misc articles

A Client’s Job
Patrice Lewis

(This talk was given in conjunction with my literary agent Sammie Justesen at Northern Lights Literary Services (http://www.northernlightsls.com/) at the Idaho Writer’s League’s annual conference on September 28, 2007)

Sammie represents my nonfiction work, originally titled “Practical Simplicity” and now called “Life 101: 101 Lessons in Simple Living.”  That in and of itself says something – we had to change the title because, let’s face it, “Practical Simplicity” leaves something to be desired as far as catchy titles.

And that’s what an agent does.  An agent will look at your work and determine whether it’s catchy enough to catch the eye of a publisher.

It took me three weeks to write my book – that’s all.  For three weeks ideas were just pouring out of my head and into the computer.  It was the most effortless writing I’d ever done.  Then came reality – I had to write the proposal.  That took much longer to write.  A nonfiction book proposal, for those who don’t know, includes such things as marketing information and a promotion plan.  It is a complicated and critical document, because the proposal is what convinces a publisher to take a chance on your book.

But before I came to Sammie, I did my homework.  I polished the manuscript.  I polished the proposal.  And even then, Sammie came back and said that certain things needed to be strengthened, such as the promotion plan.  Did I tell her that my work was just fine as it was?  Heck no.  Sammie knew that the promotion plan as it stood was just not strong enough to convince a publisher to lay down money.  So we worked together until she was satisfied that the promotion plan was attractive.

Same goes with the marketing plan.  The marketing plan simply points out what demographic of the population is likely to purchase your book, and how you plan to target that demographic.  If your book is suitable for children, for instance, it does no good to either make wild claims that the entire population of the U.S. will clamor to read it, OR to suggest the book be carried on adult newsstands right next to Playboy.  You need to come up with ideas as to where the book should be carried so that your target buyers will see it.

Sammie felt that my marketing plan was fine, but a little vague.  When the publisher Thomas Nelson started taking a serious interest in the book, we worked together to improve the marketing plan.  I am fortunate in that I have a built-in readership of around 300,000 people because of a continuing series of articles I write for a magazine.  The editor is fully supportive of my book idea and promised to make mention of it in her editorial column. 

So Sammie came up with “Ten Reasons Why Life 101 Outshines the Competition” and I dolled it up into a single page document.   Then we took this magazine editor’s endorsement and also dolled it up into a single page document.  Sammie took these pages and sent them to the publisher.

So you can see that an author and an agent must work together collaboratively.  You don’t just dump your book in the agent’s lap and thereafter refuse to do any more work.  That does NOT make you the type of client an agent wants to deal with.

Let me emphasize that an agent will only agree to represent your work if he or she feels it will make them money.  They aren’t in this business to get you published – they’re in this business to make themselves money, and they DO that by getting you published.  This is a critical distinction to understand.  It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there in the publishing industry, and an agent’s job is to keep abreast of the developments that you, the writer, don’t have the time or resources to do.  So if an agent rejects your work, it’s because either they have no personal interest in it, or they just don’t feel is saleable.

Agents can open doors to tremendous publishing opportunities.  Alone, I would be limited to small presses because I’m a fairly unknown writer.  With Sammie behind me, she is getting attention from some extraordinarily large publishers, such as Thomas Nelson, the sixth largest publisher in the country.

Sammie can be tough.  I’ve sent her two other manuscripts, one fiction and one nonfiction, and she’s turned them both down either because of the writing, or because she didn’t see the manuscript as saleable.  I had to trust her judgment.

And that’s the thing about an agent – you have to trust them to know the market, to know what’s saleable and what’s not.  Your manuscript might be near and dear to your heart – I know mine are – but what interests ME may not interest enough other people to justify the time and expense that a publisher puts into it.

This means that if you find yourself represented by an agent – he or she has put you under contract – then it means the agent believes your manuscript will make money.  This also means the agent will get paid, because believe me and agent doesn’t (or shouldn’t) make a dime off your manuscript until he sells it.

So for God’s sake, trust your agent to whip the manuscript into shape so that it can be sold.  If you look at your manuscript as YOUR baby, YOUR priceless work of art, and by golly you’re not going to change one letter of it…then you’re dooming your own chances to sell it.  If you’re that attached to your manuscript, then publish it yourself.

As an example, Sammie is getting strong interest from a company called Greenwood Publishing.  They’re a great publisher, and I would be thrilled if they picked up Life 101.  However, there’s a catch:  Greenwood has a minimum word requirement for their books.  My manuscript right now is short, sweet, and to the point, and it stands at about 35,000 words.  If Greenwood picked up my book, they would require it be at least 65,000 words.

So on my behalf, Sammie sent them the proposal and said that I could have the manuscript at 65,000 words within three months of acceptance.

That means I would effectively have to write another book, since that’s almost twice the length of my manuscript as it stands.

I didn’t get huffy, I didn’t sputter and say that she shouldn’t have told Greenwood such a thing, I didn’t protest that the manuscript was perfect as it was.  Instead I said yes.  If a publisher as big and reputable as Greenwood wants my writing, then by golly I’ll give them what they want.

With luck, I’d like to say that I’ll come to this conference next year as a published author with my nonfiction in print and in the stores – and Sammie, bless her, will have made some money at last.