Nathan Bransford, Author


Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Trust and Communication

Based on some comments in the.. uh... comments section, it occurred to me that I'd never really written a post on the ideal author/agent relationship or my ideal client. And while I don't talk about specific relationships on the blog, it's actually a pretty simple equation. Every author/agent relationship is different, but they all depend on two essential ingredients: trust and communication.

Trust is especially key, and while it is something that is steadily built over time, it's essential for an author/agent relationship to kick off on sound footing. Over the course of the relationship the author and agent are going to go through some great times and some not so great times. They're going to have to deliver difficult truths to each other. The author is going to have to trust that the agent has their best interests at heart and is working hard on their behalf, and the agent has to trust that the author will fulfill their responsibilities.

I really can't emphasize enough how important this is. Some authors I've spoken to are incredibly paranoid that their agent is going to pull one over on them. People, there is nothing to be pulled! There is just no incentive for a (reputable) agent to scam their clients. We ARE our reputations in this business, and we're on your side. We want you to succeed as much as you want to succeed.

The essential second element is communication. The lines of dialogue must be open. I can't believe how many authors approach me who are scared to talk to their agent! This is like being scared to tell your doctor that you have a cough. If you are feeling uncomfortable about something, talk to your agent. Give them a chance to address the matter. If you want to change something, talk to your agent first. If the lines of communication have broken down it's a serious matter, but first give your agent to address the problem.

So when considering whether to sign on with an agent there are two questions you need to ask yourself: Do I trust this person? And can I communicate with this person? While every author/agent pairing is different, a solid relationship will be built on this foundation.






40 comments:

Jackee said...

Nathan,
Has anyone told you lately that you have the best blog in the industry? Because you do! Thanks for your posts... and your vigilence in us mere mortal's behalf.

Sam Hranac said...

It is a marriage of sorts, with diminished conjugal rights.

Maya Reynolds said...

I feel incredibly blessed to have Jacky Sach as my agent. She is blunt when she needs to be, supportive when I need her to be, and she has a great sense of humor.

When I'm obsessing (something I excel at), she is calm. When I couldn't understand what my editor was trying to say, Jacky went through the manuscript and picked out examples for me to concretize the explanation.

I hear people say all the time, "What do they do for their 15%?"

How do I count the ways?

I don't begrudge her a single penny of her fee. In exchange, I try very hard not to be a PITA client.

Adaora A. said...

@Jackee - I completely agree.

I remember asking about agent/author relationship very basically and I thought then you gave me a fabulous answer. This is even more detailed. Thanks so much.

Guy Stewart said...

Maybe I'm Minnesota naive, but I can't think of a business relationship being made of anything else but trust and communication. While I am a science teacher, my brother is in construction and my brother-in-law is in radio...

My brother is both trusted by and trusts his (Minnesota-based)employer. My brother-in-law DID trust his employer, but they announced to him that they were going in directions he wasn't suited for and dumped him one grim day (THEY are headquartered in San Antonio, TX). While I can't say that ALL Minnesotans are trusting and/or trustworthy, I would tentatively claim that we are among the most trusting and trustworthy people around. ;-)

All that said to say that I HOPE someday to float a proposal or novel or contract offer your way...

Kalynne Pudner said...

So (hypothetically speaking) if an author receives an offer of representation, and this initial phone conversation doesn't "click" (the author feels intimidated, or they simply seem to be talking past each other), is it better to pass on the offer and hope for another?

That's one tough prescription for an author who's only gotten one positive query response for every ten sent out.

Nathan Bransford said...

kalynne-

It's a judgment call. I do think it's better to have no agent than an agent relationship that is bad from the start.

Richard Mabry said...

Nathan,
Your analogy of the relationship between doctor-patient and agent-author is excellent.
As a retired physician, I can tell you that not only is it imperative for the patient to trust the doctor and communicate with him, but it is equally important that the doctor trusts the patient to tell him truthfully what's going on and then trust him enough to follow his prescription.
Thanks for an excellent blog.

Anonymous said...

trust is important, in the general sense, but a typical agency-writer client contract is going to outline exactly what a writer can expect, in the legal sense.

but I think the "trust" issue is really more about comfort. I read a lot of agent blogs and seems as though so many writers are ***singularly fixated*** on "getting" an agent -- any agent -- and in the process forget it's a relationship like any other.

the conversation of an agent offering to represent you (the writer) is the first of many, many conversations - and may not even happen rightaway. I spoke with my agent for almost a year before he offered a contract. I had made several revisions and tried to otherwise show myself as responsive and alert -- I viewed our dialogue as a test run for what a contractual agent-writer relationshp. and it turned out, pretty much, to work out that way.

all this blog/internet advice is great, in one sense, but what I always see left out is that dialogue (between writer-agent) is how that dialogue/conversation is one that evolves over time.

