"A Return to Agents: the Positive Side" with Kim Siegelson

Thursday, November 15, 2001

Moderator is Kristi Holl, author of 24 books, 150+ articles, and the web editor for this site.

Kim is Kim Siegelson, author of several award winning books. She won an American Librarian Association (ALA) Award in 2000, has been a writer-in-residence at the Disney Institute in Orlando, and was Georgia's Writer of the Year in 2000. Her newest picture book, as well as a novel, are upcoming from Hyperion Publishers. Her books include In the Time of the Drums, Escape South!, Dancing the Ring Shout, and others.

Names color coded in blue are visitors who asked questions.

Interviews occur on Thursday nights: 9-11 p.m. Atlantic/Canada, 8-10 p.m. Eastern, 7-9 Central, 6-8 Mountain, and 5-7 Pacific

Moderator: Good evening! Welcome to tonight's interview. I'm Kristi Holl, your moderator and the web editor for this site. We have with us this evening Kim Siegelson to speak on "A Return to Agents: the Positive Side." Kim has been successful in both the book and magazine fields, and gives much credit to her agent of seven years. Agents are becoming more necessary, especially in the aftermath of the September ll events and anthrax scares, and tonight Kim will share with us her views on agents, how to obtain one, and much more. Good evening, Kim

Kim: Hi, Kristi, it's nice to be here!

Moderator: Kim, at what point in your publishing history did you decide to get an agent? Had you already accumulated some publishing credits?

Kim: I had already sold a book on my own, a novel. While negotiating that contract I started fishing for an agent.

Moderator: Have you been pleased with having an agent versus marketing your own work?

Kim: Yes, very pleased. I am at home, run the house, and have two small boys. I've found that having an agent frees up a lot of my time. Not that I don't stay up with the market, but I don't obsess over it like I used to. Also, I don't like to negotiate money with my editors. I prefer to have a friendly rather than antagonistic relationship. I let my agent be the "bad guy." Additionally, I think she's better at placing my work. She keeps up with things. She's got a broader picture of the publishing world than I do and what particular editors have need of.

Moderator: You've had one agent for seven years. Was she your first agent also? And how did you obtain her?

Kim: She is my first, yes. I think I spent more time looking for my agent than I did my doctor! I began by looking at the agents listed with the Association of Authors Representatives. You can get that list on the web under I narrowed my search down to agents who specialized in what I wrote; I think there were about 15. Then I weeded those out using my own personal criteria and got the list down to 5. I submitted manuscripts to all of those (letting them know I was doing multiple submissions). I got bites from 3 and I interviewed them. Of those 3, I decided to go with the agent I've had for 7 years. I think I've been happy with my choice because I took a lot of time in making my decision, and used good business techniques.

Moderator: Do you have to have an agent (at least for a while) to be a successful professional writer?

Kim: Not necessarily. You need an agent when you decide to take your writing into a career mode. You don't need an agent if you're writing articles, short stories, or poetry. Most don't represent those things because there's no money in it. If you write for the young adult market or juvenile market you don't always need an agent either. You do need an agent if you have larger career goals and a number of book-length manuscripts ready to go.

Moderator: We've all heard more horror stories about agents than positive ones. Do you think your author-agent relationship is really unusual?

Kim: I don't think so. I know a number of authors who are very happily linked to their agents. I think the good relationships just don't get as much press. I think my relationship has had some ups and downs, but I think of my agent as a career partner. I looked for someone with that goal in mind, and I did homework and footwork to insure I'd get the right person for me.

Moderator: What makes your relationship with her work when so many such relationships aren't successful? Is it just "luck," or do you do specific things that make it successful?

Kim: Once you've done your homework and you've secured an agent, three things are most important to that success. First, open communication. You can't be afraid to tell your agent what you expect, want, and don't want from her. Don't make her guess! Second, establish clear goals for yourself. Do this before you talk to your agent. Third, make sure you have common interests. I don't mean you both like sunsets and walks on the beach. I mean that she likes what you write in a general way and believes in your work as a body. She might not be crazy about each manuscript, but she should like a lot of it and see your work in a holistic way.

Moderator: How do agents differ in their approach to marketing (both good and bad)?

