Wednesday, October 12, 2016


I am often intrigued by the writing/publishing advice that I see online these days. I’ve been working in this biz for almost 12 years now, and some of this stuff seems counterintuitive. Some silly and terribly misinformed. And some just seems…well…paranoid. You see a devil behind every door and distrust anyone who tries to help. Let's get past the defensiveness and find some real answers.

According to the blogs I’ve consulted in recent weeks, these are some of the questions you should ask an agent who agrees to rep your work:

What books have you sold recently, and to what publishers?

This info is probably available on the agency website; almost every agency has one. We agents love to boast of our sales one way or another, so it's hard to miss. You’ll find deal reports in Publisher’s Weekly and Publishers Marketplace. If this is important to you, respect your own time and look it up before you call me.
Where will you pitch my book?

Well, if your book is (say) a mystery, I can assure you that I know at least 120 editors who handle such. I will start at the top and work my way down to Bubba’s Book House if necessary. But to make a thoughtful list that’s fitting for your project? That could take a while; we can have that discussion, after you sign on the line. Not before.

Why do you want to rep my book?

I get this one a lot, and I never know just what it is they're hoping to hear. That it changed my life? Um, probably not. How about, because you asked me and I liked it? Should it be more complicated than that?

Is it OK if I ask your clients for references?

Heh. What would you do if I say no? My client list is easy to find, and they all have a website and social media. Look them up and ask!

Do you think my manuscript will need editing? If so, how much?

I can answer this question right now, without reading the first word: YES. Everyone does, always, no exceptions. I rarely speak so dogmatically about anything, but this is one absolute that I will always preach. But if I thought it needed a lot of fixing, we wouldn’t be talking now.

Why should I sign with you?  

I will probably never deliver a satisfactory answer to this question. I think I'm pretty good at this job, and my publicly available record speaks for itself. Therefore, I will neither boast nor beg. At least once a month, I find myself in a strange discussion with an author who thinks he's hot stuff. He might be waiting around to hear back from Superagent X, so now's my chance to beat him to the punch. I fell for that trap a few times, and it never ended well. Such writers make lousy clients; they won’t take my advice, and they make huge demands. I won’t do it again.

Can you get me a deal for just print rights?

The Alliance of Independent Authors (an organization of self-published writers) advises its members not to surrender their ebook rights. They should only sign with an agent who understands their “special” standing in the book community, and will only shop their print and subsidiary rights. The problem is, no agent anywhere has the authority to do what they ask. That language belongs in a publisher (not agency) contract, and I have yet to find a publisher that will agree to such.

Of course, I don't know you or your personality. Perhaps, like me, you want to gauge your productivity at the end of each day. It's nice if you can sit down to the dinner table thinking "Yeah! I pitched a thousand agents today!" But frankly, you'll be better to pare down that list first.

Your choice of an agent is an important one. You need the right fit for your genre, your market position, and personality. Let’s have that discussion; ask your questions until you’re satisfied. I will stay on the phone for as long as you need. But honestly, it could be a waste of your own time if you didn’t check me out in advance to get those big-picture issues settled.

I might not be the right guy for you, and that’s fine. But apart from that, remember, you came to me. You asked me to rep your book. I said yes; isn't that what you wanted? Don’t make me regret it. Knowledge is power.


  1. Steve. Thank you for investing so much time communicating on various writers groups. Your responses can be easily misunderstood but I've learned over the three years I've invested in getting my first book into a publisher's hands the road can be a rough ride for the thin-skinned and the naive. I thank you for your review on my original manuscript. Your rejection because of its length opened my hard head and my editor and I went to work and resubmitted t trimmed version to a publisher after a writer's workshop. He agreed to publish it if I skinned it further and took the time to explain the economics that most writers never consider. We cinched our belts and edited again until a contract got signed. Conclusion: Listen to advice from people like you and as a writer, getting 80% of your hard work published is far better then fighting an uphill battle to promote an unmarketable 100%. Thanks Steve. TM 'Mike' Brown

  2. Great post, Steve! I have an even shorter response to the question, "Why do you want to rep my book?" My response: "Because I think I can sell it to a publisher." Why else would I want to rep a book???