I've only had one agent so I have nothing to compare this one to but what I will say is that his voice immediately put me at ease. that said, it's taken me quite a while to let down my guard and have actual conversations with him, stripped of false (_____) whatever.

my eagerness is please is hardly unique -- that this is even a topic, though, I think points to how prevelant (and self-sabotaging, potentially) that attitude can be.

sometimes, fulfilling the phrase, "just be yourself" can be the hardest thing in the world. and the most important.

pjd said...

It is a marriage of sorts, with diminished conjugal rights.

From my observation of many marriages over the past 20 years, diminished conjugal rights pretty much happens anyway.

If it's really like a marriage, then who makes the kids' lunches and takes them to soccer practice? Who does the laundry? And when the holidays roll around, which in-laws do you visit?

I assume this is all part of the standard agent-client contract.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Nathan Bransford said...

anon-

I can definitely understand. Just remember 1) the agent is human!, 2) you are awesome or the agent wouldn't be interested, 3) take the agent's advice, revise your work, and see what happens.

Believe me, I can sympathize with the emotion that builds with searching for months and months for an agent, and investing so many hopes in dreams in that search, and when it comes along, being stricken with fear that you're going to scare the agent away. But that's not how it works.

So important to take a step back, take a deep breath, and be cool. Easier said than done, I know.

Anonymous said...

Anon at 3:44 here - Actually, Nathan, can I ask you a favor? Can you delete my original post? Too much info divulged, and I've got the fear. But many, many thanks for your reply - it's very reassuring. :)

A Paperback Writer said...

Sam,
"Diminished conjugal rights"?
Uh, I'm not quite sure I'd trust an agent that had ANY sort of conjugal rights worked into the contract.....

Anonymous said...

Anon at 3:44 once again - Thanks for doing that, Nathan.

Maybe this might be a worthwhile topic to blog about - when you're doing the will I/won't I dance with a potential client, what are you expecting of them at that point? What will keep you interested vs what will send you running? I mean in terms of communication and personality as well as their approach to the work. You may well have covered this before, but I thought it worth mentioning.

Conda V. Douglas said...

Excellent post, Nathan.

Communication is the key. That builds the trust. And I believe it reminds us writers that this is a business relationship, first. We all love our baby manuscripts, but an agent is in the business of selling a product, not an infant.

Parker Haynes said...

Thanks for a great blog post and reminding us about the importance of trust and communication. I find them imperative to any relationship worth maintaining, author/agent, husband/wife, parent/child friend/friend. And mutual respect weighs right in there, too.

Anonymous said...

But what if there is a communication/trust issue to the degree that you feel it might be time to move on?

I know we should be open and honest, and perhaps try a one last ditch effort to rectify things, but it's really hard to say, 'I don't feel we've gotten as far as I'd hoped' when really I'm saying, 'I don't feel you have worked agressively enough.' How do you have that kind of heart-to-heart effectively (and tactfully)?

(My situation is one where he's had my MS for a year, sent it out 7 times with only 2 positive rejections, the rest of the 5 still in limbo.)

I'm...disheartened and trying to figure out if I should move on, even though the agent has several big name clients. I've brought my concerns about communication to the table once before already.

susan d said...

I may have papers all over my desk and seven drafts of a particular manuscript stacked at right angles, but I keep a list of deadlines, turn in my work on time and am highly dependable. What drives me insane is writing for editors who say things such as "I can't find your article, can you send it again?" "I misplaced your invoice," or "I need to have this by the end of the week."

If I were to end up with an agent like this, I can only say I would either go into convulsions or have to take some really strong medication.

Nathan Bransford said...

anon@5:00-

If you haven't already, check out Jessica Faust's post on divorcing your agent. She has some great things to say on the matter.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Nathan. I checked it out!

Anonymous said...

Anon at 5, I know just how you feel. I'm in a similar situation with my agent. I request things and request things and he agrees to it...and then never follows up.

We've had moderate success on certain points of our relationship, and others that I view as a complete failure. A friend today told me that sometimes, people just aren't a good fit. I think that's the case sometimes.

He's not a bad agent. He's just not a good-fit-for-me agent.

Nikki said...

Nathan,

My situation - as an author - is a bit different than most. I've written a "young adolescent" book which is included in the curriculum of many Houston area schools. My audience and contacts were already there - we've sold over 23,000 of the books - are moving towards a 2nd printing and I am now finishing up a 2nd book in this adventure series (same characters, etc.). My question is, if I've had this type of success on my own, if I have built-in customers, is there a need for an agent or publisher? Possibly to bring the idea to others outside of this area? It's something I've considered but have never pursued. I appreciate any input you can offer.

Nathan Bransford said...

Nikki-

Yes, absolutely. An agent can help you negotiate contracts, sell subsidiary rights, guide your career... an agent would help immensely.

