THE AGENT MAMBO

by Kelsey Roberts

Let me start out by saying that there is no ‘right agent,’ only an agent who is right for you. But there are wrong agents. I know this from trial and error and most of the errors are of my own making.
How about a little background for perspective? To date, I’ve had 51/2 agents (I’ll explain the 1/2 thing later) since 1990. However, only 5 of my 30 sales were agented. If there’s a mistake to be made, I’ve made it. Some of my mistakes were the result of not knowing what I was doing and couple were beyond my control.
MISTAKE NUMBER ONE: NOT KNOWING WHEN AND WHY YOU NEED OR WANT AN AGENT
As a result of a contest, I was asked to submit a manuscript to Harlequin Intrigue™. This was back in the dark ages, before the Internet, the ability to Google agents and the instant access to other writers via email. Back then, the best way to ‘research’ an agent was to ask around at meetings, conferences and/or the telephone. My mistake was blindly accepting the statement that “you need an agent.” This isn’t always true, especially if you’re targeting the series lines at Harlequin/Silhouette. The contract is fairly standard. Having said that, there are some really important questions you need to ask yourself before you decide to agent or not.

1. Does the publishing house or line you’re targeting accept unagented submissions? If the answer is no, you need an agent. If the answer is yes, you need to think some more before opting to go it alone.

2. Are you comfortable with the contract? Do you understand the terms? If not, do you have someone in your life who can explain them to you?

3. Are you comfortable calling, emailing or writing an editor? If not, you need an agent. Things happen – you hate the title, the cover, something. Or, you were shorted author copies or worse yet, your money is late. Are you comfortable calling the editor to negotiate these things? To make demands if necessary? If not, you need an agent. The worst possible scenario is when, for any number of reasons, you don’t gel with your assigned editor. It happens, so are you able to call her, her boss or whomever and ask for a change?

You are the only person who can answer these questions honestly.
MISTAKE NUMBER TWO: GRABBING THE FIRST AGENT WHO AGREES TO REPRESENT YOU
For most of us, having someone other than our mother/sister/best friend tell us our work is great is a heady moment. The temptation is huge to jump on the first agent who agrees to represent our manuscript. How do I know this? I did it. My first agent wanted my stuff. Unfortunately, law enforcement wanted her. Had I taken some time, I probably would have discovered that she was being investigated for embezzling royalties.

So, how do you find an agent? Research is the key here. But always remember that one person’s agent-from-hell is another person’s dream. Consult as many sources as possible and know what questions to ask.

My hands down favorite source is www.publishersmarketplace.com where, for a mere $20.00 per month, you can subscribe to their website. This is the place where you can read current sales. All sales are listed by genre/category, publishing house, and the agent’s name and contact information is listed. You can also refine your search by agent, author or editor. If you want to know who is buying Chick lit YA, you can find this information in a matter of seconds and it even includes a general idea of the advance paid.

But don’t stop there, put the word out. Making a sale isn’t the only consideration when deciding on an agent. How is the agent’s track record? Are they great at making first sales? Are they great at building careers? Your needs change as your career evolves so often, you have to change agents.

Define what you need and then find an agent with a strength in that area. This is where writer’s organizations are very, very helpful. Romance Writer of America keeps files on agents – check with them before you commit. Or, try the alphabetical listing from The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers at http://www.anotherealm.com/prededitors/pealb.htm for warnings. Talk to friends, get as much information as possible before you commit. What do you need to ask?

1. Initially, response time is crucial. Personally, I think any agent taking more than 6 weeks to read your query is sending up a red flag. Often, this is an indication of a client list that is so huge, you could easily fall through the cracks. Or, it could be an indication that you aren’t and never will be a priority. No, all authors aren’t created equal, I’m sure Nora Roberts gets phone calls returned a lot faster than Kelsey Roberts, but an agent with all NYT best-selling authors may not be the best choice to handle your first sale. Likewise, an agent who doesn’t have a single client who is making career strides isn’t a wise choice either.

2. Familiarize yourself with the agent’s business practices. Ask what they charge in fees in addition to their commission. Ask what they do in addition to making the sale – do you want an agent who gives you editorial input or not?

