Boundbytheword Blog

keep updated in the world of Debris

“Suck it up, buttercup” advice for writers: August 14, 2011


At the Humber School for Writers Summer Workshop, several agents spoke with the crowd and delivered words of wisdom for finding success in the world of writing. Here’s the inside scoop to what was said (deciphered from my many pages of scribbled notes):

Single most important piece of knowledge for writers:

The only source of income an agent makes is the money they get from your published book. If they take you on as a client and your book doesn’t get accepted by a publisher – and therefore isn’t published – they don’t get paid.

Here’s the skinny – agents normally make 15% of your book sales. If your book goes international, your agent gets 7.5% and the international agent gets 7.5%, Basic math: if your advance is $1000 the agent gets $150 once the publisher takes it on. They make no money before that time for what they invest into a client, or any of the stacks upon stacks of books they have reviewed but rejected from the slush pile. Understand that fact when you send off a query and expect personal attention in a timely manner. Bottom line – agents are swamped.


What agents look for:

  1. Books that will make money.
  2. Writers who understand the publishing business and how it works.


What you need to know:

Publishers succeed when they find a book that readers want; agents succeed when they find a book publishers want. They all look for projects that attract attention of more than one publisher, work that can travel internationally. Publishers are profit minded and conservative when it comes to projects – essentially – will we make money on this book?


Scary fact:

Only 20% of books published in Canada are Canadian. We compete with big name US authors. The internationalization of the books sales has changed the industry in the last 5 years.


Comparing your book to another (in your query) can be dangerous because you may not know how it really did with book sales. Award winning books don’t always bring in sales. Regardless, it’s not at all valuable to compare your book to one that is more than 5 years old.


Getting Ready to Submit to an Agent:

  • Learn as much as you can about publishing.
  • Read Quill and Quire, Publishers Weekly to understand the business.
  • Get news alerts from New York Times on publishing.
  • Look at publisher websites.
  • Working at a bookstore can help you understand how the book gets into the readers hands.
  • Be a good listener. Absorb feedback from an agent (whether it’s a note on your rejection letter, or an agent representing you). Better to hear it from an agent than a publisher and lose your chance with that house.
  • Be open to criticism.
  • Pay attention.
  • Understand how your work fits into the commercial machine. Do your homework!