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Say, you’ve signed with a literary agent. Congratulations! You are now in the hands of someone who wines and dines the very people who might buy your book. Some agents will send you a contract right away and some will never send a contract. Neither of these choices matters much at all because now is the time for the two of you to get your book ready to send out on submission.

I know, you thought you were done, but in all likelihood, there will be more edits–this time with someone who loves your work and knows the market. Don’t hurry this process. Do the hard work and get your manuscript right.

Once it’s ready, your agent will write a pitch letter.

This is where she says how much she loved your book or your narrator, a brief description of what it’s about, and any interesting biographical information about you–publications, writing awards and whatever makes you either stand out or look marketable. Do you have a blog? How many unique visitors do you have a month? Do you participate in any online communities? Do you have a job or hobbies that are related to the content of your book–do you read for the blind, counsel prisoners, run a farm?

This pitch letter will show off your personality, the essence of the book, and your agent’s enthusiasm. It then goes out to the editors your agent thinks will be a good match for your work. Sometimes your agent will take these editors out to lunch and do a pitch in person.

Let’s say the pitch works and editors begin asking for your manuscript. Many will only read partials (the first 50 pages) but some will read the entire book. Most will reject it. That’s just the nature of the business and the market. Every famous author you love has gone through this. The most profitable, beloved books you can think of were once rejected, and you will be forever bonded to other writers because of this awful thing you all have in common.

What’s really lovely about an agent is that, unlike when you submit your own stories to literary magazines, you don’t actually have to see these rejection letters. Tell your agent what works best for you. Some like to know every place the manuscript is being submitted and they like to see every rejection that comes in. Some prefer a gentle summary of the rejections. I’m one of those people who is totally debilitated by this kind of information and prefer to stay in the dark. Whatever your method, I strongly suggest that you use this time to work on the next book.

So what happens next?

One awesome thing that could happen, though it’s rare, is that your book could go to auction, meaning publishers are frantically bidding on it and the offer you and your agent like best wins.

More likely, you’ll wait anywhere from 3 weeks to a year and a half before an offer comes in.

Sadly, what happens to many books is they are what’s called “shopped-out.” The agent has submitted the manuscript everywhere she knows and there may be several close calls but no bites. If this is the case, your agent is going to tell you to move on to the next book. Do that. There are many, many instances of shopped-out books finding homes in the end, so don’t despair, but do move on to the next book and try to sell that one first. It’s the best use of your time. And work (at least for me) is the best balm for a wounded ego.

But let’s assume you’re one of those lucky writers who gets an offer. In all likelihood, your offer will be lower than you ever dreamed. For first-time authors, an advance will probably be in the $5,000 – $40,000 range (and tending toward the lower end). And you’ll say yes to this low figure because to not publish at all feels unbearable. In most cases, you’ll get the first half of that advance upon signing the contract. The second half they hold until your final edits are in. Sometimes, publishers divide the advance into three or four payments, just to hold on to your money as long as possible. There are many things that will happen along the way that feel as if someone is deliberately torturing you, and the great thing about an agent is you can express any frustration you have without damaging your relationship with your editor.

And so that’s really it in a nutshell. In my next post, I’ll talk about what happens between you and the editor as your book moves forward toward publication. As always, if you have anything to add or if you want to correct anything I’ve said, jump in!

SUSAN HENDERSON is the author of UP FROM THE BLUE (HarperCollins, 2010) and founder of the blog, LitPark, a literary playground for writers.

15 responses to “LitPark’s Guide to What Happens After You Sign with an Agent”

  1. Joe Daly says:

    This is fantastically informative and helpful. Lots of us are just at the beginning of this process, and having properly-managed expectations will allow us to spend more mental capital on writing and less on stressing out over the unknown.

    Please keep these pieces coming!

    • Susan Henderson says:

      I’m so glad to hear this, Joe. And much luck to you as you send out your work!

    • Gloria says:

      Yes, this is all very illuminating. My hopes of getting rich off this stuff were dashed long ago, when my friends started getting published – and never actually quit that day job. But I was published in a local literary journal a couple of years ago and there was no money involved, but it still felt great. So, at least I have an experience of knowing the satisfaction of being published, even when big bucks aren’t involved. Nonetheless, I continue to dream big. Because I would love to quit that day job.

  2. Billy Bones says:

    The man who types up my stories once gave a talk about his time as an almost author (the stretch between signing and being published). It touched on many of the things you’ve mentioned here (not as eloquently, though). It’s an eyeopening time indeed!

  3. dwoz says:

    Dear Susan,

    I’m 60k words in on my novel. It will probably run out of steam at near double that, so I’m basically halfway.

    Can I expect the advance to arrive by courier within the next few days, or do I need to send them my address? Hasn’t printing press time already been booked?

    seriously though, I do have a question. It involves the fact that the world, oddly enough, is round, and there’s land masses on the other side of those big water places. Is the scope of the agent international, or is it a valid idea to engage a USA agent, and also an EU agent? Or is that dirty pool/double dipping? How does the international aspect of the agency relationship work?

    Secondly, with regard to advances. In the music business, we see a big advance and think, “good on ya, good luck ever recouping” When a publisher offers you a $5000 advance, what’s his marketing target, in terms of total sales? Alternatively, is a bigger advance a better sign that they’ll devote more promotion, against the fear that the book will die out on the shelves before it recoups?

    • Art Edwards says:

      Dwoz,

      I had the same question about recoupment for the publishing v. the music biz, and I’ve heard that you’re much more likely to recoup in the publishing biz. The record business (is there such a thing anymore?) is notorious for never paying royalties, which is why the advances are so high. I’ve even heard that there are publishing companies that take pride in paying their authors…I know, I know, I’ll believe it when I see it, but I do have hope.

      • dwoz says:

        One of the real reasons for huge frontside advances, in contrast to smaller front money and larger back-side royalty payments, is simple, obvious and devilishly insidious.

        Basically, most management contracts for musicians have the manager/lawyers taking a percentage cut of the advance, but NOT PARTICIPATING in the back end publishing royalties.

        Therefore, it is in the AGENT and MANAGER’S best interest to neg. a huge front-end. They take their payday out of the front, and leave the artist with less at the back.

        I have no idea if this is the same situation in books publishing.

      • LitPark says:

        I’d like to know the answer to these questions, too. I have heard that a bigger advance can signal that they’re planning to take your book more seriously, but there are also publishing houses (Macadam Cage comes to mine) that strategically give lower advances because they’ve set bigger chunks aside for marketing. If someone knows the answers or even the rumors about all of this, I hope they’ll speak up.

        What I can say is that the most important piece I’ve noticed in the process is enthusiasm. If, once your book is bought, or more importantly, once you’ve turned in your final edits, the editors and publicists and foreign rights department and marketing team are all giddy and talking about your book, that will mean as much or more than any money that’s changed hands.

  4. It’s agent week on TNB! Timely post! (And very informative.)

  5. LitPark says:

    It’s been a very packed weekend at the Henderson’s, and I’ll catch up with responses here on Monday… thanks for all the comments so far!

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