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Books for Writers
(By Paul Lima)

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Experience with Agents

Notes taken Paul Lima; edited by Angileen Gallop

Getting a good agent is one of the trickiest things that writers do. And good agents are indispensable when it comes to negotiating with publishers these days. But, just because you have an agent, doesn't mean that you can quit being a vigilant salesperson and negotiator. PWAC Toronto hosted a lively, practical evening with three authors who showed us that it takes one part feistiness, two parts persistence and perhaps just a pinch of luck to land an agent you can trust. 

Panellists for the night were:

Diane Baker Mason lives and writes in Toronto, while trying to finish her law degree and run her children's lives. She's a novelist, columnist, short-story writer, and occasional poet who is represented by Ann McDermid. She's been writing in public for about twelve years now; prior to that it was a largely closeted activity. Her first novel, Last Summer At Barebones, made bestseller and "best of" lists across Canada. Her second novel, the eponymous Bad Mother, is expected some time in the distant future. In the meantime, check out her monthly column in the Toronto Women's News (www.exread.com) as well as her own website, www.dianebakermason.com

Marsha Skrypuch (www.calla.com) has had a long and interesting journey to her life as a writer that has included five agents and 100 rejection slips. After she was mislabelled as 'slow' in school, she didn't learn to read until she was in grade 4. She went on to get an Honours BA in English and then, after a stint as the only female industrial sales rep in Canada, a Master of Library Science. While studying for her Masters, she discovered her passion for children's literature. In 1994, her picture book, Silver Threads, was accepted for publication by three publishers, after which she got an agent. Since then she has published four more books. She is represented by Dean Cooke. 

Ania Szado's writing has been published in literary journals and magazines including This Magazine and Flare, and has been nominated for the Journey Prize and the National Magazine Awards. Her first novel, Beginning of Was, will be published in spring 2004 by Penguin Canada. In over ten years of freelance copywriting, Ania has learned and forgotten all there is to know about subjects ranging from Princess Diana¹s dresses to plastic wood. She is represented by the Humber School for Writers Agency.


Marsha: I received my 100 rejection slips for an adult novel that I had written that was dreadful. At that time, I got agent I deserved. She was as dreadful as the novel. Though, I did personally sell the Hollywood movie rights to that novel. 

So, you can get an agent even if your writing isn't ready for it but beware, you are likely to get the agent you deserve. 

Started writing children's literature and sent it out to publishers. Scholastic kept my manuscript for a year then gave wonderful rejection. I sent them Silver Threads at the same time I sent it to two other publishers. The 'worst' thing happened that they all wanted it. So I phoned Westwood Creative and told them 'I have this book and three publishers want it, what do I do?' Got a contract. One agent at Westwood wonderful and then quit; the other was dreadful. This agent didn't like kids lit and wouldn't read my stuff or let me talk to publishers. 

We parted company. My first book had been published by Penguin. I asked my Penguin editor to recommend literary agent… she recommended one who had come out of retirement to represent only children's authors she was passionate about. This agent found you can not be semi-retired as an agent so she decided to retire permanently. But, she passed my portfolio on to my 'dream' agent, Dean Cooke. I have to say here that it is important to find an agent who you can work with on a personal level and who wants to represent the kind of writing you do. One writer's dream agent doesn't work for another. Mine is a good agent for literary work, but wouldn't necessarily be a good fit for a popular fiction writer. He also edits my stuff. This is unique…many of literary agents don't do that.

Ania - I am represented by Humber School of Writers literary agency. It's different than other agencies. Generally you have to take their 30-week correspondence course; send your work by email or mail to well known writer. You can work on book length manuscript: it's $2000 to take. But you work with good people. 

Still no guarantee you will be represented. If the mentor writes you a letter of recommendation, and you are not allowed to prod for this, the agency will read the letter and manuscript. What is unique about Humber is that they'll read the whole manuscript. Most want to see synopsis and first couple of chapters. Humber knows they are working with first-time authors so they give you the benefit of the doubt.…. Won't necessarily edit or help you. 

