How Agents Operate: From Hoodoo Voodoo to Herding Cats

Betsy Lerner
From the July/August 2011 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

Submitting a book to an editor comes with a cocktail of anxiety, hope, bluster, ego, and excitement—for the agent as well as the author. Once the proposal is ready to go out and the agent has assembled her list of editors, it’s time to pitch the project. The pitch is a combination of schmooze, project description, author description, and maybe some interesting anecdote about how the project came to be. Some agents e-mail a pitch letter with the proposal. Some still call. I’m a great believer in the call. It’s a chance to gauge an editor’s enthusiasm. Sometimes you find out that a similar project is circulating or that one is under contract, sometimes you just get to gossip a bit and see how that editor is feeling, and sometimes you find out she is on vacation. Best-case scenario: The editor loves the sound of it, seems to genuinely connect to the description or has been a fan of the writer, and promises to read it right away.

After the book is pitched and the proposal sent out comes the take-off-your-bra moment in the delicate dance of getting a book deal. Will the editor turn a cold shoulder, cop a feel, or go all the way? Will he even call back? If you send out a project on a Thursday or Friday and don’t get a phone call Monday morning, you start making busy work. Tuesday is the new Monday, you tell yourself. Sometimes, the publishing gods will smile down and editors will start calling with interest the following day or sometimes even the same day. This is when you know you’ve got something hot. You sense, in a finger-to-the-wind kind of way, with how much impact a project has landed: a blast, a buzz, or a resounding thud.

The phrase “herding cats” best describes an agent’s attempt to round up all the editors to whom she has submitted a project in an effort to find out if they are going to make a bid. “Landing a plane in a forest” is a close second. There is nothing orderly or predictable about the process. Often an editor who expresses a great deal of initial enthusiasm can’t get in-house support and can disappear without so much as a phone call. Most agents will agree that the process for closing a deal can be maddening.

When the stars line up and multiple parties are seriously interested, an agent will set a closing date and auction the book, meaning that she will collect bids in rounds, from lowest to highest. (Auctions are typically conducted by phone or via e-mail—sadly, there are no auctioneers, gavels, and paddles involved.) If there are only two or three potential bidders, an agent will ask for best bids. If there is only one offer, an agent will try to shop it to other publishers. “And then there are those wonderful times when a publisher preempts, meaning that he comes to the table with an offer you simply can’t refuse,” as one agent described it. “In these cases, their willingness to reach into their pockets matches their passion for the project.”

In my years as an editor, I found that many publishers responded to competition. It was both validating and goading. They liked being in on the big auctions, sometimes overpaying for books as they got swept up in the chase. Some were more disciplined than others; one publisher was known for putting her bid in at the beginning and waiting to hear what the outcome was. Others got caught up in bidding fever. There are fewer and fewer crazy auctions these days. They tend to happen for celebrity books, which can almost always be counted on as best-sellers (it’s not hard to publicize a star’s account of his chemical romance). First novels, which carry with them no nasty sales record, can also fare well, especially if they fit into a category that is perceived as selling well (paranormal, vampires, commercial women’s fiction) and can still attract a lucrative advance.

Back on earth, it can take weeks, even months, to close a deal. Some publishers move very slowly, usually because the editor has to get different people on board from different departments. A powerful editor with a proven track record can sometimes go outside the system, but a young editor eager to buy a project often has to jump through hoops. The only way to hasten the process is to have other interest. Once you’ve got other interested parties, editors tend to pay closer attention. It’s Psych 101: If child A is playing with the red dump truck in the sandbox, even if there are ten other trucks, child B wants the red one. I remember the feeling well. When I was an editor, an agent would call to say she had an offer for a project that had been sitting on my credenza for a few weeks. Suddenly, inexplicably, I was dying to have it even though I hadn’t so much as cracked the manuscript, and I found myself begging the agent to give me twenty-four hours to get back to her.