Kim: I think some market from their gut; they not only try to sell the manuscript, but they also try to put the author with editors who will be a good personality match and be right for the book. Others just want to sell. And some authors don't mind that. I've had editors who cherished my work and I enjoyed the process much more when I worked with them than with someone who didn't care as much. I think some agents also look more at subsidiary rights such as movies, and maybe don't do the book justice in where they place it. I personally want an agent who markets with both me and my book in mind.

MBVoelker: What do you mean by some agents looking more at subsidiary rights and not doing the book justice? I don't understand.

Kim: My feeling is that a manuscript is a book first and foremost. Some agents look at a manuscript and think "Wow, this might be a good movie!" and they market it more like a script. They spend more time shopping the movie rights than they do the book rights, and you sometimes end up with an inferior book because its placement with a publisher has been a second thought.

Moderator: Does your agent act as your editor? If so, is that something authors should all expect?

Kim: My agent doesn't do any line editing. She has given me general feedback such as "I'm not sure you've polished this enough yet" or "This character seems a little flat," but she doesn't try to rewrite. I've heard some agents do, but I probably wouldn't be interested in having them do that.

Moderator: Does your agent act as your mentor or career advisor? It sounded as if she did. If so, can you give an example?

Kim: I think she does. She knows the goals I've given myself and she works to get me there. For example, I'm considered a literary writer and my goals aren't necessarily to sell lots of books (though that would be nice). She's been good about placing me with publishers who have highlighted my books toward the literary community and awards committees. She's also advised me against certain publishers that I met at conferences because she didn't feel I'd be happy with the way they distributed books, allotted publicity money, or treated authors.

JaciRae: What do you mean by a literary writer? (As opposed to what kind?)

Kim: Hopefully I can explain. I write books that are "stand alones." Much of my writing is language rich, much imagery, unusual subjects. I'm not considered a writer of popular fiction, but literary fiction. For example, John Grishom is a popular writer and Ha Jin is a literary writer.

wendymh: How many "ready to go" book-length manuscripts should you have before you start contacting agents?

Kim: I'd have at least 2. Agents don't usually want a one shot deal, unless it is a masterpiece! (Always exceptions.) Most agents want a writer who wants a career, and to have a career you have to show that you plan to produce.

Moderator: In these days when, due to the anthrax threat, publishers won't open unsolicited mail, is an agent more necessary than ever?

Kim: It's probably a good idea. But again, only if you plan to submit books. The difficulty is that there probably aren't enough agents to cover everyone right now, so finding one will be more difficult than just going ahead and marketing yourself. Also, there will probably be an influx of questionable agents to be wary of. I would suggest marketing your own work where you can while also shopping for an agent.

Moderator: Will agents open their mail? They must be getting flooded at this time now too.

Kim: The ones I've spoken to say they will, but only the ones with return addresses that don't seem oddly bulky. One suggested that she'd feel more at ease if she received queries in transparent envelopes, the ones that look like thick onion skin.

Moderator: Will agents take unsolicited queries, or must a new author be recommended by one of the agent's clients?

Kim: A good number will take unsolicited queries, but most prefer a recommendation. Many work without a lot of support staff, so wading through slush is time consuming. They feel that a recommendation increases the probability that the author will be up to par.

Moderator: Editors have said that a bad agent is worse than no agent at all. How is this true?

Kim: I think it is true. My editor told me of an agent who played under the table, said she'd give an exclusive, while in reality, the "exclusive" went to several publishers who were then pitted against each other. They were all angry because the agent wasn't up front with them and it reflected badly on the author because the editors assumed the two were in cahoots! Another agent called an author represented by my agent and asked if she'd sign a release allowing an author he represented to use her book idea for a CD-ROM game. In reality the author couldn't give this permission without the publisher's approval, so had she done so, there probably would have been a lawsuit brought. A bad agent can get an author on the "bad list" with editors and with publishers, even the law!

Moderator: Are there some agents that have no clout at all, that can't get your manuscripts read any sooner than if you sent them in over the transom yourself?

Kim: Sure, if they are brand new and just establishing a client list, or if the agent submits to a publisher without knowing an editor personally or having any sort of contact there. Those are the two biggest reasons. That's why it's important to do your homework when interviewing agents.

Moderator: Should you ever pay an agent to represent you before he/she sells your work?

