Long Term Query Do’s and Don’ts Tip: Your Decisions Now DO Affect Later Relationships

I’ve heard the process of finding and then working with an agent be compared to dating before. Mostly in terms of what not-to-do (which I will be doing here…again), but to start things off on the right tone, read this post on how it’s compared to dating in a positive and hilarious way. There’s gifs!

So…back to this post.

I’m not going to give the usual Do’s and Don’ts tips. I’m going to talk about a trend I’ve been noticing lately that leads me (and my colleagues and peers) to re-consider working on a project. I’m talking about: baggage.

In the dating world, “baggage” can mean a whole host of things depending on the people involved (Recently did a stint in jail? Children from a previous relationship?  Divorced?). To be clear: NONE of these are actually negative things…it all just depends on the current situation and whether or not these things affect the current situation for one of the parties involved.

Well, the same thing goes for finding an agent. There are a few situations that I’ve seen a significant more amount of lately that do give me pause. No matter how much I like the project, or even the author, it could be the thing that makes me go: I’ve been down this road before, and this isn’t worth it. Here are the top 3 offenders of this, for me personally:

3. Have worked with multiple agents previously.

I don’t stop to reconsider if someone has worked with one agent in the past 5 years. Or even if it’s 2 agents in the past decade. But I have been receiving more and more submissions lately where I learn that the writer has had 2-4 previous agents in less than 5 years. How is this happening?? And it leads to me wonder if I won’t just be another notch in their belt. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think writers are going out there to “collect” agents. But the truth is that if they’ve worked with that many agents and they are still looking, it is most likely they have unrealistic expectations. And when those expectations aren’t fulfilled, they move on.

2. I already have a series under contract, and a film deal!

That sounds like a no-brainer for an agent, right?  Well…not exactly. Even if it’s with a Big Five house, you have already sold multiple books (it’s a series), and we (agents) don’t make money unless we’ve sold those books for you. So multiple books already under contract without us means many years before we have the opportunity to sell anything for you and make any more. And I should also point out that these particular type of writers usually contact us at this stage because they are having difficulties with their publisher and/or film producers and need support/help. Well…that’s great, and that’s 100% what we do for our clients. But it is a TON of work, and there is only so long I’m willing to do that kind of work for free. And chances are, if you sold that first series without an agent, the contract isn’t in great shape either, which leads to more work for me, too.

And the biggest, most frequent offender on this list…

1. I’ve self-published my book XXX, and it’s sold a few hundred (or even a few thousand) copies, but I need an agent to take me to the next level.


I’ve self-published a number of books in the past, but now I’m ready to take the next step in my career.

Guys. GUYS. I don’t know how many times I can say this, but I will say it again: once you put your stuff out there and the Consumers Have Spoken (a.k.a. book sales), my job becomes much more difficult to help build your career because now there is a certain level of expectation out there for your work, and those expectations are not good. Back when I first started in publishing (before e-self publishing), if someone sold 10,000 physical copies of a self-pub title, it was an incredible feat.  Today, to turn publisher’s heads, that needs to be more like: 50,000 copies in one month, at a $2.99 price point or higher.

Don’t get me wrong. I am supportive of independent publishing. We have a number of clients who pursue this successfully, and we even help them do it. But there is a difference between “just getting your book out there” (self-pub) and having a structured business plan that includes a marketing budget, a publicity plan, and a professional editor and cover designer (indie pub).

None of the above items are automatic NOs for me, and they aren’t for other agents either. But they are something that gives us pause and makes us rethink whether or not this is something we’re willing to take on, because all of these things do give us a more difficult job going into the relationship.  And yes, we have said No to projects in the end because of the above reasons. Like I said, it really depends on the situation.

Just remember to make wise decisions, each step of the way. And if you make a mistake or two along the way, it’s not the end of the world. It might just take a little more work to overcome it.


79 Responses to Long Term Query Do’s and Don’ts Tip: Your Decisions Now DO Affect Later Relationships

  1. Julie Dec 10 2013 at 8:31 am #

    What a great post, Jo! Despite all the querying advice out there, these are tips that writers don’t generally get to hear. Thanks for sharing this with all the PubCrawl readers. 🙂

    • JoSVolpe Dec 10 2013 at 9:51 am #

      Thanks, Julie! This situation has been coming up more frequently lately. I didn’t used to get so many submissions that came with these caveats. So that’s probably why there isn’t as much about them out there!

  2. Liz Blocker (@lizblo Dec 10 2013 at 8:54 am #

    I agree with Julie – these are new tips, and they’re really helpful. Thanks so much!

  3. Marc Vun Kannon Dec 10 2013 at 9:02 am #

    I have quite a few published titles out there, but they were never well advertised, publicized, or marketed. No bookstore ever carried them, to the point where I had to create my own bookstore and engineer most of my own sales. From a practical standpoint, I would think that it’s as if my books and short stories never existed at all. (It’s not like I had them before the massed audience of the world and they all passed on the opportunity.) They’re under contract more by publisher inertia at this point, since I figured no larger publisher would be interested in picking them up. I do have a new manuscript (the one I queried you about), but I don’t know if this poor sales history is a deal breaker or not.

    • JoSVolpe Dec 10 2013 at 9:50 am #

      Like I said, Marc–it depends on the situation, but it most definitely is one of the things that an agent considers when considering your work.

  4. Susan Dec 10 2013 at 9:43 am #

    WOW. Really insightful post, Jo. Thanks for sharing this…now I’m going to go share.

  5. Lori T Dec 10 2013 at 11:05 am #

    Fantastic, valuable advice for all aspiring authors. I immerse myself in all the great query advice I can find and this was something very different from what I’ve read before. Thanks, Joanna!

