Thursday, April 06, 2017

Hands on or hands off, and no I don't mean that.

On Monday 3-27, you said:

6. Is the agent hands on or hands off?
An agent should know this about him/herself. And his/her clients will know for sure. ASK.

The more you know about an agent's day to day style of working with clients, the better.

Will you clarify what you mean by hands on/off? I always thought "hands on" simply meant an agent who gives fairly detailed editorial feedback on the writing. After reading a couple comments on that post, I'm wondering, is there more to the definition than that? Or maybe I'm wrong and it means something entirely different.

I'm hoping "hands off" does NOT mean an agent who never or rarely communicates with clients, but is one who leaves any editing to the publisher. 

Hands on is more than just how to describe an agent who gives fairly detailed editorial feedback.
Some agents sell a book, then *poof* they're off to the next sale.
Editors and clients don't hear from them until it's time to re-up.

There are levels of this; some agents will stay in touch a bit more often than that, but their focus is selling the next project not managing this one.

And that is perfectly legit. Some authors want that.  

If, on the other hand, you want or need an agent who is more involved, you want an agent who is more "hands-on."

When people ask me that question, I tell them I'm involved with editing and development right up till we sell it. Then I hand off content to the editor. If there's a problem, I get looped back in, but I'm not an editor and I like to sell to editors who really know their stuff (ie a lot more than me about how to make a book better.)

Of course, I've got my long pointy nose in all the business side of things.  From royalty statements to short story contracts, to helping authors develop their brand, activate their social media presence and build platform, I'm right there in the trenches with them. That's what hands-on means.

One of the things I need to learn about every new client is how much involvement they need and want. It can be two different things, which is interesting.  Generally we find out when we hit some sort of rough spot---which is one of the reasons I have a bar in my office.

And authors need varying levels of handedness through out the year, and throughout their career. A client who needs a lot of coaching will often become a client who doesn't need much by the third or fourth book.

Or, the client who didn't need much on books one through five, suddenly needs a lot when their career is making a left turn they didn't see coming. 

How do you determine if an agent is hands on or off (that does sound weird I know): ask their clients. Ask what their agent works with them on. If it's only the contract, that's hands off. If it's editorial work up till the book is sold, then not till the next book, that's hands off. 

I reiterate: both hands on and hands off are legit choices. One is not better than the other. The trick is to know what you need and sign with an agent who does that.



Kitty said...

Janet, you do short story contracts?

Anonymous said...

It feels weird to say, "I'm the OP," when I've never particularly liked that abbreviation, but yes, this is my question. And it's one of those questions I felt rather dense asking. Like I should have known this by now, but didn't.

Thanks, Janet, this is an excellent answer. Very detailed and helpful. And interesting to learn that what writers need in terms of assistance can change over time, as circumstances change.

I've worked for people who are incapable of anything but micro-managing everyone, whether warranted or not. As far as I know, they're all still alive. I like that you adapt your involvement to what each client needs.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

I was curious about where the agent fits in once book is sold as far as deadlines and such. If editing is going to take longer than expected, does agent need to know? Or is that between editor and writer? When there is an option on 2nd book and publisher wants outline and 1st 3 chapters by x date, does writer show those chapters to agent first or do they go straight to publisher on a wing and a prayer? Is there a lot of variance from agent to agent?

I missed you guys. Migraine stole last few days from me. I hope everyone is ok.

DLM said...

kdjames, I didn't get into "OP" for a while either, but just view it as utilitarian. Since we know who we are, perhaps everyone will skip it and just call you by name. :)

Janet's response here illuminates for me that it may be less important to ask this as if it's black-and-white than it is to see whether an agent sees the variables Janet is pointing out over a career. "How adaptable are you to changing needs?" may be just as apt!

Done well, and with good fortune, an authorial career is all about the long haul, right?

Amy Johnson said...

Thanks for the helpful info, Janet. And thanks for asking the question, kdjames--if you hadn't, I wouldn't have learned what I did.

Elise: Glad you're feeling better and you're back here. :)

Melanie Sue Bowles said...

Every time we all say OP, Ron Howard as Opie Tayler floods my brain.

kdjames, Great question. Thanks for asking. And I love it when Ron . . . er, a Reider, let's us know he or she is really the Opie.

Terrific info here. Fins on!

Jennifer R. Donohue said...