Kim: A big fat NO! NEVER pay an agent at all; they work on commission. No sales, no money... just like in real estate. Some charge fees for office expenses, some even charge reading fees. My agent doesn't charge for office expenses or reading fees; in fact she cautions against any agent who charges to edit. She asked that I alert this audience to the AAR canon of ethics which restricts its members from charging reading fees. Her feeling was that a sign of a reputable agent was one who had an AAR membership. That's not to say that an agent who doesn't have an AAR membership is bad. An agent has to have at least 18 months of experience before they can apply.

Moderator: Thanks for that warning! What percentage is standard to pay an agent? [At what point do they get paid--before or after the author?]

Kim: Most get around 15%. That's pretty standard. They are paid before the author. Usually, the publisher sends royalty statements and checks to the agent or agency, who takes their cut and sends the author the balance. An agent-author relationship goes beyond writing to the fiduciary.

Moderator: Has your agent always been able to sell your work?

Kim: Not always. Although I have to say there are none we've given up hope on. She has been able to place some pretty quickly and she sold one I wasn't so sure was salable!

Moderator: Have you at times acted as your own agent, perhaps independently submitting manuscripts?

Kim: Not books, as my arrangement with her is that she will submit. There isn't always a problem with an author submitting on his own, but you have to make that clear from the beginning. One problem that can arise is if you and the agent are submitting to the same places or you send something to someone that alters the agent's game plan for another book.

wendymh: Once you have an agent, are you committed to only write adult books and not also write children's books and magazine articles?

Kim: Not at all! You can write what you want. Some agents only represent children's books or adult or nonfiction or whatever. If you write all sorts of things, you might look for an agent who represents both juvenile and adult, or you might have two separate agents.

Moderator: Are conferences good places to meet agents? Why or why not?

Kim: Yes. Most of the ones who attend are looking to build a client list. Even the ones with full lists will sometimes take on a new author with promise, and all said they like the face to face meeting a conference provides. Part of a successful author/agent relationship is about personality and chemistry too. You'll know quickly whether or not you like that agent as a person. Even when you meet an agent at a conference, you still need to check them out as you would one you didn't know.

Moderator: Should you bring your manuscript to the conference to give to an agent? If not, what should you prepare ahead of time?

Kim: They usually don't like to have a manuscript thrust at them. Simply tell them what you are working on, be clear and focused, not rambling on and on, and ask them if they would accept a formal query, or if it goes really well ask if you can send them a few chapters and a summary.

Moderator: It's been suggested (by you and others) that authors interview agents before making a commitment. What questions should an author ask?

Kim: Well, I've already suggested that you ask if they are a member of AAR, but then ask the following: How long have you been in business? Will you be overseeing my work or will someone else in the office be doing this? Do you consult the author on all offers? What are your commission rates? Procedures for processing funds? How do you keep clients informed of your activities? Do you issue an agent-author agreement? (Not all do.) How do you work with your authors? Who are some of your clients? Which houses have you sold to in the last 3 years?

Moderator: Great questions! What might be some warning signs that you're talking to the wrong agent?

Kim: Watch out if you notice the following: There is an up-front fee. They are just too enthusiastic, especially if the praise is followed by a request for funds. They drop names, make vague references to connections without anything to back it up. They aren't willing to give you a client list, or a list of houses they've sold to. And there have been horror stories of agents referred by questionable publishers, especially vanity presses.

Moderator: For those who joined us later, where can you find lists of agents that are reputable?

Kim: On the web look under and And at the library look at Literary Agents of North America (Author Aid Assoc.) and Guide to Literary Agents (Writers Digest). A good book to get, also, is Literary Agents: The Essential Guide for Writers by Debby Mayer.

Moderator: Excellent sources! Thanks! If you want to find an agent, how do you contact him/her? What goes into the query or proposal (or whatever kind of contact you make)?

Kim: Most prefer the mail, still! They want a short query letter that talks about what you are working on, and your writing interests. And they like about 3-5 chapters of a novel with summary. For those who write children's books, you can send whole picture book manuscripts, but don't send more than 3 at a time. Never send treats or other persuasive enclosures!

Moderator: Because of the anthrax concern, would you recommend an e-mail inquiry these days? Can you call the agency and ask for their e-mail address?

