Interview Transcripts

Jeff Herman, Literary Agent 11/11/04: Just What DO Agents Do?

Event start time:

Thu Nov 11 18:46:45 2004

Event end time:

Thu Nov 11 21:07:09 2004



Legend:
Questions from the Audience are presented in red.
Answers by the Speaker are in black.
The Moderator's comments are in blue.

Mary Rosenblum

Hello, all!

 

I hope you all have had a great week!

 

I'm really delighted with our guest tonight.

 

One of the most dynamic and innovative agents in the business, Jeff Herman founded the  Jeff Herman Literary Agency, LLC, in 1987 while still in his twenties. The agency has expanded rapidly and has sold hundreds of titles.

 

Herman's agency has established a strong presence in general adult nonfiction, including business, general reference, commercial self-help, technology, recovery/healing, and spiritual subjects.

 

Herman authored Herman's Guide to Book Editor's, Publishers and Literary Agents with more than 300,000 copies sold, and co-authored Write the Perfect Book Proposal: 10 Proposals That Sold and Why!, as well as, You Can Make It Big Writing Books. His books are considered to be among the best tools available to writers. Jeff's books

 

Herman speaks throughout the country about how to get published and be successful as an author. He has been profiled in many books and publications, including Success, Entrepreneur, Publisher's Weekly, Forbes, The New Yorker and has appeared on many television and radio shows.

 

Previously, Herman worked for a New York public relations firm where he designed and managed national consumer marketing campaigns for Nabisco Brands and AT&T. Prior to that, he was a publicist at Schocken Books, where he promoted the bestseller, When Bad Things Happen to Good People.

 

I'm actually including his Guide to Book Editors in the resource list for the Long Ridge Novel Course. It's an excellent book.

 

Jeff, welcome! We're so pleased to have you here tonight!

Jeff Herman

Thank you, this is very new for me.

Mary Rosenblum

Believe me, you're doing much better than many of my 'new' guests!

 

I am delighted to bring an agent to the interview

 

because as a novice writer, years ago, I knew nothing about agents,

 

and while I was fortunate to end up with a good one, I had friends who had less successful experiences. It's hard to understand just what

 

an agent does before you actually need to have one! So can you tell us a bit about what an agent is and is not?

Jeff Herman

Well we are a lot like a real estate or stockbroker...we bring the writer and publisher together to make a deal. We act as the screens for the publishers because they generally don't have time to read what is submitted to them by strangers.

Mary Rosenblum

It's true, is it not, that very few major publishers will accept unagented material these days?

Jeff Herman

Most large publishing houses have a policy that they will not accept anything that is unagented or unsolicited... unagented means no agent, unsolicited means they did not ask you to make the submission.  Anything that comes in that way is very likely to be discarded or simply returned to the sender.

Mary Rosenblum

So, Jeff, just how does an agent connect that author with the right editor in the first place? What do you do?

Jeff Herman

It's the agent's job to know who the publishers are,  what each house is and is not publishing, and to create relationships with the individual editors at each house.  Editors tend to have areas of focus and disinterest...you don't want to send a romance work to an editor who focuses on business titles, for instance.

Mary Rosenblum

Ah, good point! How can a novice writer find out which agent handles what genre?

Jeff Herman

Agents also tend to have areas of focus, and areas that they simply don't represent. A writer wants to make sure that they are pitching their work to an agent who actually represents the kind of writing they do.  There are several ways to do this pre-screening, so that you don't waste time and postage.  For instance you can network with other writers who write on similar subjects as you and simply ask them for a referral.  Writers will often help each other out.  Another way is to go to the book store and look through titles like your own, and make a list of the agents who are acknowledged in the acknowledgement section of the book...and then of course you can also refer to a very fine book titled Writers Guide to Literary Agents.

ashton

Hello Jeff. What would be your strongest advice for new writers looking for an agent?

Jeff Herman

You have to remember that the typical agent is rejecting 98% of what he or she sees...they are assuming that everyone they hear from is probably in that 98% category until proven otherwise so you have to sell yourself to an agent before you can expect an agent to sell him or herself to you.  Basically, an agent is happy to represent anything they think they in turn can sell to a publisher.  That's what their in business to do and it's how then earn their living.  All you need to do is find a way to convince the agent that you will help her or him accomplish their goal, which is to make a deal.