  6. Leslie A.M. Smith Dec 10 2013 at 11:19 am #

    Thank you for confirming my suspicion about self publishing at $.99. I have lost count of the number of people who have told me to “just self-publish … you’ll get noticed.” Now I know that my instinct was correct. Thank you!

    • JoSVolpe Dec 10 2013 at 2:18 pm #

      Thanks for sharing this example of why people go this route!

      People don’t just “get noticed” without a lot of hard work. I really respect how much work (on top of writing!) that indie publishing authors do.

  7. Lori Nichols Dec 10 2013 at 12:34 pm #

    This is great stuff Jo… but what if you already have the most rockin’, amazing, fabulous, over-the-moon literary agent already?

    • JoSVolpe Dec 10 2013 at 2:15 pm #

      Aw, Lori! You’re too sweet!

  8. Natalie Aguirre Dec 10 2013 at 12:39 pm #

    Thanks so much. This is all so helpful to know, especially with how much the publishing industry is changing.

  9. Dahlia Adler Dec 10 2013 at 2:15 pm #

    Great post! I parted ways with my first agent after getting a 3-book deal and I thought, “Oh, everyone will think it’s awesome that I have a sale under my belt.” In retrospect, it’s a no-brainer why a few agents were wary of considering me! As it happened, I was querying with two finished mss that had no ties to my contract and weren’t part of that deal, but if they had been…? I would’ve been wary of me too! Sometimes you just need people to spell things out for you 😉

    • JoSVolpe Dec 10 2013 at 2:16 pm #

      Exactly! Thanks for sharing this story…it’s a good example. You were smart to query with something new!

  10. Tam Francis Dec 10 2013 at 3:34 pm #

    Great post. I have been looking for info why NOT to self-pub. I have so many friends pushing me to self. I love the stats on indie book sales. 50K in a month is HUGE even if you have a GREAT platform and a following. Let me ask you two things, One: why only a month? Two: why should an author keep querying and traditionally publish? (all the blogs say that first timers make LESS money with traditional vs. self. What are agents doing for writers in this new age?

    Thanks for the info, loved it and will share!

    Tam Francis

    • JoSVolpe Dec 11 2013 at 4:58 pm #

      This is enough for another post! Quickly:

      1. I was using the one-month as a generalization of what level the sales would need to be at to really get a traditional publisher’s attention. If it’s 50,000 units in 6 weeks, that’s still pretty impressive, but if it’s 50,000 units in 1 year, that is less impressive these days.

      2. This really just depends on the author. I don’t want to convince anyone one way other the other to indie publish or traditionally publish. BUT I can tell you that the authors I work with who prefer traditional publishing are ones that simply do not want to have to worry about publicity, marketing, packaging, distribution, etc. They just want to write and only write. And that’s what traditional publishing can offer. There are a number of other reasons, but this is what I can write up quickly in the comments! I will certainly explore this as a future blog post.

      • Libbie Hawker Dec 11 2013 at 5:01 pm #

        Thanks for chiming in with more clarification, Jo! 🙂

        In your experience, how high must an author’s advance be before a publisher will devote part of the house’s budget to publicity and marketing of that particular title?

        • JoSVolpe Dec 11 2013 at 5:50 pm #

          HI Libbie,

          They really should be putting some kind of budget toward each and every book, but we all know that it isn’t always the reality. When thinking about advance level vs. marketing & publicity commitment, it depends on the house. A $50,000 advance at one house might seem like a small amount, where at another it is a very sizable offer. Not only that, but I have seen publishers spend hundreds of thousands on a book as an advance and put very little toward marketing and publicity. (Seems ridiculous! But it’s true–I’ve seen this happen many times.)

          What matters most is finding an editor who will truly champion your work in-house. If that editor does so well, the advance level might not matter at all.


      • Marc Cabot Dec 12 2013 at 9:48 am #

        “I just want to write” sounds like a great motivation for going with a traditional publisher, but word on the street is that publishers are expecting more and more social media/marketing output from their writers. I’m not sure that even if you just “vant to be levt alone,” that that’s going to happen, at least until you’re so big you can make it stick when the publisher expects you Facegramming and Twitbooking or whatever it is the young kids do these days. Any experience with that?

  11. Ari Marmell Dec 10 2013 at 3:38 pm #

    Heh. I’m on my fifth agent in six years, but four of those left agenting to move on to other positions. Only ONE ex-agent is ex by my choice.

    Not that this is really relevant, since it’s the exception, not the rule. I just had to chime in with “It’s not ALWAYS a warning sign.” 😉

    • Ari Marmell Dec 10 2013 at 3:41 pm #

      Uh, three left the business, not four. I cannot math.

      • JoSVolpe Dec 10 2013 at 7:19 pm #

        This is true! And if I love a manuscript, I would usually ask for more details about why you left your past agents. Very few have a story like yours, but as you say, it’s possible!

    • Taurean J. Watkins Dec 10 2013 at 5:41 pm #

      That’s just a valid and true a point as what the above post (And previous comments above) have said, Ari.

      I have an author friend who is querying again because her agent of 2+ years (It might’ve been longer) left the business, but it was certainly not because she wasn’t pulling her weight, her agent just had to leave for her reasons, and it doesn’t lessen how hard she worked for every book deal. especially her picture books (She’s a Children/YA author who recently branched out into “New Adult” under a pen name) so I don’t doubt her prospects of being agented again.

      But I’ve never liked the “Agent Dating” analogies because personal relationships have FAR more leeway than finding an agent. In dating, if you say you’re having dinner at 7:00 and than don’t show up (And explain WHY, like you were sick or got hurt or there was a family emergency) that makes the one stood up feel you don’t want a relationship either at all, or with that specific person.

      In querying agents, the first contact or two is inherently one-sided in that until the agent makes the first move toward being interested, all you can do is wait and hope an agent clicks with you.

      As much writers are reminded over and over that we are employing them.

