Seek an Agent Who Takes the Long View: Advice for writers from literary agent Marie Campbell

Marie Campbell photoMARIE CAMPBELL is a senior agent and partner with the Transatlantic Agency, based in Toronto, Canada. She joined Transatlantic in 2003 and represents writers of children’s fiction for ages 8+.




AL: At what stage should a writer think about looking for an agent?

MC: There is no hard and fast rule here, as requirements differ by individual agents even within the same agency. In general, I’d say that agents look at a writer’s background even before they look at the specific pitch for an individual project. We’re not looking only for previous publications — I’ve been known to be hooked by a quirky resumé. One recent client I took on, for example, is previously unpublished, but she’s just completed a master’s of fine arts in creative writing and, of particular interest to me as I represent children’s writers, also works with a community children’s organization. I scanned her c.v. with interest before I even read the summary of her current work.

But to address your specific question, I always tell my clients that we have exactly one shot at hooking the interest of a publisher’s acquiring editor — so I suggest their manuscript be in its best possible shape before we submit. I think the same is true of agents. For a first-time writer, I really do need to see a full, completed manuscript before I’m able to make a confident decision whether I can take it on for representation. It may or may not need to be have been professionally edited by the time it reaches my desk. That’s an assessment best made by individual writers when they consider the state of their manuscript.

AL: In the Canadian market, how essential is an agent? That is, are there publishers out there that accept submissions directly from authors, and if so, do they tend to be smaller publishers, or publishers of certain genres?

MC: Some publishers do accept direct submissions. It’s wise for new writers to familiarize themselves with particular publishers’ submission guidelines before beginning on their own — it can save postage, time, and frustration. Is a writer more likely to have their manuscript land in an acquiring editor’s to-read pile in Canada with an agented submission? Yes. Is it essential in every case? No. It’s not just the smaller publishers who will accept unsolicited, unagented submissions — sometimes the largest companies have staff capable of handling new material.

AL: What services does a good agent provide? And on the flip side, what would one not provide?

MC: This is a big question, but I’ll try to sketch out the basic services an agent provides. In general, we are responsible for marketing a writer’s work. We do this in various ways, from meeting with editors at book fairs and in their offices as well as keeping in regular contact in different ways, to maintaining a detailed website, which editors and commissioning art directors are invited to browse at any time. Most obviously, we submit writers’ work to publishers for their consideration for publication. If an offer is made by one or more publishers, we handle that negotiation, then review the details of the final contract on behalf of the writer. We also provide career management in various ways, including reporting to writers on the information we receive from editors and our sub-agents around the world. We are also responsible for ongoing issues that arise as a result of any contracts we’ve negotiated.

AL: How would a first-time author begin looking for an agent?

MC: The route to finding an agent can be as circuitous and happenstance-filled as looking for a publisher. In general, I think it’s important for writers to familiarize themselves with the industry in which they are hoping to publish their work. Word of mouth is an important part of many industries — perhaps all the more true in the book-publishing world. Several agents with my agency, for example, accept new queries only from writers who have been recommended by one of the agency’s current clients. So how to look for an agent? Meet people, talk to people, ask questions of anyone you can find involved in the book business. Ask writers whether they would recommend their own agent — the response to that question will say volumes. There is, of course, always the Internet, and sources such as the Writers’ Union of Canada.

AL: What should the writer look for in an agent?

MC: As I often explain to new and prospective clients, the author–agent relationship is, in an ideal world, a long-term one. For that reason among many, “fit” is important. Does the agent “see” your work as you’d like? It’s my view, too, that an author should be looking for an agent who does take a long view. It’s certainly common enough practice for an agent to take on a single contract negotiation on behalf of a client, but I prefer to look beyond a single contract — I’m really quite determined to develop a client’s career. Publishers will often (well, not as often as they used to) tell us earnestly that they “publish authors, not books” — I think a good agent should represent an author, not a single book.

AL: How important is it that the agent specialize in certain genres? Are there generalists out there who will take on any kind of manuscript?

MC: The answer, curiously, is yes to both questions. It can be extremely important for an agent to specialize, as any agent is only as good as her contacts — and it’s hard to maintain contacts in every publishing field. (I, of course, say this as someone who specializes in children’s fiction, bear in mind!) And yes, there are generalists who represent a very broad range of types of material. Both models can and do work very well, often within a single agency.

AL: Is there greater safety in going with an agent who is part of an agency than with one who works independently?

