’ll write my submission list with the zeal of an eleven-year-old composing birthday invites to the afternoon disco. And I ask myself who is right for this book and author – and who isn’t? 

Once I’ve signed up an author I’ll start talking about the book. This might be socially, when I’m having a drink with an editor or formally, at a book fair with a more refined and stylized pitch. Sarah and I don’t quite practice our pitches in the mirror but… well, actually we do. So publishers will have a sense of what’s upcoming from us. I took on an author on Monday, have talked about his book at a couple of parties, and already editors are emailing me about it. Cool, eh?

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The written pitch takes time, and is probably a whole other blog post. It needs to convey a clear idea of concept, setting, character and goal. As well as making the book sound incredible. If you go to the books page of our website, most of the book blurbs are the pitches we sent out. It’s gratifying to see the pitch that we laboured over used right through to publication – on amazon, on the back cover, on promotional material. When that happens you know you wrote a really good one.

Then the book goes out and I’ll brief the author on what to expect – which is probably not very much for a few weeks. I’ll get reactions to the pitch and early noises – maybe an overnight read or two. Perhaps one editor will come back with the ‘LOVE’ word. That’s very exciting. Maybe I’ll get a few early rejections. And then, after perhaps two weeks, the first email telling me that the whole team adore it and it’s going to acquisitions. Sometimes this all takes much longer. I’ll be tying up a deal this week for a book that went out last week, but it can take months to get to that point.

We tend not to update authors on every piece of news. When I sent out A DOG CALLED HOMELESS I got a rejection within a day. Had I told the author it would have rattled her, like it rattled me. As it turned out, that publisher was the only one who didn’t offer on it, and it went to a seven publisher auction.

Selling a book can get messy and confusing. There’s such clamour, especially if you’ve got a lot of interested parties. Once I have an offer, I set rules so every publisher knows what to do and to expect.  I’ll call deadlines, set the terms I’m looking for, voice any concerns about details of the offers and let publishers know if I need anything more from them.

At this point I’ll probably be updating the author every day or so, or whenever they check in, to let them know where we are and what the next stage is. It can be a charged time for author – and indeed publisher – so the agent makes sure everyone knows what the order of play is. Although it’s exciting, it shouldn’t feel stressful.

Once we’ve got final offers, the last part of this stage is the weigh-up: which is the best house and what is the best offer? The number of variables can be mind-boggling (and great fun to talk through). We could probably pull out a hundred pros and cons at this stage if we wanted to over-think it, but don’t worry, it’s always easier than that!

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The agent will have a view on who is best and why. We will know which publisher tends to have a longer term view towards its authors. That this publisher always delivers on ‘package look’, and this publisher has been incredibly strong on its positioning in the big chains over the last year. What editions do they propose – hardback or paperback? What about marketing? Are there exciting promises? Maybe the editor is about to leave; that’s not ideal. Perhaps this publisher is offering a bestseller bonus, but is jointly accounting its books? Or this publisher has a greater international profile, so the deal would position the book well for foreign rights. One publisher might be offering much more on the advance, but lesser royalties and high discounts. Some of these are just nuances, and some of them are very serious. Every deal is different, which keeps us on our toes.

There is so much more to write about what comes next, but I’ll leave that for another post.

Pictures are from Guy Fawkes Night in Lewes, which is a strange and loud event. See this wiki link if you’re not from the UK. And also the obligatory photo of Philos. He looks happy and relaxed so Brits will know these photos weren’t taken the same night.

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