Q&A: Cafe Talks to Katie Kotchman, Literary Agent
I had the distinct pleasure of conducting a Q and A with literary agent Katie Kotchman of Don Congdon Associates regarding the ins and outs of the publishing industry. The following includes some information to keep in mind when searching for an agent and seeking publication.
I keep the original, unabridged responses in part to demonstrate how complicated publishing can be. The following includes some of the hard facts of the publishing industry.
Thanks once again to Katie Kotchman for her time, knowledge and expertise. Without further ado, the Q and A:
CA: In general, what are the factors an agent considers other than (1) quality of writing, (2) marketability, and (3) previous publications/awards?
KK: You’ve certainly covered the three most important factors that I consider for any project, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction. But I’d like to unpack the term “marketability” as there are two distinct components, the most obvious being what audience or sector of the market the project appeals to. But the author’s marketability is a crucial factor as well, particularly for nonfiction, and is often referred to as the author’s “platform”. A nonfiction author can have a great concept and write well, but if they don’t have expertise and established channels through which to reach their audience, the chances of a successful sale are very, very slim. I’ll talk about platform in more detail below.
If an author has previous publications, I must consider the sales track records of those projects. The fact that you’ve been published before does not, in and of itself, make an agent more interested in your work (although they’re likely to give your query a closer read). That’s because it can be easier to launch a debut novelist than overcome dismal (or even modest) sales on a previous book. Poor sales performance is one reason authors will choose to start writing under pseudonym as it provides a clean slate, so to speak. And regardless of how you choose to publish in today’s evolving publishing landscape, your sales track record will be a crucial factor—even for self-published titles. Consider the following: if there’s a poor sales record of a print on demand edition through Nielsen Bookscan, I’m not likely to offer representation because I know the editor will have access to those less-than-stellar sales, which means it will be hard to generate enthusiasm in house. Even if the editor can get his/her colleagues on board, the next hurdle is convincing retailers to order enough stock. When a publisher’s sales rep only has a few seconds in front of the B&N or Amazon rep to sell-in upcoming titles, the retailer’s rep makes snap decisions, and they’re often based on the sales numbers of an author’s previous books. Of course, there are exceptions, and a piece of writing could be beautiful enough to overcome a poor record, but it’s something to consider before jumping on the CreateSpace bandwagon. And don’t think that because Bookscan doesn’t track ebook sales, you’ll fly under the radar with a self-published ebook. “How many copies did you sell?” is the first question everyone—agent, editor, and fellow writers—are likely to ask you.
Beyond platform and sales track, I have to consider the client’s needs, too. It’s important for me to schedule a phone call with an author before offering representation so I can get to know more about their personality and working style. Do they need an editorial agent or are they looking for minimal editorial feedback? My goal when taking on a new client isn’t just to sell their current project but to build an author’s career over a lifetime. When taking this kind of long view, compatibility is key, just like in any relationship.
CA: What, specifically, should one being published for the first time know and understand about the process? i.e. Advances, royalties, rights. What should an author fight for in terms of artistic liberties and marketing?
KK: Going through a boilerplate contract would easily fill a week-long seminar! The best and simplest advice I can give is never sign the first draft of a contract that a publisher sends to you. Here are the major things one should educate themselves on (or ask their agent about!) before signing a contract:
- Advances: How and when is it payable? It’s common for a publisher to tie payments to on signing of the contract, with additional amounts payable on the publisher’s acceptance of the manuscript and/or publication. Be sure you know under what circumstances an advance would be repayable. Hint: you should only have to repay an advance if it’s related to your own breach or nonperformance under the contract. You should never have to repay an unearned advance in order to get your rights back in the event of the publisher’s breach, nonperformance, or in the event your book goes out of print.
- The difference between net and list royalties. List is paid based on the retail price of the book (set by the publisher) regardless of whether a bookstore or online retailer chooses to discount. Net is based on the actual monies received by the publisher, so you have to factor in what discount the publisher provides to their retail and distribution partners. Since most publishers won’t (or aren’t allowed) to disclose the specific terms of their agreements with retailers, a good rule of thumb is to cut the retail price in half and then multiply by the royalty rate. And you should also have a rough estimate of the industry standard rates, which currently are 10% of list for hardcover, with escalators to 12.5% and 15%, 7.5% for trade paperback, and 25% of net for ebook (for traditional publishers only as ebook publishers are likely to pay a royalty of 50% of net or more).
