First Line of Defense

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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.

She says,

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?  

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Comments

  1. says

    Thanks for sharing this, Brandi. I’m only just getting started with my agent–sent first round of revisions to her last week–but much of what you’ve said here meshes with her style as well. To me, this is a partnership, and I’m confident she’s going to stand up for me and my work right to the end

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  2. says

    Brandi,Thanks for sharing this insight into the deeper machinations of the acquisition and publishing process. I think most of us were naive enough to believe it was simple when we first began writing. For those of us further along that road, we know better. I appreciate your post.

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  3. Marcy McKay says

    Great information, Brandi. Although my agent left the biz before we got to the submission stage, we worked side-by-side tirelessly together through the revision stage. Nothing about her seemed like a gatekeeper. She was 100% my partner and wanted 100% the same thing as me — to find the best home for my novel.

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  4. says

    This has been such an informative week here at WU–loving the inside peek at the business. I learned enough from my years in business as a wholesaler to know better than to assume I could navigate the quagmire alone.

    Over the years I saw so many people (clients and vendors alike) who thought they could do better by skipping steps in our industry’s channel of distribution, only to make the same handful of mistakes and run into the same dozen roadblocks we’d learned to smoothly navigate for decades. I completely understand why the editors at the big houses won’t look at unrepresented material. They don’t want to repeatedly deal with the same handful of major mistakes and end up at the same dozen roadblocks of those who think they know better, and can skip ahead of “the gatekeepers.”

    Thanks for sharing your insight, Brandi! Keep up the good work, this month, WU!

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  5. says

    Sounds to me as if agents are the first, second, and last line of defense! I’ve never cared much for the “gatekeepers” analogy myself – it makes it sound too much like agents are the people responsible for excluding authors from the publishing community, when in fact the opposite is true. I’m imagining the role now as more like that of a boxer’s support staff – having someone “in your corner” so you can keep slugging away.

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  6. says

    Thanks for sharing, Brandi. Up until now I thought that once you send out to an agent your book is done and you have little opportunity to change it (this is based on some writers I know who have had agents sit quietly on their manuscript for years. Bad agent?)

    I find it encouraging, though, to hear that there are agents who are willing to work with their clients. Obviously, I think a submission must be strong as strong can be, but receiving editorial input is a great way to continually optimize a manuscript based on professional feedback. An agent who’s willing to do that is, to me, a great agent!

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  7. says

    My agent came up with two simple suggestions that made my book that much better. I was using parts of the novel I wrote with John Grisham as my mentor alternating his editorial comments with my writing in a back and forth dialogue. He said that reading my writing felt like “homework” as the reader was eagerly waiting for Grisham’s comments and that I needed to cut those sections back. I did and it strengthened the book dramatically–also got the novel picked up so the two were published earlier this month! The other suggestion was to “name” Grisham’s advice, not just describe it–which was also a huge step forward for the book.

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  8. says

    Brandi, thank you so much for your post. I don’t think I will ever say agents are the best shots for aspiring writers. I’m not going to say self-publishing is either. Over the past year I’ve read a few discussions on the subject. Many of the discussions turned into pot-shot fests and personal attacks, which can be about as helpful as a bad Amazon.com book review. My take away from many of these battles is don’t use the industry as a scapegoat. If I can’t create an engaging story, it’s on me primarily. If a beta reader had my manuscript for two weeks and only read a few pages, that’s not a good sign to me (promising story or not). It’s rewrite time.

    I desire to go the traditional route, because agents are so HOT, both male and female. I want to know if they will accept my manuscript (part of my affirmation). Agents are people. People are fallible. I love fallible people, dammit, because I love me. I want an agent to be “A PART” of my first line defense. I’m a huge fan of networking. I will never be a die-hard DIY guy. I love working with a team. I BELIEVE IN THE AGENTS OF LITERATURE!

    Oo, a new book tile, sort of

    Why can’t I go the traditional and the self-publishing route? Brandi, you said there are times where an agent just can’t sell the manuscript. Why not self-publish that book, instead of putting it on the shelf. Is there a problem with that?