3. NEVER, EVER, EVER query only one agent. Writing is creative but publishing is a business. In essence, you’re interviewing a person to hire who will be your advocate in the publishing world. You want someone who is as excited about your work as you are. You don’t have to love them but they have to love you.
MISTAKE NUMBER THREE: NOT DEFINING THE RELATIONSHIP
Ah, my area of expertise. Okay, aside from the felon, my next agent choice was someone with a great reputation, a huge client list and – you guessed it – no time for me. In fact, she was so busy that she neglected to send a requested manuscript to my editor for more than a year. Agent number three was another poor choice, a desperation move because I was still convinced that I had to have an agent. By far, this was the worst experience of my career because I didn’t have a plan.

The author-agent relationship is a business relationship. Know and negotiate the terms of the relationship from the start. Most agents do not offer a contract. So, you need to discuss the things that matter to you right up front.

1. Have a clearly defined exit strategy. Make sure you and your agent are one the same page. You need to know that if you want to leave, you must give ten days notice, thirty days, whatever. It’s best to get split payments up front, though many agents are resistant. There’s nothing worse than late payments and/or missing royalty statements that you have to track down.

2. Have a clearly defined communication strategy. Again, what do you need? I like to know what my agent is doing on my behalf. Where has my work been sent? Was it rejected? Why? So tell your agent what you need. For example, I asked one agent to communicate with me every two weeks regardless of the status of projects. A call or an email was fine, I just didn’t want to be sitting at my desk wondering what was happening.

3. Don’t be afraid to set parameters. From the outset, agree on things like an acceptable delay in returning phone calls. I think a 2 day lag time is reasonable, assuming your agent isn’t on vacation. Remember to apply some of the rules to yourself as well. Admit your weaknesses. Don’t tell your agent you can finish a book in two months if you can’t. Honesty and communication are the key to a good relationship.
MISTAKE NUMBER FOUR: NOT LISTENING TO YOUR INSTINCTS
Okay, this brings me to my 1/2 agent. In 2002, when I first thought about the possibility of switching genres, I met an agent at RWA Nationals. I really, really liked her. For good reason, she’s fun and energetic and I still like her very much. She’s not, however, a great agent.

Listening to her résumé, I heard that little warning bell. The one that rings to warn of impending danger. I foolishly ignored it. I should have been listening to the fact that she’d worked practically everywhere for practically everyone. Still suffering from agent-stupids, I sat in a hotel room and heard myself agreeing to consider letting her represent me. Now, luckily for me, she left the agency a few hours (okay, that may be an exaggeration) after the conference, so I never established a real relationship with her. Hence the 1/2 agent status.

So, when your little voice warns you off something, LISTEN. Whether it’s the decision to hire someone or the decision to fire someone. If your gut is telling you to head for the hills, I’d start packing. Yes, it is often easier to avoid the arduous chore of finding a new agent, but in the long run, you’ll be glad you made the change.
MISTAKE NUMBER FIVE: NOTHING LASTS FOREVER
Now, I did almost everything right when I selected my fourth agent. I did my homework, searched all the right places, got testimonials from other writers. I spoke to the agent via telephone, didn’t make an instant decision. In fact, my search was narrowed to two and my final decision was based pretty much on money. One agent wanted 15% of my Harlequin income, the other didn’t. Know which one I went with?

You guessed it – pennywise and pound foolish! Let’s be honest here. I’m a working writer. This is how I earn my living, so income is very, very important to me. So, when 4 weeks had gone by after the acceptance and delivery of my manuscript, I started emailing my agent to light a fire under the publisher.

As agreed, she got right back to me, explaining that she would send the money as soon as it arrived. She even told me the accounting guy had his eye out as well. We exchanged 4 more emails, and much to my delight, she was responding promptly to me.

By sheer accident, the editor emailed me with a question and as an absolute throwaway line in the email, I mentioned how much I enjoyed money and how much I would enjoy having mine. I didn’t really expect her to respond. This was the first time we’d worked together and we’re still in that honeymoon period.