- Be sure you know exactly which rights you’re granting to the publisher, and limit the grant of rights to those formats/adaptations that are within the publisher’s ability to exploit (e.g. a publisher isn’t a film company, nor do many have a dedicated film agent to pitch the publisher’s books to Hollywood producers). Always be wary of the term “derivative editions” or “all other rights/editions” as that could mean literally every format and adaptation whether now in existence or to be invented hereafter. It’s this type of unclear language, which can be buried in a contract, that’s led to lawsuits over ebook rights as the digital format gained traction over the past decade. A good rule of thumb is to always ask for the following sentence to appear in your contracts: “All rights not specifically granted to the Publisher under this Agreement are reserved for the Author’s sole use and benefit.”
- Be prepared to grant the publisher an option on your next book, meaning that you’ll show the manuscript for your next book to your publisher and give them an exclusive period of time to consider and make an offer before you submit the book to another publisher. This language is usually drafted to be as broad as possible, but you should limit it to your next book length work in the same genre as your current project.
- Make sure there’s an out of print clause. If you book is no longer available for sale in print format through traditional trade channels, you should be able to get the rights back (in order to re-publish). But because virtually all publishers release ebook editions, and an ebook doesn’t go out of print in the traditional sense, you have to get language providing a minimum sales threshold should the book only be available in an ebook or print on demand edition.
As for fighting for artistic liberties and marketing, here’s a hard truth: unless you become the next James Patterson or self-publish, the publisher will almost always have the final say. It’s highly unusual (as in I’ve never seen it) to get contractual language that gives the author approval over the book’s content and cover design, while guaranteeing a specific marketing budget or activities. If the editor doesn’t like a scene, a character, or another artistic choice you’ve made, they can reject the book. Your recourse will be to make the edits they’ve requested or refuse and run the risk that the publisher could cancel the contract and ask you to repay the on-signing advance. This is where relationships become crucial, far beyond the scope of contractual language. Your relationship with your editor, and your agent’s relationship with the editor, can turn a potential issue or impasse into a constructive conversation and/or compromise where both sides leave the table feeling satisfied.
Contractually, you should always ask for consultation on the cover design, but don’t expect to receive approval. If you don’t like the cover designs put forth, you can express that, and many editors will go back to their design team to solicit tweaks and perhaps even brand new mock ups. The majority of publishers, in my experience, want the author to be happy with the cover design and will work hard to satisfy the writer while making sure the art team, publisher’s office, and sales and marketing teams are also happy.
On the marketing and publicity side of the equation, you can and should ask up front what plans the publisher has for the book, but don’t expect to see those plans in specific contractual guarantees. Rather, you’ll have a team meeting or conference call with your editor, agent, in-house publicist, and a marketing associate in the 3-6 months leading up to the publication date. During this meeting, you’ll establish the specific things the publisher will do (sending your book to be reviewed, contests to win galley copies, placing ads on Goodreads, Shelf Awareness, and the like, scheduling readings and signings, pitching you to national TV/radio/print media). Be prepared to do your fair share of the heavy lifting here. In order to get as much coverage as possible, you may have to talk with the manager of your local B&N or Indie directly, you may end up pitching yourself to an outlet or two, you might even edit or tweak the publicist’s press release. It’s a team effort, and authors who break out from the pack aren’t afraid to involve themselves in the marketing and PR of their book.
CA: How important is education or having an MFA with regard to getting an agent to represent you?
KK: It’s certainly helpful, as it shows your passion and commitment to the craft, but it’s not a pre-requisite. Come to think of it, I have far more clients without MFAs or any background in creative or professional writing. But an MFA can provide you with a considerable leg up, from understanding narrative structure to peer critique, as well as giving you valuable industry connections. Agents often present to or scout in MFA programs, so you’re more likely to get noticed and perhaps even have face time with an agent if you do pursue an MFA. But not all programs are created equal, and I’d be wary of MFA programs that only push a certain type of writing—I’ve heard too many anecdotes about professors who actively discourage genre writing, which is detrimental to a student, in my opinion. Also keep in mind that there are many free and low-cost resources that would effectively allow you to create a DIY degree. Start by picking up copies of as many writing guides, such as Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction or Elizabeth Lyon’s Nonfiction Book Proposals Anyone Can Write, as you can.
CA: What is it besides good writing that you specifically are looking for?
KK: I think I covered a lot of this earlier, but I should also mention that I look for authors who are polite, respectful of my time, and open to and accepting of feedback. This doesn’t mean my opinion or editorial comments should be treated as gospel, but I found out the hard way that it’s not possible to work with an author who refuses to accept criticism and/or edit and revise their work.
CA: It’s mentioned in your bio on Don Congdon that in nonfiction you seek authors with built-in platforms. Can you speak more to the importance of the writer’s platform in the industry?
KK: Absolutely. A writer’s platform is their expertise and methods in which they reach their audience. For a business book, your platform might be comprised of:
- Your experience as the CEO of a global corporation;
- A conference speaking schedule of 10 events per year with a combined audience of 25,000-50,000 people;
- A regular column for Fast Company, Forbes, or Inc. about leadership;
- A quarterly email newsletter that reaches 30,000 employees, colleagues, fellow business leaders, HR managers, and the like;
- A Linked-In network with 5,000 connections and followers of your content.