Kitty, I believe Janet has said that she will look over any contract that one of her clients is offered. So if, say, Jeff Somers has a short story that's solicited to be in an anthology (or he submits to a magazine or whatever), Madame Sharque gives it a going-over before he puts ink to paper.

Hands on, hands off is an interesting concern because....well, it's hard to know what one prefers until they're in the situation! I feel like I both wouldn't want constant contact but also that I would get nervous about gulfs of silence.

Colin Smith said...

Kitty: As I understand it, yes, Janet will review short story contracts for her clients. Indeed, it's not a bad practice to show your agent contracts you are given for any writing work--a short story, flash fiction, freelance article, TV commercial script, song lyric, etc. That way your agent can make sure you're not signing up for something that could potentially hurt your career somewhere down the line. Again, as I understand it, this is not a rule, and I don't think the agency agreement demands you submit every contract to the agent for review, but it's certainly advisable, unless you happen to have expertise in that area.

I could be wrong about this, and I'm certainly open to correction. :)

BTW, as far as I know, the only one of Janet's clients who writes primarily short stories is Laird Barron. He also writes a genre Janet doesn't rep (horror), so he's not exactly representative of her typical client. I am curious how Laird and Janet found each other. After all, he's only written one--maybe two?--novels, and his work scares the willies out of our beloved Shark. Which is sayin' somethin'... :)

Colin Smith said...

kd: Woohoo! You get to be Opie for the day!! :) Good question. Thanks for asking. :)

EM: I'm fine, thanks. Hopefully you're doing a whole lot better. I've been blessed with almost a completely migraine-free life so far, so I can only imagine how bad it must be for those who suffer with them regularly. The last time I had anything approaching a migraine was the day I spent four or five hours painting what is now our bedroom, almost without break. That night I woke up with a throbbing, screaming headache. It felt like my head was about to burst. I had to wake my wife and ask her to get me pain drugs, it was so bad. If that's what you've had the past few days, I'm truly sorry for you. :(

MA Hudson said...

kdjames - thanks for asking Janet about this. I love hearing the details of life on the other side of the publishing mountain.
A hands-on agents sounds like a much better option to me. I'm just wondering, though, would any agents actually describe themselves as hands-off?

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Earlier I started to comment regarding the whole micro/macro managing set of methods but decided to wait, (I’m shy, hahaha :), thinking that perhaps in publishing the concepts are different. Nope, kdjames used the term.
My boss is a micro-manager on steroids. After twelve years of doing what I do, I relish the days she off-loads on someone else and lets me do my job, and own it. Sometimes I need her on my back, but after all this time, my wings flap fine without her fluffing my feathers.
Glad to hear by book four I’ll know what I’m doing. Oh wait, where is book one, and what did I say?

Unknown said...

Thanks for the question, KD! I thought I knew the answer, but Janet, you definitely clarified, so thanks for that, too.

EM: I'm so sorry about your migraine. I've had them for hours -- never for days. That must have been torture -- really glad you're better.

Here's to a day without headaches for all of us.

John Davis Frain said...

So how many times does an author have to visit your bar for alleged help before you begin to suspect they might be faking all this neediness. I bet there are Fridays where Jeff Somers suddenly feels the urge for some brand-building assistance.

This is only a comment post. All character names are from the writer's imagination and not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to an actual person is not at all coincidental.

Anonymous said...

2Ns, you're trying to get me in trouble, aren't you. ;) I didn't mean to imply that what Janet does with hands-on agenting is the same as micro-managing. I doubt she could ever be that stifling. I just meant that, as someone who has been on the receiving end of one-size-fits-all management, it's really nice to find someone who doesn't paint with such a broad brush (pun intended).

Lennon Faris said...

Hands-on sounds much better to a starting author. But yes I can see how an author would become more 'hands-off' as time goes on.

John (mss) Frain - hahah!

Sherry Howard said...

I think JR hit the nail on the head when she said needs of an author may change over time relative to the support they need/want. The first few contracts are hard.

I've signed contracts for short pieces without enough consideration--I realize that now. But they were pretty straightforward. Now, I'm negotiating a contract with a small publisher for a picture book. It's complicated, so I had an attorney review it. But, still, I have to deal directly with the publisher. I hate it. I hope eventually I'll have an agent to do that stuff.

I've helped my son with real estate contracts for years, at times, and they are a piece of cake compared to manuscript contracts. I was shocked to see how much red-lining the intellectual property attorney did to the contract from the small publisher.

