Saturday, December 26, 2009

Should I query an agent with several books at once?

"Mr. Lukeman: My second book was just published in November. Is it too late for me a find an agent to represent my financial interests going forward on this work? If it is not, do agents typically expect a lower percentage of the revenue since the book is already placed and published? I have a third almost completed. Should I look for someone to represent both? What are your thoughts? Thanks."

--John Bingham

You are asking several questions here, and we’ll start by addressing what is one of the more universal questions for aspiring authors: if you have written multiple books, or if you have multiple book concepts, should you query an agent about all of them at once?

As a rule of thumb, when researching and querying agents, it’s best to choose one concept and stick to it. This will enable you to be more targeted when researching and approaching agents, and to be more focused in your query letter. It will make you seem less scattered, and will help an agent quickly and easily get his mind around the concept at hand. (Some queries are so scattered that half the agent’s battle is trying to figure out exactly what the work is about.) Querying with one concept at a time will also make sure it gets the attention it deserves: when someone pitches ten concepts at once, it can cheapen all of them.

The downside of querying with just one concept is that there is always the remote chance that agents dislike the concept you queried about, but would have been interested in a concept you never mentioned. But then again, if you choose one concept and are rejected, there is nothing to prevent you from querying agents all over again with one of your other concepts.

While this is a basic rule of thumb, as with everything in publishing, the answer can become infinitely more complex, depending on the particular scenario. For example, do you have one fiction and one non-fiction concept? (In which case you should most likely query separate agents for each.) Have you written four novels, and are they all part of a series? (You should query with the first book alone, but mention that it is part of a series.) Are your six concepts all non-fiction, and all in different genres? (Many agents will focus on certain genres, and an agent who represents serious history may not be interested in representing a commercial fitness book.) Have you written one academic work and one for the trade? (Agents will rarely represent purely academic books, and you may need to submit directly to a university press.) Is one of your books heavily illustrated and the other straight text? (The agent who represents a book of straight text may not want to represent a coffee table book.) Etc. etc.

As you can see from these few scenarios, agents’ needs differ radically, and it would be fairly unusual to find an agent who is eager to represent one author for a broad array of genres. Additionally, an important part of landing an author a deal, particularly when it comes to non-fiction, is her expertise and credibility in a particular genre—thus it may be easy to land a deal for a work of history from a history professor at Harvard, but impossible to land this same author a cookbook deal. Likewise, the agent who represents literary fiction may not want to represent commercial fiction—and vice versa.

In your particular case, you also asked, “Is it too late for me a find an agent to represent my financial interests going forward on [an already published] work? If it is not, do agents typically expect a lower percentage of the revenue since the book is already placed and published?” The bulk of the agent’s effort takes place before a book is published: the primarily role of the agent is to help find a publisher, negotiate a deal and negotiate a contract; they may also help brainstorm a concept, edit a proposal, and work on subsidiary rights. What an agent does not do is get involved in publicity and promotion—that is the job of the publicist. Thus in most cases, there is very little, if anything, for an agent to do once a book is published, and thus it would be unusual for an agent to want to represent an already published book (unless there is sub-rights work to do), and you may not even want this, as you may end up paying him for nothing. The standard industry commission is 15%, and it is unusual for an agent to vary from this, regardless of what stage a book is in.


  1. Thank you for this information.

  2. Interesting situation. I'd assumed that an agent would take on whatever is salable if they like the project queried. I can understand an agent focusing on YA, not picture books, or nonfiction or whatever, but I'd thought that if I write fiction and stick with that then as long as I write something good, my agent would be on board. This sounds more project-to-project to me.

  3. I can understand an agent focusing on YA, not picture books,
    short sale business

  4. Noah, what is your take on an author submitting the first five pages of the manuscript (as a style sample) along with an initial query letter?

    -Mike H. in Santa Monica

  5. Yeah, but if you query an agent with Another novel idea and you mention your successful unagented publication, said agent might be interested enough to take on the new project, and "manage" the rights to the other deals already in place.

    I also have a question Noah. Where in the query do you suggest advising the Agent of mature content. I'm not talking an x-rated or erotic novel. I know you would submit to specific agents/publications that specialize in that genre.

    I'm thinking more along the lines of a mainstream or romance or other typical genre that includes sex or violence in the content, (not the our bodies came together and it was ecstacy and later we talked type) but isn't the main focus of the writing. Like the special creamer with your coffee concept.

    Like an R rated movie that shows the actual scenes, but doesn't focus on the pornography.

    Now I've embarrassed myself.

    Say: my novel is a literary fiction about a woman coming to terms with her physical and sexual abuse in childhood, and she compares it with her actual life circumstances. The novel isn't afraid to describe the sexual acts and use the anatomical terms, but isn't necessarily graphic in the descriptions either.

    How - and when - would you get that across in the query without sabotaging yourself as pornographic. I wouldn't want the agent to think: oh, I wasn't expecting that from the query and I'm seriously turned off now that I've asked for a partial. But, I also don't want to turn them off in the query because the novel is more R rated than G.

    And no, I'm not embarrassed by my sexual content in the novel; I feel it is appropriate and not pornographic, but I do get embarrassed by telling people there is sex in the novel.

    TMI, I know. Anyway, my question basically is, when and how to tell an agent your novel has Mature content.



  6. I think if you include in the query letter something to the effect of it being quite graphic. Also include the reason you chose to write your book in the manner that you did, you will not be judged poorly. I would much rather read something with the correct descriptive words instead of baby talk or having to interpret innuendos.

  7. Why not publish your work(s) as an ebook using a different title and a pen name all the while trying to find an agent? Life is too short.

  8. I have a children's book published by Publish America (not a self-publisher). It was the only publisher I could find that did not require an agent and an up front fee. My question is could an agent help me with marketing this book and be paid by percentage or should I have sought an agent before seeking a publisher?


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