      Until we are offered contracts and make it official, the ball’s in their corner, because I know when I first queried agents five years ago, the agents I gravitated to and researched were who I’d love to have worked with, but they didn’t want what I was offering at the time, and for those of us who don’t produce near-flawless manuscripts in a “assembly-line fashion” moving from one book to another isn’t as automatic as it can be for some. We all go through this process at different speeds.

      While I managed to find a (LEGIT) small press for my debut novel, I still want an agent, because while you can still sell without one, I do feel in the U.S. it’s becoming more necessary to have an agent, just to be CONSIDERED, and you can’t sell to anyone if evolving business logistics keep you from reaching anyone…

  12. Marilyn Dec 10 2013 at 3:47 pm #

    Thanks so much for this. I needed it today!

  13. Lisa Dec 10 2013 at 4:07 pm #

    Joanna, Great post! I’m going to share it with our writer’s chat room. I hear #3 a lot from regulars as well as newcomers and often suggest patience in finding an agent and publisher without self-publishing first. People are in such a hurry to publish their work without taking the necessary steps (hiring professional editors, proofreaders, cover artists) to ensure their work is the best it can be before contacting an agent or publisher, it’s disheartening to hear. They expect to publish their work within a year of first draft. *headdesk* I remind them that sometimes their first book isn’t meant to be published, it’s really about practicing your craft.

    They also don’t realize how few (100 or so, if they’re lucky) books they will most like sell if they self-publish because they don’t understand (nor do they hire professionals) how to market themselves or their books. This added insight from you, as a literary agent, makes sense. If they self-publish an unpolished and not very well written book, they’ve established a reputation and it will make it that much harder for you, as their agent, to sell their book to a publisher.

    Most comments I’ve seen from these writers don’t understand that aspect of the process. I hear “I just want to get it out there as soon as possible.” “I’ll do better next time.” “I can’t afford to hire an editor or cover artist.” “My niece is taking editing in college, she edits my work, that’s good enough.” “My sister proofreads my work.” “The agent and/or publisher will take care of promoting my book.”

    We address all these issues and try to put forth a reality check with expert advice and guidance such as yours, as much as we can while being supportive if they really do want to self-publish. Sometimes they finally get it and sometimes, they simply refuse to listen. Thank you for your insights!

    • JoSVolpe Dec 10 2013 at 7:23 pm #

      Boy have I heard a lot of the same things before! Wise words, Lisa. Thank you for sharing more insight.

    • Marc Cabot Dec 11 2013 at 2:36 pm #

      I independently published my first draft, with a spelling and grammar sweep, of a highly niche erotic novella basically as soon as it was finished, at a cover price of $1.99.

      It has exceeded the sales figures alleged to be typical in this discussion by orders of magnitude. As have most of the other books I have published similarly since then.

      If I can do it with weird erotica, I don’t see why an author with as much or (not a high bar) more talent than I have couldn’t do much, much better with something more mainstream. You don’t need to be an outlier to make more money than the average traditionally published author makes. You just need to publish a decent book and wait.

      • T.K. Marnell Dec 11 2013 at 4:21 pm #

        Your logic is backwards, Marc. It’s because you write weird erotica that you do well in indie publishing. You don’t find highly niche erotica on the paperback shelf at supermarkets. The big houses don’t publish and aggressively market fringe furry porn.

        Authors of mainstream genres are competing for customers’ attention with James Patterson, Nora Roberts, J.K. Rowling, and thousands of mid-listers…not to mention the greats who have been dead for decades. Unknown niche erotica authors compete with a handful of other unknown niche erotica authors. And niche erotica readers look for new material almost exclusively online. They don’t drive to the nearest B&N to browse for a hardcover of The Raptor that Ravaged Me. They hit up Amazon in the privacy of their homes. And they don’t care as much about literary quality as they do…”other things.”

        I’ve self-published a range of titles, including steamy romances. The smut sells daily without a soupcon of promotion; the clean YA and general fiction sells rarely with significant time and money put into marketing. I presume my writing is not significantly worse when I remove the explicit sex. The difference in sales is because of the genre.

        In short, you haven’t succeeded because you write “decent” books. You’ve succeeded because you write indecent ones.

        • JoSVolpe Dec 11 2013 at 5:53 pm #

          Hi T.K.,

          You responded almost exactly as I would have! Thank you for sharing this further insight for everyone to read. It’s extremely helpful!


        • Marc Cabot Dec 12 2013 at 9:52 am #

          This is a pretty reasonable theory, and I cannot gainsay it directly. So my hat’s off to you.

          However, my experience seems to be paralleled by several people I know who don’t write weird erotica, but who do write nice stories that people want to read – and who do, in fact, sell more books than I do. I think the only way this argument is going to be resolved is with time. The traditional publishing business in its pre-Amazon form had existed for, depending on how you count, anywhere from about seventy years to about thirty. We’re still less than ten years in. Who the heck knows what it will look like in an equivalent amount of time?

  14. Jenn Rush Dec 10 2013 at 4:48 pm #

    This is a great post, Jo! And an important one for writers looking for an agent.

  15. DJ Dec 10 2013 at 10:14 pm #

    Very interesting. Especially the self-publishing part of this post as I have considered self-publishing a few different stories. I think I’ll keep trying to find an agent instead of going that route. Thank you for your honesty.

    • JoSVolpe Dec 11 2013 at 5:54 pm #

      You’re very welcome, D.J.! I’m glad the post was helpful.

  16. jodimeadows Dec 10 2013 at 10:58 pm #

    Great post, Jo. Thanks for putting these out here!

  17. crystal ord Dec 11 2013 at 8:26 am #

    Wow, never thought of these! As others have already said, it is great to find new querying tips like this! I am relieved to see that I haven’t made any of these mistakes! Now, off to share the knowledge!

    • JoSVolpe Dec 11 2013 at 5:55 pm #

      Glad it was helpful, Crystal!