If you have ever seen a small animal chewing one of its limbs in a trap, then you know what a writer  looks like who is waiting to hear if his book will sell. That’s why managing a client’s expectations is a crucial part of the agent’s job. “I usually give a spiel about how horrible the industry is, and I point out a few crap books that just happen to be selling like hotcakes as a way to point out how inherently unfair the business can be, how it’s not about the quality of the writing,” one agent told me. “I explain what a best-case scenario might look like, but reinforce that plenty of beloved books have been turned down by twenty or thirty publishers before seeing the light of day.”

Agents are duty bound to inform their clients about the process, though it is a common complaint among writers that they feel shut out. “I have a heart-to-heart with my clients before the manuscript goes out,” another agent said. “I explain that they can either get on the ride with me or go off on a retreat. I tell them it can be a mind fuck, and historically I have found that it’s best if they let me get in touch with them when I have news—a rejection or an offer, but nothing in between. I also tell them that this process could take about a day or a year so it can’t be planned around.”

Often a writer will call or send an e-mail in a faux-jaunty tone: “What’s happening?!” Or, “Just thought I’d check in, no need to get back to me.” This is a writer in pain. Agents survive this process only because they have a few horses in the race. A writer has only her book. When she is at the top of her game, selling a new book on the heels of a best-seller, for example, the process is usually fun. It’s when the writer’s last book tanked or when no one is calling back that the process can be excruciating. One agent I spoke with likens working at an agency with being an oncologist: “There are weeks when all you deliver is bad news.” Another agent found the tables turned when she sold her own book. “I quickly learned that, just like in life, the bad stuff is more easily internalized than the good. Specifically, I did not want to hear the particular reasons why an editor had failed to connect. I did not want to hear his theory on why my book wouldn’t work, or why I wasn’t up to writing it.”

All the agents I spoke to agreed that there are two particularly rough moments when managing expectations. The worst, by far, is the sale. “The trickiest thing is how to tell an author when there is preliminary editorial interest, because so often the editor will get shot down at a meeting and completely disappear,” said one agent. “I am tempted not to say anything to the author until the interest has solidified, but I usually pass along the news with strong admonitions (usually conveyed in fishing metaphors) that when there is a nibble on the line, there’s a good chance you’re going to pull up an empty hook.” I counsel my clients to remain cautiously optimistic. An expression of interest from an editor is far from an actual offer—just as being asked on a date doesn’t necessarily lead to a proposal of marriage.

Then there’s the money. Every agent has endured the moment when a client looks at him and asks (shyly or boldly, depending on the writer’s temperament), “What do you think it’s worth?” The best answer, the only honest answer is: “Let’s see what the market says.” The minute an agent tosses a number out there, an expectation is born. If the offers don’t meet or exceed it, the client will always be a little disappointed. Some agents will throw some big numbers around to impress and attract clients. If they fail to achieve those numbers, undoubtedly they will tell their clients that the market has spoken. A previous boss used to quote between one dollar and one million.

Managing expectations, in most agents’ experience, goes well beyond the outcome of a submission. Every aspect of the publishing process usually needs its own special rider explaining what to expect when you’re expecting a book. Call it hand holding, talking off ledges, pep talks, gentle reminders, or kicks in the butt, an agent’s job is to help his clients fulfill the promise of a contract and exploit the ancillary rights (foreign, audio, serial, film, and so on) on her behalf. Every now and then we hit the jackpot, but more often we feel lucky to get an offer. One agent summed it up all too well: “I usually sign people on with the words ‘Don’t quit your day job.’” 

Betsy Lerner is the author of The Forest for the Trees: An Editor’s Advice to Writers (Riverhead, 2000), as well as the memoirs The Bridge Ladies (Harper Wave, 2016) and Food and Loathing: A Life Measured Out in Calories (Simon & Schuster, 2003). She worked as an editor for sixteen years at a number of publishing companies, including Doubleday and Houghton Mifflin. Lerner is a partner with the literary agency Dunow, Carlson & Lerner. She lives in New Haven, Connecticut.