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View Full Version : talked to an agent on the phone today, no clue what to do, please advise!



flowerburgers
05-24-2019, 01:40 AM
Okay...let me try to make this story short...I write literary fiction and sent my first novel manuscript to an agent whom I've been corresponding with for three years. I don't know much about publishing in general and have barely queried for this book; she reached out to me when she read one of my stories in a journal. I'm not super knowledgable, but I think she has a good track record as an agent--she's placed five literary debut novels with imprints of major publishers, as well as several nonfiction books--and I've really appreciated her ongoing interest in my work.

Anyway. We talked on the phone today about my book, which she loved, but she doesn't think she can place it with a major publisher. She said she'd be willing to try small presses but doesn't think it's in my best interest. Her suggestion is that I write a new book with marketability more in mind. She said that she'd consult with me as I write it and that she might be able to publish my first book later. So basically I have three options. Ask her to try small presses, sign up to write a new book with her, or try different agents. She also said that we could sign paperwork, so I guess this was sort of an offer of representation? I'm honestly really confused!

So, here's my main question: will it be bad for my career if I publish my debut novel with a small press? If I publish with small presses, will I ultimately have more freedom to write what I want, and what will I be sacrificing? I worry that my work will never truly be marketable unless I force it to be--I'm really pulled to the short form, and I call my first book a novel, but I think it's really a short story cycle. The agent didn't seem confident that she could sell it to a major publisher even as a second novel, and I don't want it to go nowhere, because I think it's a really good book!

I've barely researched other agents, but I feel like they're probably all going to say what she said, because I've been told a thousand times that it's impossible to sell short stories, even linked short stories masquerading as a novel. I pitched a new idea today that I think might be more marketable, and I think it's cool that the agent is willing to support me with it, but it's kind of deflating in general? I spent four years writing this book, I don't want to wait another four years! And I wonder if I'd rather get more experimental than more marketable because maybe that's what's actually interesting to me.

lizmonster
05-24-2019, 02:06 AM
I have a different question: is she officially repping you?

flowerburgers
05-24-2019, 02:12 AM
No, she's not, but I think she offered to? She said we could sign paperwork, whatever that means. I don't totally understand what happened in our conversation.

mccardey
05-24-2019, 02:18 AM
No, she's not, but I think she offered to? She said we could sign paperwork, whatever that means. I don't totally understand what happened in our conversation.
That sounds very much like an offer. If you're unsure, you could call and ask her - she'll be well aware that all her new people are likely to be too flustered to take everything in at once.

Assuming your research on her is accurate, she sounds like a very thoughtful, honest and in-it-for-the-long-term kind of agent, just saying. But don't think you have to make a decision right this very instant.

flowerburgers
05-24-2019, 02:24 AM
mccardey yeah I have gotten really good vibes from her and feel like she truly appreciates my work! My main question is whether I should ask her to try small presses with my first novel or write a new novel with her help and aim for a major publisher. I'm just worried that this first novel is never going to see the light of day :(

lizmonster
05-24-2019, 02:37 AM
mccardey yeah I have gotten really good vibes from her and feel like she truly appreciates my work! My main question is whether I should ask her to try small presses with my first novel or write a new novel with her help and aim for a major publisher. I'm just worried that this first novel is never going to see the light of day :(

First: assuming you like her and trust her, get the papers, read them (and ask questions) until you understand them, and if you're happy with the terms, sign them. Good contracts protect everybody and improve business relationships.

As for your other question - not all small presses are alike. Some are going to be able to do good marketing and distribution for you; some are a worse option than self-publishing. I'd suggest you gather some information on reputable small presses that publish your sort of fiction, and do your research. Decide once you've got a few good, stable presses on your list.