  18. Diana Kimpton Dec 11 2013 at 12:03 pm #

    Anyone who has sold 50,000 copies of their self published book in a month doesn’t need an agent or a publisher. They ‘ve already earned more in that month than many people make in a year.

    • Joe Vasicek Dec 11 2013 at 12:45 pm #

      Exactly. At that point, an agent would have to bring a lot to the table in order to be worth their 15%–Hollywood connections, for example, or foreign sales experience in fifty different countries. And of course, they’d have to be able to negotiate a print-only deal, because if I was making upwards of $1,000,000 per year in ebook royalties (on one title alone!), no way would I bend over and let a traditional publisher take that away.

      So long as we’re talking baggage, though, how about agents who have a long history of condescending blog posts and #queryfail tweets? Who treat writers like children at best, lepers at worst? Publishing has got to be one of the only industries where the service providers regularly berate their potential clients in public. I’d rather have a business partner who sees challenges as opportunities and isn’t afraid of a little heavy lifting. At the least, I’d want someone who has a basic sense of numbers.

    • Tam Francis Dec 11 2013 at 2:25 pm #

      This is very similar to my question above. I’m confused on this issue and still on the fence about querying and or self-pubbing. I’ve had great feedback with my query and feel close (doing another edit and hitting the trail again), but even if an agent ends of wanting me, I’m confused about the benefits. I am not trying to be flippant, I am honestly confused and would love to hear from Ms. Volpe. Thank you 🙂

      Tam Francis

      • Marc Cabot Dec 11 2013 at 2:42 pm #

        The benefits are completely agent-dependent. Good agents can fight for your book, get you foreign distribution, and maybe even work with Hollywood for you, if your book is suitable for that kind of thing. Bad agents can sit on your manuscript for months, lose it under a couch, post derisive blog posts about it, tell publishers that it’s crap and they’ve change their mind about even offering it for sale, and so forth.

        Unfortunately, there is no way to tell a good agent from a bad agent by reading the label. Even recommendations from other authors can be problematical because many authors with agents haven’t done the math either. If you want to be sure your agent is a good one, you have to watch them like a hawk. And if they work for an agency, your good – heck, your great agent can suddenly retire or be reassigned or something and suddenly you’ve got a bad agent, who can be actively detrimental to your writing career yet has all the power over your work – and gets just as big a share – as your former good one.

        If you’re not comfortable taking responsibility for your own life, then do the best you can to find the best agent you can, and watch them as closely as you are able. Otherwise, take responsibility, and do for yourself.

        • Tam Francis Dec 11 2013 at 2:51 pm #

          Thanks for the insight. Doesn’t help me get of the fence, but it’s good info to stick in my pocket. So, all the horror stories are true LOL.

          • Libbie Hawker Dec 11 2013 at 3:56 pm #

            Tam, in two years working with two different agents at one of the biggest agencies in the world, they did absolutely, precisely, literally NOTHING for me. Some agents do work hard for all their clients equally, but many do not, and because the prevailing culture among writers who are pursuing or working with agents, it’s very difficult to find out before you sign a contract what that agent is actually like. Writers are frequently very hesitant to discuss disappointing or unprofessional behavior with anybody, for fear that word will get around.

            In my observation, a writer has far more power over negotiating, including negotiating that crucial initial contract with an agent, if she’s already proven she can sell books to readers — i.e. self-publish first. A writer who has already proven herself to be a valuable asset doesn’t run the same risk an unknown quantity runs, of being ignored by her agent because there is an entire stable full of authors to focus on right now, who are earning money right now. Proving yourself first gives you power, assuming you still want to work with an agent at all once you’ve understood your own worth as a writer and once you’ve come to understand more about the business aspect of publishing. Many writers do still want to work with an agent at that point, and there are valid reasons for doing so. But having more leverage in the relationship will never hurt you.

            A further thing to consider is that agents are becoming less crucial all the time. It’s a profession that is rapidly drying up, and those who survive all the changes currently taking place in the publishing industry will find ways to work with indie authors that don’t involve belittling them. You’ve probably noted how many agents are expanding their businesses into “author services” beyond selling manuscripts to publishers. There’s a good reason for that: agents are feeling the squeeze of the changes, and many of them see the writing on the wall. So in a couple more years, you may be wondering why on earth any new author would ever want to work with an agent at all. In fact, I suspect that agents’ roles will shift so dramatically over the next few years that they won’t be considering any unproven authors, and will instead focus on working with publishers to do the only thing publishers still seem capable of doing: making mega-blockbusters from already-proven performers.

            On a personal note, that book two different agents didn’t sell for me for two years has sold about 30.000 copies as a self-published novel, launched a series that’s also selling very well, and I’m about to quit my day job and write full-time off the proceeds from it and off the momentum it’s built up. So you don’t even have to be selling 50,000 copies a month to do better with self-publishing than you can do with a publisher. I don’t know very many traditionally published authors in my genre who are able to quit their day jobs from the money they earn via their publishers.

            Just some more stuff to think about, since you’re in the position of deciding which way to go.

      • Susan Dennard Dec 11 2013 at 4:42 pm #

        Tam, I just need to chime in and say that I wholeheartedly believe agents are critical if you want to go the traditional publication route–but as mentioned, only if you’re with a good agent. Fortunately, there are a LOT of good ones. Everyone on this blog, for example, is represented by top-notch, work-their-butts-off-for-us-every-day, worth-every-dime-in-that-15% agents. I personally would have never made the amount of money I have made or sold to a top publisher if not for my agent–she knows the editors, they trust her, and she got my book into hands that I simply never would have been able to access. Plus, the amount of work she puts in each day to make sure my publisher does what I need them to do, to promote my book on a massive scale (out of her own wallet, I might add!), and to sell my future series is just STAGGERING (especially when you consider that I am one of many clients for whom she does this every single day).

