Eight Myths About Literary Agents

Is it true that big agencies doesn’t care about small writers? Or that everything you read about an agent online is true? Writers House agent, Rebecca Sherman spoke at the 2010 SCBWI OC Agent Day and debunked all the myths you may have heard. So here is what she had to say to set the record straight!

Myth #1: An Individual Author Gets Lost in a Big Agency

Not True! Even though an agency may be big, like Writers House, every agent has autonomy over his or her list. Therefore the choice to choose a client is entirely up to the agent. And even though agents have obligations to their agency – meetings, priorities, etc. agents do work independently as well to oversee their own clients. The reputation of both the agent and the company relies on how he/she represents a client so it is very important to cultivate each career individually.

Myth #2: Everything You Read Online (and on Publisher’s Marketplace) is One Hundred Percent True.

Let’s clarify here. What you read on Publisher’s Marketplace – is - true. However, it may not be the whole picture. We often withhold information because it is  not the right time to make it public. For example we may not want to mention a new sale because a book won’t come out for two years, or we need to protect the material of our clients so it isn’t bumbling around out there in the internet. Don’t over analyze the info you read online, because you seldom have the whole picture.

Myth #3: Agents Will Sign an Author Based on a Book Proposal or Pitch.

You should always, always, always, finish your book before you query an agent! You want to also research an agent before submitting to make sure he/she is right for your work. However, you will never land an agent if you don’t stop researching and SUBMIT!

You can also read Rebecca Sherman’s Do’s and Don’t of Querying and agent here: Rebecca’s Do’s and Don’ts

Myth #4: If I Don’t Hear Back from an Agent Right Away it Means They Hate My Book.

I know that waiting is hard, but in this industry, patience is a virtue! Please don’t take it personally if you have to wait. Agents are busy people, they have more important things to do that just read through the slush (spread the word!). They need to work with their clients first!

A Client = Actual, where as,  A Query = A Hypothetical.

All material will be read and responded to (if you submit to me). I have three very capable assistants who do look through the work first. The Assistant Agent is your gate keeper, and it is their job to know my taste. I have a current list of 25 – 30 clients and they are my priority. I get thousands of submissions every year. And occasionally my work load will reflect if I am willing to take on a new client or not. We will get to you! Patience!

Myth #5: You Should Take the First Offer of Representation That You Get From an Agent

This relates to my previous comment about being patient. If you’ve submitted your work to multiple agents and you get an offer, please keep me abreast to this information. Email me and let me know that you have another offer. I would like a fair chance to review your work, and I will review it if you let me know there is interest elsewhere. Don’t make a decision about representation based on who reads your work first. Find the person who is right for you. Please contact me and let me know of the other offer and allow me a fair amount of time to review it. As an agent myself, I am very open to waiting for clients that I’ve offered representation to so that they can hear back from other agents. This is professional and important. Also, if you decide to accept representation from another agent please let me know that as well so I don’t waste my time on your submission.

Myth #6: Agents Just Want to Sell Your Book, they are Salesmen and Accountants.

Though selling your book is part of the job, it is not all that the job entails. I also want to help an author develop his/her craft. I am an editorial agent with nine years of experience. I am also my client’s advocate and I want to help them to see the big picture of their whole career. The key between the agent/writer relationship is synergy. I want to help the author strategize, and put the author into the spotlight. I also help clients to manage their schedules if they have multiple books and contracts with different publishers (particularly if they are an author/illustrator). I keep a very open relationship with my clients and make sure they are aware of the whole process, and I also want to be kept in the loop on how things are going between an author and editor. I like to see the new drafts and see how the project is developing.

Yes, it is also my job to sell books, but I am not an accountant. My job is to find the best deal for my client that reflects the worth of the book. It is my job to network, know the editors and what they want, understand the trends, the market, etc. Editors who know me trust my judgment. My reputation with them is important. My taste and how I help an author develop his/her project shows. Editors are excited when I contact them because they respect my opinion and I have the backing of a reputable company (writers house).