If they take you on, you sign a contract. They take 15%, standard. Most agents make money off the percentages. The school puts the percentage toward scholarships for writers who want to take the courses. The agents are on a standard salary. You can't assume the agent will be as aggressive as a more commercial agent, but there is incentive in the sense that Humber is aiming to get as many students as possible published. Will send the manuscript to publishers with a letter of recommendation from your mentor, a well-known author whose opinion counts, which helps to get your foot in the door. 

Now I will tell you how it worked for me. I didn't take the correspondence course, I took the summer workshop twice. First mentor was Nino Ricci, second mentor was Anne Michaels. I managed to get my work in front of Ellen Seligman at McClelland & Stewart. 

She had seen and liked a short story I wrote and wrote me to tell me that if I had anything else, to send it to her. I sent my manuscript and waited and waited. Then, at a book launch for one of the Humber agent's authors, I talked to the agent and told them what Nino, Ann and Ellen had said and made it sound good … sold my manuscript and myself. Made it sound like I was a sure thing. She agreed to read it and later, we signed a contract. In May, a year later, Ellen Seligman turned the manuscript down. But she was very gracious. She called my agent and then made arrangements to talk to me and she recommend a specific editor at penguin. We sent it the next day. In two weeks she was reading it. In a month penguin gave me an offer. 

A lot of people feel because they have an agent they don't have to worry about the contract. I can't think that way. I read the contract closely and did a lot of research and found things that should be changed. Discussions with agent got a little less comfortable. I took her advice on some things and pushed other things. 

I this point I did wonder what a more commercial agent would be like. At same time, you won't be in a bad position if you have a good agent and take his her advice… everything we asked for got changed, even things the agent said wouldn't fly… 

What I learned: The way Humber structures things… letter of recommendation from an established author is good. You have to show your agent that you are low-risk and opinions from established authors count as well as interest from an editor. Try to get published in literary magazines, win contests. Try to get published in the non-book areas before you try to get an agent. 

It's possible to understand a contract and is not as painful as some you might think. 

Diane: Been to Humber twice and highly recommend it. Even if it doesn't get you 'in.' They couldn't have take me when I got there the first or second time - because I only had parts of stories.

What I was starting out as a writer, I had no vanity about where I was being published. I wrote Star tabloid romances. Had literary fiction and poetry published and a play performed as Summer Works. Thought I might one day get a novel published. Funny though, now that I'm a 'best-selling' author things haven't actually changed much. 
I know well-known and well-respected writers who have to teach. I still take in typing…

With Barebones, I wasn't at all sure that it would be successful. I got a Canada council grant and wrote but my goal was to get my baby published. At times I thought it would do well, then at other figured it end up in the bottom of a file cabinet. I didn't know what I'd written. It's not commercial and not literary. It's a cross over work, whatever that means. Sent it to a bunch of publishers, and listed all publishing credits in my background. (digression: submit your fiction everywhere and don't be at all afraid of rejection, paper your walls with rejection letters, do a little dance and keep submitting the credits give you the track record you need. you don't need an agent to do short fiction or poetry. build a bio. I had a two-page list of where I've been published. makes an agent notice.)

Sent to Westwood agency. It came back so fast the ink was still wet. They called it a literary work but was it? I'd bankrupt literary presses just with ink cost it's so thick. 

I was due to go to law school when I ran into Andrew Pyper. He suggested Ann McDermott. Sent literary resume, one page synopsis (hard to do with 500 page novel) and the chapters. Didn't hear a word for three months. I sent her a polite e-mail to ask if she was done with it and that I wanted to try another agent. Didn't realize that she has reading periods - takes time off work to read manuscripts -- does all her reading at that one point. She sent a message back saying she wanted to see the whole thing. 

Now, Anne is a bombast … oh darling it's absolutely wonderful. Going straight to New York with it. I made a joke about Oprah and she said Oprah's not out of the question, dear. I got stars in my eyes…. She took it to New York and got a series of rejections. She was crushed and kept saying it was wonderful but the publishers don't like the ending and the length. 

