A business book author just asked me whether he should sign with a particular agent. I turned the question back to him by responding:
Basically your decision should be made on a combination of (in order):
1. Her recent sales (whether she is doing the job now as evidenced by recent book deals to publishers you admire);
2. Her client list (whether she already works with people with whom you want your career associated);
3. The quality and success of the resulting books (how you feel about the final outcome… what is published and how it does);
4. How you feel about her personally… whether you communicate well and enjoy working with her.
All literary agents should be willing to give you an exact list of deals they have done in the past couple of years, and also a list of whom they represent. These are tangibles… they are quantifiable, and you can learn much about an agent just from them. However, the last two points are more intangible. How do you feel about the books that resulted from those deals? Are they bestsellers? Midlist books? Do they reflect your vision for your own career?
I listed how you feel about the agent last, even though many authors place it first. Some authors go on and on to me about how much they love their agents, even if those agents haven’t had a deal in many months. Meanwhile, I personally care more about results than how much I like an agent. There are abrasive ones out there, though, and although I try not to weight the personal factor too much if the agent is making successful deals, there are some agents I have put on the “Do not query” list because the personality issues just aren’t worth it. Fortunately there are many successful agents who are also highly professional–the best of both worlds!
On two consecutive Thursdays, September 16 and 23, from 10-noon, the Office of Scholarly and Literary Publications will host a workshop plus Q&A for tenure-line faculty on distinguished trade publishing for scholars. The workshop is free, but RSVPs are required (see below).
September 16: Introduction to trade publishing; key considerations from Carole Sargent’s visits with major presses and editors (Knopf, Norton, FSG, Oxford, Chicago, Yale); elements of the nonfiction book proposal; assignment to create a draft nonfiction proposal and submit before second workshop; discussion about whether and how to work with a literary agent.
September 23: Talk and Q&A with Richard Brown of Georgetown University Press about trade considerations (he is the current president of the Association of American University Presses); discussion of specific faculty book proposals that have been submitted for group consideration.
Where? Murray Room of Lauinger Library, 5th Floor
When? Thursday September 16 and 23, 10-noon
Who? Richard Brown, Ph.D., Director of Georgetown University Press; Carole Sargent, Ph.D., Director of the Office of Scholarly and Literary Publications
RSVP? Required, to email@example.com
Although Booklab focuses more on scholarly work for university presses and academic journals, I like to keep a weather eye out for what is going on in the trade world. After all, I got my publishing start in that wonderful place, and many academic authors hope to cross over at one point or another. This month’s Poets and Writers features a Q&A on page 111 with Jennifer Carlson of Dunow, Carlson & Lerner that seems unusually well-tuned. I can’t link to the piece (it is paid content), but that link will take you to her profile page.
Why is it notable that her Q&A is kind? Well, I’ve found some agents to be anything ranging from a bit tone-deaf to outright wrong. And although I like to keep my interaction with most humans sane and low-key, the only tense squabbles I have ever had on the phone that weren’t with lawyers were with agents. Sheesh. However, the ones we work with are terrific (we have placed fiction for Booklab authors with agents at Trident, William Morris, and several amazing boutiques), yet often the ones whose advice I read in the how-to places is an odd combination of trite and dismissive. Not this bit, however. Carlson actually sounds kind to authors who lack confidence, and she doesn’t look down on the self-published — which is great, because Dickens, Housman, and Proust were all self-published at one point or another… I honor that history.
An anonymous literary agent has started posting query fails. The site is funny, and not particularly unkind. I’ve seen variations on all of these, especially the submission of a “fiction novel.” One author actually sat before me and said that he didn’t need a nonfiction book proposal, because anyone with a brain who discovered what his book was about would automatically know that it would out-sell any other book published its year. Ah, hubris. :-)
This photo is a lovely bouquet of flowers — one of two, one for my editorial assistant and one for me — sent to Booklab by an author who is happy because we helped him find a literary agent from one of the top three agencies in the United States. Not all authors send flowers (a shout-out in the book’s acknowledgment section is usually plenty), but this is a great spring reminder that this office focuses on some literary work as well as university press research publishing, in a scholarly-literary ratio of about nine-to-one. All literary advising is paid for much as one would pay at Georgetown to take a class or a workshop.