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Welcome to Season 2 of The Book Marketing Action Podcast with Becky Robinson, where we give you information that you can immediately implement to increase your influence and market your books more successfully. If you’re considering publishing a book, this month we are providing information that will help you sort through the various options available to you.
About Barb Roose
Becky: Before we get started, in case people don’t know you, could you tell our listeners a little bit about you and your work?
Barb: Thank you, I am thrilled that we get a chance to connect. I am in the Northwest Ohio area. I am a speaker and an author, but also a literary agent. I am an agent with Books & Such Literary Management based in California, even though I’m in Ohio. We represent over 250 clients, both in print, as well as in media. I absolutely love helping authors, whether they’re hopeful or established authors, take the next steps to achieve their publishing career goals.
Why would someone need a literary agent?
Becky: Wonderful. I did invite you in the context of your work as a literary agent. One of the things that is important to me today is really to learn more with our listeners. Because, though my team and I have been supporting authors for many years, most of our authors do not use agents and many are curious about what it’s like to partner with an agent. So I’m looking forward to learning some more today that I can pass on to our clients. So let’s start with this Barb, why would someone need or want a literary agent?
Barb: This is a great foundational question, Becky, because it’s one thing for us to dream of a book and to write it down. The question is always, what do we do with it? When people ask, “why do I need an agent,” it is really about the decision to go into traditional publishing. And by traditional publishing, we mean the process of actually receiving a book contract from a publishing company. Thanks to IngramSpark, and Amazon KDP, those types of self-publishing outlets, anyone can write a book and publish it, and that is a great way to get your work into the world.
In traditional publishing, it’s about a partnership with a publishing organization that can actually distribute work into greater networks. That is why traditional publishing would be attractive. An agent is someone who works with the author, who already has connections to those publishers. So in an environment where there are tens of thousands of people competing for very few traditional publishing contracts, an agent is an author’s best friend, because the agent has those relationships with the publisher.
What support does a literary agent provide?
Becky: That’s really helpful, Barb. So could you tell me a little bit, you mentioned that the agent is the one who has those existing connections to publishers, they can help an author stand out when there are thousands of others who are vying for opportunities in traditional publishing. So talk a little bit more about the type of support a literary agent provides, or what that journey of partnership between the agent and the author looks like?
Barb: Well, this question is high level. What an agent does is submit proposals to editors at publishing companies. They also negotiate the contracts. Once those proposals are accepted through what we call pub board or publishing board, the agent also makes sure that the author gets paid, as well as helps the author brainstorm future projects. So those are some of the high-level services.
- The first is to submit a proposal.
- The second is to negotiate the contract.
- The third is to make sure the payment happens.
- The fourth is to help them brainstorm what’s next in their career.
Now, what separates agents from each other is the level at which they do each of those things. There are some agents out there who will receive a proposal from an author and they will just shotgun it out to 20 or 30 editors at 20 or 30 publishing companies just to say they sent the proposal out, but at my agency, there’s actually a more strategic approach. This is one of the distinguishing factors, because we have relationships with editors. Our proposals are specifically placed with editors that we know are looking for those projects. So while we may not send out a proposal to 20 or 30 editors that may or may not open those emails, because editors are getting hundreds of emails a day, when we place a project with a specific editor, we know that that editor is going to open an email because they know that what we are sending them is what they’re looking for. So even though an agent sends out a proposal for a client, that doesn’t mean that they have a relationship with the editor and that the editor will open it. What’s really important is for someone who’s looking at an agent to say, “hey, how do you send out a proposal,” because ultimately, the process doesn’t get started unless that proposal gets reviewed.
Becky: That’s really powerful, Barb. Going a few steps back, you mentioned the book proposal. Is there any involvement from the literary agent in crafting or refining that proposal before it goes to help publishers and editors?
