An agent provides many services and benefits when an author is on the verge of receiving their first publishing offer, everything from the proverbial hand-holding, to sorting out offers from multiple houses to reviewing and finalizing the contract. Since there’s frequent debate these days about the necessity of having an agent versus self-publishing, I thought it would be helpful if we went “back to basics” and took a look at what a first-time author can expect from the submission and sale process.
First, the agent signs on the new client, and there’s much high-fiving over the shiny, pretty manuscript that both of you love. Then you buckle up and, most likely, get down to work—i.e. the agent outlines any edits she might want to suggest for making the manuscript stronger. In this tough economy, it’s more important than ever that a manuscript from a debut author be as outstanding as possible.
Once the manuscript is in final shape, the agent makes a submission list and
sends out the project (aka “shopping” in agentspeak). This is where the author can expect one thing: to feel a little crazy. It’s a strange feeling, realizing that perfect strangers, editors who work with authors you admire, are reading your work. But be forewarned: That feeling will likely wear off because the submission stage often takes a few months. Sometimes it’s faster—much faster.
At our agency we’ve sold books within twenty-four hours of submission on quite a few occasions. I’ve also sold a book two years after I submitted it, and placed another project six years after making the initial submission. So, the time frame from submission to receiving an offer can vary widely. To be on the safe side, prepare and expect to wait months, not days.
Naturally, if multiple houses step forward with interest, that heightens the stakes and your agent will need to manage an auction. But, for the sake of simplicity, let’s picture a scenario where just the one house decides to bid. The agent receives an email or call from the publisher saying they’d like to discuss the project, Most Marvelous First Novel Ever by Debbie Debut. Is it still available? Your agent will let the editor know that, yes, the project is still up for grabs and then the editor makes an opening offer.
You can expect a good deal of back-and-forth in negotiations for Most Marvelous, because a good agent knows that an editor won’t make the very best offer right out of the gate. Sometimes the agent can haggle a fair amount; however, if the publisher thinks the book still needs a lot of work, for instance, the offer may not improve as much as you and your agent would like.
Some of the offer’s aspects that are negotiated include: subsidiary rights (audio, foreign rights, e-books, book club, film), royalty rate, format (will it be hard cover, mass market, trade paper, or perhaps even digital first?), advance amount, payout of the advance (some publishers try to apportion money to publication, some don’t, but clearly the author wants to be paid sooner, not later), number of author copies, which rights the author will keep and which the publisher will get.
Especially in an auction situation, there are bonuses that might be added to sweeten the offer—some of these include bonuses for appearing on the New York Times, for selling X number of copies in the first year or for earning out the advance in a set time frame. There are a variety of potential bonuses that publishers may add in order to make the offer more attractive.
Once the offer is finalized and accepted, you can expect…to wait some more. Publishers routinely take up to sixty or even ninety days to send a contract. Occasionally it might even be longer than that.
But once your agent receives the contract, they will go over it carefully, asking for any changes that are required. They may ask for contract revisions for several reasons-- because the document doesn’t reflect the deal terms that were agreed to originally, or because the publisher has changed their standard contract boilerplate language. Or maybe because there are new points of debate (for instance, right now our agency is eager to ensure that publishers don’t hold reserves against digital royalties, which obviously can’t be returned.)
And then, finally, once the agent has gone over the contract carefully, asked for changes and received the final copy you can expect to…sign on the dotted line. And maybe pop a bottle of bubbly with your significant other that night, to celebrate your new venture as a published author.
Deidre Knight established The Knight Agency (TKA) in 1996 after working in the entertainment industry. As president of TKA, she has built a dynamic, bestselling client list, placing titles in a broad range of categories, including romance, women's fiction, general fiction, young adult, business, popular culture, self-help, religion, health, and parenting. Deidre’s most well-known clients include New York Times bestselling author Gena Showalter and 90 MINUTES IN HEAVEN co-authors Don Piper and Cecil Murphey. Last year, The Knight Agency had 15 NYT bestsellers and was one of the foremost agencies in the field of romance publishing.