It couldn’t have been five minutes later when I received an email, cc’ed to my agent, stating the money had been paid almost two months earlier. So, I sat there, waiting for my agent to call me. I knew exactly what had happened to my money. It had been sent to another author who happens to be a friend of mine as well as a client of one of the other agents at the same office.

For about an hour, steam swirled out of my ears. It was most annoyed that my agent didn’t contact me immediately. Mistakes happen, though anyone who makes mistakes with your money probably isn’t a great choice. After waiting four hours, still willing to accept an apology and end it there, I wrote my termination letter and ran it up to the Post Office before closing.

See, I’ve gotten better. This time it only took me an afternoon to make my move. There’s no award for staying with an agent forever. Nor is there one for having the most agents over the course of a career. There’s no way to no way to know if or how the author-agent relationship will work out. The best things to remember are to do your homework, define your own needs and goals, communicate effectively and often, recognize and accept when it’s time to make a change. A good agent will sell your book. A great agent will manage your career.

WHAT CAN A PUBLICIST DO FOR YOU?

by Kelsey Roberts

So you’ve written several books and you’re convinced that no one – aside from your mother – knows you exist in the vast world of publishing. Let’s face it, publishers – generally speaking – throw advertising dollars at an imprint, a line, and/or their stars. What do you do if you don’t write for an imprint that is so solid or so small that there is no money being spent by the house; or the line getting all the in-house advertising dollars happens in a month you don’t have a release; or if you aren’t yet one of the rising stars?

You spend smart money. Not just money. Smart money. But how, you ask, do you decide on what’s smart? Simple answer – cost-benefit ratio. Hard answer – knowing enough about publicity and promotion to understand where the cost-benefit ratio has the greatest potential for you.

Most of us don’t have that knowledge – why would we, we’re writers, not – for the most part – PR professionals. But all PR professionals are not crated equal. PR needs change as our careers evolve as well. Let’s start at the beginning.

If this is your first book and only contracted book, the temptation is huge to do print ads in romance magazines, print a zillion 4 color bleed bookmarks and flyers, and do booksignings everywhere within a 200 mile radius of your home. If this is your first series book, I swear, this probably is not an example of spending smart money. Why?

It’s simple – writing is creative but publishing is a business. Pretend for a moment that you’re not writing, but rather opening a pizza shop. You have $5,000.00 after you’ve opened the shop, bought the ingredients to make the pizzas, and purchased napkins, forks, etc. The last bit of business is getting customers to come to your shop and eat your pizza. $5,000.00 isn’t a lot of money, not when you have to cover the expenses of the shop for 30 days. You have salaries, utilities and at the end of 30 days, you need enough money to sustain the shop until you have sold more pizzas. There are a lot of things you could do to lure customers into your shop, but chances are, a lot of those things aren’t cost effective.

Would you spend $5,000.00 of those ad dollars on flyers? On ads? On key chains, card holders, or any other disposable form of advertising? Who will create the ads? Print them? Distribute them? Where and how will you get the knick-knacks to your customers? But wait! Let’s say you’ve got all that creation and distribution figured out. You forgot one important element – demographics. Are these items going to customers who would never eat pizza? Are they going to people who would have bought your pizza anyway?

Time to back up and rethink this. (And get away from the food metaphors). Spending smart money is a multifaceted concept. Time is also money, so we need to include that in our thinking. How much time do you have? How good are your contacts? How proficient are you in creating the things you want or need to let people know your book is on the shelves?

Have you created a database of people and places interested in receiving your promotional materials and/or information on your latest release? Can you stamp, fold, create, upload, email or whatever your promotional material happens to be? How long will this take you and do you have that time to devote to publicity and promotion?

Even one day set aside for advertising and/or promotion is one less day you have to write. Yes, there are lots and lots of ways to get the word out about your book that are ‘free.’ Designing and maintaining your own website is a great example – you can find free hosting out there. However, “free” normally means little or no dollar amount and a huge investment of time. If this is your only option, then by all means go for it.

There’s another approach. Hiring a professional. Not of caution – all PR professionals are not created equal and like agents – you need to find one willing and able to handle what you need as an author to achieve you PR goals.

