Literary Agent = Book Contract?

Literary agents only get paid when a publisher writes a check. So that suggests if an agent signs with you, she must believe she can sell your manuscript.

January 2004 at the Washington Auto Show. My daughter's now of driving age, my son needs a bit more patience.

Believing isn’t always enough.

In perusing Alexis Grant’s latest Writer’s Round-Up I came across a blog post from literary agent Rachelle Gardner titled “Difficult Conversations II: I Shopped Till I Dropped, But Nobody’s Buying.” Rachelle shares the difficulty of telling a client that she simply can’t sell that manuscript.

She says it’s hard for her to initiate that conversation. I know firsthand it’s hard to receive it.

In the summer of 2009 I developed a non-fiction book proposal and was surprised when I found an interested agent almost immediately. This proposal, he said, would sell itself.

He knew exactly which editors to pitch, and as he expected they liked the proposal, liked the platform, liked the writing.

Ultimately, the answer was the same every time. “It’s not quite right for us. Good luck placing it elsewhere.”

Now it’s 2011. I have a new book proposal and a new agent. We’re still in the early stages of pitching editors, but now I know that it’s quite likely I could find myself in the same place, positive feedback resulting in wishes of good luck.

Also in 2004, on their daddy's motorcycle. They shouldn't hold their breaths on when their Dad will let them operate one of these.

When I was at the AWP writer’s conference in February, a non-fiction author said it took he and his agent six years to find that magical combination of book proposal and publishing house. My goodness, I thought, that must have been grueling, knowing you’re the exception to the usual story of sign-with-an-agent-and-get-a-contract, the data outlier well off the curve.

But what if today’s publishing curve bisects this author’s x and y axis point?

For 25 years I’ve been a professional writer in varying capacities, and I will be one for another 25 years. To date, “author” has not been on my business card. Someday it will be, alongside my many other writing pursuits. I believe it isn’t a matter of if, but when.

As Rachelle Gardner likely tells her clients, the key is patience.

30 thoughts on “Literary Agent = Book Contract?

  1. Hi Patrick. I know “author” will *definitely* be on your business card in the future.

    I’m curious – have you ever considered self-publishing? That was never a road I imagined, but I have been rethinking this the last several months as there’s been so much news about the changing publishing landscape.

    Don’t know what I will do as I’m still working on the first book, but it’s certainly interesting times out there.

    When I hear stories like this of people waiting for years, I do have to wonder if taking ownership of the process could be empowering and exciting.

    In either case, patience is still a virtue. At least for me, I’m reminding myself to take as long as I need to make sure I’m writing the best possible book I can. Only then should I really worry about how best to get it out to the world!


    1. Hi Sion, thanks for your encouragement!

      I’m glad you started the self-publishing conversation, I suspect other readers will think the same thing. I have a number of friends who are either self-published or with an indie press not requiring an agent, two options Rachelle says she sometimes suggests to clients.

      I’m certainly open to all possibilities, and I’m all about taking ownership of life! 🙂 I feel I could gain so much from working with an experienced editor at a house with a strong publishing record, so that is for now my preferred path.

      Is your book fiction or nonfiction? The benefit I have here is I didn’t have to invest all of that time in writing a complete manuscript to only then be told “nope.” If I had experienced that with a novel, I might be tempted to look indie or self-published.


      1. Hi Patrick. Yeah, that is a big difference between fiction and nonfiction, I think. I’m working on a novel, so I will have to finish the whole thing. That in itself will feel like a huge accomplishment – but I certainly don’t want the journey to end there! 🙂


  2. The industry is in a tough place right now & it seems more difficult then ever to get published. Having an Agent that is out there fighting for you though is a blessing!


  3. Patrick – I read this post with particular interest. I’ve had a little experience working with academic publishers, but would like to write something for a broader readership. So the whole literary agent thing is new to me. I really appreciate your insights here.


  4. Patrick, wonderful post! I have no doubt that the timing will be right sooner rather than later for your proposal. I’m not so sure that “sign-with-an-agent-and-get-a-contract” IS the usual story (it’s just the one that is told more frequently).


    1. Hi Lisa, thanks for the confidence! As to that sequence not being the norm, it gives me that much admiration for literary agents, working away for clients with shaky odds of success.


    1. Interesting question, Tanner. I see a lot of posts about traditional vs. self-publishing in the blogosphere and on Twitter, but it’s usually focused on what path a would-be author should choose. I wonder how publishers and agents view it.

      I’d think it would be a source for discovery, and in fact I have a friend who published with an indie publisher that went under, only to have Random House pick her up, feeling she and the publisher had already done some of the hard work in finding readers.

      I would also think, however, they could see it as competition. Neither agents nor publishers profit when someone self-publishes, and even if a given self-published work doesn’t rival the sales of a traditional book, if there’s enough volume of self-published books out there, the sheer numbers could erode the market share of traditional publishing.


  5. I can relate to this big time. When I got an agent at the agency of my dream I thought it was only a matter of time. Little did I know that as hard as landing an agent can be its really just the beginning.


  6. Hi Patrick, by contract do you mean am I signed with a contract with the literary agency? If so yes, but no I am not under contract with a publisher- we are still in the process. . . got very close once with my first novel, painfully so- but there was an issue I couldn’t alter that they needed done so that was that [the book straddled YA and adult and I couldn’t change it to be definitively one or the other b/c to me it affected the integrity of the book] so we’ll see, this next book is definitely in one particular category so hopefuly once I’m done going back and forth w/ my agent on revisions the next submission round will be more fruitful [fingers crossed since as we know there are no guaruntees]


    1. Yes, I meant with a publisher. Oh man, that’s frustrating. That’s good you shouldn’t have any category issues with this one, and that your agent will work in the revision process with you (I know a lot of agents won’t do that).

      What I kept hearing on that 2009 proposal was that they weren’t sure the market was big enough (it dealt with tech issues and one publisher said people who want to read tech stuff like blogs, not books).


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  8. I love how you ended this post. I thoroughly believe that if I am passionate about something, if I keep it alive in some way, if I keep dipping my toes in the water of action … whatever I am committed to WILL come about. That has been proven with two pretty major things for me this year … first mural and first adult art workshops (for beginners no less – a more challenging feat). Keep going, keep looking for opportunities and open doors (even if they are just barely open a crack) … it’ll happen. I don’t doubt it one bit.

    Have I ever mentioned I knew Chuck Palaniuck when he was a technical writer for Freightliner? Although he’s basically the same guy from what I can see … he is a multimillionaire, living the dream. Yeah, I know it can happen. I’ve seen it more than once. Go for it!


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