Mary Rosenblum

So what convinces you, Jeff? A strong query describing a marketable book? A good synopsis and opening chapters?

Jeff Herman

It begins, most of the time, with the proverbial query letter describing the work in question... you see it's impractical for agents to receive unsolicited manuscripts and proposals from strangers...just imagine what you would do if each week you received 100 500 page manuscripts at your doorstep...how would you possibly process them in an efficient manner?  Most agencies are small businesses, they don't have the manpower to sort through all of that...knowing that they will have to reject the vast majority of it for a variety of reasons. Therefore, you need to commence the relationship by convincing the agent to request your work on the basis of writing a great query, which is really a pitch letter.

tory

Are agents interested in our willingness to market a book that is published?

Jeff Herman

It's more than willingness that counts...anyway can say "And I'm willing to go on Oprah”.  How many writers can actually pick up the phone and get themselves on Oprah?  If a writer has strong connections, a strong web site...a busy speaking schedule...or anything that does or can generate a lot of media, that's a writer that publishers will like a lot more, even if they are not great writers.  The other avenue is to just have a lot of money lying around that you are willing to use to promote yourself, but I don't mean to discourage people who are not rich and famous.  If you are or can be, then use it.

anne shiever of ks

Is it a possibility to find a literary agent after a book has been published?

Mary Rosenblum

I'm assuming the writer plans to publish more books, here!

Jeff Herman

Okay, having a book published will give you a ready track record, it means you really are a pro...and agents and editors will take note of that.

Mary Rosenblum

And I suppose, if the rights have reverted to the author, you could resell the book, should the market exist.

Jeff Herman

Well that's a whole other thing...once a book is published and then goes out of print...it's very hard to get it back into print...thousands and thousands of excellent books come and go all the time....publishers are generally looking to publish tomorrow's book...they are less interested in a book that has already been published and has had it's day in the sun.

Mary Rosenblum

What if a book has been published by one of the very small presses and went quickly out of print? Can that book be resold?

Jeff Herman

That’s more possible, publishers would be more like to judge it on it's merits...as opposed to concluding that the market place simply rejected it...because the small press may not have been able to really support it in a meaningful way.

ashton

What is the clincher in a query letter that draws you in and catches your attention?

Jeff Herman

Well, there's a lot of  DON'T DO'S that need to be avoided...for instance don't start your letter by telling the agent/editor how many others have already rejected you...or for how many years you have been trying without success to get published...and avoid whining or complaining....be very positive...act like it's a given that you are wonderful and that your work is just great.  I like short paragraphs because they are easy to read...and when you have lot's of these letters to read, you will favor the ones that don't make you dizzy.  Get to the point of your concept right away. Don't do anything that will distract or bore the agent or editor. Get to the point, and stay on point.  Keep telling us what it's about, what it will do for the reader - we have to see that it's needed...that it's exciting...that we can sell it...that a publisher can sell it...that people will want to read your next one....

 

That’s all.

Mary Rosenblum

In other words, write a nice, tight, strong query letter! :-)

speckledorf

How do you feel about working with unpublished writers?

Jeff Herman

That's fine. I and most agents will look at the merit of the idea and the writing...no one is born with a book publishing contract...it's understood that all writers begin by being unpublished, and that's not held against them...more over, many published writers find that they still have to keep selling themselves to editors and publishers each time...because even though they are already published, their previous book, or books may not have done very well...so in some ways they are only marginally better off then someone who is totally unpublished.  If you have great credentials or a very interesting experience to write about, that will be taken into account very strongly.

tory

Are most agency contracts for a specific time period, or a particular book, or...?

Jeff Herman

Most agency contracts are probably on a per project basis, meaning that the agent is only authorized to represent you for the project in question...it does not mean that you will work with that agent for your next book unless you both want to.

Mary Rosenblum

Interesting. That's a very flexible arrangement for both sides.

