By Shawn Coyne | Published: May 6, 2011
Steve Pressfield and I have worked together in one form or another for almost fifteen years. I’ve been his editor, his publisher, his manager/agent, and his business partner. In that time he’s written ten books—seven novels and three works of nonfiction. In all of those years, he’s been in the dark about exactly how an agent sells a book to a publisher.
I learned this the other day when we were kibitzing on the phone. Since he started in this racket, he’s put his trust in the professionals he chose to work with and let them do their jobs without looking over their shoulder. I suspect he thought that it would be bad form to grill them about how they solicit offers. There might be some secret handshake or good old time graft at play.
As most agents, I find the majority of my new writers through referrals from current clients. An agent always pays attention to a client referral because the agent knows that the last person that wants to drain his time and attention is a client. It’s human nature to protect someone working on your behalf. So clients only recommend a writer or project if it is of such merit that they wouldn’t be able to live with themselves if they didn’t help. Or they do it out of a familial obligation.
It really doesn’t matter about the clients’ motivations when they make a referral. As accomplished car mechanics tend to move in the same circles, so do writers. So chances are that most in your clients’ circle of friends know how to put together a sentence. Even a client’s Aunt Millie.
[Quick advice to all aspiring book writers in search of a traditional publishing deal…Spend time finding a connection to an established writer. If you win her over enough to recommend your project to her agent, that agent will be far more inclined to take you on than a cold call or email. Plus he’ll get back to you quickly.]
Steve told me about a possible project a while back. One of those, “I know you’re busy, but you should talk to this person…” kind of conversations. I talked to Steve’s friend and over the course of a year (YES, THAT’S RIGHT, A YEAR), we put together a proposal for a work of narrative (story driven) nonfiction. If Steve hadn’t recommended I make the call, I wouldn’t have been interested. It’s an incredible project and I never would have found and developed it without Steve.
On the phone that day, I thanked Steve and told him that I’d just sold his friend’s proposal at auction.
“What does that mean?”
“It means that more than one publisher was interested in the project. The ones that wanted it ended up bidding against one another.”
“How does that happen?”
The way I see it, the more Steve knows about how I sell a book, the better he’ll be at knowing whether to recommend someone to me. And if it comes down to a competition between me and another agent to represent that writer (the competition to represent talent among agents is very keen), Steve will be able to “sell” me to the potential client far better than I will.
I walked him through it for a proposal for a nonfiction project:
The first part of creating enough demand for a property to warrant an auction is everything that happens before I make one pitch. That is, the writer and I have to be convinced that the proposal (or novel) cannot get any better. The material not only best represents the writer’s vision for the book, but it tells a story. Not just one story…a whole bunch.
There must be a story that will personally appeal to the editor, a story that will make a marketing director know exactly what audience will come to the book and how to get to that audience, and a story that has virtually nothing to do with the book, but everything to do with off-the-book page coverage of the project for the publicity department—the author as story.
The editor, the marketing director, and the publicist, must be able to read the material and understand what the book will be and why the writer of the proposal is the only person on the planet to deliver that book.
Chime in if you’d like me to do a much more specific post on the “Art of the Narrative Non-Fiction Proposal” next time. Like Steve’s recent posts for DO THE WORK, a proposal follows the Foolscap method.
After I have the proposal ready to go, I prepare a submission list. An experienced agent comes in handy here. The longer an agent has been in the book business (no matter what roles he/she has played), the better. All of those lunches do have a purpose. The editor and agent learn about one another’s interests and as book nerds inevitably talk about the books they wish they had published or could publish in the future, an agent can glean what sorts of projects will captivate which editors. This is priceless information. If an agent picks the wrong editor who doesn’t care about the subject matter of his project, chances are the proposal will not make it past the editor’s inbox.
And the truth is that just about every editor will ask to read any proposal after an agent’s phone pitch. They do it so that they don’t alienate the agent…even if there is no way they would ever publish that kind of book. And they do it so that they remain a linchpin at the publishing house.
If an editor receives a proposal that becomes a phenomenon in the industry, even if they don’t bid to acquire it, they will be seen within their company as an important industry player. There is nothing more powerful for an editor after being asked by a foreign scout or a movie scout or even another editor what they thought of the latest big deal project than to say “Yes, I saw that…I thought it was fine for what it was, but it reminded me of that book X which didn’t work at all. So I passed.”
