For Agents, Timing is Everything

Cover of November 6, 2006.Image via WikipediaBy Richard Curtis

Okay, hotshot, we all know you're smarter than your agent. At least, that's what you're always telling your friends. So let's see how well you can do at second-guessing him or her in a few hypothetical situations. For every correct answer, you get a free power lunch in the Grill Room of the Four Seasons with any publisher of your choice; for every one you get wrong, same prize but you treat.

* Your client has had twelve genre novels published in paperback. They've sold about fifty thousand copies each. She thinks the time has come to be published in hardcover. You tell her:
a) She's absolutely right and you're getting on the phone at once.
b) She should write another dozen paperbacks that sell fifty thousand copies each, then you'll move her.
c) Wait till her paperbacks start selling in the hundreds of thousands of copies each.
d) She's crazy to want to be published in hardcover.

* Your client has just turned in the manuscript of a book that has good film possibilities. The time to start contacting producers is:
a) When the book is in bound proofs.
b) When finished copies come off the presses.
c) When the book starts getting good reviews.
d) Yesterday.

* You recently sold a client's first novel to a publisher for $5,000. The client has an idea for a new novel that he thinks has big money potential, and he wants a much bigger advance. The best time to ask for it is:
a) Now.
b) Six months from now.
c) Around the time the first novel is published.
d) A year after the first novel has been published.

In case you haven't noticed, all the questions in this quiz have to do with timing. Few authors realize it, but one of the most important reasons for hiring agents is that they have a superior sense of timing. "Timing is everything" might almost be called the agent's motto ("Patience is everything else" might be considered the agent's second motto). The most successful agents are those who understand that there is a season to push and a season to ease up, a season to fight and a season to turn the back, a season to watch and wait and a season to strike. Sometimes the moment presents itself on a platter; sometimes it has to be worked with brute force like steel on a smithy's anvil. And there are times when, for all an agent's scheming, for all his exertions, for all his manipulations, he simply cannot make the thing happen. (That's usually a signal for me to go shopping.)

Most authors are impatient. It's a forgivable character trait, for it often goes hand in hand with ambition. But because authors cannot possibly be as objective about the progress of their careers as their agents are, their impatience can make them their own worst enemies. A goodly part of an agent's day is spent restraining authors.

Although we usually associate timing with the moment when an agent pulls off some million-dollar coup, many of its applications are far more prosaic. A couple of years ago a literary agent wrote a piece for Publishers Weekly complaining about rude editors who do not return agents' phone calls. Her broadside elicited a chorus of cheers from fellow agents, and from writers who'd had similarly unpleasant experiences.

I had a different reaction, though. Her article made me wonder whether the telephone is not greatly overused by agents, and whether there are many occasions when a note would do instead of a call. This is particularly true in the conduct of routine business such as inquiries about submissions, contracts, and checks. Editors are usually harried with paperwork, urgent business, and other phone calls, and so there is an odds-on probability that a scribbled note taken down during a phone call will presently be buried beneath the day's alluvial deposit of emails, snail-mail correspondence, internal memos, manuscripts, catalogues, contracts, and junk mail. I've noticed, however, that editors seem to place more significance upon written inquiries, and they move on them more promptly. More importantly, underuse of the phone by agents may motivate editors to take their calls when they really need to get through. If an editor doesn't want to talk to an agent because she thinks the agent is calling about that overdue check, when actually the agent is calling to pitch a hot new property, a vital opportunity will have been missed for both of them.

The preceding is not a particularly glamorous example of timing, but in the last analysis it's the daily employment of wise timing that makes a good agent effective.

But then there is that dramatic application that makes an agent feel he's been waiting all his life to yank the ripcord, and the decisive moment has come. Not long ago a fellow agent called me for consultation on a particularly delicate timing problem involving a star author. This author had a very big book scheduled for publication about nine months from that time, but because he was very unhappy with his publisher, he had asked his agent to seek another one. His agent had done so and lined up a terrific deal. In order to get out of his option with his current publisher, the author merely had to submit an outline and reject whatever was offered. When to do that - that was the problem.

The new publisher was pressing the agent to finalize their deal. Publishers get very nervous about leaving big offers open for too long, since agents have been known to use those offers to solicit even higher ones. Despite the possibility that the offer would be withdrawn, the agent was dragging his heels. By breaking with the current publisher too early, the agent could demoralize the sales people and cause the company to pull some of its advertising and promotional money from the upcoming book; a publisher that is losing an author may not work as hard for him as one that looks forward to a long association.

What did I advise my colleague to do? I'll let you brood about it for a minute or two in the security of your armchair, but remember that in this real-life situation, millions of dollars, the agent's relationship with his client, the agent's relationship with two publishers, the fate of a book on which the author had spent a year, the fate of many books to come, and a lot of egos and reputations were on the line. To appreciate the precariousness of such situations, perhaps it would better if you get out of your armchair and read the rest of this chapter while standing on a rickety stool with a hangman's noose around your neck.

Although I try to demystify the publishing business for authors, I have to confess that the instincts governing the sense of timing are wonderfully and impenetrably mysterious to me. I am fairly certain that they are of a piece with artistic inspiration. Most of the time, if you ask agents to articulate the reasons why they chose a certain moment to demand a dramatic raise in an author's pay, or to go from a book-by-book arrangement to a multibook package deal, or to move a client out of paperback originals and into hardcover, they can express them fairly coherently. But then there are those inexplicable revelations, blazing across the mind when one least expects it, that illuminate a situation with dazzling clarity and put one in touch with some very profound impulses.