At the same time? Yeah, write the next book. More mainstream or not - write the next book. If it's a career you want rather than just the one book on the shelf, you're always going to be writing the next book, so you might as well start now. :)

mccardey
05-24-2019, 02:42 AM
mccardey yeah I have gotten really good vibes from her and feel like she truly appreciates my work! My main question is whether I should ask her to try small presses with my first novel or write a new novel with her help and aim for a major publisher. I'm just worried that this first novel is never going to see the light of day :(I'd be inclined to put that aside for the present. Your job is to write the books and hers is to sell them. She's clearly enthused by your work, and that book is safely written now. In a few years it won't matter if it came out in 2021 or 2024, and you'll be further along in your career which will be helpful all-round.

(To be clear, this is me saying how I'd think about it, not The Thing You Should Do.) If your research on this agent stands up, and you want to go with her, and she is interested in seeing your work develop - which she clearly is - then I'd talk perhaps a little bit more about small presses with her, but ultimately be guided by her thoughts on it. Not from a desire to please her, but because this is her job - this is what she brings to the table.

Do start as you mean to go on, though. Now is the perfect time to set a dynamic where, if you've listened and thought and find that you're still uncertain what's been said, you call back to clarify. Setting that expectation early will help you so much further on and save you years of feeling awkward about bothering her. There's very little to be gained by being The Apologetic Writer ;)

cool pop
05-24-2019, 05:43 AM
Okay...let me try to make this story short...I write literary fiction and sent my first novel manuscript to an agent whom I've been corresponding with for three years. I don't know much about publishing in general and have barely queried for this book; she reached out to me when she read one of my stories in a journal. I'm not super knowledgable, but I think she has a good track record as an agent--she's placed five literary debut novels with imprints of major publishers, as well as several nonfiction books--and I've really appreciated her ongoing interest in my work.

Anyway. We talked on the phone today about my book, which she loved, but she doesn't think she can place it with a major publisher. She said she'd be willing to try small presses but doesn't think it's in my best interest. Her suggestion is that I write a new book with marketability more in mind. She said that she'd consult with me as I write it and that she might be able to publish my first book later. So basically I have three options. Ask her to try small presses, sign up to write a new book with her, or try different agents. She also said that we could sign paperwork, so I guess this was sort of an offer of representation? I'm honestly really confused!

So, here's my main question: will it be bad for my career if I publish my debut novel with a small press? If I publish with small presses, will I ultimately have more freedom to write what I want, and what will I be sacrificing? I worry that my work will never truly be marketable unless I force it to be--I'm really pulled to the short form, and I call my first book a novel, but I think it's really a short story cycle. The agent didn't seem confident that she could sell it to a major publisher even as a second novel, and I don't want it to go nowhere, because I think it's a really good book!

I've barely researched other agents, but I feel like they're probably all going to say what she said, because I've been told a thousand times that it's impossible to sell short stories, even linked short stories masquerading as a novel. I pitched a new idea today that I think might be more marketable, and I think it's cool that the agent is willing to support me with it, but it's kind of deflating in general? I spent four years writing this book, I don't want to wait another four years! And I wonder if I'd rather get more experimental than more marketable because maybe that's what's actually interesting to me.

First, congrats on the positive experience you got from the agent. Man, this is a toughie. I mean on one hand she likes your writing but wants you to write something more commercial. Are you comfortable with that or will you feel like you are selling out? If you don't feel like writing something else is "you" then I would try for more agents. You want someone who wants YOUR work and who understands the type of books YOU write.

On the other hand, I understand the agent's take. Sorry to say this but it is very difficult to sell literary fiction these days. Yes, most pubs want genre fiction because it's easier to sell and has a much larger audience. I'm not surprised the agent said it would be hard to place because it's always been difficult to place literary fiction. Doesn't mean you shouldn't write it, but you will run into more of this. You will have to decide what you want to do. Do you want to sell books with a publisher? Then, you will probably have to write something more commercial to give yourself the best shot.

Also, short stories are hard to sell in TRADE publishing. Self-publishers write short stories all the time. No, they don't often sell as much as novellas and novels but there is a place for short stories in self-publishing. The thing is most pubs won't put their time and effort into shorts because the return is not there. You'll find better success with shorts putting them out yourself if that's what you are interested in. If I were you, I'd continue writing the literary fiction and self-publish it and submit to big houses and agents (if that's what you still want to do) for commercial projects.