I rewrote the ending and tightened it during law school - stressful time. She sent it to a couple of Canadian publishers. One said rewrite to make the sister the central character. But Macarthur Company took it…. 

I'm fairly outspoken and out going. I didn't read my contract or see it. Anne said this is what they are offering. Take it. When I got the contract I was doing my finals. As a law student, I knew I had to get copyright clearance on the songs… had to do it myself. It was gruelling work…took 6 weeks…Rolling Stones wanted $3,500 for one line, so I cut it. I cut a lot of lines. 

I didn't have leeway with my contract because it had been to so many publishers and the didn't want it. I'm going to be a lawyer and Ill advocate for other people's rights like crazy but I folded like a deck of cards when it came to my own contract. But I felt that compared to what a lot of people get as advances, I felt the offer was good. 

The book came out. Minor fluff of publicity. Then positive reviews. Over the top. Ann started to hit US again. Fat heroine, strange ending, harsh narrative voice… send us her next one. Didn't get an American publisher. American book club picked it up. Was a bit of a kerfuffle because my publisher didn't have American book club rights. 

Wrote the novelization of Men with Brooms. Deals are often made fast and on the phone. Men with Brooms book deal was negotiated at a cocktail party. In five minutes, I had managed to contract myself to do this book… saw the contract for that one at the screening of the first draft of the movie… the original offer wasn't enough. Ann and I had a long conversation about it. She let me think about it and said she could get me out of it. I asked her to get $XX money and she got it for me. 

Talk reverts to how you aren't a big shot when you publish a book, you generally don't get to pick the cover art, your agent doesn't do publicity - you do, unless you have a publicist. Diane did her own web site. It is not that different after you get published. You're still slogging along, taking in typing, taking care of the kids… then you get an letter from someone in England who loved it…

Question: horrendous experience with publisher and was told by people including at the writers union that if I had an agent wouldn't have had as much problem. If dispute arises in extreme difference in vision with a publisher … would agents handle these things?

Marsha: With an agent you can do the good cop, bad cop. You say the nice things. The agent says the hard things and deals with the money. 

Diane: When I don't like something, my agent is 'in there.'

Marsha: The main reason for having an agent is not to sell, but to negotiate…If you can attracted a publisher, then you can get an agent. If agent asks for upfront fee, run away. 

Question: What happens if there is a rift in vision between you and your agent?

Diane: My agent is very patient with my 'little artist moments,' We die knock heads but that does not mean that we aren't working toward the same goals. 

Marsha: Interview your prospective agent to ensure their vision is similar. My agent doesn't push me to make commercial money. Have to make sure you and agent are good fit. I have turned down more contracts than I have signed because my agent has a long term vision for me. 

Question to Anyia: How did you educate yourself on contracts?

Ania - Read stuff on business of book writing. When had contract in hand, looked through books and did a search on Internet. Took all stuff on net and highlighted all that seemed relevant. Same with the books. Spend a full day with the material and the contract. Made notes about the contract. I didn't ask for more money. Or specific rights. There were basic things missing. By which date they agree they will publish? Part of my advance was coming on publication and there was no publication date in the first contract etc.

Comment: Writers union has standard contract … but don't have contract assessment service anymore. 

Question: My first book, no agent, non-fiction… how do I get good non-fiction agent? Do I want one in TO or NY?

Marsha: You want one that has associates in NY and UK. Most have co-agents. Look in Literary Market Place. Good place to start. If you are happy with your publisher, ask the publisher to recommend and agent. But check. do your homework.

Question: My ex-agent was arrested for fraud. Canadian literary agents are not regulated. Anyone can set up to be one. It's a case of go out and do your research. Use extreme caution. In the U.S. there is a code of conduct via an association that most legit agents use…

Marsha: You can count on one hand, the agents who are legit in Canada, that is it. Writer union has list, but some should not be on it….

