Today’s post is by Brandi Bowles, a literary agent at Foundry Literary & Media, who represents a wide range of fiction and nonfiction authors.
In fiction, she is actively seeking high-concept novels that feature magical, psychological, or scientific themes. She prefers a contemporary, real-world setting, well-developed characters, and dialogue that’s just a little smarter than you hear in real life.
From the beginning development stages to the submission process, Brandi works hand-in-hand with each author to find the right strategy and approach for their work, with the goal of landing the ideal publishing partner. Beyond publication, she continues to works with authors to find new opportunities for their books and brands.
Her goal is always to establish an atmosphere of transparency, so authors know they have an advocate they can trust.
I’ve long been a supporter of de-mystifying the publishing industry. I believe our relationships with authors only improve when they understand and appreciate what we do. There is no magic phrase we use to open the gates of publishing, only hard work. That includes years of networking, studying the industry, honing our tastes, and figuring out how to best position our authors.
Follow Brandi on Twitter.
First Line of Defense
Writers always want to know: How do I find an agent? I get it; I know how important it is, and how arduous the process can seem. But whenever I hear writers refer to agents as the “gatekeepers,” I become a little bit guarded. I see the analogy, but a good agent is so much more.
The truth is, outside of career guidance, editorial work, writing advice, matchmaking, and selling, agents are the only people that can protect you when the publishing process goes awry. And it happens more than you might think.
When Good Book Deals Go Bad
I always celebrate when I close a deal for an author, whether it’s a six-figure bonanza or a small advance for a worthy, hard-working client at the right house. But I’ve learned that even the prettiest, most bow-tied deals can go sour. It’s a dirty secret that books get canceled for all sorts of reasons before they are published. There is the rare case of true “unacceptability” (in most publishing contracts, if the material isn’t satisfactory the publisher can cancel). But often the inner machinations of the publisher/imprint play a role.
The first time I had a contract cancelled for “unacceptability,” the imprint in question was shuttered just one day after cancellation. Highly suspicious. Another project, bought at auction, had been written with close direction, and the manuscript pre-approved in stages by the editor. We were told the MS had been accepted, but then two higher ups read and had divergent opinions on the material—this one disliked for one reason, and that another. The publisher got cold feet and tried to cancel, without providing an opportunity for a revision.
For agent and author, this was a five-alarm fire, and it was only through a mix of persuasive argument, a dozen phone calls, and strategy—namely, a complete reorganization of the book—that I kept that project on their list.
We could have resold it, but when a book is cancelled it acquires a stigma that can be tough to combat. And in this case, despite the hiccups, I knew the publisher could do a great job with it. I have great respect for publishers, but they scare easily.
I’ve also canceled books because my clients no longer felt cherished or best represented at their imprint. These I can almost always resell.
This only goes to underline something I’ve always said: A publishing deal is not the end of the road, but only the beginning. And for goodness sake, don’t go spending your signing payment the minute you get it. Cancellation, or its close cousin, heavy revision, doesn’t happen often, but when it does, you better have a partner who is prepared to fight for you or move you to another house if necessary. And an open door policy for you to unload.
On Second- and Third-Round Submissions
Another more common-than-you think scenario. It can be nerve-wracking for an author when their book doesn’t sell on its first round, but it sometimes takes multiple submissions to get it right.
Selling books is tough business. Bookstores are closing, competition is everywhere (from other books, the internet, movies, video games), and there are fewer publishers to sell to. In economic terms, it’s all high supply (lots of authors wanting to get published) and low demand.
When you’re submitting to agents, you might get a lot of “I like this but…” responses. After all, we’re subject to the same market, and hear the same thing from editors. So we have to be selective, taking on books we feel confident a publisher will invest in.
Does that mean we sell every book we take on? Nope. Even the top tier of agents have misses, because this business is and always will be subjective. So what happens when we sign an author whose work we love, invested time developing, crafted the perfect pitch and submission list, and the book still doesn’t sell?
More often than not, we prepare for round two!