Barb: Absolutely, this is one of the most crucial parts of the entire process. A book proposal is the outline of that creative idea. What is vitally important is that when an editor opens up a book proposal, he or she has a wow moment. So as an agent, I am working with my clients on making sure that proposal has a captivating hook. Looking at the audience, making sure that all of the elements of what an editor is looking for that would make the editor want to buy the project is actually there in the proposal. So I’m working with a number of clients now, and we are spending time going through every element of that proposal before it’s submitted.
Becky: So Barb, before we started recording, you mentioned that you also call editors to do what you call a soft pitch. Can you tell us a little bit more about what that process is like?
Barb: Well, an editor at a publishing company’s job is to find the projects that are going to be unique and interesting and profitable, or sellable, at least. When I have either a new client who’s unpublished, or if I’m working with an established client with a proposal that I’m just not sure it’s going to bite with the editor, I will give an editor a call and just say, “Hey, I’ve got an idea to run by you from one of my clients, is this something you might be interested in?” And then the editor is able to kind of think about it and see, and there’s a difference between being interested and wanting to see it. Because when an editor says they’re interested, that means it’s kind of cool, but when they say “I want to see that,” that means it’s piqued their interest, so that allows me to go back to my client and go, “let’s get the work in, let’s get this done.”
Becky: I’m curious as I listened to you, Barb, about what the success rate is. So consider a pool of 100 authors represented by agents, out of those 100 authors represented by agents, do you have any sense of how many of them might actually get a traditional book deal?
Barb: I don’t know how to quantify that. What I can tell you is that in my agency, and I’m specifically in what we call the CPA, which is the Christian publishing market, and within my agency there are over 250 authors, the agency itself represents dozens of best selling authors, as well as authors who publish one book a year, or they publish one book every other year. So what I can tell you is that with our agents, four out of the five agents exceeded their sales goals for the year. I don’t know exactly how to break that down into the number of contracts, but if I could speak from my experience as an author, in the last 14 months that I’ve been a traditionally published author, I have completed three book contracts in the last 14 months. I’ve had eight book contracts in the last five years. I can’t quantify the number, but I can say, as an author, when you have an agent that works with you on making sure you have a concept that’s going to be marketable and saleable, it may take time, but it is often that we can find a contract for that project.
What is an agent looking for in an author?
Becky: That’s helpful. I was just wanting to set some expectations. It’s not necessarily a guarantee that if an agent takes you on, you end up with a book deal. So that leads to an important question, what do agents look for, in selecting authors to represent?
Barb: Well, there are three things that I look for.
- The first is that concept or wow idea. There is nothing new under the sun but, just like in music, there are thousands of songs every year that are released about the topic of love. But the musicians find different ways to talk about love in a way that captures our attention and inspires us. The same thing goes for books, there’s nothing new out there to write about, but the way that we write about it, it can be inspiring, unique, and different. That’s what I’m looking for first.
- The second thing I’m looking for, I call woo. There has to be something about that person that interests me. They don’t have to be the life of the party, but they have to show up with their personality and they’ve got to be someone who’s engaging, because publishing is all about relationships. It has to be somebody that I want to work with, and somebody that I know an editor will want to work with.
- Then third, what I’m looking for is a platform. There are lots of different ways that a platform is described, but in essence, does this person have people who like their message, whether it’s an email list or on social media. A publisher wants to know that a person’s message resonates with others, because publishing is ultimately about creating profit. So I am looking for clients who have a platform where there are enough people who go, “Yeah, this person’s message is valuable, and we want to hear more from them.”
How can I find a literary agent?
Becky: Got it. So if someone is listening today, and they want to pursue traditional publishing, and they resonate with the idea of an agent being able to help them cut through the noise, in what way might an aspiring author go about finding or selecting a literary agent.
