How To Be Your Own Literary Agent

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How to Be Your Own Literary Agent takes the mystery out of book publishing for any writer, published or not. Richard Curtis?a top literary agent for more than thirty years?provides a comprehensive practical overview of the publishing process, from submissions to contract negotiations to subsidiary rights to marketing, publicity, and beyond. He also gives away trade secrets and invaluable wisdom?candid advice that can be found nowhere else. Now completely revised and expanded, How to Be Your Own Literary Agent is ...

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How To Be Your Own Literary Agent: An Insider's Guide to Getting Your Book Published

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How to Be Your Own Literary Agent takes the mystery out of book publishing for any writer, published or not. Richard Curtis—a top literary agent for more than thirty years—provides a comprehensive practical overview of the publishing process, from submissions to contract negotiations to subsidiary rights to marketing, publicity, and beyond. He also gives away trade secrets and invaluable wisdom—candid advice that can be found nowhere else. Now completely revised and expanded, How to Be Your Own Literary Agent is essential reading for all writers.

* Big publishers, small publishers, self-publishers, e-publishers: how to keep up in a rapidly changing business
• The new breed of busy literary editors: how to find them and know what they're looking for
• What the electronic revolution means to you, and how to take advantage of it
• How to know your "publishing" rights and negotiate effectively
• How to have a say in your book's design, jacket, and promotion
• How book chains and superstores have altered publishing—and what that means for you

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780618380411
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Publication date: 11/1/2003
  • Edition description: Revised and Expanded
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 791,395
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 0.72 (d)

Meet the Author

The head of his own literary agency in New York, Richard Curtis is also the publisher of e-reads' and the author of more than fifty books.