Question: What are the royalty rates and range? What are some examples of the changes you had made to your contract? (for Ania)

The answers ranged from 10 % to 12.5 % Picture book is 5% because royalties shared with illustrator, Men with Brooms was 6% because shared with Alliance Atlantis.

Diane: Royalties are an investment income against which the publisher pays you an advance. Often you can sell out the whole print run and not make back your advance. 5,000 copies sold is a best-seller in Canada. Men with Brooms has sold 40,000 and I still haven't made back the advance. It is difficult to make back your advance. 

Ania: Things I had changed in the contract: When the book goes out of print, the rights revert to author. Maybe in 20 years, I'll be respected and want the rights. But the contract doesn't stipulate precisely what 'out of print' means, i.e.: it means that if the book is not available in any edition penguin publishes. So…if it's available on CD in Portuguese in airport kiosk in Turkey it's not out of print. I changed it to say out of print when not avail in English, in book form, in North America. 

Diane: Bravo!

Marsha: My first book was illustrated by a famous illustrator. The illustrator commanded a much larger advance than I did…but the first Penguin contract was set up so I wouldn't have earned out until he earned out. My agent and I dug in our heels and waited… got a bit nerve-wracking but we got our changes. This is an important issue because if you negotiate a bad contract it sets a precedent…publishers will point to it and say well…so and so signed this contract…

Whew…I stayed out of the negotiations. My agent and I did good cop, bad cop.

What kind of contract did you sign with your agent?

Marsha: The contract is mutually dissolvable. But they get 15% on royalties, and give me my fee. If you don't want them and they don't want you, it should be over. You shouldn't work behind the agent's back. Get rid of her first. 

I got rid of my agent and then was selling Silver Threads…got the three offers and called Westwood…I just got three contract offers and don't know what to do? 

Question: I have written my first novel have no previous credits. Will it make it hard to find an agent?

Yes. 

Ania: It's possible if the writing is brilliant.

Marsha: I have a trick for you. When they say 'no unsolicited submissions,' put three pages of your novel in with your query letter. Fold it so it is very thin. They open all the thin letters right way. If you are brilliant, they will know it within half a page. 

People question this…really they will know within half a page? 

Marsha: Yes…there is a trick to see if you have a winning manuscript. Read the first sentence out loud to a group of people and see how many want you to continue. Then read another out loud…see if they want you to continue. Then read the third…and see if they want you to continue….

Ania: But you have to send it to the right publisher. Don't send literary books to cook book publishers.

Question: What has been the impact of Stoddart?

Marsha: More publishers are putting crap in their contracts and you want an agent to take it out… Had one book on the shelf before I signed the contract! Wanted it out.

It can be a good bargaining tool… It worked out fine…

Question: Are agents in Literary Market who ask for an evaluation fee.

Marsha: Don't do it. Remember that it is easier to get a publisher than it is to get a good literary agent. Most people will get published, get a publisher before a good literary agent. Sign away your life or get a middling contract, then get an agent.

Question: does agent's fee go up if uses co-agents

Marsha: yes international goes to 20%. Can go higher. Some people have American agents who sell to Canada. With kid's fiction, with free trade, the publishers sell right into the States…. They have distributors in the States.

Question: how does it work with non-fiction. Can you sell an idea?

Marsha: I have written the outline of a non-fiction book and the first three chapters. Gave it to my agent. He said do it over. Now in process of writing the three chapters. Once he thinks they are what they should be, he will sell it as is and will work after contract. 
With three chapters and an outline, you can sell a non-fiction book.

Question:. Once you are out there and successful, what does an agent do? Seems to me you could just get a good lawyer. 

Marsha: My agent reads my work before it goes out. And gives me editing suggestions. He makes you look more professional. A good agent can burnish your reputation. Represented by my agent, means I'm at a certain level. Agents also have more contact with the publishing world. It is their lives…

Ania: In terms of Humber, they think of themselves as launching you out into the literary world.

Question: Children's non-fiction, can you writer just three chapters?

Marsha: Probably. Outline and three chapters, especially if you have a track record.

Question: Your views on e-publishing?

