Agent Tips

A Career as an Author: The Reality

sparkly eyes

As a literary agent, I see the starry eyes of newbie writers everywhere, their idea of what it means to be a writer skewed from the famous tales of authors who have made it big.

  • Did you know Stephenie Meyer had a dream about sparkling vampires and Twilight was published 6 months later?
  • Amanda Hocking made 2 million dollars self-publishing her series.
  • JK Rowling went from sleeping in her car to becoming a billionaire.

You hear these recycled lines everywhere on forums and in writing groups. The stuff of legends. The writers who did it. These anecdotes give hope with each rejection, fuel the fire, keep the dream alive. It’s like the waiters in Hollywood dreaming of becoming the next Brad Pitt or Halle Berry without the star-studded veneer. We need these stories to inspire us in this highly competitive industry.

The other side of the coin though, is these anecdotes give rise to high expectations. I’ve met so many writers who believe by self-publishing they’ll be the next Amanda Hocking, or by finding a literary agent their series will be the next franchise. It creates an unrealistic perception of what it means to be a career author. And when a literary agent sees that idealism shining through a newbie writer’s pitch, they become wary (and weary). Because, writing is a career. And like any other career it takes time. On average it takes about 10 years to get your first book published. And that’s probably not the first book you’ve written. Following that, it takes about six successfully published books for you to start earning a living as an author. That’s potentially a few decades. Which requires a lot of patience and dedication. An author who doesn’t understand this, will put a lot of unnecessary pressure and unrealistic demands on themselves and their agent, and that is not the type of business relationship we want.

For every legend, there are thousands of writers who haven’t made it, whose rejections litter the pathway, whose debut novel was a dud, who gave up, because the dream was taking too long and was too much work. My favorite response to those who ask how long it takes to become a successful writer is to ask, “if you started a job tomorrow at an entry level position, would you expect to be the CEO within the year?” Not to say that it hasn’t or won’t happen. Just be ready to fight to keep the dream alive for more than a few years. So before you approach your next literary agent or editor or consider self-publishing, ask yourself, are you willing to do the time? Once you know and accept the reality of becoming a career author, the more likely you are to succeed.

And don’t forget to submit to me when you do have it figured out.

Genre Breakdown: Magical Realism

Welcome to the first post in the genre breakdown series. One of the biggest steps in the submission process is determining which genre your book falls under. It’s important in both worlds of self publishing or the traditional route. You need to know your genre in order to target the audience most likely to be interested, whether it be readers or agents or editors.

I’ve seen a lot of incorrectly classified submissions, but I’ve noticed the genre authors tend to get the most mixed up is magical realism.

Birds of America – At the Beach – Kevin Sloan

As an agent that represents both fantasy and magical realism, I find a lot of fantasy authors will submit under the genre magical realism, believing, falsely, it gives their fantasy novel more literary cred or makes it more unique. Or, they simply do not understand what magical realism actually is. I don’t blame them. Search the term, and a plethora of definitions pop up that don’t exactly make it clear. As Webster’s Dictionary puts it, “A literary genre that incorporates fantastic or mythical elements into otherwise realistic fiction.” So does that mean Twilight is magical realism? No. Urban and paranormal still fall under the fantasy umbrella because even though they are set in modern time the reader is brought into a world that is indeed different than our own.

The Sun Sets Sail – Rob Gonsalves

What you do need to know is magical realism has a rich and varied history and is a separate genre from fantasy. If you’re not sure which genre your project falls under, than it is most likely fantasy. A boy from our world who finds out he’s a wizard and goes off to wizarding school to have all kinds of magical adventures, that’s fantasy. A boy from our world who believes he’s a wizard but whose story takes place in reality, that is potentially magical realism. Notice I said “potentially.” Magical realism is an elusive genre, not for the inexperienced or crowd-pleaser. The best way to get familiar with the genre is to read some of the classics, Like Water For ChocolateOne Hundred Years of SolitudeMidnight’s Children, and House of Spirits. You’ll find that even though there is a touch of magic, a bit of the fantastic, a sprinkling of the otherworld, these books are completely grounded in reality and the culture they stem from. Magical realism treats magic as if it were rational, just another aspect of our world, not as something otherworldly. Once you understand it, it will become obvious.