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Read an Excerpt


If professionalism may be defined as mastery of the tools of one’s trade, I have to wonder how many writers earning money from their work can truly call themselves professionals. After all, one of the most important tools of their trade is the publishing contract. Yet, of the thousands of writers I have known over the course of my career as agent, author, and lecturer, only a small percentage have had more than a superficial understanding of contracts and the negotiating skills associated with them. It is a sad irony that after struggling so hard for so long and at last achieving something worthy, a writer will then proceed to depreciate its value with a stroke of his pen on a publishing agreement.
I’m not sure I comprehend this reluctance of writers to understand and negotiate contracts. I know it’s not necessarily a lack of legal sophistication. An editor friend of mine tells about the late Justice Abe Fortas of the United States Supreme Court, whom he signed up to write a book. The editor mailed off the firm’s standard publishing contract, wondering what would be left of the document after so distinguished a jurist finished dismembering it. To the editor’s astonishment it came back by return mail, signed without so much as one alteration. Appended to the contract was a note. “I haven’t looked at it,” scribbled Fortas, “but I’m sure it’s okay.” Perhaps writers are apprehensive of contracts because they have something to do with being businesslike, a quality that some artists feel is not in keeping with the creative spirit. Many writers, particularly new ones, tend not to think of their work as having commercial or legal value. Not long ago an agent I know phoned a client to report he’d sold her first book. As expected, the author went slightly berserk with joy and hung up to share the news with her family. Fifteen minutes later she phoned back sheepishly. “Uh, I forgot to ask. How much are they going to pay?” Authors, it seems, are so grateful somebody wants to publish them that matters of money and contract become secondary.
The moment a writer receives his first offer for something he’s written, however, he crosses the threshold into the business world. By endorsing that first check, he makes a legal commitment every bit as binding as a lease or a car-purchase agreement. Although lawyers and literary agents exist to interpret contracts for authors and conduct their business, rare is the writer who has not woken up one day to the realization that his appointed representative has not represented his interests as completely, as competently, as responsibly as was expected. Indeed, not a few wake up to realize their appointed representative has botched things up terribly. And that’s just writers who do engage agents or lawyers; there are countless numbers who don’t, and botch it without professional help.
Consonant with the creative spirit or not, then, it is every writer’s responsibility to be businesslike, to feel comfortable with a contract, to understand what his agent or lawyer is trying to do for him, to understand what a publisher is trying to get him to do. There are some wonderful works available on how to write, and this book doesn’t pretend to compete with them. It assumes you’re already writing or have written something and want to sell it, or have received an offer for it and want to negotiate a good contract. Despite its title, it is aimed as much at writers who have agents as at those who do not. Because agents are mortal and subject to errors, sometimes egregious and even fatal ones, no author is relieved from responsibility for his contractual commitments merely because he has an agent who is supposed to be an expert in such affairs. Quite the contrary, whether your agent is an expert or not, he has no liability whatever for legal and other problems arising out of documents he hands you to sign. My purpose for represented writers, then, is to help them understand and oversee their agent’s work, to become informed clients.
I rest my authority on two qualifications. First, I have been a literary agent for over forty years. Second, as author of more than fifty books I have committed just about every contractual blunder on record. Luckily, I am, I assure you, much better at representing others than I am at representing myself. But because of these experiences I feel compelled to state this book’s bias candidly: I’m by no means certain a writer can be his own agent. The famous proverb of the legal profession, that the lawyer who represents himself has a fool for a client, may be apt for the writing profession as well. As my own client I tend to be impatient, to have no objectivity about my work, and to be so easily flatteered that someone wants to publish me as to accept terms I would sternly reject if they were offered for one of my authors’ properttttties. So this book is definitely a case of Do What I Say, Not What I Do.
Another bias of this book is that it’s aimed at book, not magazine, writers. Most of the marketing, negotiation, and contractual strategies discussed in these pages can be utilized by magazine writers, however.
Because short stories, articles, essays, and poetry sales are so low-paying, most agents will not handle such material except as a courtesy to certain clients or in cases where the material clearly has the potential to sell to a high-paying market. My agency is no exception. But I’m not sure there’s much an agent can do for magazine writers that they can’t do for themselves. Magazine editors are much more responsive to unrepresented authors than book editors are, so it’s easier for magazine writers to get a foot in the door. The price ranges of magazines are fairly inflexible, so there’s not that much negotiating leeway for an agent. Magazine purchase agreements are less complicated than book contracts. All in all, magazine writers can survive without highly developed business skills; I don’t think book writers can. Still, all writing paths seem to lead to books; at least I’ve never met a magazine writer who didn’t have a book in him. Sooner or later, then, every writer will have to deal with the problems discussed here.
I wish to apologize to all women readers of this book for my use of the masculine pronoun when referring to authors and editors. Writing this work has certainly raised my consciousness about the way our language discriminates against women. At the same time I found that such usages as “he/she” didn’t sit comfortably with me, and I was twisting sentences into cruel configurations by employing “they” or “you” or “one” all the time. So I’ve fallen back on the publishing tradition wherein, on all contracts, the masculine pronoun signifies writers of either sex.
Finally, a number of statements made in this book are critical of publishers. For these I will not apologize. But I would like to thank my publishers for tolerantly permitting me the freedom to make them. The opinions expressed herein are, I’m fairly certain, not necessarily those of the sponsor.

Copyright © 1983, 1984, 1996, 2003 by Richard Curtis. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.

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Table of Contents


Introduction xv

1. An Agent Looks at the Market 1

How a literary agency evaluates your manuscript • How economic factors affect editorial decisions • The blockbuster mentality • Four categories of books: backlist, frontlist, midlist, and genre • The best way to break into print

2. Slush 10

The odds against unagented writers • Overcoming publisher resistance to unagented submissions • Studying the market • Submitting to specific editors • Multiple submissions • Post–9/11 precautions • Writing a strong cover letter • Packaging your submissions • E-mail submissions • Whether to send complete manuscript, partial manuscript, or query letter • Producing winning nonfiction presentations • The key components of a nonfiction pitch • Pitching fiction • Following up your submission

3. Negotiation 28

Taking the mystery out of negotiation • The first thing to do if you get an offer • Calling in an agent after you get an offer • Getting information from an agent without hiring him • Why many publishers would rather deal with agents than with unrepresented writers • The basic deal vs. the boilerplate • Formulating your negotiating strategy • Researching and rehearsing for negotiation • Relationship with your editor during negotiation • Supporting your position with cogent arguments