Marsha: Wouldn't do it. Get paid more and there is more prestige if you are published in paper. 

Ania: I love print and love being in print. Have stuff that's gone from paper to electronic.

Diane: Isn't the best way to share a long piece of work. Do you want to read on CD or computer screen? If it goes on Internet, everybody can see it for free…I know people can trade books…but there is a bit more control there…you can see a bit more money…

On the other hand…having shorter pieces online is a great way to get your name out there…if people hear about you, they tend to go to their browsers and type in your name to get a sense of you and your work. 

Ania: Online publications such as the Danforth Review are good places to be published online…

Diane: Good to have a web site. 

Question: What about publishing memoir or something like that?

Marsha: First three chapters and outline if someone famous. But if memoirs are yours, who knows? 

Ania: Some agents have guidelines on their web sites about the types of work they want to see. 

Marsha: Nobody is actively looking for memoirs. If your name was Wayne Gretzky, people might be looking. If you were to write a biography of someone famous. Publishers are not interested in individual memoirs unless you survived a plane crash or have a really compelling personal history. 

Point: But can work personal history into a your novel….

Diane: If you write in first person, people will think it's autobiographical…

Question: But e-publishing ca give you exposure…. 

Marsha: A column or book reviews a good thing, but a whole book? 

Diane: One women on chatelaine chat all her books are available electronically or you can get them in hard copy but not hard cover…can check her out…

Interjection: There are many people who are published electronically, and can bring in some extra money…but it doesn't carry the weight of print yet …

Question: Write sci-fi. Looked into Humber school. Do you need a genre-oriented literary agent?

Diane: I have an SF novel and my agent won't look at it but there are SF agents

Marsha: Go to Surrey writers conference…. Lot of agents are SF. Online critique groups: go to www.compuserve.com . There is a writer's forum and SF forum. Private critique groups. Rub shoulders with other published authors and it's free.

Diane: Don't rule out New York or California agent for SF. You have to have your punchy chapters and helps to have stuff published…

Question: Isn't it virtually impossible t get published in US without agent? Going that way in Canada?

Marsha: If you were to look at a publisher's slush pile you would see a lot of bizarre stuff. Good, professional writing is rare. If you send the right thing to the right publisher, you can get looked at. They look at submissions. Just takes them long time.

Question: Written mystery novel. What do I do with it?

Diane: anything tightly genre, need an agent who specializes. Canadian agents looking for Giller Prize material. Go to NY and California….

Marsha: Again…sneak it into a query letter, three pages, then if you get nibble, go to agent with warm publisher in your hand….

Question: I have a publisher wanting to see more…am I warm?

Marsha: Warm is they when they want to offer you a contract, then go to agent…but you are getting warmer…

Diane: Get a *really* tough skin. Even after you've been published and have good reviews, you can still be rejected….

Marsha: Agreed. I've had snarky comments from editors even after having a contract. But the editor was good and I made the changes…..another note: Anything that goes wrong with the book, it's your fault!

Question: What is your take on the stealing of an idea?

Diane: You can't copyright an idea. It's an old theme. To be copyrightable, it has to be fixed in a medium. Ideas are anybody's.

Question: Penguin had my novel for a year, asked for revisions. Then I did it and they didn't want it. What now…it's adult literary, sort of?

Marsha: Would strongly suggest query with three pages and blast it out to a hundred publishers. There is Ontario Arts Council writers reserve… this is an excellent program because it buys you time and you only need 10 pages and you are sending it to publishers to get the recommendations for the program. 

Interjection: Ask Penguin to recommend another publisher 

Diane: Sounds like you could also sent it out to agents. That is a good sign if you've had a publisher bite.

Question: What if the agent you are with doesn't like a pet project, are you free to send it to someone else?

Marsha: Depends on relationship you have with agent. If they clearly don't want it then you should be free to pitch it. If you get a bite, the agent may then represent you. If they take on something they don't like, it may be in limbo. Some agents will let you talk with other publishers, others won't. Make sure the agent is doing what you want and you have an open dialogue with the agent



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