Friday, September 08, 2006

An Interview with Literary Agent Tina Wexler

Posted by Helen Brenna

Tina Wexler, my agent with International Creative Management, has graciously agreed to blog along with us for the day and answer any questions all you readers, writers, published and soon-to-be published, have to ask of an agent.

So here’s the scoop on the smartest agent in NYC.

Tina entered the publishing world shortly after finishing an MFA in poetry. She landed a job at the Ellen Levine Literary Agency assisting two literary agents and helping with foreign rights. Soon, she was cutting her teeth selling audio and first serial rights. Around the time ELLA merged with Trident Media, Tina moved to the Karpfinger Agency to work solely in foreign rights. Wanting to move into the domestic market, she took a position at International Creative Management and started building her list of clients. She’s brilliant, by the way. Took me on, didn’t she?

Helen: So what made you want to become an agent?

Tina: First off, let me thank you for inviting me to participate in this interview series.

As embarrassing as it is to admit, when I applied for the job at ELLA, I wasn’t exactly sure what a literary agency was, let alone what I would be doing there. All I knew was that it had to do with books and that was enough for me. And it’s been enough for me ever since.

Helen: Your welcome, Tina, for the invite, but I should be thanking you for visiting our blog today. Of course the fact that you agreed shouldn’t have surprised me. Word on the street is that you’re a “nice” agent. Even editors have commented on this obvious anomaly. Are you absolutely positive you picked the right career? What’s your favorite part about being an agent?

Tina: How dare they call me ‘nice’! I’m ruthless. I’m difficult. I’m…kidding. Actually, I’m terribly flattered. I never understood why agents got such a bum rap. Sure, we have to stick up for our clients, negotiate sticky situations, and talk about money (who likes talking about money?), but that doesn’t necessitate being mean. I guess it’s the difference between being a fly in the ointment and a thorn in someone’s side. I’ll take being the fly any day. (Wait, that didn’t come out right!)

My favorite part about my job is being able to work with authors, helping their dreams of being published come true and working to keep that dream alive for many, many years.

Helen: Do you think you’d ever like to write a book?

Tina: No way. Writing a book is hard! : )

Helen: Tell me about it!! Just out of curiosity, what are you reading now?

Tina: One of my friends from Maine (where I grew up) recommended I read Kelly Armstrong’s BITTEN. I’m nearing the end and amazed that it took me five years to discover this series. I’m a nut for vampires and now I’m starting to think I should add werewolves to that list. I’m also reading FAT CAMP by Deborah Blumenthal. It’s a YA novel that an editor gave me over lunch. And of course, there’s the stack of manuscripts under my desk that I’m always making my way through.

Helen: Michele, Anne, did you read that? Vampires and werewolves? What kind of book, Tina, do you wish you could find, but can’t?

Tina: Good question. I’d love to find a good near-future dystopia story. A YA version of THE HANDMAID’S TALE would make me jump for joy. On the adult side, I love paranormal (see above), adventure, mystery…I’ve been looking to get my hands on a good love story where one of the characters is a veterinarian. That’s pretty specific, I know, but I have a weakness for animals in fiction (so long as they can’t talk—in the Disney sense of “talk.”)

Helen: If you have to guess, name one trend in publishing you think is doomed to go belly-up.

Tina: Yikes! These questions are getting difficult. Hmm…Belly-up. One trend that’s certainly being challenged is the business model of publishing itself. No advance; higher royalties. I doubt most authors will be on board for this potential change, though I can understand why publishers are trying to find a way to stop the cycle of unearned advances. Supposedly if it’s done right, the author earns the same amount as she/he would with the current business model, though I don’t know how eager agents will be to jump on board this particular train either.

Helen: Ouch, I don’t think I wanted to hear that. Just to clarify further, when you say higher royalties, does that mean more dollars AS royalties, so the same total earn-out for a particular book or a higher royalty percentage? (Please say a higher royalty percentage !)

Tina: Yes, the royalty percentage would be higher. So instead of earning 10% on each hardcover copy sold, the author would earn…I don’t know. 25%? I’m guessing here. This business model--giving higher royalty percentages--is based on the author not receiving an advance. Is that clear? It's a trade off. Higher royalties but no $$$ up front?

Helen: Yeah, that makes sense, and I like the concept!! We should put you in charge of a major publishing house. Okay, so on to some nitty gritty stuff. On average how many submissions do you get every week?