Self Portrait With Necklace of Thorns – Frida Kahlo

Why is this important? Because the average fantasy reader is different than the average magical realism reader. The audience is different, thus the people you submit to will be different, the shelf in the bookstore will be different, the Amazon Bestseller category will be different.

I hope this post has helped a little to understand that difference.

Know Your Rights – Publishing Contracts

Most newbie writers believe that you get your book published and that’s where the publishing train ends. So when they seek out an agent or publisher, or they self-publish, they tend to overlook one of the most important aspects of publishing, the subsidiary rights.

Sub-rights are a great way to bring in more money and get more exposure for your book. If you are self-publishing then you have the responsibility to see if these rights can be sold. If you land an agent or a publisher, they should be taking care of these rights for you. An agent will be shopping these with your interests in mind, the publishers in their own interest. There are a bunch of subsidiary rights that you may not know or care to know about, even after you’ve published, but there are 3 major ones that you should be asking about before you sign anything.


This is the obvious one. Most writers have already dreamed of that actor that will play their characters in a film. Most agencies have connections with film/media agents or have a relationship with a particular agent, which is their subagent. Find out what type of connections your agent has.


Audio sales have seen a steady increase over the years, so much so that publishers are more often trying to retain these rights. With the advent of digital content streaming, companies such as Audible are carving out a place in the market. A savvy agent will attempt to keep these rights on your behalf and sell them later. Most agencies either have an in-house audio agent, or the agents handle these rights themselves.


Where in the world and in what language your book is being published is determined by which rights you have signed away. Did you give the publisher only North American English or did they retain World English? What about the right to translate and sell it in different countries? Did you know that every year the world’s largest trade fair for books is held in Frankfurt, Germany? A good foreign rights agent attends the Frankfurt Book Fair to pitch the multitudes of international publishers that will attend. The agent may be able to sell your book to multiple markets in multiple languages, meaning more royalties for you.

If an agent has offered you representation, ask what their process is for retaining and selling these important rights. How does the commission percentage break down? Do they have a sub-agent or do they partner with an agency that specializes? If the publisher insists on keeping one or all of these rights, what sort of parameters does the agent set in order to make the deal worth it? Most agents should be able to answer these questions easily and happily.
If you went straight to a publisher, make sure you understand what is happening with these rights. If said publisher is keeping all these rights, there should be a time limit so if the publisher does not doing anything with these rights they revert back to you.

So before you start shopping your manuscript, know your rights.



Reasons For Rules: An Agent’s Perspective

Having been an unpublished author seeking an agent, I know how daunting a task this can be. Each agent has different submission guidelines and there are so many RULES. It seems as if you break any of these sacred RULES your query will go right in the physical and metaphorical trash, never to be seen again and you as an author will be laughed out of any possible opportunity to be signed. And when those rejections start rolling in, you question yourself and your writing. What RULE did you break? Then you get angry and frustrated. Why are the RULES so dang important anyway? Isn’t it about the writing? Shouldn’t they see you for the amazing talent you are and brush all that other stuff away? You start reading about authors who have broken the rules and been hugely successful and you  lurk on online forums to commiserate with other writers that are feeling as bruised as you are. Pretty soon you are convinced that agents have too much power and that their RULES are just petty ways of making authors jump through silly hoops for their own amusement.