    Can something be negotiated between the agent and author in regards to self-publishing the book that couldn’t be sold?

    Educate Brian B. King “a.k.a. the Padawan”

    Of course that book would be second in priority to the next book I’d be working on for traditional publishing.

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  9. says

    Great post, Brandi! We’re looking forward to your keen sense on the literary agents panel at PubSmart this year – info folks need to make smart publishing decisions.

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  10. says

    Brandi-

    Thanks for this. I’ve put out so many fires in my career as an agent, I’ve forgotten that it’s anything special. It’s just part of the job.

    Submissions can prove disappointing but selling can be dangerous, too. That probably sounds weird to many writers, but I’ll bet you know what I’m going to say: Over-sell a project (i.e., win wildly more in advance than the book can ever earn) and you may be setting your client up to be washed out.

    No doubt about it, agenting like everything else in this industry, is an art. So nice to hear my experience reflected by others. Say hi to Stephen Barbara for me.

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  11. says

    Brandi, thanks for a look from your side of the equation. I’m just finishing my first draft of a memoir ms, and hopefully in 2015 will be considering whether to go the traditional or self-pub route to publication. Your points will prove helpful along the way.

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  12. says

    I agree with whomever said that WU is knocking it out of the park this week! Thanks to Brandi for sharing a sneak peek inside all that agents bring to the table. Armed with this information, I’ve got a more cogent list of questions to ask if I should ever convince someone to offer representation to me and my magical creatures ;)

    Thanks again.

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  13. says

    Though I understand the ideology, using the phrase “first line of defense” creates an “Us vs. Them” sort of attitude, ie–writer and agent vs. publishers. As such, the agent is indeed the first line of defense.

    But…

    That attitude is what ruins many writers. Publishers and agents are people. They need to pay their mortgage like we do, and therefore they need to make money. Publishers publish, and agents sell, to make the money to pay the mortgage. Publishers aren’t idiots and agents aren’t saints or magicians. They’re both in it because they (hopefully) love literature, but also because they need to make a living.

    Though mistakes and travesties can happen, more often than not, if a writer’s ms. is marketable in some way, it’ll find an agent and a publisher, and the business wheels will turn. The more writers understand this, the more they won’t have that adversarial attitude. We’re all part of the same business wheel.

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  14. says

    Publishing is a business and we writers would love to scoop that fact out of the sandbox pile because it has nothing to do with art, don’t ya know? I am currently preparing materials to send to two agents who expressed interest after query and, therefore, this post is not only timely but extremely insightful as well. When I saw the submission requirements for the two agents, I knew I had some major work to do just getting my materials ready to submit to each of them for possible representation. If getting a pub deal is only the beginning, then writing and revising the book is an extra-long pregnancy. Getting an agent? A laborious birth. Or not even. Yet I am in this for the long haul and will keep on trudging, meanwhile prepping some short books of poetry to self-pub for charity. It can be fun. With the proper perspective. Thanks for sharing yours with us today.

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  15. says

    Great look into what life is like from the agen’ts side, thanks Brandi for sharing. I’ve been both agented (back in the 1990s) and self-published (now) and I must say both roads are full of pitfalls – the ones in self-publishing are probably better known now with so many self-pubbed authors coming “clean” about their experience, the good and the bad.

    So it was wonderful to get a glimpse at the other, trad side of the equation. And it’s a good reminder that selling books to publishers is never easy, you can get mired in controversy between differing editorial opinions about a book or, as Donald Maas reminds us, “over-sell”, thus wasting an author’s chances to get out of the midlist, or even worse, lose any chance at contract renewal.

    It’s a tough world, and nothing is tougher than publishing, but, oh so exciting. At least to someone like myself, an avid reader and committed writer!

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  16. says

    This piece was so full of interesting and detailed information that I bookmarked it to refer back to in future. Thank you for your in-depth interview that I’m sure will be of great help to many writers.

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