Tina: I get about 10-20 query letters a week. Actual manuscripts, 2-5 (though not all of these are full manuscripts; some are proposals, the first 5 chapters, etc.) The number of manuscripts I receive directly relates to the number of queries and the quality of the queries. If 20 queries come in and none of them are good, the following week no manuscripts will come in. If, of the 20 all 20 are good, well, I better not make plans for the weekend!

Helen: What’s your ideal submission look, read, feel like?

Tina: My ideal query letter is one-page, clear, concise, friendly yet formal, written in a style that shows me a bit of what you’re like without being precious, realizes I’m busy busy busy and so gets right to the point, and comes with a/an SASE. As for manuscript submission: unbound, double-spaced, single-sided. When it’s right for me, it feels like diving into a clear lake, having tea with your best friend, listening to a secret. It feels like home and like nowhere you’ve even been before. It’s well crafted, it’s polished, and it moves along smoothly. It grips me right from the start and doesn’t let go. It makes me sit up and take notice. It sings.

Helen: Give us your pet peeve(s) relating to submissions.

Tina: My biggest pet peeve is when people send me their complete manuscript without first sending a query letter to gauge my interest. Imagine, if you will, that everyone did this. That’s twenty Jiffy mailers holding twenty boxes with twenty 200+ page manuscripts inside of them landing on my desk each week. Just the thought makes my eyes water. If I want to see a manuscript, I’ll ask to see it. It’s presumptuous to think you’re just speeding things along by cutting out the query process.

My other pet peeve is the mass e-query, especially when the email list isn’t even hidden. Mass e-queries make me want to pull my hair out; if you can’t take the time to personally address me in your query, I can’t take the time to read your query. (Are you sure I’m nice?)

I really could go on. People do loads of silly things. Some of them are honest mistakes. Others are just lazy. Sometimes I think it’s because people don’t take the industry seriously enough. It’s hard work getting published, finding an agent. If you aren’t willing to put the effort into writing a strong query letter, researching agents, proof reading both your query letter and your manuscript, revising your manuscript, etc. then you aren’t up to the task of being an author. Because the work doesn’t stop once you land that book deal. That’s only the beginning!

Helen: I can only imagine what you see in your mail. I’m sure it boggles the mind. I guess the message here is for us authors to be professional in our correspondence with agents, editors, other authors. Aside from that, if you were to give aspiring authors one word of advice, well, okay three words, but only three, what would they be?

Tina: Listen. Write. Repeat.

Helen: What do you think is the most important thing for an author to consider when looking for an agent?

Tina: I think it’s important to remember that you are going to be giving your agent your baby, your hard work, your name, your dream. You want someone who will put in the effort, who has the resources to do so, and who you trust and respect—and like. Your agent is going to be in your life for a long time (hopefully) and you want to make sure this is someone you want in your life.

Helen: What do you think is the most important thing to maintaining a good author/agent relationship?

Tina: I think it’s important for both parties to do their best to communicate their needs and wants. Discussing expectations can go a long way in ensuring a strong relationship.

Helen: Have you ever had a relationship with an author go sour?

Tina: Relationships with clients have ended for two reasons: 1) because I wasn’t able to sell the client’s work and he/she wanted to keep trying 2) because I wasn’t enthusiastic enough about the client’s next project and so didn’t think it wise to send it on submission but the client does. This is probably the most confusing for clients; I think the reasoning goes like this: You’re my agent. You submit my work. Submit this. But that’s only one part of my job. Another part is to advise my clients on what the best move is in the trajectory of their career while also protecting my reputation. If I submit a manuscript that I don’t believe in or that I think isn’t the author’s best work, I’m doing a disservice not only to that client but to my other clients.

Helen: What’s the biggest mistake you see, or hear about new authors making?

Tina: Assuming that the hard work is over once you’ve got the book deal. Forgetting that the publishing industry, though peopled by book lovers, is a business. Thinking your publisher is supposed to do all the work (I’m thinking specifically about book promotion here). Chasing the biggest advance instead of finding the right home for your work. Switching from agent to agent to agent (See previous). Trash-talking people in the business (Publishing, though far-reaching, is a relatively small world. If you say it, we hear it.)

Helen: Hey, you’re cheating! That was … five mistakes. Is there anything even established authors may not come back from?

Tina: Getting caught plagiarizing seems like the biggest mistake you can make. I’m not sure how you recover from that—Maybe in a tell-all memoir?

Helen: Yeah, we heard a lot about that a few months back. Someone will probably think of some way to profit from the situation. That brings to mind another questions. Should agents be involved in building an author’s career?

