Tuesday, July 29, 2008

On to the Agent!

Well, it's a long, long journey
to New York City....

Our story idea has become a manuscript and now must leave the author's hands--a very scary prospect indeed! But in the hands of a great agent, our story will have a fighting chance. So let's take a look at "How a Story Becomes a Book" from the agent's perspective:
Agent Erin Murphy at the Erin Murphy Literary Agency

For me, a manuscript starts becoming a book when I read a query letter and writing sample and immediately get excited about sending it to editors--a list of possibilities blooms in my mind, and I start thinking about how it would turn into a different book with different editors and publishing houses, and weighing which directions seem best.

But of course I need to read a full manuscript first! If the writer is already a client, that's a much quicker process, obviously, than if it's a writer I'm considering representing, whom I need to get to know a little and determine if we're a personality match. It doesn't matter how much I like the writing if the writer and I don't seem like we'll mesh, and it doesn't matter how much I like the writer if I'm not fired up about the manuscripts.

I work with my clients to revise and strengthen manuscripts before sending them to editors, so how quickly things go depends on how quickly the author works and how jammed my schedule is at the moment. We're not trying to make a manuscript perfect, and I don't have an expectation that an editor will sign it and publish it with few changes beyond copy editing and proofreading--I just want to eliminate any problem areas that might give any editor (or the rest of her acquisitions committee) an excuse to say no.

When a manuscript is getting close to presentable shape, I'll start mentioning it to editors and gaging early interest, honing my pitch and sharing with the client which aspects seem to spark the most oohs and aahs. I compile a list of interested editors and those I haven't mentioned it to yet, but whom I'd like to include when I send it out. I make a second-tier list, as well, which is mostly made up of long shots (more a match for the editor's personal interests than her publishing house's particular slant, for example) and editors who have sister imprints on the first-tier list, because I want to avoid any in-house conflicts. I also determine how widely I want to send it out, which is a decision made individually for each client and each manuscript. If we're uncertain which direction to go with revisions, we might test the waters with just one to three editors to start with, so we can try a different version if needed. If the client already has a relationship with an editor, we'll start with just that person, or that person and just one or two others. But if a manuscript feels like the kind of thing that lots of different editors might be interested in, and I feel really strongly about it selling quickly, I'll send it to a larger group.

When it's time to start sending it out, I email a pitch to editors I haven't mentioned it to before (or pitch it by phone), and send a little reminder to others who have expressed interest, to let them know it will be coming, and then I follow it up by sending the manuscript with an email that includes the pitch, an author bio, and any other pertinent information. If it's an especially wide submission that seems to have a lot of early interest, I'll make sure to point this out to editors so they will move more quickly with reading it.

From here it's a matter of waiting, nudging, juggling interest from multiple people (ideally), taking offers, negotiating a deal--and then it's in the editor's hands. The overall process is roughly the same for every manuscript, but the time line varies greatly depending on the manuscript, the client, the situation, the time of year, the editor, the publishing house....If an editor is especially eager, this process of signing a book can go very quickly--a matter of a week or two. If editors are busier than usual or we don't get any early nibbles that I can use to nudge along the others who are considering the project, it can be weeks before we have a sense of whether an editor is interested enough to pursue it or not. And the same variation goes once an editor wants to take it to the next stage (editorial meeting, then acquisitions meeting)--many houses have these meetings weekly, but some only monthly, and during a busy convention month, meetings are often canceled. An editor may hold a manuscript back from going to a meeting until the schedule clears a little, so she can spend more time on it with others on the committee to give it the best shot, or she may push it through quickly because the urgency will seem more persuasive.

Obviously, everything does not go the same way every time, but this is roughly how I handle it, with variations to allow for the individual needs of each project and each client--because in the end, that's my goal: Making each writer I work with happy and reaching toward each writer's idea of success by building one publication on another. --Erin
Thank you Erin! The process is exhausting, and it hasn't even started yet. We still have to get to the editor! Next stop: Andrew Karre with Flux !


PJ Hoover said...

Great post! Thanks, Erin!

Anonymous said...

Really interesting and informative post- I love the whole idea of this week! Can't wait to read the rest of the posts!! :)

Lisa Schroeder said...

Very informative - I've always been curious why some sales happen quickly and some not so much. It sounds like if one editor reads quickly and expresses interest, that helps things along because the agent can then go back to the others and get them to hurry up and read. If no one reads quickly or there is no early interest, then it's a longer wait time.

I thought having an agent always meant a quick response time, but I've learned that isn't the case. :)

Thanks for being here today, Erin!!

TJ Brown said...

Great post. I love hearing what agents think and how they work.

Barrie said...

Thanks for sharing, Erin.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the nice feedback, everybody! Having an agent definitely is not the equivalent to having a magic wand. Because we were talking about how a book gets published, I didn't get into what happens if we don't get any offers after a submission--and it does happen, even with an agent--but at least it happens with someone else on your side who can commiserate and find the positives and strategize about what to do next.

Lisa, you're right, that getting a couple of key editors reading quickly can really speed the process along.


Anonymous said...

Fascinating, Erin.
This is a great thread, 2k8!
I can't wait to read the rest of the posts!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing all of these details and your professional insight, Erin.

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