Understanding Agents

Way back in 1994, when I was first writing for Christian publishers, a veteran acquisitions editor told me, "I'll never work with agents."

Three years later you couldn't get a proposal looked at by that same editor, or by any other Christian publishing company, without an agent.

The situation changed on everybody.

Where'd All These Agents Come From?

Thanks largely to the success of books like the Left Behind series, everyone figured out that there might be a future in Christian fiction. Suddenly publishers that hadn't published fiction started looking for novels, and just as suddenly, aspiring Christian novelists began coming out of the woodwork.

Whereas in years prior, acquisitions editors might see a couple hundred fiction proposals in a year, now they were seeing a thousand or more. Sadly, the vast majority of it (like 99%) wasn't worth being published.

The editor's time to read proposals didn't increase with the workload. So what's a body to do? Some publishers opted to hire more editors to handle the increased volume, even having someone on staff whose only job was to read through the "slush pile" and identify those few worth looking at.

It didn't take long, however, to realize that publishers couldn't justify so much work and so many man-hours on something that yielded so little fruit. 

It occurred to someone, or perhaps to the entire industry at once, that they could get the same results in a different way if only they had someone else do all the preliminary reading first. If someone else would read everything that came over the transom and weed out all but the very best, it would be a beautiful thing.

And the need for literary agents in the Christian publishing marketplace was born.

In a very short span, like under 2 years, all the major Christian publishing houses declared themselves closed to "unsolicited manuscripts," a.k.a., unagented proposals.

That's a situation that remains in effect today. The only way "in" is with an agent. Well, or if you know someone who works at the publishing house or (and take note of this one) if you meet an editor at a Christian writer's conference.

What Are Agents Good For, Anyway?

Aside from getting your proposal looked at when it wouldn't have been looked at otherwise, why have an agent?

Don't cast aside that first reason. Having an agent is the thing that will give your book a chance. That's a pretty good reason.

But there are other reasons. For instance, some agents will serve as career counselors, giving counsel on what the author should do or how to interpret various options. Most agents serving the Christian publishing industry have been working in the biz for a decade or more. Most have worked at publishing companies themselves. They know how the game is played. For an industry outsider, that's an invaluable ally to have.

Agents also speak the language of publishers. One day, God willing, you are going to have a publisher willing to go to contract on something you've written. They'll send you the standard agreement (not the standard rich and famous contract, by the way) and you'll look at it. Then you'll look at it some more. Then you'll wonder why, when you're a reasonably intelligent adult, you can't make heads or tails of it. You'll go to the dictionary and look up turpitude. And then you'll look at the contract some more.

An agent speaks legalese, at least when it comes to publishing agreements. An agent will open it up and go, "Okay, skip all that...blah blah blah...Hmm, that's interesting...Ah, we'll want to change that..." and so forth. In other words, it will make perfect sense to an agent. And, importantly, the agent will know which things are negotiable and which things aren't.

Nothing gives a publishing company heartburn more than having to work with a new author who is convinced the publisher is trying to rip her off and has hired the family lawyer to "suggest some revisions."

Granted, the publishing contract is geared to favor the publishing company. But, after all, who is taking the risk here? Who is shelling out the money to publish your book? if it feels like a financing contract at Jim's Ford Palace, you're not far off.

But that doesn't mean you're being ripped off (well, maybe you are at Jim's; I don't know).

I've seen publishers get so frustrated over authors and lawyers who questioned standard contract boilerplate that they were willing to cancel the contract rather than keep working with such a problematic author. Not a great way to begin your relationship with that publishing house.

And it all could've been avoided if you'd only had an agent.

Agents are also useful when disputes come up, as they sometimes do. If the publisher promised X but didn't deliver, the agent makes the call. But not without first saying to you, "You should've gotten it in writing!"

On the other hand, if the author is not performing as promised (a situation that is, sadly, much more common than the publisher being at fault), the agent gets the call. It's nice for the publisher to have someone to call who understands how the author is behaving incorrectly and can then translate that into language the author can understand without the editor having to be the bad guy.

How Do I Get An Agent?

Okay, so I've convinced you that having an agent is a good thing, yes? I hope so. My own agent is a dear friend and a trusted advisor. I don't know what I'd do without her.

And now you'd like to know how to get one a' them-thar agents fer yerself.

If you happen to be attending one of the major Christian writer's conferences (see a list here) then you're in luck: many of the top agents will probably be in attendance. Schedule yourself an appointment with them, talk with them about your book(s), and get a feel for whether or not you think you'd be a good fit.