Tina: Absolutely. That’s what we’re here for. Of course, some authors don’t need or want career advice; others do. I say, no man’s an island. Wait, no John Donne said that (what was I saying about plagiarizing?), but I agree with him.

Helen: And here’s my last question. Do you believe in love at first sight?

Tina: Ah, yes. Why do you think I struggle every day not to adopt a third kitty?

Thank you again, Helen, for having me on the Riding with the Top Down blogspace. I welcome any and all questions, comments, etc. If anyone is interested in sending a query, please contact me either at twexler@icmtalent.com or via post at ICM, 40 West 57th Street, NY, NY 10019.

Helen: Thank you, Tina, for coming along for a cyber-ride and answering all my tedious questions. I'm sure there are things you guys are dying to ask. Please go for it! Tina will be stopping by a couple times throughout the day to answer anything you’ve got up your sleeve.

And you can check out ICM’s website at: http://www.icmtalent.com/

34 comments:

Betina Krahn said...

Hi, Tina-- welcome to the back seat! That Helen, isn't she something?

Loved the interview! What a great sense of humor you have! This is a slant on the biz that we don't often get. And you handled Helen's hardball questions with such aplomb!

We'd love to have you come back for coffee sometime, or even Happy Hour!

Betina Krahn said...

Okay, I just remembered. . . about those movie rights. . . how does that work?

Inquiring minds want to know.

:)

Tina Wexler said...

Movie rights. Well, first off the book (or manuscript or galley, depending on how "finished" it is) goes to our book-to-film agents in L.A. They shop it around, much the same way the manuscript was shopped around to publishers. If, say, Warner Bros. is interested in the property, they will pay a bit of $$$ to option the book. This means they control the rights to make the book into a movie/tv show/etc. No one else can. The option lasts for only a limited period of time. If during that, say, two-year period, a movie is not put into motion, the option is renewed or allowed to expire and someone else can option the book. If a movie is made, the author will receive what is called the purchase price (i.e. a good chunk of $$$) and the movie wheels start turning.

Tina Wexler said...

And thank you for the kind words. Always good to hear! It's great to be here.

amy*skf said...

Tina, you've pretty much answered all my questions. Thanks. I'm just wondering how many more queries you'll be receiving after this interview?

Just wanted to comment on Kelly Armstrong's Bitten--probably my very favorite werewolf book. It is lyrical and believable.

amy*skf said...

Another comment/question, it sounds as if you accept YA queries as well, yes?

Samantha Hunter said...

Hi Tina (and Helen, thanks for cluing us into this discussion).

I had an agent, it didn't go well for several reasons, some hers, some mine, though we're both lovely people ;) , but I've been slow to try again, though I will be on the market over the coming year, I think.

Anyway, a question. Is it reasonable to ask an agent to focus on only one area of your career? In other words, could I sign an agent for mainstream sales first -- and then if the relatiobship worked out, and they did sell my ST books, could I then agree to let them represent me across the board, including my category work? I'd like an agent who can show me what they can do for me outside of category, since in that realm I can sell my own books. Is that likely, or what advice do you have to that end?

Okay, a second question: can a published author seek representation in between books? So, in otherwords, I am trying to write a mainstream romance though I don't have it in hand yet -- I do have several books published, and several more coming out. Do I have to wait until I have that ST in hand to pursue an agent?

Sam

anne frasier said...

tina, thanks so much for being here today!
i found your comment about no advance/higher royalties very interesting. i've never heard it before, and here's one writer who actually likes the idea. it could definitely help the struggling publishing houses, but what i really like is that it would level the playing field for in-house backing and promotion. we know big advances get the big backing. this might turn everything around -- and well-written and exciting books would get the backing. wow. what a concept!!!
i think this is an extremely exciting idea. plus the higher royalty percentage is a big incentive.

Tina Wexler said...

Yes, I do represent young adult titles, as well as middle grade and picture book. Queries are always welcome for children's manuscripts as well.

Helen Brenna said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Helen Brenna said...

Hey, Tina, thanks for joining us today!

Amy's comment about YA got me to thinking. Obviously, you're interested in romance and you said YA too. What else do you like to represent? Suspense? Women's fiction? Non-fiction? General fiction?

And you know, initially I liked the idea of the higher royalty rate being paid to authors. I think you're right, Anne, it would level the playing field to some degree and publishing houses may be more apt to take risks with new authos or different types of stories.

But then again, without much of an advance then the publishing houses don't have as much incentive to promote a book or an author. And let's face it, all other things being equal, the publishing houses make or break authors careers.

