Monday, September 27, 2010
Do some agents give up if a manuscript doesn't sell in the first round of submissions?
"Do most agents stay with a book until it finds a home, no matter how low the advances might be? I honestly don't care about the advance. I just want to get published. But I've heard some agents bow out if the book doesn't sell to someone in the first round of submissions. Is this true?"
--question asked by Barbara DeMarco-Barrett on behalf of The American Society of Journalists and Authors. Barbara is host of “Writers on Writing,” a weekly radio show airing on KUCI-FM (88.9) in California
This is another good question, and one which demands a thorough response.
To begin with, one cannot offer a blanket answer on behalf of every agent in the industry: some agents will indeed give up after a few submissions, while others will work tirelessly for months or even years. It is very much agent specific, and manuscript specific.
It is also genre specific: certain genres allow for a higher number of submissions. For example, if your work is narrative non-fiction, there may be 30 or 40 (or more) potential editor submissions, while if your work is commercial fiction, that number may shrink to the vicinity of 20. There tend to be more imprints setup to acquire non-fiction than fiction (particularly commercial fiction). But if your work is prescriptive non-fiction (such as popular psychology), there may be fewer potential imprints than for narrative non-fiction, and thus fewer potential submissions. If your work will be a trade paperback original, that, too, can limit the number of potential submissions, as fewer imprints publish trade paperback originals as do hardcovers and paperbacks. If your work is destined to be a mass market original, that will limit potential submissions even further. If your work is academic, that, too, will limit the playing field.
Thus a well-intentioned and hard-working agent may simply be unable to submit beyond a certain number of editors and may exhaust a submission quickly, depending on the genre. There are only a finite number of publishers, and if they all reject your work, then the agent cannot create options where there are none. So lack of success is not always the agent’s fault: if the agent has exhausted all submissions methodically, he has still done his job well (assuming, of course, he has chosen the most appropriate editors within each publisher).
That said, the converse may be true: an agent might give up after only submitting your work to 5 or 10 editors, when he could have submitted to 40. Such an agent’s motivation may be financial: it may be that he chooses his “A List,” the 5 or 10 publishers he thinks might pay the biggest advance, and when they all pass, he assumes that the B or C Lists won’t pay as much, and thus gives up. Or it may be that the agent is just easily discouraged, and that when 10 trusted colleagues tell him a book won’t sell, he believes them and sees no point in trying further. Or it could be that the first 10 rejections all tell him of a directly competing project of which he was unaware, and as a result he decides submitting further would be a waste of time. It may be that the agent is not as knowledgeable of the industry as he should be, and only knows 10 publishers, or only has contacts in those houses. Or it may be that the agent becomes unhappy with the author during the first round of submissions (if, for example, the author is pestering him) and uses the first round of rejections as an excuse to end the relationship. Or the agent may simply be lazy.
No matter what the reason or motivation, there is no excuse for an agent to give up and not exhaust a submission, submitting to every last possible player. If an agent commits to a manuscript, then he should see it through, should stay with it whether it’s been rejected by 5 editors or by 45. He should stay with it whether it takes a week or a year, whether it sells for an advance of one million dollars or one thousand.
The majority of legitimate agents will indeed exhaust a submission. Sometimes a termination of a submission is initiated by an author: an agent may work in good faith for months while the author, impatient, may fire the agent. As a rule of thumb, most proposals on submission (if submitted thoroughly by a legitimate agent) will sell within a matter of 4 months. But there are always exceptions. I’ve sold one book in a submission that lasted two hours, and I’ve sold another after a submission that lasted 14 years.
Unfortunately, once you sign with an agent, you cannot control his methodology. What you can control is who you decide to sign with. As I’ve said many times, you must spend months researching potential agents before deciding who to approach and sign with. If you choose a legitimate agent who represents great authors and who has a track record of recent sales to major houses, then you will have little to worry about. If you choose an agent who you know little about, or whose record is not as reliable, then you may have more cause for concern; in that case, make sure (as I’ve discussed before) that you have an out clause in your agency agreement, so that you can fire him if you are unsatisfied.
But even if you fire a bad agent, once he has already submitted your manuscript, it will be tarnished in the eyes of most new agents, who will likely not want to take it on. So while it’s good that you’ll at least be able to get free of the old agent, the damage (for that manuscript) is already done. You will likely have to give your new agent a new work and/or wait a few years until the editors who’ve rejected your first work have left the industry. So, again, choose carefully. Spending more time upfront on research will save you from worrying throughout the process.