Nikki said...

I appreciate your quick response and it's clear there are certain benefits. And please don't take offense - I realize that in most situations agents are beneficial and really quite necessary to get your name and work out there - but it's a bit tough to consider giving up my nearly 100% royalty situation to a percentage which would be significantly less.

If I had little to no sales, the answer would be obvious, but sales have been quite surprising and the supplemental income has, well...helped. Tough to give that up. I guess it's a matter of more sales opportunities with less take-home versus less sales and mucho take-home. Understand my hesitancy?

Nathan Bransford said...

Honestly, an agent would be worth far more to you than 15%, which is why virtually all authors have them. You will get a better deal from publishers, an agent will have more of a sense of what opportunities are available with subsidiary rights (which can be extremely valuable), an agent can help grow your career...

Trust me on this one, an agent is the way to go.

Nikki said...

Great information - I appreciate your input and will definitely look into it.

Wanda B. Ontheshelves said...

Hi Nikki...I went to your blog, apparently the book you are referring to is "Journey to Pansophigus," and you have corporate sponsorship, i.e., the "businesses involved in the water industry":

"The kid's love the story and the teachers love the program...so isn't it time to bring this, en masse, to folks outside suburban Houston? The question is...how? It is one of our most important accomplishments that we have been able to bring this book...this program to the schools at NO COST to them. We do this through sponsors...mainly businesses involved in the water industry..."

So is it the businesses that pay you, or the school system, or? So your goal is, you want to sell the book through Barnes and Noble type bookstores, rather than to school districts, or to corporate sponsors?

I mean, I thought with sales of 23,000 books, agents would be all over it, automatically - but that's not sales to individuals, that's to school districts??

I understand that what the Texas school system purchases, the rest of the country's school districts follow suit...because Texas is so big...actually it came up in the context of "educational materials" that menstrual product companies supply free to school districts...so, say if I wanted to create a different kind of menstrual education material to provide school districts for free, I'd have to A) Pitch it in such a way as Texas school districts would okay it, i.e., "pretty conservative"; B) Have enough "stock on hand" to supply all the school districts in Texas; and then C) Have enough then to supply every school district in the country with the same materials. Kind of a tall order! So then if a tampon or pad maker decided to sponsor me and my forward-thinking ideas (but still Texas-friendly, hmm) (stranger things have been known to happen), they would be paying me...so would that still count as "sales??" Not sure...

Nikki said...

Wanda,

I'm not sure if I completely follow your "menstrual" example, but if you're asking if we have sponsors...the answer is yes. Some are large, some quite small - some individuals, some companies. The book is included in curriculum and sold on its own. It's an adventure story that works with the curriculum, but was written to live on its own as well...as "young adolescent" fiction.

I asked Nathan the question b/c this book CAN live on it's own - through individual sales - it's just not a route I'm currently taking. If you want a true description of the book, its characters, how it's used, etc. you can go to our publishing site: www.waterlilypress.com. Maybe that will clear things up for you...although I'm not terribly sure what's unclear.

Good luck to you in your endeavors and I hope you can wish me luck in mine.

Anonymous said...

Nathan, this post was so timely for me, and thanks, as always, for the excellent topics you address. I have just done a revision for an agent who called me into his office, and the anxiety of waiting is enough to drive me crazy! I forgot how difficult this process was when I went through it with my first agent. Will he like my revisions? Will he drop me altogether? Will there be another round? I agreed with all his suggestions and tried to do the best I could. But it's much harder than just waiting for an agent to review a manuscript for the first time. It's like...a matter of life and death! Yes, it's taken me months to get to this point, and I don't want to blow it. I think the most important thing is that I'm really pleased with the new version, whether or not he likes it. And that's enough to ride on for a while. Any words of advice?

Nathan Bransford said...

anon-

Good luck! I wish I could say that a request were a guarantee of representation, but unfortunately it's not. But it sounds like a great start and I know waiting is agonizing, but you're in a good place.

Anonymous said...

Nathan, so good to hear from you at this late hour (I'm in New York and drinking Jack Daniels)-- perhaps I wasn't clear, but it wasn't just a request, it was a revison request, that's why I'm so nervous. I really like this guy, he's got an unusual list, and it's only been two weeks that he's had the revision(he was very fast the first time reading the manuscript, less than a week). Anyway, great to hear from you.

Nathan Bransford said...

Oops! Meant to say revision request. But best of luck, it really is a great position to be in.

Anonymous said...

Hi Nathan,

Great post. Here's a question about communication:

Two months ago, my agent sent my book out to a great list of editors. Since then, I haven't heard anything from him. I don't expect frequent updates (particularly if there is no news) and I do realize that he has many clients while I only have one agent.