4. The Basic Deal 57

Why it is essential for writers to understand contracts • Copyright—what is it? • Common-law vs. statutory copyright protection • Elements of the basic deal: form, language, territory, subsidiary rights • E-books vs. traditional books • The difference between primary and secondary subsidiary rights • Understanding royalties • Royalties based on list price vs. those based on net proceeds • The importance of understanding discounts when calculating royalties • The basic royalty • Other types of royalties • Overstock and remainders • • Primary subsidiary rights: book club, reprint, second serial, electronic, and others • How primary sub-rights income is split between publisher and author • How hardcover-softcover deals work • Advances • How publishers calculate advance offers • The payout of advances • Escalators and bonuses • Joint accounting of advances • Refund of advances: the “acceptable” clause • Trading off advances, royalties, and subsidiary rights in negotiation

5. Warranties and Indemnities 83

The author’s liability • Withholding of authors’ royalties to defray legal expenses, damages, settlements • Warranties you make to your publisher: libel, defamation, obscenity, others • Indemnifying your publisher against expenses and damages • Modifying warranty and indemnity provisions of contracts • Libel insurance • Care is the best defense

6. Permissions 94

The cost of ignoring the permissions clause of your contract • Getting the publisher to pick up some of the permissions cost • The author’s responsibility for illustrations, quotations, etc. • Indexing • Designing a permission request • Anticipate costs now, save money later

7. The Option Clause 99

Disastrous results of poorly worded option clauses • When and why to modify your option clause • Specific language for modifying option clauses • An ideal option clause

8. Termination and Reversion of Rights 106

Sharp reduction in life span of books • Authors demand reversions of rights as soon as sales cease • Why books go out of print so quickly • The desirability of recovering rights to your out-of-print books • The profound impact of electronic technology on definitions of “out of print” • Sharpening the language of your termination provisions • Why publishers resist requests for termination • Giving publishers a break on reversion requests • How valuable are reissues of reverted books? • Reissuing your reverted book in e- book format

9. Royalty Statements 114

Bookkeeping games publishers play • Why and how publishers delay payments due authors • Reading a royalty statement: the basic components • How publishers manipulate reserves against returns • Tactics for getting fuller royalty statements from publishers • Combating delays • Pass-through of royalties after advance has been earned • Auditing publishers’ accounts—a suggested audit clause • How to audit without using an accountant • Collective action to combat “creative bookkeeping”

10. Ancillary Rights 131

Why and when you should reserve ancillary rights • The economics of ancillary rights • Handling your own ancillary rights

11. Cyberbooks and Hyperauthors 137

New language appearing in publishing contracts as publishers discover multimedia • How electronic media compare to traditional print medium • How they compare to traditionnal motion picture medium • Publishers and authors vie for control of electronic rights • Potential of new technology to create “living books” • In the 1990s CD-ROMs foreshadowed the electronic rrrrrevolution • Publishers, authors, and agents awaken to unprecedented opportunities for education and entertainment

12. The E-Book Revolution and How to Join It 143

Three events in 1998 that revolutionized the publishing industry • Introduction of print-on-demand technology • Launch of palm-sized electronic reading devices • Realization that Internet, not CD-ROMs, is delivery system of choice • Vision of a “virtual” publishing model • How the computer “disintermediates” middlemen between buyer and seller • Digital is forever • Digital transmissions do not recognize national boundaries • Publishing no longer a physical place • How electronic technology changes roles and relationships • Key elements of an e-book contract • Royalty • Format • Territory • Term • Subsidiary rights • Term • Hype vs. reality of an e- book future • Signs that e-books are beginning to “take”

13. Movie and Television Deals 150

Critical elements in movie making: financing, producing, distributing • How producers assemble the elements of a movie deal • Options vs. outright sale of rights • The rights an author grants in a movie deal • The value of these rights • Earning profits above the sale price of movie rights • Your legal responsibilities and liabilities • Screen credit for your work • Writing the screenplay of your book • How television deals differ from theatrical motion picture deals • Networks vs. cable television • How books get “sneaked” to the studios • Getting your book into the hands of producers, directors, stars

14. Miscellaneous Provisions 169

Copyright • Competing publication • Competing schedules • Deferred royalties • Minimum royalties • Bankruptcy • Failure to publish • Assignment • Jurisdiction of publishing contracts • Author’s copies