What does everyone thing about less of an advance and higher royaty rates?

Helen Brenna said...

Oh, and you're very welcome Samantha on the head's up. Thanks for coming!

Tina Wexler said...

Samantha, this is in response to your questions.

I hate to give the "it depends on the agent" answer, but this is a case when it very much does (retaining control of some of your properties while finding an agent for others.) I have clients whom I represent in only one area (I'm thinking specifically about the clients who already have agents for their children's titles, but said agents don't handle adult titles. That's where I come in.) Of course, the hope is that you come to represent them in all areas, but really, it can be a very workable situation.

As for finding an agent without a manuscript to show, again it depends on the agent. I myself don't take clients on without a manuscript; I need to know what I'd be selling. Of course, that doesn't mean I don't want to be first in line when there is a manuscript to go out with!

Samantha Hunter said...

Thanks Tina -- it's encouraging to hear that you can find agents who will agree to negotiate on what they represent, and so that will definitely be something I look for. I'd heard from authors that it wasn't likely, but I had a feeling agents might be open to negotiating, if they like your work enough.

As for the second, that's what I expected, and it makes sense. Maybe you'll hear from me again some months down the line. ;)

Have a great weekend!

Sam

Tina Wexler said...

I should clarify. It isn't LESS of an advance. It's NO advance. Higher royalties. (In the models we've been shown, the author ends up earning the same amount as she would if given X amount as an advance, but of course, there's no money up front.)

How does that change your thinking, eh?

I should also mention, this is a very preliminary idea and no one that many publishers are even considering. It's a very fringe thing.

anne frasier said...

if they're earning out the same amount, then the idea doesn't appeal to me. i was seeing more profit for the writer in the long run. and of course it would be hard for most people to even write without an advance.
i've had several books earn out my advance almost immediately, and i was thinking it would have been nice to have gotten a bigger piece of that pie! but if earnings are the same? no. then take me off the excited list. :D

Tina Wexler said...

Let's see. What else am I looking to represent?

Well, I do a little bit of everything: adult and children's books, fiction and non-fiction.

On the adult side, I run the gamut from literary fiction, chic lit, romance (particularly paranormal), humor/pop culture, memoir, and narrative nonfiction. I also do a little bit of prescriptive nonfiction, but only if the topic really interests me.

On the children's side, I really like playful and rhythmic (though preferably not rhyming) picture books with quirky settings or characters. Middle grade I love adventures and coming of age stories. YA I go for anything from dark and edgy to funny and sassy.

I enjoy multicultural storylines, near-future fantasy (please, no other planets though), graphic novels, horror lite (I'm squeamish, but I can stomach having characters get bumped off here and there), and modernized retellings of popular myths or legends (I love old fairy tales with a 21st century twist).

And, as you can probably guess, I'm big into books that help define what it means to be a girl/woman in today's world.

Jacqueline Diamond said...

I'm completely opposed to the no-advances idea. Of course, there are some epublishers who work this way now, but they have a shortened prepublication period and pay royalties monthly rather than twice yearly. Also, very few writers depend on them for a living.

What on earth would ordinary working writers (not the Steven Kings of the world) live on while writing our books, especially those of us accustomed to selling on synopsis or a partial? The way royalties are paid now, we'd have to live on air for years before receiving payment, or get another job and cut way back on our writing. I'm not sure what agents would live on, either.

Please don't give these publishers ideas! They're always looking for ways to pay us less and pay it later. Believe me, there's no way any authors except the very big and powerful names would come out ahead from this.

Helen Brenna said...

More interesting points, Jacqueline. The majority of writers couldn't survive without the publishing houses paying out royalties more frequently. Makes me wonder if they're systems even COULD manage this process.

Tina, any thoughts/opinions on epub royalty rates?

Tina Wexler said...

I have to admit, epub royalty rates aren't something I know a whole lot about.

Betina Krahn said...

No advances?

Gasp! Writers have little enough leverage with publishing houses now. If we're made to write the books entirely in advance on entirely our coin and receive royalties only 6 months to a year after they've earned out-- how many of us could afford to continue writing? All of that work for no return?

I vote we put that whole idea to bed right now. Let's not speak of this again, eh? Don't want these dangerous vibes to get out into the cosmos.

Mind-wipe: "These are not the droids you are looking for."

I would be so screwed! But of course, in the old days, we did have to finish the book in order to sell it. . . a few writers like Jude Devereaux said they always write the book first. Or was it Rebecca Brandywine?

