forward thinking on book offers

jaylake has posted this morning about the first book contract, elaborating on the idea that the first offer may not always be your best one but that the focus on getting that first sale for (possibly) months or years can put a lot of pressure on that consideration. If you want to make a career out this writing gig, you must remember that each contract is only one portion of the journey.

From this agent’s point-of-view:

I have had clients turn down book offers. I don’t always agree with their reasons but my ultimate goal includes working for that author, so it behooves me to listen. In one case, it then took me two and a half years to sell that same book elsewhere (with no other sales in between). That was a long and frustrating journey — for the author, too, I’m sure.

Reasons we have turned down offers:

Thought we could get a better deal elsewhere — Thank you, Captain Obvious. However…. do listen to your agent in this instance as they are far more likely to know whether a better offer is reasonable to expect. What you want (what your agent wants) and what is reasonable for the market to bear are not always the same.

Overcommitment. Not that I’m going to point any fingers or name any names, but I have occasionally had clients who want to accept an offer even when there is no human way that they will ever deliver on time. An author exhausting themselves does not lead to their best work. One of the things an agent can do is help to manage your career and that includes knowing your ability to produce and what effects it may have on the other parts of your life.

Author has had problems with the publisher in the past — Again, listen to your agent here. If the staff has had some change-over, your issues may no longer be relevant in the new regime. Also, a caution — if an agent begins to get the impression that it’s the author’s approach that needs mending, they do have their entire client list to consider and their own relationship with the house as well. This is unavoidable. So, think carefully before you act in the publishing world.

I would never, ever, ever turn down an offer without first consulting the client (though I have heard from some writers that there are agents out there who have done that). I might very well tell them up front why I don’t think the offer is good for them, but the final decision must be the author’s.


The first offer of representation may not always be your best one either. Yes, I said that out loud. There are a lot of things to consider when choosing an agent — not just whether they are the first to say yes. I advocate having a conversation with them (either by phone or email if you haven’t already met them) and trying to get a feel for them as a person. With any luck you will be working together for a very long time over the course of many books. Think of them as a nanny who will raise your children. And then think of all those Lifetime movies that are about evil nannies that steal your children or kill them. Hmmm…. What a strange analogy I’ve stumbled across. In any case, I have an entire workshop based on the idea of choosing an agent who is right for you and considering different aspects of their workstyle, personality, and so forth. How do you find this out? By being connected in the writer community mostly. But, be cautious…. There are some sour grapes out there who will falsely malign an agent’s reputation, so don’t just take one person’s word for anything. Do your homework.

It would be so ideal if every talented writer could find the exact right agent and exact right publisher the first time around…..

25 responses to “forward thinking on book offers

  1. It is murderous hard to turn down an agent’s offer of representation, even if you have that little glimmer of doubt, if you see that s/he has done well by their other authors. When it’s your first, you tend not to know all the right questions to ask, and you honestly do not realize how certain things–manner, voice on phone, work habits–will affect you. Because the ears with which you hear that first offer are not the ears that hear less-than-happy news a few years down the road.
    Hindsight is hawk-eyed and merciless.

  2. This is one of those things I keep hearing, but because I have not been in a situation even remotely similar, I don’t know how to plan for.
    Ms. Snark suggested that a writer have a list of questions ready for a new agent. Do you have any questions that you recommend?

  3. After honing my craft and reworking my novel, I hope to find the right agent this year. :*) I already have a list of questions I want to ask, at the suggestion of authors, other writing websites, and a few of my own.
    Agents who have blogs give you an idea of who they are, and it gives great insight into said agent. :*) I agree in doing homework, and a blog or livejournal, is the best place to start. (If they have one!)

  4. A lot of wise words there. I have to say, if I currently had a book to sell (I don’t… yet 🙂 ) then I’d consider it an honour if you represented me on the basis of that post alone. You state so much that is apparently obvious and yet I can imagine many people not getting at all.

  5. I laughed so hard about the killer nanny comment . . . of course, its funniness is probably is due largely to caffeine consumption and sleep deprivation on my part.

  6. It’s hard to know…
    I did all the things right (according to Miss Snark). While Agent A dragged his feet, I continued to query. By the time Agent A finally offered I had already decided against him because he wanted to change my writing too much (and had very little agenting experience to back it up). However, when he did offer, I let the other agents know, and suddenly I was a hot commodity. This is where it all fell apart. I panicked. When Agent B offered, I thought, “Well, I know I don’t want Agent A, but what if C, D, and E don’t offer?” so I took Agent B and it turned out to be a huge mistake. I acted rashly because of the stress and excitement. I mean, you dream of a bunch of offers at once, but you never really think it will happen. And you can’t imagine the level of adrenalin you operate on for those few days while it happens. In the end, I fell for a lot of flattery and promises without doing my homework on the agent. When she acted all hesitant to let me hear from the other agents, instead of a red flag, I panicked and said yes. The agent is loved by at least one of her clients that I’ve gotten to know, but what I didn’t realize is WE weren’t a good match and I didn’t take the time to find out. Now I am back looking for a new agent (my choice) almost a year later. I have Kristen Nelson’s questions on hand, but any tips you can give me for navigating this once again, would be helpful. I do know to take my time.

  7. The content of this post is so important, and always so overlooked.

  8. RE: doing your due diligence, there’s a lot more information out there now than there was when I got started. The writer community was the only way I got either of my agents. Twenty years ago, there was very little else to go on unless you followed little snippets of nws and obsessively read all the books they talked about in Publisher’s Weekly. Being poor, a lot of writers didn’t have access to that, either.
    As a result, I really appreciate your how-to posts here. There’s always something more or new to learn.

  9. I have occasionally had clients who want to accept an offer even when there is no human way that they will ever deliver on time
    I cannot *imagine* what you might be talking about. O.O

  10. When I received an offer of representation, I let that agent know I was going to contact other agents who’d requested partials to see if they were interested.
    Some were, some weren’t, no one was weird or uncomfortable about it (that I could tell over the phone). I didn’t sign with that first agent because the second seemed like a much better fit and had more experience, but there were no hard feelings.
    There’s no need to rush into things.

  11. “Think of them as a nanny who will raise your children. And then think of all those Lifetime movies that are about evil nannies that steal your children or kill them. Hmmm…. What a strange analogy I’ve stumbled across.”
    Oh, I so needed to hear that. *hilarity*
    That kind of truthful humor is so very necessary in what can be an austere and daunting world.
    Though that is, of course, why I couldn’t ever watch Lifetime. Cutting the cable TV (that I never watched anyway) out of the house about 6 years ago was one of the best things I ever did.
    And why do all those movies seem to star Melissa Gilbert?

  12. I’m certain you’re a fan of the book that sits on my book shelf Jennifer!
    I noteced you’re ” from the mixed up files of…” comment!
    From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L Konigsburg who won a Newberry in ’68.
    Such a classic.

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