The first possibility is relatively inexpensive. You pay hourly for someone to design and arrange to print whatever you’ve decided you want to promote your book. The benefit is you can find these folks for as little as $25.00 per hour and they normally are very fast and responsive. The negative to this is you’d better know what you want because you pay hourly to redo concepts that are not to your liking. The other negative is you’ve got a stack of promotional materials that you are now responsible to mail, ship or whatever and/or a website that you’ve got to remember to update. The final negative is this is normally a job-by-job situation. Should you want to advertise your next book, there’s no branding or log lines associated with you as the author to carry from one release to the next.

Next up the rung is general PR services for authors. These run from $1,500.00 and up. For that you normally get a stock mailing list and the creation of a postcard or bookmark and possibly a press kit. The press kits are blanket sent to every media outlet in your geographical area, regardless of whether or not they have an interest or inclination in featuring romance authors or romance-themed programming. The PR mailing list normally is proprietary to the PR firm and not yours to use in any way. This sometimes has hidden costs – producing the press kit, providing photographs, etc. So make sure you get full cost disclosures up front. The other drawback to this is that often, the service is not personalized for you. For example – sending 300 bookmarks out to independent bookstores that don’t feature or carry romance. The benefit to this is one-stop shopping and quality work. Another benefit is these companies often – for a price – will convert from ‘basic’ packages to individually tailored promotions that include media training, specific advertising, contact and coordination with your house publicist, etc.

At the top of the ladder is a personal publicist. Plan to spend at least $100.00 per hour and be charged for phone calls, copies, messengers and everything else. This is the best and smartest option for any multi-published author (multi being more than 1 book contracted). This publicist is all about you. Your work, your career, your needs, your strengths and your weaknesses. She/he will work with you to develop an ongoing, long-term, goal-oriented publicity strategy to maximize your exposure and increase your sales. This plan normally starts with a meeting (phone or in person) so the two of you can determine what you need and the best ways to go about meeting those needs. For the author, this is the time to listen. A great PR person will market you and not your books. Why? Because you are always available for interviews, conferences, media, etc. but your book may not be – out-of-print, not-yet-released, etc. Your PR person will come up with a total package based on your strengths – maybe you shine on television but are uncomfortable doing booksignings. Or, maybe you have a special and specific skill that she can turn into your PR pitch and/or logo or log line. Believe it or not, we’re all experts or authorities on something. A great PR person will discover your individual strength and promote you accordingly. And she does all the work. She has printers, contacts, databases, etc. Additionally, she will touch base with the house publicist to work toward having you included in any in-house promotions. Best of all, she creates a year-end brochure to send to your publisher. This often opens new doors at the publishing house because it demonstrates that you as an author are approaching your career as a total professional. The drawback to this is, of course, money. It can get expensive, especially if you don’t pay strict attention to what your publicist is doing on your behalf. Like with any person you hire, it is your job to make sure the expenses stay within your budget. If money is an object, find out if your publicist will allow you to do some of the work yourself – like sending the names, addresses and contact people in your area to her. Or communicating local events you’d like to participate in for her to contact.

One of the smartest things I ever did as a writer was to hire a personal publicist, Jo-Ann Power at Power Promotions, after I sold 3 books and had several more under contract. I learned volumes about the business of publishing from her and our relationship continues to this day. She knows my strengths, my weaknesses and developed a marketing strategy that has evolved and changed over time. I have been given some great opportunities by my publisher as a result of Jo-Ann’s work including representing Harlequin on the 50th anniversary tour; a cover feature on the program 48 Hours, and inclusion in the Harlequin Exhibits at BEA and the LA Bookfair. I’m one of a select few series romance authors who’ve been featured in The Washington Post and The New York Times and I’m a frequent guest on television and radio. She gets me into places I couldn’t access on my own. The truth is, people tend to be more receptive to, “This is Kelsey Roberts’ publicist. She’ll be in your area on X date and is available to do your morning show on X date,” than “This is Kelsey Roberts, I’d like to do your morning drive time show.”

So, decide what you want and what you’re willing to do. Decide on a budget and stick to it. Interview potential publicists and/or PR firms to find the one that might work for you. And when you spend, only spend smart money.