Barb: The simplest thing I recommend is going to Writer’s Digest. They have a list of agents that are there, or you can google literary agents. You want to be pretty specific. If you want to write fantasy, then you would Google fantasy agents or literary agents representing fantasy. What I also want to encourage you to do is go to the agent’s website and read about exactly what they represent. I receive dozens of queries every single week from people with book ideas. About half of them I don’t represent. I have listed on my website exactly what I represent, and half of what people query me are the things I don’t represent, so make sure you do some research. And query three agents at a time. If you don’t get a response, then switch your query up, rewrite it, tweak it, then query three more agents. That gives you an opportunity to keep improving upon your pitch to the agents.
Becky: That’s very helpful. I wonder, do you have any tips for what makes a good query, besides ensuring that you’re pitching the type of agent who represents your type of book?
Barb: A good book query, it allows the book itself to shine. Some of the quick, “do not do” are don’t say, “Hey, here’s your next best seller.” Don’t say, “This is the best book you’ll ever read.” Just simply begin with the hook of the book, and in the hook is a story about a young woman who overcame adversity and you just share those first three lines, that is going to keep the literary agent reading three more lines down, and then three more lines down. So let the idea that you have lead, and let that idea be strong right off the top.
How much does a literary agent cost?
Becky: That’s wonderful. Thank you, Barb. So a practical question. What can an aspiring author expect in terms of how they compensate their literary agents?
Barb: Great question. The industry standard is 15%. That is just the general standard, whether it’s general market or Christian publishing. If an agent is independent, it’s 15%. If an agent works for an agency, the 15% is generally the going percentage of commission, the client does not pay their literary agent a monthly fee or anything like that. The 15% is based off of any advances royalties, or any other special payments they receive as a result of work arranged by that agent, and for the life of that title. Even if a person leaves that agent and goes to another agency, the agent is still on that contract for the work that’s been arranged.
Becky: That’s really helpful. Thank you for clarifying. I’m sure that folks were curious about that.
What questions should you ask when vetting literary agents?
Becky: You mentioned that it’s not customary for an agent to charge a monthly fee. And we also talked a little bit about some of the questions you might ask a literary agent, for example, you referenced finding out in what way the agent would be pitching editors. Are there any other questions you can think of that would be great for someone to ask the editor once they have an opportunity to have that conversation?
Barb: Yes, some questions that I love hearing are:
- Tell me about how you submit book proposals?
- Who/what publishing companies do you have the best relationships with?
- What are the projects that you love to represent as an agent?
When I hear those questions, I know that person is interested in establishing a good relationship with me and making sure that I have a good relationship with the editors that they need.
Becky: I just love that, Barb, and it’s so exciting to see the impact that you’re having with the authors that you’re partnering with and to be able to watch your journey.
Becky: So as you know at the end of every episode, we leave our listeners with action steps. Do you have any action steps based on today’s content?
Barb: I do!
- Decide/answer the question: do I want to pursue traditional publishing? Let yourself be okay with whatever the answer is. If you love independently publishing and just getting your work out there and having 100% control over it, great, live with that, love it, and thrive there. If you want to partner with a traditional publisher, enter into that partnership, knowing that there might be some things you have to let go of, as well as obligations to another partner in your project. If that is something you’re okay with then say yes to traditional publishing and accept that journey as well. So the first question is deciding which one is right for you.
- Go to WritersDigest.com and begin an agent search there. Just look for agents that match what you want to write about and know what you want to write about, so that you can have the best chance of finding the agent that’s right for you.
- Click here for Barb’s literary agency website, Books & Such Literary Management.
- Learn more about Barb on her personal website here.
- Find Barb on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.
- Check out Barb’s upcoming devotional, Surrendered: 40 Devotions to Help You Let Go & Live Like Jesus.
If you found value in today’s episode, we hope you’ll take a moment to share it with someone else who might benefit from it. If you have any questions or topics you’d like us to cover, please email Becky Robinson here.
I am the founder/CEO of the Weaving Influence team, the author of Reach: Creating the Biggest Possible Audience for Your Message, Book, or Cause, and the host of the Book Marketing Action Podcast. I’m a wife and mom of three kids, and I enjoy running, reading, writing, coffee, and dark chocolate.