If you’re writing practical nonfiction, a platform like this is a must. After all, you’re asking a publisher to take a considerable risk by advancing you thousands of dollars, many times before you’ve even written the full manuscript. In order to make such a gamble, the publisher wants as much assurance as possible that you have a built-in audience who will purchase copies. This is the way you prove that to a publisher.
For fiction, particularly literary fiction, a platform is less important, but it can help to sell your manuscript to a publisher (and then sell the finished book to consumers). This tends to be the case with genre fiction such as romance, young adult, mystery, thriller, and so on. Readers of those categories tend to be voracious, and they love to engage with authors online. It brings them into a conversation in a way that wasn’t possible just over a decade ago. And publishers love that, because it can generate online word of mouth for a title, and word-of-mouth is still the number one driver of book sales.
In short, the more connected you are to your target audience, the better
CA: What are the most common query mistakes you’ve come across?
KK: Not following the agent’s submission guidelines, which is always a red flag, is the biggest and most common mistake. You wouldn’t apply for a job with a company without first understanding what the company does, so why would you blindly send a query to an agent? After that, the second most common mistake is also one of the easiest to avoid—failure to proofread. Typos, emails addressed to me but using someone else’s name in the salutation, the wrong agency name, a line that was clearly left over from a previous query (such as “I was referred to you by your good friend [insert name of someone I’ve never met before]). Read your query through twice before you hit the send button, particularly if you’re forwarding or have copied and pasted it from a prior draft.
I’m also a proponent of straightforward simplicity within a query letter—in a few paragraphs, tell me about the book and about you. If you still have room on the page, you might also tell me why you wrote this particular book and why you’ve chosen to query me. Resist the temptation to be cutesy or clever, as it rarely works. Don’t write the letter in the voice of your character. Don’t start the letter with rhetorical questions (I’ve only had this work as an effective means to pull me in one time over tens of thousands of query letters). And please don’t just send me a note that you’ve written a book and then attach the full manuscript.
CA: How important is the bio to the query letter?
KK: For nonfiction, it’s absolutely critical as the author’s experience and platform can make or break a project. For fiction, I’m less concerned about the bio, but I do want to know if you’ve placed short stories in literary journals, online, or in major print publications. If you have absolutely no writing experience, feel free to include a sentence or two about your day job and education background, but you needn’t give me a detailed life story and family history. If you’re a fiction writer with a particularly active and successful social media platform or website, be sure to let me know. And if you’re best friends with a successful author or public figure who’s already given you a blurb to use, I definitely want to know!
CA: What’s the best piece or pieces of advice you can share with unpublished writers who are looking for a literary agent?
KK: Do your homework and follow the agent’s submission guidelines exactly. If you don’t, you run the risk that your query will be deleted or tossed in the garbage unread. And don’t get discouraged by rejection. The reason(s) an agent passes on your work are numerous and multi-faceted, and they might not have anything to do with your actual talent as a writer.
CA: How do you typically find work you would like to represent?…What percentage of the writers you represent comes from the slush pile, your own solicitation, or from some other source?
KK: Slush pile queries, referrals, and conferences are the three main avenues. Digging into my data from just the past two years, I’ve offered representation to eight authors, 55% of whom came to me via a referral, 25% via unsolicited query letter, and the remaining 20% from conferences/speaking engagements.
I also write to bloggers, essayists, journalists, and public figures if I’m fan and can’t find any evidence that they’re already represented by another agent. This latter method has yet to yield me a client, as many agents do the same, especially for a self-published phenome, a viral hit, or the like.
CA: Tell us about something you’ve sold that’s coming out soon, if you care to share!
KK: In February 2015, Wiley published Jenny Dearborn’s Data Driven: How Performance Analytics Delivers Extraordinary Sales Results. It’s a practical business book about big data that uses a fictional storyline of Chief Sales Officer hired to reinvigorate a corporation’s flagging sales department. The author’s skill in creating an engaging and effective story surrounding the often dry topic of data and analytics blew me away!
While I don’t have an upcoming fiction project that I’m able to announce quite yet, I do want to give a shout out to a book from a phenomenal debut author who I wish was my client: S.M. Hulse’s Black River was just published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. It’s a profoundly moving portrait of a man and a book that perfectly captures the kind of emotionally compelling writing I seek to represent. I haven’t stopped thinking about it since I heard the author read the first chapter as part of her MFA program in January 2011.
Louis Campana is a staff writer for Café Americain and a second-year candidate in American University’s Creative Writing MFA program.