Ask the Agent: Communication Part Deux
I really appreciated all your comments on yesterday’s post. Lots of wisdom there! Related to the situation I wrote about, Katy sent this question:
Is it sometimes true that a new author, who’s just signed with an agent, will find the agent unwilling to try to sell some of her already-written manuscripts? How can that be prevented in the author/agent relationship as it moves forward?
First, I would hope there would be some kind of discussion prior to the agent/author agreeing to work together. Ideally, they would have an understanding about how things were going to proceed.
We all know there’s a possibility that not every manuscript we write, especially our first, is going to be saleable. But many manuscripts can be improved—rewritten, revised, polished—especially after we’ve grown in our skills and become better at the craft of writing. So even if an early manuscript isn’t saleable right away, there could be hope for it in the future, either with improvement, or after you have some success with other books.
I would also hope an author understands that the agent is a business partner. Each partner has a different function. The author’s job is to write books. The agent’s job is to know the industry and help the author make good decisions. If the author doesn’t trust their agent’s advice, they don’t have a very good working relationship.
It’s quite possible that the agent will view one manuscript as saleable, and another as not-ready-for-primetime. It could be the writing, or simply the story idea isn’t very compelling. The agent certainly won’t want to put the writer’s reputation on the line, and their own reputation on the line, by trying to sell a manuscript they don’t think will make it in this competitive marketplace.
However, I don’t think that translates into the agent being a “single book agent.” Some of my own clients have a book or two that may never be published, and I make decisions (in consultation with the author) about which manuscripts to try and sell, which to take back to the drawing board, which to put in a drawer. I still represent the author and their entire body of work. Just because we make decisions about which manuscripts are saleable and which aren’t doesn’t mean we’re not in it for the long haul. It doesn’t mean we’re only interested in one book. It means we’re going to come on board and help the author make the decisions that are best for their career. By helping the author understand it’s best NOT to submit a certain manuscript to publishers, we’re doing it with their long-term best interest in mind.
I would advise being wary of any agent who jumps in and says, “OF COURSE I’ll try to sell ALL your manuscripts!” What if your first few tries were really not very good? Would you really want manuscripts that DON’T represent your best work circulating through publishing houses? Editors can sometimes have very good memories; I doubt you want them to see a future (possibly much better) manuscript from you and immediately think, “Oh yeah, I remember this writer… she wasn’t very impressive.”
So, back to the original question above. Is it possible an agent might be unwilling to sell your early manuscripts? Well, yes, but hopefully it doesn’t come across as “I’m unwilling” but instead is a conversation between agent and author in which they come to an understanding and agreement on the best way to proceed. Again, if the author disagrees with the agent’s approach and advice, then they shouldn’t sign with that agent.
The second question above, “How can this be avoided?” Well, I suppose you could make sure you don’t write ANY manuscripts that aren’t saleable! Failing this, a bad situation can be avoided by having appropriate conversations with the agent PRIOR to agreeing to representation.
It all comes down to the same point I was making yesterday: Good communication is vital to any successful working relationship.
Rachelle Gardner is a Christian literary agent affiliated with WordServe Literary Group in Colorado.