But I've sent a two emails with quick but legitimate questions, and he hasn't responded. And I called (prior to submitting my book, we chatted on the phone frequently) and left a message. But he didn't call me back.

I feel like I've been reasonable in not expecting instant responses, not expecting daily phone calls, not expecting a ton of hand-holding and cheerleading, and understanding my place in the food chain.

But at what point should I become "concerned" and try to investigate further? Is it normal to ignore your client for two months? I wouldn't think a quick email response is too much to ask. Or, am I mistaken in my expectations? It's certainly possible he's swamped with other submissions he's trying to prepare or whatever.

Any insight you can provide would be greatly appreciated. I don't want to make a mountain out of a mole hill but neither do I want to wake up in a year and realize it's been wasted time because I was overly concerned with being polite and understanding.

Thanks for the time and for such a great blog!

Dwight Wannabe said...

...So says the agent, and that's fine. I'm sure your advice comes from a sincere place.

But from the client's perspective agents are a trolley that may slow down but never stops. Agents are always busy, always in motion, and... it is my limited experience... generally very "on task" during those precious windows of communication.

I always have a laundry list of questions and topics ready to discuss when my agent calls, and I'm lucky if I get through a third of them.

So when authors say, "I'm afraid to tell my agent _____," what some of them are saying is that they're so conditioned to shouting at the blur of boxcars for so long they don't know how to get a Type A conductor to come to a complete stop long enough to broach the touchy-feely "Hey, mister, you ran over my cow back there" stuff.

And now I'm checking myself into rehab for metaphor addiction.

Ross Browne said...

On the topic of communication, I think one really good question to ask an agent offering to represent you is what how much of a commitment he or she is willing to make to your book. An agent who's willing to take you on but only for a small number of submissions to publishers can ultimately do you a disservice if the book doesn't sell in the course of those submissions. (It's much harder to find an agent for a manuscript that's already been represented.)

Wanda B. Ontheshelves said...

"Trustification over time"...not so easy

I feel like agent's blogs are great! But then, I wonder if maybe somewhere in my subconscious, with each visit to a lit agent's blog, I'm building up some unattainable "sky god" (or goddess) in my mind, without quite being aware of it...so if and when I finally DO get an agent, all of a sudden, it'll be like hello sky god! Aaargh! Run! Something primitive and self-protective kicking in. Potentially quite embarrassing.

I mean, you can post on lit agents blogs every day! But then when you start querying, maybe it will be a nonstarter. 100 posts on lit agent blogs does not equal 100 requests for partials. That's not the math. I've sent equeries and query letters before - but I don't think they ever "gave a sense of the writer's voice," as they say. Just my enthusiasm for my own project(s), grammar and logical flow be damned!

So it's like the benefit of posting on lit agents' blogs is - a bridge between your novelist's voice - and your query letter, that quasi-corporate memo that's supposed to "give some sense of your voice." Plus word count, pitch, etc. "Brass tacks."

That's even before you get to the "hard truths" that may arise once you have an agent. My biggest fear I have about actually having an agent (interested) is - the furrowed brow - the words: "I don't quite follow" "I don't quite see how those are connected," and then I have to EXPLAIN. So in addition to the furrowed brow, there will be the glance at the clock, the impatience and frustration - c'mon, get with it - or not saying anything, and then 6 months later, it'll be: "Why didn't you tell me you were doing X? Why didn't you say anything about Y?"

Kind of like with Obama now, and "pastorgate," if you want to call it that. And there are political strategists around him now, wondering "Why didn't you tell us??" Except for me it would be "arts'n'crafts-gate" or "poetry-gate" or something like that. "Where's all this STUFF coming from???"

The day begins, that awful sky-color that's as gray as white can be, and still be considered white. Jim Morrison: "The days are bright and full of pain." Not here in Michigan!

Nathan Bransford said...

Ross-

Very good suggestion.

anon@8:25-

That's a tough situation, and it's one I don't know if I have an easy answer to. I would keep in mind that submissions can take a long time and an agent just might not have anything to tell you (and may be expressing that with his silence). I would continue to be considerate, but if it continues you might express your concern directly. And if that isn't answered... then you have to make some decisions.

Anonymous said...

Hi Nathan -

So glad you wrote this post. A couple of weeks ago, an agent called to offer me representation. Something about our conversation felt 'off,' but since he's with a legitimate agency, I figured it was just me.

A week later he emailed to say he was 'off the project' and that another agent in his office would take a look to see if it was something she was interested in.

Part of me is bummed that I'm back at square one, part of me is relieved that he aborted the process before anything was signed.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Nathan. This is an extremely important post. I've been tossing around the idea of firing my agent for a few months now. It wasn't until I read this post that I realized airing my difficulties with her might be a better idea. It's difficult for a person to fix a problem, if he/she doesn't know there is one.

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