Now, being on the other side of the fence, I find myself spouting off RULES to hopefuls at writer conferences, online forums, on Twitter, and everywhere in-between. I have unintentionally become a gatekeeper, because on this side, the RULES have REASONS. Oh. So for your sanity and mine, I am going to explain the REASONS behind the seemingly random RULES. I’m sticking to fiction literary agent RULES to keep it short.
Rule #1: Follow each agent’s individual submission guidelines down to the letter.
Reason: Every agent has a different system for shifting through submissions. Their guidelines are based on what will help them get through the slushpile in the most efficient manner. By not following the guidelines, you are causing a disruption in the system, which means it will take longer for the agent to consider your submission and respond to you, in effect wasting their time and yours.
Rule #2: Word count, 55k-75k for YA, 80k-90k for most adult, up to 125k for historical or fantasy.
Reason: Word counts are a throwback from traditional printing. There was a standard specification for print book sizes, which meant if your book fell outside those specifications, it was less likely to be picked up. Because of this, readers got used to a standard book length. And although publishing mediums have since evolved, the standard has yet to change. Thus, your book is easier to sell if it falls within the word count parameters.
Rule #3: Classify your work as only 1-2 genres, plus age group.
Reason: We want to know what genre your book falls into, so we know which editors we would place it with. Do not say “it’s a unique new genre,” not only is this not true (trust me, after slogging through the slush, I can say with confidence, you are not the first to come up with whatever concept you have come up with) it shows us you do not read within your genre, and do not understand it. We are looking for experienced authors who grasp who their reader audience is.
Rule #4: Address the query to the agent you are sending it to.
Reason: Not only is this courteous, but it shows you’ve at least done a bit of research before querying us, which means you think we would be a good fit for your manuscript.
Rule #5: Only query agents who represent your genre.
Reason: We as agents, develop relationships with editors and publishing houses. If we specialize in a genre, that means we are experienced both in reading/selling said genre, but we also know exactly which editors would be right for it. That being said, there is no harm in querying an agent you are not clear on, especially those who list “commercial fiction” as one of their genres. Just try to avoid querying an agent who only represents thrillers and mysteries with your inspirational memoir.
Rule #6: Have your manuscript finished, edited, and polished before querying.
Reason: Although a lot of agents will do edits before shopping your manuscript, their time is limited. They are not going to be willing to do extensive edits on a project, so if you send out a manuscript before it is finished, you are essentially setting yourself up for rejection.
Rule #7: Do not mention how well the book will do, or what great writing it is, or how you plan to be the next JK Rowling.
Reason: The reality of publishing is much harsher than the success stories of JK Rowling and EL James. Most authors don’t start making a living off their writing until after their fifth or sixth successfully published book (this is true for self-published authors as well) and even then you’re probably not going to be able to buy that island. On average it takes years/decades to become financially successful as an author. We are looking for clients that understand that and are willing to put in the time and energy toward that goal.
Rule #8: Keep your bio to simply your experience as a writer as well as any relevant experience to your novel (i.e. if you’re writing legal thrillers and are a lawyer, mention this). Leave out the names of your pets, your dreams of stardom, your inner demons, and any other personal/professional background.
Reason: Agents are professionals, and they are looking for professional clients. Your query letter should have the same information that a cover letter for a job resume would have. Relevant experience only. Of course once we’ve signed you, then the relationship may evolve to a more personal level, but there will always be a professional line.
Rule #9: Keep the query short.
Reason: The slushpile is no joke. There are hundreds of submissions that an agent or agent’s assistant have to read on a monthly basis. If a query is too long, out of necessity, we will skip most of it.
Rule #10: Only nudge an agent if you have an offer of representation or they have not responded past their posted response time.
Reason: Again, the inbox is flooded already. If you nudge, odds are we won’t read the email until after we’ve seen your original query, (unless in the subject line are the words: OFFER OF REP), so you are just adding to the pile and possibly being annoying. However, things do slip through the cracks. Usually in the submission guidelines, an agent has posted their normal response time. If it is past this date, go ahead and nudge. If it’s a full manuscript, nudging after six months is reasonable.
I hope this post has helped you make sense of a seemingly random set of parameters and given you more confidence to keep going. It is good to remember that most agents are hopeful that authors will follow these RULES, but we are also human and understanding. We may reject you because you didn’t follow one of our RULES, but that doesn’t mean you are blacklisted and we never want to see your face (or pen) again. In all honesty, we are so inundated with queries, we probably won’t remember your particular RULE-breaking query in the first place. So don’t be nervous, just do the best you can. There are many more RULES that crop up in all aspects of publishing: formatting, grammar, design, editing, writing, contracts etc, even self-publishing, and I’m happy to give REASONS for these in the comments below. As for the RULE-breakers out there. You know what they say…