Donnaeve said...

Hey Elise - glad you're feeling better!

I'll answer your question from what I know...if editing is going to take longer, yes, I think my agent needs to know. There is a D&A in a contract (for mine, not all maybe) that is the Delivery & Acceptance. Because I'm a bit of a stickler when it comes to things being turned in on time, I haven't had to email my agent and say..."hey, can you contact John S and tell him..."

Further on down the line into the process, beyond editing/revisions, I think "the need to know" shifts to the editor only nwhen it comes to copy edits and page proofs - these are all tied to a deadline that affects downstream production. The whole process is like a tightly run IT department in my opinion. What affects one system affects another.

My agent has also been involved post signing with a book cover (DIXIE), there was a change we wanted but, it couldn't happen - still, he asked about it. He also eyeballs everything I write before it goes to my editor. Yep, the outline + 3 chps even.

Beyond negotiating contract stuff, he also shares book sales and celebrates good news with me. We've had a lot to celebrate lately. :)

Donnaeve said...


Clarification on D&A.

First there's the outline + 3 chapters - a concept of a book - agent reads before going to the editor b/c this is pre-sale.

Then there's the Delivery of the MS, based on that outline + 3 chapters...and again, agent reads the whole thing before editor - this is the book the proposal was based on, the, yeah, he'd want to read it.

The Acceptance portion comes after editor reads, then makes suggestions on the revisions - and if I was struggling to meet the deadline for that, my agent would contact my editor about it.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

Donna Thanks so much. I like to know what I am up against so I can plan accordingly. Right now, writing without a deadline is so pleasurable. I wonder how I will manage under deadlines so I am going to attempt to write at least drafts of several more books while my WIP is undergoing edits and beta reading and revisions before hitting the query train again.

Migraines take days out of my life. I can't concentrate and the pain is so intense it causes the blackest of depressions. Usually they don't last so long but this one was a perfect storm of stress, hormones, and weather- all my triggers converging to knock me out. Most stressful was being removed from the Reef, my reading and my writing. Luckily I did a week's worth of A to Z on Sunday. Thanks for well wishes. You guys rock.

Claire Bobrow said...

This post went straight to the printer tray. I'll be tucking it into my newly organized writing binders under "Author-Agent."
Thanks for asking the question, kdjames, and thanks for your detailed answer, Janet!

EM - glad to hear you're feeling better.

OT: I'm trying to enjoy the spring blooms in our tiny city garden before they get blown off the branches. Big storm coming today. As of this hour, we have cherry blossoms, pink and white clematis, Lady Banks roses, double-file viburnum, purple iris, a bit of salvia, and orange day lilies (dug from the NC garden of my grandmother after she died).

Steve Stubbs said...

I just wanted to express appreciation for what you wrote. I am always very pleased when someone offers me helpful feedback. Most writers echo Pontius Pilate: "What I have written, I have written." Mark Twain is generally regarded as a major writer. Except for Huckleberry Finn, of course, which is politically incorrect since it was written in dialect. But some of what Twain wrote was frankly lackluster. Reportedly if anyone suggested an editorial improvement to anything he wrote, Mount Vesuvius went off and did it far from its original location in Italy.

It is probably not happenstance that many bestselling authors obviouely get published with NO editing at all. None. Nada. Their stuff goes out in raw form.

I always wonder how anyone could work in publishing with enormous egos without running naked through the streets of Manhattan, screaming madly and waving a machete.

My hat is off to all of you who can. We appreciate you.

Amy Johnson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
RosannaM said...

kd thanks for asking the question. I learned so much of what I didn't even know I didn't know. My stumbling block would be this line, "ask their clients." Did anyone else get a thrill of panic at that thought? Contact a stranger or three out of the clear, blue sky?

EM, glad you are feeling better. Lousy migraine-stealing your writing time!

Claire, your garden sounds lovely and I hope your blooms survive the storm. Spring is slow to come our way.

Craig F said...

Doesn't a lot of the hands on/off stuff depend on the publisher. Some publishers seem to want to make sure the second book is heading in the right direction from the plot outline. Others seem to be willing to take a ten book timeline written on a napkin and run with it.

Is this dependent on the investment in the writer? Or is it something else, like having a wildly popular blog and commenters stating that they would read that writer's grocery list?

I know there are a lot of agents who are almost only interested in signing new clients but would the best answer to this be that the agent you want can do either. It depends on the circumstances.

