Publishing my first novel - what should I be doing?
October 22, 2012 2:30 PM   Subscribe

I just got an offer to publish my first novel. I know very little about the publishing industry and the business aspect of being an author. Help!

(asking on behalf of mrs inire)

The novel is historical fiction. I have written about a third of it; the publisher made the offer on the basis of the first half of this and a synopsis of the rest of the novel. The publisher is UK-based and relatively small; my novel will be published under the historical fiction imprint that it set up this year.

I know that the best thing to do would be to get an agent, but as far as I can tell that will take me weeks (the agents whose websites I've looked at all say that they will respond to work submitted within six to eight weeks) and the publisher is keen to start drawing up the contract. So:
  • How important is it to have an agent when negotiating a contract? I don't want to sign a terrible contract, but I also don't want to put off the publisher by delaying for six weeks while I get an agent.
  • What should I be doing to get an agent? I've gone to the library to look at the Writer's Yearbook and I'm going to call a couple of agencies tomorrow to ask about representation, but I don't really know what to say beyond the above, or what questions to ask. Is it even possible for me to get an agent at the moment, given that I don't have a complete manuscript?
  • If I can't get an agent quickly enough, what should I be asking the publisher and looking out for in the contract? I know that I should ask about the royalties (they've offered ten percent on national / international / ebook sales, which on the basis of the Writer's Yearbook appears to be fairly standard) and the timescale for completing the novel, but presumably there are other things that a slightly overwhelmed first-time author should be thinking about as well.
Any other advice gratefully received!
posted by inire to Writing & Language (13 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
I don't know anything about publishing, but I have a feeling that an agent's response time for work submitted to them may differ substantially from an agent's response time to an author with a publishing offer in hand.
posted by hot soup at 2:32 PM on October 22, 2012 [6 favorites]

Step zero: identify whether this is a trustworthy publisher that prints books that real people actually really buy and read, or if it's some sort of weird vaporware "publisher" that preys on people like you.
posted by Nomyte at 2:44 PM on October 22, 2012 [11 favorites]

Yes. Call any agencies you want to work with and tell them you have an offer. I'd expect you to get a call back within 24 hours.
posted by bq at 2:45 PM on October 22, 2012

While I also know next to nothing about publishing, that slight move to "next" is due to the informative posts on mefi's own cstross's blog.

Of particular relevance is his explanations of book contracts. His writing makes clear distinctions between standards in US and UK publishing.
posted by andorphin at 2:47 PM on October 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

Make a short list of agents that you like, who have represented authors with work similar to yours. Starting with your favorite, query those agents, making clear that you have a solid offer from Publisher X for your book and want representation as you're negotiating and drawing up the contract.

Any agent that doesn't get back to you in a timely manner either 1) isn't taking on new clients, 2) really doesn't feel you're a good match for their book, or 3) thinks your publisher is shady.
posted by Narrative Priorities at 2:48 PM on October 22, 2012

You are mis-understanding the deal with agents. It's 6 - 8 weeks for unsolicited manuscripts they are reading, at which point they will take them on board and shop them around. They are working their connections and experience and relationships to do this, and it's at least 50% of what a first-time author pays their 15% for.

If you have a waiting publisher, any agent will bite your hand off. All they're going to need to do is negotiate the contract, which with a mainstream publisher will be very boilerplate anyway. They may want to take the proposal and shop it around to get some competing offers. You may also want to hold international rights and film rights, and to negotiate a better split for digital or to reserve digital (but almost nobody lets you do this now.)

And congrats! Don't forget to enjoy the fact that someone wants to buy your book.
posted by DarlingBri at 2:49 PM on October 22, 2012 [2 favorites]

You need an agent. I can not stress this enough. Narrative Priorities has it down.

posted by Countess Sandwich at 2:51 PM on October 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

I have had an agent respond to me within twenty-four hours. (And that was on an unsolicited manuscript that didn't have an offer sitting on the table.) Research agents that meet your needs; if there are any that you can contact by e-mail, prioritize them (all else being equal); and mention right in the first paragraph of your query letter that you already have an offer from a publisher.
posted by Jeanne at 4:05 PM on October 22, 2012

(Ugh, that should have been "Really doesn't feel that you're a good match for their agency.")
posted by Narrative Priorities at 4:19 PM on October 22, 2012

Don't call agents. Email them a brief query letter, and, as Jeanne says, specify that you have an offer.

However, I feel a bit nervous for you that you're a debut with an unfinished book and an offer from a small press and a new imprint. Please do your research that this is a legit opportunity and, more, the kind of marketing they put into their books. Even some legitimate deals can be kind of crappy, and, as a debut author who knows squat about the business, you're ripe for getting ripped off.

I can tell you that I would not have been able to negotiate my contract alone. However, some authors (particularly those in niche genres or who prefer to work with small presses) are able to do so. Still, there's lots of confusing, scary stuff in book contracts, and if you don't get an agent, you should at least have a lawyer look it over for you.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 4:21 PM on October 22, 2012 [5 favorites]

You definitely need an agent. There are a lot of scams out there, and you need to make sure this is a legit company, and definitely don't sign any contracts without an agent. Check out some author blogs for more info about publishing, I know quite a few authors who post a lot about the business side of writing, getting an agent, how publishing works, etc. Reading what some of them have to say might give you some valuable insight. Off the top of my head Sarah Rees Brennan has a series of "Stumbling towards publication" posts, and she has also talked about a couple of scams. as a bonus she's hilarious and a great writer (mostly YA fantasy.) She also links to posts by a number of her writer friends an acquaintances with good info. Search her tags. I think seeing the process from the author's point of view would be helpful. Ursula Vernon also talks about getting published. See her "publishing" tag. And there are many other blogs and sites with similar information, I suggest you read all you can, things will almost certainly go more smoothly if you go in with a good knowledge of how the process works and what to expect.
posted by catatethebird at 7:51 PM on October 22, 2012

Congrats on the contract!

I would definitely get an agent. It is unusual for an unpublished author to be offered a contract for an unfinished fiction manuscript (usually publishers only consider completed fiction MSs). You want an agent to make sure the publisher/contract are on the up-and-up. There are, unfortunately, a lot of scams out there right now and it would be a shame to get caught up in one.

Get in touch with an agency and they can help you through the process.
posted by LittleMy at 6:06 AM on October 23, 2012

Agent. Agent, agent, agent. As others have mentioned, email or call and say you have an offer in hand. Someone, if not several someones, will be interested.

In the meantime, research the crap out of this company. Google them and every red-flat word you can think of. It's not clear if you submitted to them or if you were approached, but if it was the latter, proceed very carefully. Making an offer to an unpubbed author based on the first 20% of the book and a synopsis is, in my opinion, a giant red flag all by itself, as is the fact that it's a small company and a new imprint. (The exception would be if the company's been around for a while and has a good rep, but even then...) If you have any hesitations, any concerns, trust your gut. This will not be your only chance to publish--you have other options, and if this doesn't work out, other things will.

Also, I realize that you're worried about inconveniencing them, but any publisher that gives you shit about "waiting for an agent" is bad news. If they're pressuring you, that's not a good sign--I'd be worried that they're either really desperate for books, or they're aware that their contract is kinda crap and they're hoping they can get you stuck with it anyhow.

Re: The contract: Are they offering 10% of net, or of list? If it's of list, you could probably do better; if it's of net, you should be getting more like 25%--you're flat-out getting screwed. Seriously: Agent.

Feel free to MeMail me if you want to talk--I'm well-versed in danger signs from small presses.
posted by MeghanC at 6:54 AM on October 23, 2012 [2 favorites]

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