I take pride in handling most business matters expeditiously, but occasionally something will come along that I frankly don't know what to do about. It will sit on my desk glowering at me, mocking me, demanding attention but eluding solution. I gaze back at it, mutter an oath, but am paralyzed with uncertainty. You might call the condition "agent's block." The client and the publisher are pressing for a decision. I offer feeble excuses that sound very much like procrastination or, worse, timidity. In truth, I'm simply waiting for the green light to go on in my brain. Inevitably it switches on, but when I least anticipate it, such as awaking from a nap or glomming a midnight snack. The answer is suddenly printed in bright headlines before me, and what was so difficult suddenly becomes ridiculously easy. The time, at last, has come.

Lest I start to sound as if agenting is a variety of religious experience, allow me to let you in on a little secret. Some of the things agents do that civilians think are brilliantly timed are in truth matters of dumb luck. An author writes a book and I sell it to precisely the right editor and it goes on to become a bestseller. I would love for you to think that I selected that editor the way a handicapper selects a winning horse. And perhaps I did. But sometimes, finding the perfect editor for a book is a matter of who is not out to lunch, in a meeting, or in the bathroom when an agent starts making phone calls.

Now, about that quiz.

* Situation Number 1: The paperback author who wants to be published in hardcover. Despite the evidence that you can make a much better living writing original paperbacks than you can hardcover books, most authors feel an uneasy sense of illegitimacy about paperbacks. And it is true that hardcover books have a better chance of being reviewed (negatively as well as favorably, don't forget) and selling to the movies. But if an author's paperbacks are selling in routine numbers, as in this example, the time may not be propitious for the leap into hardcover, for the author hasn't built an audience prepared to follow her into the more prestigious and expensive format. On many occasions a premature debut in hardcover can be catastrophic and the author may forever lose the opportunity to be published in boards again.

* Situation Number 2: What is the best time to start soliciting movie rights to a book with promising film potential? The answer is, immediately if not sooner. Movie and television people need to feel they are getting in on something hot. By the time a book is published it will have been circulated among all the key studios, networks, and producers owing to Hollywood's highly efficient system for obtaining early looks at anything that sounds interesting. "A published book," a film producer once said to me, "is very dead meat." There are of course exceptions to this rule, and examples of books made into successful movies decades after publication. But if you have a hot movie property, there's not a moment to lose. And remember, it's a good idea to prepare a brief synopsis of the book, highlighting its cinematic qualities, to accompany the submission for those in Hollywood who don't have the time (or the ability) to read.

* Situation Number 3: When is it appropriate to ask for a higher advance? The answer is, it's always appropriate to ask, but not always appropriate to expect. For new authors, the period of time between the sale of the first novel and publication is an extremely perilous one. Assuming an author is of average productivity, he will have ideas, outlines, or even completed manuscripts of new works long before that first book has been published. Until that first book has been published, however, the publisher will have no basis for calculating the value of the author's work and will therefore resist offering him more than a token raise in price. Indeed, because publishers don't formulate a clear picture of a book's sales for about a year after publication, owing to the time it takes for unsold copies to be returned, it may be two or three years from the time you sell your first book before you are justified in requesting prices bigger than starting pay. So if you answered (d) on the quiz you may have been closest to the truth.

You can't, of course, afford to sit around for several years waiting for the results on your first book, so there are several strategies for bridging the gap. One is to become more prolific (including writing books under pseudonyms for other publishers if your first publisher can't absorb your entire output). Another is to write your second, third, and even fourth novel on speculation rather than trying to line up contracts for them on the basis of outlines or portions-and-outlines. (But it might not be a good idea to write sequels to that first book on spec until you see if your publisher wants them.) As I've said before, publishers are able to make much faster judgments about finished books than partial ones, and usually pay higher prices.

Finally, we return to the quandary of the agent torn between responsibility for his client's forthcoming book and eagerness to nail down a deal with another publisher before the first publisher backs out. The situation was, as I pointed out, quite treacherous, but I advised the agent to wait until the very last moment, a few weeks before publication of the book, before informing the current publishers that they weren't going to get the author's next book. By that time the advertising was set, the author's tour locked in, the books were in the stores, and the publishers were committed to doing everything possible to make it a success and recover their investment.

As for the publishers threatening to withdraw their offer if the agent delayed, the agent visited the head of the company and persuaded him to leave his offer on the table. "Look," said my friend, "you have my word of honor that I will not use your offer to seek other bids. I cannot afford to offend a rich and powerful publisher like you. Please bear in mind that if we announce the author's decision too soon, the other publisher may pull its advertising and promotion and their book will flop. And that will make it much harder for you to sell the author's next book."

Happily, the publisher saw the wisdom of this argument and held his offer open. It all worked out happily, even for the publisher who lost the big-name author. Oh, the publisher was sore for a few weeks, but then the agent phoned him and told him that another client was unhappy with her publisher and wanted to move to another house. "Interested?" he asked. Of course he was interested!

Now, that's what I call an agent with an exquisite sense of timing.

This article was originally written for Locus, The Newspaper of the Science Fiction Field. It's reprinted in Mastering the Business of Writing. Copyright © 1990 by Richard Curtis. All Rights Reserved.
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  1. Interesting stuff. I'm not sure I'd have the guts to wait like that before I pulled the trigger so to speak.

    OTOH, I am pretty good at waiting or sensing correct timing when negotiating with folks who hire me for ghostwriting... wonder if I can write coherently about that?

    Thanks for the insights.

    Anne Wayman, now blogging at www.aboutfreelancewriting.com