Julie Weathers said...

KD I'm with you. I don't care for the OP or Opie tag, but it's what has stuck. As Melanie said, I also think of the Mayberry theme every time I see it, which isn't all bad, I suppose.

Thank you for asking this question.

Elise I'm sorry about the migraines, but glad you're feeling better.

To everyone, the writing quote of the day:

“The test of any good fiction is that you should care something for the characters; the good to succeed, the bad to fail. The trouble with most fiction is that you want them all to land in hell together, as quickly as possible.”--Mark Twain

BJ Muntain said...

I'm pretty sure I want a hands-on agent. I'm looking for guidance with my career, as well as a home for my books. I'd like help learning the little eccentricities of the publishing industry - when do you announce a deal, and how? How are book tours set up? What is the etiquette when dealing with a publisher, especially through an agent? When is it acceptable to self-publish something that isn't under the publishing contract? As much as I've been learning about publishing, I don't know everything, so I need a guide. Once I'm comfortable with the process and everything, I probably won't need as much help, but I'll always be grateful for any help my agent gives me, early and late in my career.

I'd also like an agent that keeps me up-to-date on what's going on. Nothing too detailed, even, "I sent your manuscript to a bunch of editors last week, and now I'm waiting for responses." And maybe, "That round of pitching didn't pan out, but I'm sending to more editors today." Just enough to keep me from going all hamster-wheelie, wondering what's going on.

We missed you, EM!

Good question, KD, and great answer, Janet!

Great quote, Julie!

Craig: Hands-on publishers are not the same as hands-on agents. Sometimes publishers do want to keep an eye on what the author is doing. As Donna noted, part of the contract (and often part of the advance) is contingent on Delivery and Acceptance. That is, the author delivers, and the publisher accepts. If the publisher doesn't accept, then either the writer's going to have to make some changes or something contractual is going to happen.

However, that has nothing to do with the agent's hands on/off approach. The agent needs to make sure the author is working according to the contract, or neither will get paid. Even a hands-off agent wants to get paid. But a hands-on agent will be helping the author even after the book is sold, even after it's published, to help the author with their career. This way, they're both more likely to be paid for future works, as well.

John Davis Frain said...

I'm guessing the agent might turn around and ask a prospective client the same question.

I have some clients that I'm very hands-on with because they need it. (And I need to be hands-on to keep the business.) But I have one client who would rather I never take her to lunch or call her on my own; I just need to be there when she wants, on her terms.

So I'm hands-on AND hands-off depending on who I'm writing for. But I don't know enough about publishing to even be dangerous, and most nights, I know slightly less than that about writing. Which is exactly why I need to hang out on Julie's porch more often and soak up the wisdom of those two wonderful ladies.

AJ Blythe said...

Interesting division between hands on/off. Not sure I fully understood the difference but didn't know I didn't know (eeps, how many other things fall into that category?!). Thanks for the clarification, JR.

Theresa said...

EM: Sympathies on the migraines. I suffered for years, days at a time. Lots of lost days.

Melanie: I also think of Opie Taylor and always hear OP in Andy Griffith's voice.

Having the right kind of hands with an agent is one of the important parts of that business relationship. I've been very lucky with mine.

Beth Carpenter said...

Good question, KD, and informative. My agent is sort of hands-on on demand. If I have a question, she answers. When I send her a new manuscript, she looks for typos, plot holes, etc., but doesn't do a full developmental edit. She nudges the publisher about outstanding proposals and forwards me the answer. But we don't chat about how the book is coming along or anything like that.

Panda in Chief said...

I got to "test drive" my agent (boy does that sound hinky!) because he was my mentor in an SCBWI mentorship program. He gave great editorial advice, although I have to admit, when I got the first version of my graphic novel manuscript brimming with comments and suggestions, I had to crawl under the covers and whimper for a while. But I realized, pretty quickly that most of his comments were right on target, and more so as the process progressed.

I'm learning how to say, "I don't want to show you this yet" when I need to have a confab with my inner panda, so I can let the deep silliness come out unobstructed, before getting any distracting feedback.

Great question kd! I love all the responses too.

Anonymous said...

I'm relieved to hear I wasn't the only one who wasn't quite clear on this distinction.

Now I'm a wee bit nervous anticipating Janet's answer to my other question (yes, of course I asked more than one), the topic of which I suspect might be a Carkoon-able offense.