15. All About Agents 177

Why literary agents have so much clout • How editors are recovering ground lost to agents • Why you should always trust your agent • Why you should never trust your agent • When an author should approach an agent for representation • Finding and selecting the right agent • Using the Association of Authors’ Representatives to check out agents • Evaluating agents • What questions to ask • What agents do that authors can’t do for themselves • What to expect and what not to expect from your agent • Reading fees • Designing and negotiating an author-agent agreement • Commissions • Breaking up with your agent

16. To Publication Date 198

Agents can influence every important publishing decision • Copy-editing • Advantages and limitations of computerized copy-editing • Galleys and page proofs • Production • Publishers’ catalogues • Entry in catalogue essential to the life of a book • How the publisher determines the size of a printing • The role of the sales representative and sales manager • Enormous influence of sales reps on publishing strategies • How publishers’ Web sites and e-mail affect their relationships with stores and chains • How authors can help sales reps

17. Is There Life After Pub Date? 213

Don’t expect a publication party • How the publisher determines the advertising, promotion, and publicity for your book • “Platform” • Helping your publisher publish your book better • Why the annual Book Expo America bookseller convention is important to authors

18. Beyond the Bestseller List 226

Are bestseller lists honest and objective? • Time lag problem • Selection criteria problem • Can the lists be manipulated? • BookScan program enables the book trade to track sales information more accurately

19. Consenting Adults 232

Who should have editorial control, editor or author? • Control over covers, design and style, subsidiary-rights negotiations? • Authors not always good judges • Difference between consultation and approval • Veteran authors gain more control • How new authors can get some, too

20. Collaborations 238

Rewards and dangers • Types of collaborations • Good matches vs. bad • How collaborators find each other • Collaboration agreements • How to split proceeds • Bylines • Copyright • Liability and indemnification • Expenses • Other obligations of collaborators toward each other • Approval of manuscript • Authorization of agent • Termination of collaboration

21. Book Packagers 248

Definition: combination of author, agent, and publisher • How you might become a packager • Advantages and disadvantages of working with packagers • Why relations with packagers tend to deteriorate • Tips for dealing with packagers

22. Auctions 254

Factors in the decision to submit simultaneously: Is the book timely? Does it have universal appeal? Is it a big book? • Difference between multiple submissions and auctions • How auctions are run • Benefits and hazards of auctions

23. Of Taxes and the Writer 260

Writers are vulnerable to IRS audit • What you can deduct • Writeoffs in lean years • Prosperous years: government-sponsored tax plans, income averaging, etc. • Depreciable capital purchases • Straight deductions: office expenses, office use of home, travel • Documentation • Incorporation

24. Solidarity 266

Many organizations of authors, but how much influence do they have? • Comparison with Writers Guild of America • Why free-lance authors can’t wield similar power • Power of literary agents • Problems of collective action • Bad publicity a cheap but effective weapon

25. Superstores 270

Rise of bookstore chains • Superstores designed to provide variety of services • Bookstores expanding to sell software • Appeal of traditional bookstores • A typical superstore • Challenges to traditional bookstores by and other online retailers • Beyond Internet cafés, print-on-demand kiosks

26. Titles, or My Life in Titles, or The Title Game, or Adventures of a Title Maven, or Titles: The Writer’s Indispensable Tool, or What’s in a Title?, or The Principles of Titling, or My Kingdom for a Title, or . . . 276

The title helps authors, publishers, and consumers focus on the subject or category • Sales reps’ influence over title selection • Fashions in titling • How to select an appropriate title • Some memorable titles

27. Let’s Have Lunch 283

Importance of editorial luncheons • Protocol of making lunch dates • Some common misconceptions • How book deals are developed at lunch • Who pays

28. If I Were You 290

What authors need to know to launch their careers in today’s environment • Twenty-first-century model of publishing: a writer, a reader, and a server • Alternatives to traditional publishing opportunities • Small presses • Self- publication • Electronic publication

Appendix: Is It a Good Deal? 295

A quick guide to deal points for authors in the midst of negotiations

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 4, 2004


    How to be Your Own Literary Agent is written by one of NY's best literary agents who has been in the business for more than 30 years. He tells how publishing has changed over the years and he takes authors through each part of a book contract showing them how to negotiate with publishers. He also includes chapters on the slush pile, power luncheons, packagers, publicizing one's book, movie deals, agents, bestseller lists, taxes, etc. This is a book which should be in every writer's library.

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    Posted July 7, 2009

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    Posted May 11, 2009

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