If you think so and the agent thinks so, he or she will probably ask you to submit the full manuscript for consideration. (You have finished the manuscript, right? See this.) If s/he likes it, s/he'll send you an agreement form and you guys will agree to work together until one or both of you decides to dissolve the relationship and move on.

If you're not planning on going to one of those Christian writer's conferences...well, then change your plans. Why wouldn't you go? Consider it an investment and an education. Plus the great support you'll get from folks more or less like you.  0:-)

If you can't get to a conference and you just have no clue who to even try to get as your agent, grab the latest edition of Christian Writer's Market Guide and peruse the section on agents who serve the Christian market.

Another strategy is to check the copyright page of Christian novels you love. Many times the agent's name will be listed there, giving you the ability to find out a few agents who have represented authors who may be in some way similar to you.

Find the agent or agency on the Web or in the Christian Writer's Market Guide and contact him or her. You'll need to pitch to an agent just the way you would've pitched to a publishing company in years past. Engaging query letter, great proposal with sample chapters, and the full ms. standing by and available upon request.

There's still a slush pile, Dorothy, it's just been moved to agents' In boxes. 

An Agent Starter List

There are dozens, perhaps scores, of agents serving the Christian publishing industry. However, not all are of the same caliber.

Some seem to specialize in just big-name authors, while others love working with newbies. Some know fiction better than nonfiction. Some are actively seeking new clients, while others are closed to anyone new.

Here are the agents I've worked with most in my years at Christian publishing companies.

  • Alive CommunicationsAlive is considered by some to be the premier agency serving the Christian publishing industry. Many high-profile authors are or were Alive clients. There are at least three agents working under the Alive banner. They only accept queries from published or referred authors, however.
  • Books & SuchAgents Janet Kobobel Grant and Wendy Lawton are wonderful ladies with gobs o' experience and wisdom in Christian publishing.
  • The Steve Laube AgencySteve should be of special interest to writers of Christian speculative fiction. He carried the torch for the genre for many years, pushing the boundaries as much as humanly possible while on staff with Bethany House. Steve still loves speculative fiction and he's a great guy with lots of insight.
  • Les Stobbe is a wizened publishing veteran and a tireless champion of beginning writers. He has many such clients and is very active in promoting them to acquisitions editors. Another good guy to have as a friend and advisor.
  • HartLine Literary AgencyHartline is the agency run by Joyce Hart, another wonderful person and industry veteran. Joyce has two additional agents working under the Hartline banner.
  • WordServe LiteraryWordServe is the agency run by Greg Johnson, an industry veteran and all-around good guy.
  • MacGregor LiteraryChip MacGregor, longtime agent with Alive Communications, became an executive with Warner Faith, but is now back on his own as a literary agent. Chip is well spoken of throughout the Christian publishing industry.
  • Benrey LiteraryJanet Benrey, a published Christian novelist and long-time agent with Hartline, has formed her own agency. She's a delightful Brit who married an American, Ron Benrey, who is also delightful and also a Christian novelist.
  • Van Diest Literary AgencyDavid and Sarah Van Diest are the youngest agents on the list. They're also the newest to the game. But David, son of Multnomah Press founder John Van Diest, has worked in the industry for over 10 years. And his hard-working, brilliant, and beautiful wife, Sarah, happens to be my sister! They're open to new authors.

Other agents who serve the Christian publishing industry, are Karen Solem, Sara Fortenberry, Sealy Yates (of Yates & Yates), Mark Littleton, Alan Youngren, Kathryn Helmers, Jan Dennis, Leslie Nunn (of Nunn Communications), and Frank Weiman.

That ought to get you started!

Caveat Emptor

A few safety tips before I send you off on the Great Agent Chase.

First, agents take a cut of what you earn from your writing. That's how they make their living. If you were to get a check for $1,000 from a publishing company, that would be $850 to you and $150 to your agent. That holds true for advances, royalty checks, and anything else pertaining to a project the agent placed for you at a publisher.

The typical agent's cut is 15%. I haven't heard of anything lower than 15% but recently I heard that some agents are asking for 20%. Maybe that's just Hollywood or something. I'd expect 15% from any of the agents on that list above.

Second, agents get paid only when you do. In other words, when you get paid for your writing, the agent gets paid. And not before.

If you're in talks with an "agent" who wants to charge you anything up front: reading fees, copying fees, handling fees, etc., run screaming away. That person is a scam artist trying to rip you off.

An agent gets paid by placing his clients' writing projects at publishing companies. When the publisher pays the author, that's when the agent gets paid.

Don't begrudge an agent her 15%, by the way. Without her, you probably wouldn't be getting your 85%.

Okay, that's it for my primer on agents. I hope it's helpful!

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