        I wanted to see my book in a bookstore, and my agent is hands-down the one who made that happen. She has the channels established to *make* it happen, and while she does all the hard work to promote and sell my series, I get to write more books. Does that make sense?

        I suggest finding a good Q&A online for when you do get “the call.” Lots of people have offered helpful questions to ask a potential agent and you can find example agency contracts online by which to compare your own potential contract (when that day comes). And of course, you can always check “Predators and Editors” for some info on whether your potential agent is legit.

  19. Leigh Ann Kopans Dec 11 2013 at 12:08 pm #

    What a great reminder, especially for us self-publishers, that we really are carving a path for ourselves with every decision we make! 🙂

    • Commander of All Jan 3 2014 at 7:20 pm #

      Right. This attitude says it all. Do agents honestly believe that an unknown, debut indie author can gain a gigantic fan-base within months? And if they don’t manage that (alone, without a marketing department or distribution to bookstore chains), well, obviously “the market has spoken” and their novels suck.

      Right. Because the indie success stories didn’t take years of hard work to get there. They just gained 1,000,000 fans overnight.

  20. Jamie Dec 11 2013 at 4:14 pm #

    Let’s talk about baggage. For the writers, make sure that you ask these questions of prospective agents. The agents are supposed to work for you. They should be quite happy to answer these questions to your satisfaction, if they’re at all professional. If they balk, you walk.

    1) What is the standard royalty rate for a writer who signs with them? If a writer self-pubs on Amazon she gets 70 %, so selling 50k a month can net a middle class salary in that one month even if she sells at the lowest price that royalty is offered. Any agent who wants to work for a writer should be able to show the *average* contracts where they top that. Names can be redacted, of course. I don’t mean for rockstar clients only. I mean the *average* contract has to top that, or an agent has too much baggage.

    2) How many of an agent’s clients have been given contracts with non-compete clauses, preventing them from publishing their work elsewhere, and therefore making a living? If you’re a writer, decide how many non-compete contracts an agent can pass to their writers–the people they should be working for–before it counts as “baggage.” For me, one is too many, and requires a damn good excuse. YMMV.

    3) As a writer, find out how many rights you get to keep if you have this or any other agent. Is the average client allowed to hold on to ebook rights, movie rights, audio rights, foreign rights, and so on? Or does it all go to the publisher? And for how long?

    Since I keep harping on it, perhaps Ms. Volpe could just go ahead and post the average contract she negotiates, as an example of how an agent will actually earn that 15% of our income. Perhaps it can be a template for what to look for in a good agent-negotiated contract.

    4) How many clients have fired the agent? What were their reasons?

    5) What about the agent’s financials? Have they had a bankruptcy in their past, personal or otherwise? Bad credit? The default will be split payments–the publisher pays your royalties directly to you, and the agent’s cut directly to the agent–right? Don’t sign any contract that says otherwise.

    6) If the agent pulls a Ralph Vicinanza and dies, will your contract be in the hands of his sister and assorted relatives who know nothing about the business and have never worked as agents? Will his heirs have the rights to your royalties and contracts? If your contract says all deals with your publisher have to go through the agency, good luck getting your publisher to breach that.

    What, precisely, will the agent do to earn that 15% of your income? For example, having a writer with a ready-platform (50k in sales) seems to require too much heavy lifting, so I guess marketing and promoting is right out. But for 15% of your income, forever, it’s not too much to ask for expertise in contract negotiation, right?

    Good hunting!

    • Susan Dennard Dec 11 2013 at 4:29 pm #

      You make some really great points here, and I think all writers should have a series of hard-hitting questions prepped for that moment when they receive “the call”. I know I asked each agent I spoke to a TON of questions, and I read my contract carefully before signing.

      When you ask for an example contract, do you mean what an agent negotiates with a publishing house? Every house has a different boiler plate with different rules–of which some such rules are totally non-negotiable. I doubt Joanna can share an example here, in other words. Also, because every house is different, royalty rates are not standard across clients…

      Also, selling 50K a month via self-pub (or traditional pub) is pretty much impossible. As pointed out here (http://www.forbes.com/sites/jeremygreenfield/2013/12/09/how-much-money-do-self-published-authors-make/?utm_source=Publishers+Weekly&utm_campaign=2ab2b64e1f-UA-15906914-1&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_0bb2959cbb-2ab2b64e1f-304831929), nearly 20% of self-pubbed authors derive no income from their books. I think Joanna’s example with regards to the self-publishing was to point out that traditional publishers aren’t impressed by an author with a history in the self-pubbed world UNLESS that author has outrageously high (and I mean HUGE, as in 50K in a month) sales.

      Also also, a contract has nothing to do with how much money the author makes. It lays out the author’s advance, certainly (which is something one does not get with self-publication), but it doesn’t dictate sales or success. In other words, seeing an agents “average” contract wouldn’t really tell a potential new client anything useful at all with regards to income.

      But maybe I’m misunderstanding the gist of your comments…?

      • Susan Dennard Dec 11 2013 at 4:32 pm #

        One more thing I should point out–an author’s retention of rights are also not “average” across an agent’s clients. Each client will have different rights retained/sold, and it will vary according to publisher, deal negotiation, book/genre, editor, etc. The rights that I have kept/sold will likely be very different from another client who sold to a different house.

        Just FYI.

      • Libbie Hawker Dec 11 2013 at 4:35 pm #

        Actually, royalty rates are pretty much standard everywhere now, because many publishers’ contracts with their biggest authors now state that any royalty rate that is offered to any other writer must also be extended to them, and retroactively on all their past sales. So if Mr. Bestseller gets 15% royalties in his contract, but Miss Newauthor comes along and manages to somehow get 20%, even if she’s not expected to sell as many copies as Mr. Bestseller, Mr. Bestseller’s publisher is contractually obligated to pay him the balance so that he is now making 20%, and made 20% on all past sales.