MC: That’s a good question, though I don’t think there’s a straightforward answer to it, in large part because I believe much of any relationship — especially, perhaps, those involved in creative cultural industries — is about “fit.” Some writers like to be published by large, multinational companies; others prefer the more intimate fit of a smaller publisher. Neither is better or worse, and the same is true, I think, of agencies. The one question I’d encourage writers to ask of prospective agents, whether they work with an agency or not, is whether writers’ payments are held in separate trust accounts. When they are, it means that writers’ income is separate and protected if the agent or agency were to file for bankruptcy protection.

AL: Is there a way to check out an agent’s experience, reputation, or credentials? Is it appropriate to ask an agent about these things before sending in a submission?

MC: Because I do believe these are long-term relationships, I think it wholly important for an author to do their own due diligence when approaching an agent. After all, if successful, they will be signing a contract with an agent and an agency — and it’s never to be taken lightly, putting your signature on a legally binding document. While agents need to “interview” their authors, that process is as much for the authors to interview us.

AL: How does payment generally work? Should writers be wary of agents who ask for money up front?

MC: Absolutely! Standard industry practice is that agents earn a commission from sales of their clients’ work. It’s one of the reasons I think there’s a successful alignment of interests with agents and their clients: I only make money when I actually sell something for them. I’ve certainly not encountered an instance in which we would ask anyone for up-front money.

Payment is made from the acquiring publisher to the agency, on the writer’s behalf. The agent’s commission and any other expenses/charges are then taken from the gross amount, and the net amount due is paid to the writer by the agency.

AL: What form should an author’s initial query/submission to an agent take?

MC: It’s very important for authors to do as much research as possible about an agent’s interests, specialties, and preferred form of inquiries before sending off an approach. Nothing irritates me more than being pitched a project that is wildly off my stated interests, which are clearly listed on my agency’s website. I represent children’s writers only, for example — so an author who pitches adult gardening books is wasting their own time, and mine.

AL: How long might an author expect to wait to hear back regarding a submission? What’s an appropriate amount of time to wait before following up?

MC: This is an awkward one for me — I have only recently come to the end of a long-overdue to-read pile! Some authors there had been waiting six months, I’m embarrassed to admit. I’ll leave that to individual writers to judge when nudging becomes counter-productive. As a general rule, I’d say 6 to 8 weeks is an acceptable period of time to wait for an agent to get to your submission. That said, a hot property can be read in an afternoon — I recently signed up an author after having her manuscript only two days.

AL: Is it acceptable for an author to make simultaneous submissions to more than one agent?

MC: If an author is approaching more than one agent at a time, they should let each agent know that from the first correspondence. That might put some off, though it can be part of our competitive world. Within my own agency, for example, we do require writers to query only a single agent within the agency at a time.

AL: When you turn down an author, do you provide a reason, or suggestions for improvement?

MC: Unfortunately, time and volume of submitted material doesn’t generally allow for that kind of correspondence, particularly if I’m passing on the opportunity to represent a particular writer. I do have several different versions of the way I communicate a pass, though. Oftentimes I might not think I can place a particular project but am intrigued by a writer’s voice — so I’ll ask to see what they have ready next for submission, or I’ll ask if they’re working on something else. If I’ve not offered to leave the door open for future correspondence, though, it’s probably not open.

AL: Once an agent has agreed to take on an author as a client, the two sign a contract. Briefly, what would this contract set out?

MC: It sets out our responsibilities to each other, includes a warranty from the author that this is indeed original work to which the author has copyright, sets out the agent’s commissions and how expenses are to be handled, and often, and among other details, a process by which the contract can be cancelled.

AL: And how would a contract be terminated by either agent or author?

MC: There should be a process set forth in the contract for how the relationship might be dissolved — it’s usually possible with written notice, from either party, in a prescribed period. It’s perhaps worth noting that even after an agent/author has ended the relationship, any previous and existing contracts between them continue to flow through the agency and are subject to its commissions.

AL: Is there anything the author should watch out for in the contract? And should an author have a lawyer look it over before signing?

MC: Again, I’d look for details of how the accounts are to be managed. It’s entirely up to an individual’s confidence in their understanding of the contract and its language whether they want to seek professional advice on it.

Very helpful, Marie. Thank you!

Note from Allyson: This is an updated version of Marie’s  interview, one of the most-accessed posts on my website to date.

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