“Aaah, the waiting game sucks. Let’s play Hungry, Hungry Hippos” – Homer J Simpson
So let’s say you’ve submitted your proposal – or manuscript but I’m sticking with the idea we’re dealing with non-fiction for now – to an agent and the agent likes it. They’ll probably ask to meet you and, if it all goes well, they’ll hopefully offer you a contract.
I won’t go into that contract too much – though I will talk a bit more about the publishing contract later – but the important thing is your agent will get paid via a commission on your earnings. This generally around 15% + VAT (i.e. 18.5%) of your earnings in the UK and 20% of your earnings abroad. There are two good things about this
a) You don’t need to pay an agent anything unless you earn money, which means that, aside from the possibility of the agent not managing to sell your work which means there’s no risk of actual financial loss. (If you do come across an agent or publisher who wants money up-front or to ‘split production costs’, alarm bells should be ringing very, very loudly.
b) Your agent needs to sell your work in order to make any money. If nothing else, this should be a big boost to your confidence – an agent would not be spending time working with you unless they expect to make you both money as a result! It also means that you can be confident your agent is motivated to get you a very good deal because it’s in their interest to do so!
Your agent will so ask you to indemnify them against any potential lawsuits for copyright infringement (which is to say that, if you plagiarise someone’s work, it’s you rather than the agent who will carry the cost for that). This is a standard clause though it can be very scary to read!
I would also expect the agent to suggest some re-writes. Of course, I appreciate that you are an artist and your book is your baby and that it’s a violation of your principles to start butchering your masterpiece in order to sate commercial needs. However I would advise you to be open and consider every suggestion very carefully, whether its from an agent, publisher, proofreader or whoever.
If you do, I suspect you’ll find that – in the vast majority of cases – they have identified a genuine problem or weakness, even if the solution they suggest is not the one you would have gone with. In these circumstances, I’d always suggest changing it to your option and then emailing back explaining your reasoning. If you genuinely believe that their suggestion is outright wrong and nothing needs to be changed, I’d again draft an email explaining that but – before sending – I’d then read that email again (perhaps a few hours later or the following day) and make sure your reason is genuinely a really good one. But the important thing is never ever kid yourself that you’re a genius whose work can’t possibly improved. Personally I suspect that a lot of times, when a writer or film director gains critical acclaim through brilliant early work but then peters out into mediocrity or worse, then it’s often because they’ve stopped listening to the voices telling them how to make things better…
But anyway, let’s suppose you do your re-writes and the agent is happy and starts to send the proposal to publishers. At this point, what should you expect?
Probably, in reality, a period of extended silence punctuated by the odd emailed update from the agent. Perhaps you’ll get an email saying a publisher has shown an initial interest and wants to see the proposal. Perhaps you’ll then get another email a few weeks later saying the publisher has decided not to take it any further. Don’t get too downhearted by this – bear in mind that, at this point, there’s money involved and reasons for people not taking a book can be as much to do with what the publishers think they can successfully sell as much as questions of quality.
Nonetheless it can be disheartening and the wait can seem endless. But hopefully, before too long, you’ll get the message that a publisher is interested and wants to meet you. This is where things start to get interesting…