        Therefore, no author anywhere, ever, will earn a higher royalty than the top-paid author at any given publishing house.

        This is common among all publishers now — or that’s my understanding, at least, after having discussed it with many different authors and some former agents, too.

        • Susan Dennard Dec 11 2013 at 4:59 pm #

          Well, from personal experience, I can say that royalty rates definitely differ. What you’re talking about–called “favored nation” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Most_favoured_nation#In_contract_law)–only happens to a few contracts from what I’ve seen…

          • Libbie Hawker Dec 11 2013 at 5:05 pm #

            True, it only happens to a few contracts…but the net effect is that it caps the royalty rates for ALL contracts at that publishing house. Certainly a contract could be for less than the industry average. I suppose a publisher could always offer a lower royalty. Nobody with a favored nation clause in their contract is going to give a rip about the authors who are making significantly less than they. It does raise the question, though: why would an author accept a lower-than-average royalty? And why work with an agent in order to get one? I can think of a few scenarios where there might be a fantastic trade-off: lower royalty for some other significant perk. But I’ve never seen such a scenario actually play out in the publishing industry.

        • JoSVolpe Dec 11 2013 at 7:26 pm #

          Hi Libbie,

          What Susan said about “Most Favored Nations” is correct. Also, what the top royalties are (15%), are NOT what the average royalties are. Authors have to work their way up to that top royalty, and many don’t get to that level. Not only that, but I’m sure only very few authors (if any) are offered a Most Favored Nations clause in their contract.

          Outside of royalties, however, we negotiate a number of terms for our clients in contracts, e.g. approvals and consultations, subrights splits, accounting points, bonuses, etc.

          But I should also mention that selling the book and negotiating the contract is only a small portion of my job (albeit, an important one!). After the contract is done, that’s when the real long-term work begins. At that point my focus turns to keeping an eye on the production schedule and whatnot (editing, design, etc), marketing and publicity, sales info, will they be doing a paperback and when?, reviews, subrights (foreign, film, audio, etc), and on. All the while I’m working developmentally/editorially with the client on their next project. The work never ends! But I also love it, so it only feels like work half the time.

          Hope that helps to clarify.


          • Libbie Hawker Dec 13 2013 at 11:29 am #

            Yes, I know. I was using those numbers only to illustrate to other readers how favored nations clauses work, not to indicate that such a high royalty would be the norm for any given author. I still find them distasteful, as they set a limit on what kind of royalties all authors at a publishing house may “work their way up to.” I don’t think it’s ethical to limit every other author’s potential income just because some other author wants a little head-patting.

            I’m also very much aware of what agents’ roles are. I worked with two in the past, and while both of them also were quick to talk about all the ways they work very hard for all of their clients on their blogs and other social media, and when they were courting my signature on their contract, the reality of being a new author in an agent’s stable was a far cry from the façade they presented to me before I signed.

            There are situations where I can see how it would be useful to work with an agent, but right now, in 2013, it sure looks to me like any new, unknown author with a good book can make a heck of a lot more money on her own, at least in the early stages of her career. Once she’s established herself with readers, then it might be time to see what an agent can do for her, if she still wants to pursue that route (and there are rights that can be very lucrative which are still best obtained via agents.)

            What I never see agents admitting to is the following things, which are very, very true about publishing, but which nobody wants new authors to realize:
            -Whether your book will be promoted by a publisher AT ALL depends much more on the advance you’re given than on any other factor, including how much your editor loves the book. Not all editors have the pull they would like to have with the guys in charge, so just loving a book often isn’t enough to get it a piece of the promotion pie.
            -The chances that a book by a new author will receive a large advance are tiny.
            -Without a large advance, the chances that your book will be considered for all those other things you talk about — the film rights, wide foreign rights, etc. — are tiny.
            -Agents have many clients, and their time is most efficiently spent working on selling the known quantities on their client list, not selling the unknown quantities. So a good many new authors who haven’t yet proven that readers want to buy their books find themselves being treated like afterthoughts by their agents. An agent doesn’t rely on one new author to make her money — she has lots of clients and she will distribute her work hours in the way that will earn her the most money. But that new author does have only one manuscript (so early in his career) from which he’s hoping to earn something. The balance of power is not in any new author’s favor.
            -Things like favored nations clauses do exist, so there is a limit on how much money you can make working with a publisher. (That’s not to say you never should work with a publisher — there are still some benefits to it.)
            -While I realize you pulled the figure of 50,000 units sold per month out of your hat to illustrate a point, just like I pulled the 15%/20% royalties out of my hat, how many books picked up by a traditional publisher sell anywhere close to so well? The reality is that as a self-published author, one of my books has already sold three times the average print run for my genre. Any publisher would love a book that performs at triple the average for its type, and yet because it’s not selling at *twenty* times the average for its type as an indie book, it’s “not good enough” to be considered by the almighty gods of publishing. Once the scales fall off new authors’ eyes and they see how ridiculous and arbitrary publishers’ expectations for new authors are, it looks less tempting to work with them early in one’s career.

            So, since it’s likeliest that a good book from a new, unknown author will get a tiny advance (if any), a tiny print run, pathetic distribution, zero promotion, and little interest in foreign rights, film rights, or other rights, why should such an author query an agent at all in 2013 or 2014? What ACTUAL advantage is there to working with an agent, for a new, unpublished author? Why is it smarter for a new author to look for an agent in the current, right-now publishing environment, rather than doing it herself first, and looking for an agent to sell those additional rights *after* she’s established herself? I’d love to see a blog post on that. If it can be done without the condescending tone of “Guys. GUYS.” and “the expectations are not good,” that would be extra-fantastic. I can’t tell you how hard it makes me roll my eyes to think that agents are still making such comments about indie authors.