 

I know a lot of people in the audience would like details of what you want in regards to submissions. For those of you who came in late

 

I did mention the subjects Jeff handles at the start of our conversation. So you only want a query, Jeff? No chapters at all?

Jeff Herman

I am primarily a nonfiction agent...in that area I represent a very large range of works. I have handled many commercial and professional business titles, but I also like spiritual and new age subjects as well as popular psychology, and basic practical how-to and self help books...books that tell people how to do something better.

bingocliff

Do writers need to have a Bachelor or Master degree before being considered by an agent?

Jeff Herman

Being educated in the formal sense will not be held against you in most cases. Seriously, however, you're degree only matters if you are writing on a subject that demands it...for instance, if you are writing about psychology, you are expected to be a licensed psychologist or to have access to one who will be your co-author.

kat32

In finding an agent, are there any major signals we should look for that mean "yes, this is a good agent" or "no, something's fishy here?"

Mary Rosenblum

Good questions. I've seen some nasty scam artists out there!

Jeff Herman

Yes. You have to be careful and there are clear signals of trouble, for instance, agents who advertise in magazines or by mass mailing of brochures are probably not really agents...if a so-called agent offers you a contract real fast, that demands you to pay over a large amount of money, you can be sure that's a scam. The only way an agent should make money is from a commission, by selling the work to a publisher for the client.   If an agent offers you a contract, you are entitled to ask that agent for a list of his sales, and if she does not have such a list, or the list shows publishers that you have never heard of, that is a scam.

Mary Rosenblum

Good point. Remember folks, the publisher pays YOU to publish your book. YOU do not pay the publisher!

joker

Who pays the agent's commission?

Mary Rosenblum

Want to explain how payment actually works, Jeff?

Jeff Herman

The writer pays the commission...it's part of the agent's job to sell the work to the publisher and to negotiate the contract...which includes the advance and royalties.  For doing this the agent will be assigned 15% in most cases of whatever the writer's earnings are. If the agent cannot sell the work, then the agent does not make any money, nor does the writer of course.

Mary Rosenblum

Now in my case

 

my publisher pays my agent and my agent then issues me a check, after subtracting her commission. Is this pretty typical?

Jeff Herman

Yes it is. The money routes through the agent, who then deducts the commission and sends the balance to the writer within a week or so of receiving it.

sailor

How often do you ask writers to change their material? Is it common for agents to request changes?

Jeff Herman

Most agents don't have time to act as editors...but they will take time to ensure that the work is presentable...and they will often have constructive suggestions for how the work can be made more saleable.

speckledorf

Do you prefer the writer to have book written before querying you or do you like to have a hand in the process? And, do you prefer a query over proposal and sample chapters?

Jeff Herman

if we are talking about nonfiction, most of the time you will not have the manuscript written, nor do you need to.  What agents and editors will want is a fully developed book proposal, which will include a chapter by chapter outline and maybe a sample chapter. On that basis, a decision can be made about actually acquiring the book for publication, and the writer will have a deadline to write the manuscript after signing the contract and receiving the first advance payment.  For fiction, it is strongly preferred that the entire work be drafted prior to agents or editors being willing to read it.

gail

In your interview with Claire E. White, Writers Write, you mentioned most agents now receive 15% commission. Is this on gross sales or the writers' royalties?

Jeff Herman

It is against what the writer receives from the publisher, which means the advance and subsequent royalties, or moneys from subsidiary rights sales.

seattleauthor

Do you see different levels of advances for different genres?

Jeff Herman

some categories are more cookie cutter and generic in the way advances get paid...for instance, certain romance categories have a budge model that requires each contract to pay maybe a 5,000$ advance each time, no matter what.  The goal of a writer is to maybe start out there, but then out-grow it by moving up the ladder to the point where advances are more discretionary...based on the quality of the work or the writer's track record.

Mary Rosenblum

Don't nonfiction advances tend to be higher overall than fiction?

Jeff Herman

You can't pin it down. the range for nonfiction can flow from the mid four-figures to the six and seven figures. There are just too many variable to make a blanket statement about what pays more or pays less.