Authors are always disappointed if the first round doesn’t produce offers. But my clients soon learn that I am relentless. I’ve sold a lot of books, almost a quarter of my list, on second and third rounds. Matchmaking authors and editors is more art than science, and we can’t predict 100% who will gravitate to what. Sometimes, the perfect publisher will have maxed out their budget for the year, or a colleague will have bought a very similar book weeks ago. Sometimes an editor just doesn’t like your book—and that’s ok. Just like you, that editor has his or her own taste.
I remind clients frequently that you only need one person to say yes. And sometimes, houses that didn’t make my A tier (because I didn’t think they were a perfect fit) will surprise me. A house who has never published a memoir wants to try something new. Or it turns out an editor has a secret passion for my client’s subject matter. Hallelujah!
In some cases it’s wiser to do only one round, but in most instances you limit your submission to the most likely editors, and hope if you do get all passes you’ll receive valuable feedback for the next go around. I do quite a bit of editing for my clients, but I’m not perfect. And every now and again an editor will note something that proves the key to the next revision.
For all submissions, of course, I try to get it right on the first shot. I create the submission list using everything I know—which imprints publish this kind of book, which editor there is most likely to “get it,” have I met the person in question, are they hungry, are they fast, do they have power in house, do they like to spend money, how do they behave in auctions, do I think they’ll make an offer, and is this really the right home for my client’s book?
And then there are the impossible-to-predict questions: Will they love the book? And can they get the support of everyone in house? For these, I make my best guess, with only history, past conversations, and sometimes agency hive-mind (the experiences of my colleagues) as my guide.
You can see how messy and subjective it all is. Then there are weird situations, where an editor loves a book but is prevented from buying it, only to later move to the house that acquired it. Once—though this is incredibly rare—I had an editor pass only to come back months later and make me an offer.
No Sale for You
What if, horror of horrors, you do submit several rounds, but still the book does not sell? After all, there are a finite number of publishers to try, depending on your category and your standards. And there are certain rules we all must follow—we can’t submit to two editors at the same house, or to certain imprints within the same publishing group. No agent is going to send your MS to absolutely everyone “just to see.” That person would be very annoying to editors, and wouldn’t be respected in the business.
Typically, if the book doesn’t sell there are two options: either a thorough overhaul/revision, or you put the manuscript on the shelf and try again with the next one. It doesn’t mean you can’t come back and sell it in the future.
The overhaul approach can be risky. Even if an editor explicitly asked for a revision, they tend to be less excited by the second draft. I’ve seen it happen one too many times. Perhaps the material doesn’t feel fresh to them, so they’re less enthusiastic, and they pass. You spend a lot of time revising to their specifications, only to have it go nowhere.
So most often, my advice is to start anew, with the next proposal or manuscript. When I sign a client, I am in it for the long haul. I want to work with that person for as long as they are writing books. I believe in them, and if I like their first book chances are will like the second book, and put just much energy into selling it.
And if you don’t want to write a second book, why did you decide to become a writer? If you’re not 100% passionate and willing to give it your all, you’re in the wrong business.
I love what I do. I like making these opportunities possible for hard-working writers. I like talking and working with smart people, and I like selling books, especially on those glorious days when I feel like I’ve made a writer’s dream come true.
It doesn’t always go as smoothly as I’d like it to, but then again, that’s why agents exist, and if we are selling absolutely everything we go out with we probably aren’t taking enough chances.
The truth is, mainstream publishing isn’t perfect—far from it—but for every messy partnership I’ve also seen publishers do incredible things: suggest brilliant revisions, design beautiful covers, put together cool events and marketing campaigns, and connect worthy authors with millions of readers. It’s still the best shot for an aspiring writer to become a bestseller and get real distribution.
Luckily, every minefield I’ve shepherded an author through has taught me to be better agent; better prepared to deal with and avoid catastrophe, to tell the pros from the amateurs, and to celebrate when the system works like it should.
Do you feel that agents are the first line of defense? If you have one, how has s/he helped you? Do you agree that agents are still the best shot for an aspiring writer?