            Back when I was looking for an agent, I was suckered in by the echo-chamber of praise and hugs that exists on agents’ blogs and other social media. I thought I could believe the shiny exterior agents put on the prospects for me, an as-yet-unknown author just entering the publishing world. Reality was a sharp slap in the face. It would be spectacular to see agents acknowledge the true odds, the true realities, and the true prospects, statistically, for new authors who choose to work with an agent — not the “Well, in a perfect world…” or “Well, we always hope for the best…” — that coating of sugar so thick that new authors with stars in their eyes can’t see what’s really at the core.

            Well, I think this conversation has run its course for me, and I’ve made all the points I wanted to make. So I’m peacing out of it for good. Have a good Friday the 13th, everybody!

      • Marc Cabot Dec 12 2013 at 9:58 am #

        A point of order: Everything’s negotiable. Literally everything.

        I have represented kitchen-table inventors doing license deals with multibillion dollar corporations, and once they understood that yes, the inventor was represented by competent counsel, they negotiated in good faith. Now, perhaps there are publishing houses that don’t negotiate in good faith. If that’s the case, then no, you can’t negotiate with them – but, if that’s the case, you shouldn’t negotiate with them. Or do business with them at all. Because an entity which will not negotiate in good faith will not perform in good faith. They will have to be watched like a three-year-old in a kitchen full of cookies, and dragged kicking and screaming to meet every single obligation. Never seen an exception in two decades in the licensing biz.

        • Libbie Hawker Dec 13 2013 at 11:31 am #

          I believe the recent DOJ lawsuit proved whether the big publishers negotiate in good faith.

  21. Pamela DuMond Dec 11 2013 at 5:29 pm #


    Thanks for the insightful blog post.

    (And thanks to your readers for the wide variety of comments!)

    Back in the dark ages of publishing in 2010 my agency fired my agent, as well as all her clients who hadn’t sold yet. I was one of those writers. Devastated and agent-less, I signed a 2 year contract with a small press for my first novel. That book has sold about 25,000 copies and launched a book series. Not huge numbers, but not tiny either.

    I quickly learned that my publisher had no distribution, no money for marketing, wasn’t all that keen on editing and didn’t know how to properly format an e-book. The marketing was all on my shoulders. My shoulders became awfully weary over those two years. At the end of my contract I decided to leave that press and self-pub. (Btw, that first novel recently became the #1 selling Culinary Mystery on Amazon. I think it was for like a day, but hey – I’ll take it!)

    I hired an e-book format company that knew what they were doing. I learned the hard way that a content editor doesn’t necessarily copyedit. (I now have both.) I lucked out and found a great book cover designer at an incredibly reasonable cost.

    Some of my self-published books have done well, others not so well in terms of sales. My YA novel did attract an Entertainment Manager, a show runner (yes, both are legit) and we are developing that book for a TV series pitch. My first book is also being considered as a series by a ‘family-friendly’ TV network. (Who knows what will happen? ‘Hollywood’ is a crazy business.) Finding a reputable entertainment manager is probably not the norm for a self-pubbed author. I live in L.A. I have connections in the entertainment industry. I lucked out.

    That said, I still want a lit agent who is flexible and hardworking for future projects. I was advised not to query a New Leaf Literary agent until I have a new project completed. I’m looking forward to sending you something in early 2014.


    • JoSVolpe Dec 11 2013 at 7:14 pm #

      Hi Pamela,

      I’ve heard similar stories to this one before, and kudos to you for your hard work paying off! 25,000 copies is a great number to launch a series, and landing an entertainment manager is impressive. Thank you for sharing further insight for the people who read this blog. It’s so helpful!

      I look forward to hearing from you in the new year.


  22. Yeah right Dec 11 2013 at 6:03 pm #

    Yeah, so in other words you want the writer to do all the work FIRST, so you can profit from their hard work.

    Yeah. Kudos to you, Agent! ::sarcasm::

    Seriously? Give me a break. Thankfully most writers aren’t that stupid – or sheeple.

    • JoSVolpe Dec 11 2013 at 7:11 pm #

      I’m sorry, I think you misread my post. This post is based on queries I’ve been receiving where authors are seeking an agent after not having success on the self-pub side of things. So this post really only applies to authors who are actively seeking an agent as a decision they made on their own to do. I’m certainly not asking authors to accomplish this THEN seek an agent. That wouldn’t be appropriate at all.

      • Commander of All Jan 3 2014 at 7:12 pm #

        At what point do you write off the prospective client with self-published titles? Hugh Howey had nine titles out before “Wool” made him a best-seller, and he’d been working hard at self-promotion for years. No one builds a huge fan-base overnight. An indie author does all the work alone, so gaining 50,000 fans will take years rather than months. It’s a slow and painful process. How do you know they’re not in the early stages of what will become phenomenal success?

        Every query letter from an unknown author is a gamble. I get that. But it seems that this attitude writes off a ton of novels for no good reason.

  23. Alexa Y. Dec 11 2013 at 6:46 pm #

    This post is very interesting! I like that you pointed out three situations that might make an agent wary or make it a little more difficult to find one. It’s great that you were able to explain each one in a very clear, objective manner, and I’m sure others like myself will find it very helpful!

    • JoSVolpe Dec 11 2013 at 7:11 pm #

      I’m glad it was helpful to you, Alexa!

  24. Tam Francis Dec 12 2013 at 10:01 am #

    This is wonderful dialogue and I’m sorry if Joanna might be feeling attacked (I would be feeling that way). Please know I am personally grateful for you sharing your knowledge and experience.

    So many different opinions it is hard to know what path to take. BTW, is New Leaf Lit site down? I notice activity on your Tumblr page, but I’ve tried several days in a row to visit New Leaf Lit and it seems to be down? Just thought you should know.