Tina Wexler said...

Ha ha ha. I'm game. What else can we talk about?

Betina Krahn said...

How about the possible return of Ben Affleck to true acting? sigh.

Hey, how about the next big "trend?" I know you probably don't have a crystal ball, but what's your best guess on where the book market is headed storywise. . . or even publishing-wise?

Are those new larger format mass markets for the "boomers" bearing fruit or are they just a gimic? Do you think "erotica" and "erotic romance" will settle into their own niche soon and release the market to another big craze?
You think "adventure" may catch on the way "suspense" did earlier?

Tina Wexler said...

I hope adventure catches on, because I love reading it. It's fun, it's fast, it's possibilities are endless. I think many people consider it less its own category and more a way of qualifying other genres--adventure romance, adventure fantasy--but I think it could be more.

Erotica is doing fantastic right now; I think it will continue to grow and grow, particularly because it overlaps with so many other readerships. That's something I think that will continue to grow in the years to come.

Publishers are always looking for ways to gain attention for their books; playing with the trim size seems like just another way to stand out from the crowd. Frankly, I don't know how much it really impacts sales. Some people are going to like it; others aren't keen on the new versions or think they look too much like regular trade paperbacks and so what's the point? Seems to me like it'd even out and so sales would be about the same.

Tina Wexler said...

The Boomer generation seems to dictate many of the trends in publishing (and in life) and so I do wonder what will happen as they get older. Jeanne Ray had a bestseller on her hands writing about late-in-lifers in JULIE AND ROMEO. I suspect we'll be seeing more of that.

Kathleen Eagle said...

Hi Tina! Welcome! and thanks so much for joining us.

I agree that Boomers have only just begun to flex their influence muscles in the market, particularly women's fiction. From what I read on the loops and blogs, there's a lot of speculation that chicklit is on the wane. Unless you can increase its appeal for 50-somethings, I agree. In stories aimed at women, no matter what the niche, over the long haul you need that demographic. I think. And that means readers with some life experience. A clever hook only works for so many pages. Beyond that I want interesting relationships and depth of character.

As for that no advance idea, that's kinda what you get when you're starting out. If the book sells, you'll see most of your earnings a couple of years down the road. Most of us kept our day jobs during that time. But you reach a point where you just can't do both. Without the advance, most of us would have to choose the day job. I know so many people who signed multi-book contracts--like 4, 5, even 6 books--to get enough of an advance to make quitting the salaried job possible. (That 6-book deal can be deadly, too.) Few writers I know could survive without the advance.

Tina Wexler said...

Thank you all for having me and thank you Helen for inviting me. This was fun. I hope my answers proved somewhat helpful. And please know that you can always email me at ICM if you've got a burning question, but are too shy about asking it here.

Wishing you all every success.

Helen Brenna said...

Always email her at ICM??

Tina, we loved you before, now you're killing us!

She'll be back for a Happy Hour, I promise!!

And, honestly, she means it about the emailing thingy

Rachel Vincent said...

I know I'm late, but I'm just popping in to say I'm NOT on board with the no-advance thing. At all. If that's what had happened with my first sale, I wouldn't see any money for another year and a half or more. How could I afford to keep writing the books I'm contracted for? And my agent? Is she going to want to fight for me for two years without seeing any money?

If none of her clients got advances, how could she afford to pay her own bills? Especially for an agent starting out.

So, anyway, there's my two cents. ;-)

I enjoyed reading the interview and questions. Thanks for telling us about this Helen.

anne frasier said...

i wonder about a lower advance, much higher percentage of royalties, and payments once every month. i agree there's no way a low advance would work if the payments were made the way they are now. that would be totally impossible.

Anonymous said...

Hi. I just want to agree with Jacqueline here and the others opposing no advances. I've just been offered an advance so pitiful that it is dwarfed by my unemployment benefit, which in my case, is right at the bottom of the scale and below the bread line. All of which leads me to paraphrase the British govt.'s slogan- "you're better off out of work"! I have also heard a lot about publishers keeping dubious records and consequently not being entirely scrupilous with ensuring the author gets his or her royalties (and this from a former publisher of a reputable firm). Then there's the practice of cutting the author's royalties disproportionately on discounted books (so the discounts come largely out of the authro's royalties)....etc, etc. So personally, I think the more authors get as advances, the better for them. . . .

Yxory - (Ixoree) said...

Thanks Tina....you are AWESOME!!! The information that you have given us is priceless!

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