Myth #7: Now That You Have an Agent You Will Never Be Rejected Again!

Unfortunately this is not true. Having an agent opens doors you might not have had access to before. But it doesn’t mean that there wont be rejection. You still have to be patient and persist. I love your book. I won’t give up on it. No news does not mean you’ve been rejected. No news just means no news.

Myth #8: Agents Have No Life!

Agents are passionate about what they do, but yes, we are people too! We have lives outside of our work. Again, this is another reason to be patient. I personally also maintain two book clubs outside of my work. These clubs are often with other agents, editor, and librarians. One is a YA/MG book club and the other is an adult book club. I think it is important to read.

I also pitch books to editors. I take this very seriously. (Rebecca shared a pitch letter that she wrote for the book Scones and Sensibility. The pitch letter was clever and creative and reflected the tone of the book, and Rebecca’s dedication to selling your book in a strong and confident way.)

A Little About Writers House and Rebecca Sherman:

  • Writers House is a full service agency which includes a four person foreign rights department, a contracts manager and associate, a three to four person accounting team, and 14 senior agents that cover various aspects of literature from children’s books to adult literature and non-fiction and memoir.
  • Rebecca began at Writers House as an assistant. She worked as an assistant for five years, and learned the business. She began to develop her own small list, and later became a senior agent.
  • Rebecca has been a senior agent for four years.
  • Rebecca’s client list includes: Grace Lin, Bryan Audrey Pickney, and Matt Phalin.

What Rebecca Sherman Likes and is Looking For:

  • Mostly author/illustrators, and less picture book authors.
  • For young adult and middle grade books she likes humor and books that will pull on the heart-strings.
  • She does represent picture book non-fiction.

If You’d Like to Submit to Rebecca Sherman You Should Send:

  • For Picture Book Author/Illustrators: If sending by snail mail include: One full-color picture book dummy image, the full sketched-out picture book dummy, and a typed copy of the manuscript. If sending material online, send the same information in the form of a link to dummy or website. Paste manuscript into text of email. No attachments!
  • For Picture Book Authors: Send a query letter and the manuscript.
  • For Novelists: Send a query letter, a synopsis, and the first ten pages of your novel.
  • For Illustrators: Send a link to your website and a query letter.
  • Don’t pre-query!

And A Few Questions From the Audience:

What are you looking for in a synopsis?

The pitch and the synopsis are two different things. A pitch is meant to lure you in, but a synopsis needs to tell us what happens in the end. Your synopsis can be longer than a page, in my opinion. I only read a synopsis if I have reservations when I am reading the first few pages. I read it to see what the major plot points are that are coming.

How many writers actually earn a living in this business?

That’s a tricky question. I won’t go telling you to quit your day job. A lot my clients are hybrid authors – they do both picture books and middle grade books. This allows them to shine in multiple markets and sell more, particularly when they can get into the school markets. Young Adult books that is much harder to do. Most of my debut authors still have their nine to five jobs. In terms of advances, it’s hard to say. Novels don’t usually go for less that $10,000, but it has happened. A picture book can be around $15,000 and up for an advance. But you have to split that if you are not the author and the illustrator. And picture books in general can be wonky when we talk about prices. YA books can often take a higher advance.

Rebecca Sherman is an agent for Writers House. For over 30 years, Writers House has played a critical role in developing novelists and non-fiction authors. They have one of the industry’s finest lists of juvenile and young adult authors. Rebecca continues to build her own list of middle grade and young adult novelists, she’s looking for books with something to say, books that make her laugh, and characters that truly remind her of how confounding and wonderful (ridiculous! frightening! glorious!) adolescence can be. She is also looking for picture books by author/illustrators that can hold up to readings night after night.

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4 thoughts on “Eight Myths About Literary Agents

  1. Pingback: Let’s Make a Deal: An Editor/Agent Mock Negotiation « Ingrid's Notes

  2. Pingback: Great advice from the experts… « CHRISTINE FONSECA, AUTHOR

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