    PS. LOVE your “Ask an Agent” on Tumblr. Wonderful and generous!

    • JoSVolpe Dec 13 2013 at 5:53 pm #

      Hi Tam,

      I don’t think the site is down? I checked on a few different computers and my phone and it’s working. Did you refresh? Or clear your browser and try? So sorry for the inconvenience!


      • Tam Francis Dec 13 2013 at 6:25 pm #

        Maybe it’s our connection. I checked on a my lap top and desk top computers and no luck. Weird…. Thanks though 🙂

  25. Jenna Dec 12 2013 at 10:02 am #

    Thanks for the great post! I do have a question that’s related to this topic and I’ve always wanted to ask an agent’s opinion…I had a manuscript that was optioned by a producer a couple of years ago. During the two year deal, I had a couple of publishers take a peek at it, as well as an agent at Writers House give input and consider to share representation. But, in a nutshell, things fell through and my option contract ended with no publishing deal/movie. I decided to put the manuscript on the shelf for about a year. Now, I’m rewriting it and am planning to send query letters by next summer. So, my question: Should I mention any of this past history to an agent in that query letter? Or is it old news that can be mentioned once an agent shows interest? Thanks!

    • JoSVolpe Dec 13 2013 at 5:54 pm #

      Hi Jenna,

      I wouldn’t mention any of this in the actual query letter–if it gets to a point where an agent has read the manuscript and loves it and wants to talk to you, that’s when you should fill them in on the backstory.


      • Jenna Dec 14 2013 at 9:18 am #

        I feel much better knowing that. Thank you so much!

  26. @cheesythedog Dec 14 2013 at 4:54 am #

    Thanks this has been really useful, not just for your advise but others comments. Being a novice on the process, but being very commercially aware, the whole section has been an eye opener.
    In our situation we went with a blend approach, to use self publish but as a marketing vehicle to help us have the conversations with Agents and Publishers.

    Our books, which are a series of children’s illustrated books, you would of thought have a lot of potential but as to date not a nibble from any Agents or Publishing companies.

    I spent over a year, creating a fully innovative Apple iBook for the series, mainly to show off the potential of the character in differ media, but we have had less than 30 downloads. Another year on… We still trying to get a toe in the door, the main disappointing thing from my view is that you don’t get any constructive or even blunt feedback, just “it’s not for us”.

    But again thanks to everyone as it’s all been very good reading and informative.

    • Tam Francis Dec 14 2013 at 10:28 am #

      Don’t give up on querying. How many agents did you query? Most do not offer a lot of helpful criticism, but I had quite a few who offered wonderful generous feedback which helped me go back and re-edit. Also, sometimes you have to read between the lines. For example, early in my query process (and honestly, I should not have been querying yet, my ms was not as good as it could have been and is now) I got a rejection and the agent asked it I was planning on making it into two novel. I was not. What this told me was my word count was too long. I took it to heart and edited out 20K. Wow! Tighter, better. After that I got a lot more requests for ms. I have found the query process amazing and insightful. Even if I decide to self-publish it has been in invaluable journey that I recommend to ANY new author!

  27. Liana Dec 17 2013 at 2:43 pm #

    While I can understand feeling some attacked, the attack was on the figure: 50k units. At roughly $2 average royalty, why would someone making 100k monthly OR yearly want an agent? This is an unrealistic figure. Most writers selling that well will be unimpressed with the amount of value an agent can’t add to that.

  28. Kathleen S. Allen (@ Dec 28 2013 at 2:39 pm #

    I have self-published and published with small presses. And yes, I want an agent. Initially I self-published because I went with a vanity publisher and bought my rights back (they weren’t supposed to be a vanity publisher) and put up my books myself. I’ve self-published books that aren’t “hot” right now like my recent dystopian, THE VIDDEN with zombies and a short story collection, along with novellas. I feel like an agent would help me in my career and get me to the next level so I keep querying. I’ve gone with small presses and although I had great experiences, their budgets didn’t allow for promotion. Each new manuscript I write I hope will catch the eye of an agent so I keep going. I see that my previous publications might be hindering me but I hope not. In any case, I’ll keep writing.

    • Commander of All Jan 3 2014 at 7:04 pm #

      Once this attitude among agents becomes widely known, I suspect more authors will omit self-publication from their query letters. After all, you can withdraw your own novels from the marketplace.

      Personally, I think it’s ridiculous that agents are so dismissive of self-published novels. Gaining a gigantic fan-base takes years of effort. It doesn’t happen overnight, and anyone with half a brain cell should realize that fact.

  29. dreamer Dec 29 2013 at 12:47 pm #

    I’m sorry but I find the 50.000 number to be hugely exagerated. Based on the experience of a lot of self-pubbed friends who got book deals (in the romance genre), that number is simply not true. Something like 15.000 copies in a span of 6 weeks is enough.

    50.000 copies in six weeks would mean that author has to be in the top 10 on amazon that entire time. I know a lot of authors who never reached anything better than top 100 on amazon (maybe top 50 for a few days) who did get book deals. VERY GOOD book deals.

  30. Commander of All Jan 3 2014 at 6:58 pm #

    This attitude makes me sad. Building a huge fan-base takes time, even if the author is top-notch and pumps out three books per year. Building up steam takes years. An indie author must do all the marketing alone, which makes it that much harder. A debut indie author cannot sell 50,000 copies in one month, unless s/he’s a celebrity. They’d have to be working hardcore for years in order to even have a shot of getting to that level.

    So it seems literary agents are writing off a segment of the writing population for no good reason.

  31. Amanda Jan 29 2014 at 7:53 am #

    Great Post.

    I have had one agent in the past and am about to query new agents. I was not planning on mentioning the previous agent in my query letter. Of course, I will address it if we get past the query letter and start talking and seeing if there’s a real interest, but are you saying I need to say it upfront in the query?

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.