Kim: None of the agents I questioned recently liked e-mail queries. They consider e-mail a private way of communicating with clients and business associates. They don't want their e-mail jammed with long novels.

Moderator: If someone gets an agent, but they just don't "mesh" after all, how long should you give an author/agent relationship before calling it quits?

Kim: At least 6 months. And you shouldn't suffer or fume in silence! Talk to your agent and voice your concerns and disappointments. Ask what can be done to remedy the situation and then give her another 3-6 months to get it together. The key is communication, just as it is in any relationship in life.

Moderator: If you have an unsatisfactory agent, how do you "fire" him/her?

Kim: Preferably not with a "dear john" letter. Set up a conference and let her know you've given it a good try, but things just don't seem to be working and you'd like to sever your agreement. You'll want to be clear about what's going to happen with books she is already in process of marketing as well as any money you are owed. Also find out what will be happening with any unsold subsidiary rights.

Moderator: Do agents ever "fire" authors if their books aren't making enough money?

Kim: Not so much if their books aren't making money, but if the author is no longer producing. An agent may decide to part ways if she feels an author is too difficult to work with, or if that author has begun sending a lot of work that isn't up to par. Or the agent may decide that she can't fulfill the author's expectations.

Moderator: What's the biggest hurdle to getting an agent and how can a writer's chances be improved?

Kim: The biggest hurdle right now is the lack of agents with room on their client lists. Authors can improve their chances by doing careful research and approaching agents who specialize in their genre, also by attending conferences and gatherings where agents are speaking or attending, and by making sure the work they send is their absolute best. It should be polished and professional in appearance as well as content.

Moderator: What is the greatest factor in an author seeking other representation?

Kim: Probably a lack of open communication. Sometimes authors haven't been clear about their own expectations and goals, and sometimes agents just lose interest in a client and no longer fulfill those expectations.

wendymh: Does your agent arrange for bookings to speak at conferences, etc.?

Kim: I know she's spoken at conferences, but I also know that her client list is full. Part of conference speaking is being open to looking at conferee work. I'm guessing, but I'll bet she rarely does them now. If you are asking if she signs me up for conferences, then the answer is no. The publicist at the various publishing houses where I have books refer some, and others have just come my way through networking and referrals from other authors. Truthfully, I don't pursue it very much. I have so little time to write, and speaking only makes it smaller.

BingoCliff: When interviewing an agent to ask her questions, how long are you able to spend talking? 15/30/45 minutes?

Kim: Let me back up a minute. An agent isn't going to answer any questions until she's interested in taking you on as a client. So the first hurdle is sending in a query that catches her attention enough to get her to call you. Once she's read your work and contacts you for further talks, then you ask your questions. By then she'll give you plenty of time to ask what you need. She'll want you!

JaciRae: If you sell a book and then go looking for an agent, but it takes months to find an agent, do you keep the book publisher just "hanging" till you find representation? How does that work?

Kim: No, you just might end up negotiating on your own. I've heard of authors making quick decisions because they felt pressured to have an agent negotiate for them, only to find out later they didn't like the agent. It's best to either go it alone, or find a lawyer who understands intellectual property or entertainment law (expensive), or find an agent who's willing to do a one-time negotiation without making you sign a long-term exclusive.

JaciRae: Do agents prefer (or not prefer) to have you come to them with a book offer already?

Kim: Many don't mind, especially new agents. Others with full client lists won't go for it.

wendymh: What was it like to be a writer-in-residence at the Disney Institute?

Kim: Nerve-racking (I get stage fright), but great fun. My children thought it was fabulous. They had a wonderful time while I worked! I spent a week speaking, and did a large presentation. Also did a presentation (entertainment basically) on a Disney Cruise ship. My publisher set all of that up.

Moderator: What fun! I'm sorry to have to stop now, but we're out of time. Kim, thank you so much for coming tonight and sharing your experiences with having an agent. It's been very helpful!

Kim: I had a great time!

Moderator: Do come back in two weeks on November 29 when I'll be hosting an evening Open Forum dealing with submission policies in the wake of the anthrax scare. How do we submit now? How do we get our foot in the door so editors will read our material? I will cover several alternative ways to get an editor's attention, and give out current policies on e-mail queries and submissions and much more. Thank you for coming this evening, and now, good night!

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