But long gone are the days when a writer has to put away something because a pub doesn't want it. You have always have options to get your work out there.

Me, I wouldn't go with a small press unless I knew they could do something I could not do myself. Many of them will not help grow your career to a level you might want and are closing at every turn. This is probably why the agent says it isn't in your best interest. She knows most small presses will not do anything to further your career. You're better off self-publishing than signing with a press that can't do anything for you.

Asking if you can write whatever you want is different than asking if anyone will publish it. You can always write what you want but unless you are self-publishing, you're always going to have to sacrifice to appease the publisher, agent because they are the ones in charge and you will have to write things they want to sell.

If you believe in your literary book that much and feel you can't get any takers because it's not marketable then try putting it out yourself. Self-publishing has been a great option for those who write things that don't fit a certain box or is seen as "unmarketable" by a publisher. Just because a pub doesn't find it marketable for them doesn't mean it doesn't have an audience.

Good luck!

ap123
05-24-2019, 01:22 PM
First of all, congratulations--yes, this sounds like an offer!

*mountain of salt here, I don't have personal experience, and even if I did, everybody is different.

Take a bit to think about the conversation you had with her, and write your questions down. I know you believe in the mss you've got, and it sounds like she does too, but she's looking at it from the business end, which is what we hope for. I wonder about the possibility of a larger house being willing to look at/publish this current mss as a second book if this yet-to-be mss sells, and sells well.



Is your vision for the new mss in line with hers? If so, I'd lean towards starting the new one (which I assume you'd do anyway now that the one you've got is complete) along with asking her which small presses she thinks would look at this one.

Undercover
05-24-2019, 04:42 PM
Writing is so subjective and you'll even hear that a lot when querying. Another agent might feel differently and want to submit it to the big publishers. This is just one agent. Sounds like you haven't submitted to a lot of agents, so you don't really know at this point.

An agent telling you they think it's too hard a sell for the bigger publishers and is willing to submit to just the small publishers for and forget to even try the big ones and see is a bit of a red flag for me. It's like she's giving up on the idea that a big publisher will want it. Just because she's an agent, doesn't mean she's right. It's like she's limiting your career as a writer right off the bat. Honestly, this doesn't sound like a good deal to me. BUT, that's just my opinion.

flowerburgers
05-24-2019, 04:47 PM
Hey guys, thanks for this advice. I'm feeling way less deflated after going to bed at 7pm and sleeping off all my malaise and disappointment! I think I'm going to take her up on the offer to sign with her and write a new book under her mentorship. And I'll ask if she's willing to help me approach a few of the more prestigious small presses with the first book, but if she strongly feels that I should try to debut with a major publisher, I'll shelve the first book for a while and give this a go. I looked into the publication history of some of my favorite contemporary writers and noticed that one of them published her first novel with an imprint of Penguin, then a short story collection with a small press, and maybe attempting that same trajectory would be in my best interest? Seek out publicity with something a little more mainstream, then go to a small press with the less commercial stuff once I've attracted more interest in my work?

I'm going to think about it for a week, touch base with my professors, and get feedback on the new project from friends. This experience has been humbling! I've been so focused on developing my work that I never thought about commercial viability--I was discouraged from doing so in my MFA program, and I embraced that--but now I'm discovering that it's a pretty rough road for literary writers. We'll see what happens. I really appreciate your responses.

flowerburgers
05-24-2019, 05:11 PM
Wait, I have another question about small presses! I'm researching them and finding some that I feel would be good fits for my work--and I know you don't technically need an agent to pursue this route, but would it be helpful? Sarabande Books has published some collections that I love, but they're only open to submissions once a year through a contest. Melville House is not open to unsolicited submissions at all. Would an agent be able to approach those presses on my behalf?

waylander
05-24-2019, 07:19 PM
Having an agent approach a publisher on your behalf is always going to be better than approaching yourself (if the agent is prepared to do it, there may be little or nothing in it for her). There is an expectation that the work will be of a higher standard and teh agent may well be able to get you better terms than you could yoruself.