Mary Rosenblum

Ha, sounds about like the fiction world. :-)

bingocliff

So how are the royalties paid on a published book? Weekly, monthly, quarterly, yearly, thru the agency, or directly to the author?

Jeff Herman

Most publishers report sales twice a year. The report will show how many books have sold.  If the advance has been earned back from the royalties, then a check will be included with the statement, which will be made to the agency...the agency will cash the check, keep its commission, and send the balance to the client.

happybunny

Does an agent also negotiate the contract for the writer? If yes, then should a writer make sure their agent has good skills in terms of negotiating contracts?

Jeff Herman

It’s the agent's job to negotiate the contract in behalf of the client. If you have an agent with a good record of notable sales, then you can feel secure that he or she knows what they are doing...besides, the agent’s commission will expand as the writer’s money expands.

Mary Rosenblum

I think that's the key. A reputable agent WILL be good at negotiating publisher contracts

 

because that is what he/she does for a living. I know that my agent does call in a lawyer for the occasional fine point in the contract

 

but usually handles it herself.

 

I do have a question about location. Most agents and agencies are in the New York area or nearby, but you do a fine job from Massachusetts. Do you travel to NYC quite often?

 

The reason I ask is that I have warned novice writers about agents a long long way from NYC.

Jeff Herman

My first 15 or so years in the business I lived in new York City, and that was a valuable way for me to make the relationships face to face. But most of the actual dealing was done by phone, and later a lot by email. I would have had a tough time building those relationships without living in the city...now I have relocated to the hills where life is a little more pleasant for me and the family, and I’m about two hours or so from idtown... I go in two or three times a month for meetings, and that's plenty.

Mary Rosenblum

Aha, I see. Those early relationships matter. :-) Thanks.

ashton

So what happens after the query has been accepted by an agent...what steps do the agents take next?

Mary Rosenblum

Good question. Could you walk us through the process, Jeff?

 

I think it's alien territory to a lot of new writers.

Jeff Herman

Well the query is an invitation for the agent to request the proposal or the manuscript. if the query is accepted, that means the agent has been convinced that he or she should take the time to actually read some or all of what you wrote...following that, if they like what they read, they will offer you representation.

Mary Rosenblum

What happens then?

Jeff Herman

Then it follows that the agent will begin pitching the work to editors. The agent will probably do this on a multiple basis...which means that he or she will show the work to as many as ten editors at 10 different publishers at the same time.  In an ideal situation, more than one editor will want to acquire the work which means the agent can play them against each other and leverage higher and higher terms, but often the agent is satisfied to have just one good offer in hand from one good publisher because not everything that gets pitched is actually acquired.

Mary Rosenblum

And then comes the contract. Which in my world of fiction publishers, is 7 or 8 legal sized pages in ten point type single spaced, both sides. Which is a large part of the reason I have an agent!

happybunny

So should writers look for an agent that lives in or near NYC? Or, if they do not live in NYC, should we ask what connections that agent has made with editors in NYC? Should writers ever go with an agent that lives, say, in California?

Jeff Herman

Let’s return to an earlier point, that first you have to sell yourself to the agent before you can expect the agent to sell him or herself to you.  Good agents are rejecting 98% or more of what they receive. Now, once an agent offers to represent you, then you can do your due diligence about that agent.  That might begin by your requesting a list of what they have sold and to which publishers.  If they have a track record and the proven ability to perform, then you should not really care if they are doing it from the moon, so long as they are getting the job done.

happybunny

Some publishers still do take unagented submissions. If a writer is able to place a manuscript with one of these publishers and it is accepted, does the writer then need to get an agent to negotiate the contract, or will an intellectual property attorney do in the place of an agent?

Jeff Herman

It’s a good idea to get an agent or qualified lawyer to handle the negotiation for you. If you already have an offer in place most agents will do it for a reduced commission or maybe for a  fee alone. If you use a lawyer, be very careful that it is a lawyer who has handled book contracts before, otherwise he or she might skip over the really important stuff and focus on irrelevancies, or worse screw-up the entire deal for you, because not all lawyers are trained to make deals, sometime the opposite.

