Lessons from the agents 3: Acceptance and beyond

  • An agent’s role is to sell a novel to a publisher.
  • Expect to be edited by both the agent and the publisher.
  • The first payment is an advance, followed by royalties if the advance is earned out.
  • If it does well in the UK, a novel will be sold again to overseas publishers.


(Alexandre Duret-Lutz [CC / Flickr])

This is a continuation from previous discussions of how to and how not to submit a novel to a literary agent. It’s what I learned when I put thirty eager debut novelists in a room with two long suffering literary agents, Hellie Ogden and Jessie Botterill of Janklow & Nesbit.

If you’ve done everything not only right but also really well, the agent will offer to represent you. There was some confusion about what that means. The agent won’t buy the novel, but they will undertake to sell it to a publisher. You won’t see any money until they do, and neither will the agent. Agents work on commission, not salary, so they need to make sure the time they spend on your novel is worth their while.

Polishing the jewel

They want to give your novel, and by extension their credit card bills, the best chance they can. They’re likely to start by editing your novel. There aren’t many major publishers in


(Sh4rp_i [CC / Flickr])

the business and while any agent worth their salt will have contacts in all of them, they only get to pitch a novel once. They need to get it right. They will expect you to work with them to give the novel the best chance they can give it of selling, first to publishers and then to readers.

If a publisher makes an offer, they are likely to bring in their own editor. That led to some grumbling about artistic integrity, but Hellie and Jessie insisted that shouldn’t be an issue. An editor works with an author. He doesn’t tell the author what to do, and the author isn’t expected to make every change the editor suggests. No one is going to buy a novel if what they really want is a different novel, and they agreed that they’ve never known an author to be unhappy with the results of the editing process.

The bottom line

When all that is done, the novel is released and the author and the agent see money for the first time. The author receives an advance against sales. We don’t get royalties until


(Jase Curtis [CC / Flickr])

enough copies have sold to cover the advance. The advances they mentioned ran from £5,000 ($7,300) to £400,000 ($580,000). The mention of the latter figure was informative as I got to see everyone’s most avaricious expression, but let’s be realistic. A debut novel is likely to be much nearer the former figure than the latter.

The next step relates to a peculiarity of the British market. Britain is the fifth largest book market in the world in terms of revenue, but it’s the third largest in terms of titles published. In 2013, British publishers published 2,875 new titles for every million people in the country. That’s more than twice as many as Germany, even though the German market is more than twice the size of the British market by revenue.

What’s going on?

Beyond the borders

The answer is that Britain is by far the largest exporter of literature in the world. That means the agent will have half an eye on the many different overseas markets. The largest single market is the USA, and a British book can cross the pond with little modification beyond a few changes to the spelling and a new cover. The other top ten markets will all need translation.

In fact, the top ten markets are, in order:

1/ USA

2/ China

3/ Germany

4/ Japan

5/ UK

6/ France

7/ Italy

8/ South Korea

9/ Spain

10/ Brazil

The good news is that if you’re successful enough for foreign sales to come up, you won’t


(John [CC / Flickr])

have to do that much about it. Even if you’re fluent in the language it’s being translated into, agents and publishers want you writing the next novel rather than spending your time translating the one you’ve already written. Translation is a different skill to writing a novel, and publishers have tried and trusted translators they send their books to. That’s good news for the author, who can let the translator do all the work and still get royalties from the finished product.

Some of the more multilingual writers in the room still looked unhappy until Hellie said that authors can ask for final approval on a translation.

Don’t worry about what travels

Some things travel better than others. A tale of derring-do in an Avro Lancaster bombing Dresden is unlikely to be published in Germany, which was the market Jessie and Hellie

spent most time talking about. If the tail gunner speaks in cockney rhyming slang, the navigator speaks Jamaican patois and the bomb-aimer is Glaswegian, it’s going to be hard to translate even if the Australian pilot can work out what’s going on in his own aircraft.


(Rob Reedman [CC / Flickr])

Having said that, Jessie and Hellie said it’s a mistake to write a debut novel for the sake of the translation market. Trends in publishing are hard to predict and no one is going to translate a British novel that didn’t do well in Britain. They said it’s best to simply focus on writing the best possible novel, and either it will sell overseas or it won’t.

I can only say that if I ever get to that stage, I’ll just be happy to be there!

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Posted in Wednesday Pontification, Writing
5 comments on “Lessons from the agents 3: Acceptance and beyond
  1. Reblogged this on lionaroundwriting and commented:
    Excellent advice for those of you publishing anytime soon.

  2. Reblogged this on voicetonemood and commented:
    Some more information about publishing…

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