As most books don’t work (only 2 out of 5 are profitable) and it takes at least a year or even two for a book to be published after it’s acquired, pooh-poohing a hot project after it’s sold is a pretty safe move. I confess that I occasionally did it myself when I was on the other side of the desk. It’s human nature to backlash against something that finds success. If you haven’t seen those brilliant “undulating curves of shifting expectation” graphics that New York Magazine creates, you should check them out. http://nymag.com/movies/features/68374/
There are six major adult trade publishing conglomerates (Random House, Penguin, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, Hachette, and Macmillan) and several independent mini-majors. Each of these conglomerates has anywhere from two to six “independent” imprints within their walls. What that means is that these imprints compete against one another as well as outside the corporation for material. But in most cases only one of the imprints at the major publishers will be able to participate in an auction. That is, they won’t bid against one another. An agent’s best case scenario is to have one imprint from each of the six majors plus one or two of the mini-majors vying for a book.
If an agent understands each corporation’s particular particularities (each one has its own sort of political hierarchical landscape and its own unique culture) she’ll be in a better place to play one imprint against another so that a kinetic energy attaches to the proposal (or novel) from the very first submission. The project has the potential to become “HOT.”
If the proposal is poorly written and/or adequately written with little originality, it doesn’t matter how much an agent knows or doesn’t know about the marketplace. The project will die. No traditional publisher will want to publish it. This was the great service big publishing provided before the digital revolution. The gatekeepers kept lousy or flaccid material from gumming up the works.
Now, there’s lots of gum (150,000 plus titles published a year in the U.S. alone)…which has only made the big publishing gatekeepers pickier. Which I think is appropriate. When mediocrity or even worse is abundant, the big mongo publishers (born and bred in scarcity) need to better define themselves to consumers as literary sieves.
We really do need trusted gatekeepers now more than ever when anyone can write a book and “publish” it online. I think this is the core service that publishers provide. And they should embrace this role. Advertise it. Take people into their factory and show them why they choose to publish the books that they do. Don’t keep it a secret. It’s what defines a publisher. Let readers get to know the people entrusted (editors) to sort the gold from the dross. Chances are if a reader likes one of that editor’s choices, she’ll like another. I suspect a reader’s best friend could be a likeminded editor/curator.
I remember when I was an editor at a big house. If an agent called me and intrigued me with an idea, when that proposal or novel came in, I’d read the first sentence. If that sentence held my attention, I’d read the next. If I didn’t have some interminable meeting, I’d close my door and read the whole thing right then and there. (This still happens!)
If I was spellbound, I’d do an internal evaluation about whether or not I would put my butt on the line and ask my colleagues to read it too. If I was convinced the project was perfect for me, my publishing house, and the people who I would have to get to support it, I’d immediately call the agent and tell her not to do anything without me. Then I’d talk to the editor in chief and publisher about it.
When an editor calls an agent and says something like “don’t do anything without me” or asks “can I speak with the author?” the pace quickens.
The agent calls or emails all of the other editors who have the project to tell them that there is “interest” in the project. “Interest” is code for “A competing editor has read the book already and is ahead of you. You better read this immediately.”
The fact that a competitor has already chimed in to say “This is Great!” only increases the enthusiasm around town. The influence of third party validation is alive and well in book publishing.
If HarperCollins loves it, we should take a long hard look at this, thinks Random House.
Now the agent is in a good place. Everyone in town is talking about her project. She’s getting calls and emails from scouts all over the world as the buzz begins. What is on submission and who has it is the main topic of day to day life in the book world. Having a project that is part of that conversation is intoxicating.
Great, but no one has “offered” a penny to acquire publish the book yet. How does the agent get that to happen? If she sits back and waits and lets too much time go by, like a homegrown piece of fruit, the project could ripen too quickly and rot. Hey, if this thing’s so great, why hasn’t anybody made an offer yet? But if she presses editors and oversells, she could destroy all of the mojo.
Back to the undulating curves of shifting expectation. At this stage the agent needs to figure out where the project sits on the curve and act accordingly. She needs to figure out when the proposal has hit the critical “saturation point.” This is the moment in time when she will want to “close” the project. Closing a book means that due to all of the interest, the agent has decided to conduct an auction. Everyone who wants the project is required to make an offer by a specified time. Industry standard dictates that it’s usually around 12:00 p.m. in the middle of the week.
Then the very hardest part happens. The agent and the client wait. Just as the agent has finished her calls telling all of the editors the rules of the auction (these vary depending upon the agent’s evaluation of the “temperature” of the project), she gets a message. Someone wants to make a “Pre-empt.”
TO BE CONTINUED