Mary Rosenblum

What about small press publishers and electronic publishers? Do you handle negotiations with them, or place work there?

Jeff Herman

There are small presses, and then there are small presses. for instance, some people might say ten speed press is a small press, because they are not a giant press, like Penguin Group...but then you have presses that run out of people's kitchens, and they can function very well.  If you work with a small press, you want to be sure that they are legit...which means they pay you, not the other way around.  If they have a track record of actually getting good books into distribution, then you are in a good place.  Small presses can often be much more creative and flexible than the large houses. Agents will often avoid small presses because the advances tend to be low which means the commission will be low...however, in the long run, a writer can make a lot of money from a small press from the royalties.

Mary Rosenblum

And I suggest that before any writer sign with any publisher, you type that publisher's name into Google. If it is a scam, you will find warnings posted in nearly all cases.

bingocliff

Jeff, do you yourself attend many writer conferences?

Jeff Herman

I'm invited all the time, but the traveling takes me away from what I need to be doing in the office, and my dogs don't like me to be away...not to mention the rest of the family...but I find it's very useful to do several a year, because it keeps me fresh.  I like hearing what writers are thinking and what they are writing...I always learn more from the writers then they think they are learning from me.

happybunny

How did you become a literary agent?

Mary Rosenblum

Yes, what took you down that road?

Jeff Herman

It fell on time of me, in a way. I was an unemployable twenty-something year old, and was running my own pr shop...some of my clients wrote books as a way to promote their services, and I started pitching the books for them to publishers...I did not know that I was an agent, or that there was something even called an agent, I was just doing it as part of my pr/marketing program for the client...editors stated to call me an agent, and eventually I began to actually wear that hat...the rest id history.

Mary Rosenblum

That's fascinating!

 

It certainly means you have a literal lifetime of experience.

anne shiever of ks

Wow Jeff you could write a book about that, too if you haven't already :)

Mary Rosenblum

Actually, he has written more than one.

 

I'll put links to them in the transcript. They are well worth purchasing if you mean to publish book length work.

Jeff Herman

Thank you for the endorsement

Mary Rosenblum

Herman authored Herman's Guide to Book Editor's, Publishers and Literary Agents with more than 300,000 copies sold, and co-authored Write the Perfect Book Proposal: 10 Proposals That Sold and Why!, as well as, You Can Make It Big Writing Books.  Click here for information:  Jeff's books  

 

Believe me, Jeff, I only endorse books I think are worth paying for if you're a self supporting writer. :-)

roe

How long of a response time is it generally if a writer queries you?

Jeff Herman

I feel bad answering that question because, frankly, I have not always been able to hold up the standards I think writers are entitled to. In general I think you should wait about four weeks to hear back...but I also suggest that you query at least 5 agents at the same time, so that you don't get jammed if the agent is jammed.  The only reason an agent doesn’t respond in a timely fashion is because they don't have time to...it's that simple...so you should make multiple queries to ensure that you are reaching agents who actually have time to read you.

happybunny

Any tips on how a writer should approach an agent at a conference? I just went to a conference where there was a "big name romance" agent from NYC, and she was swamped by people all of the time, even in the bathroom!

Jeff Herman

Well I guess you need to be a little creative in a situation like that, otherwise you will just be another face lost in the crowd...usually conferences have time slots set aside for one to one meetings... but if that kind of opportunity does not exist, then offer to drive the agent to the airport at the end of the event, or to pick them up, or to do some errand for them...make yourself useful as a human being to that person, and they will be more like to remember you.

Mary Rosenblum

Jeff, you have been wonderful, and have generously answered a lot of questions. Do you have any parting words of advice for our audience of aspiring writers?

Jeff Herman

Yes. No one is born published...thousands of books are published each year by real publishers...and writers are needed to write them. So never decide that you can't get a book contract... only if you think that way will it become impossible for you to get published. Good night and thank you for listening to me.

Mary Rosenblum

Thank you for coming, Jeff!

 

Thank you for your time, your thoughts, and good night. It has been a pleasure.

 

Thank you all for coming!

 

Good night, all!

 

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