Monday, February 19, 2007

Victoria Strauss -- Should a Writer Query an Overseas Agent?

I recently had occasion to exchange some emails with Peter Buckman of the UK-based Ampersand Agency Ltd. In the process of discussing other matters, he made the following comment: "I wish you'd also make clear to American hopeful writers that if they're writing on American subjects in an American setting, they really need an American publisher on board before the British and European editors would take notice. I am constantly surprised by how many Americans write to us when they should first secure an American agent--and equally surprisedby the number of Americans who seem to think their stamps (for return postage) will work outside the USA!"

Overseas submitters take note: you need to deal with the return postage issue in a way that will actually work overseas. Or if possible, use email.

But that's not really my subject today. What I want to focus on is Mr. Buckman's comment about the appropriateness, or not, of overseas submissions.

Writer Beware often gets questions from writers in one country about agents in another. Mostly we hear from US writers who want to know about British agents, but we also hear from UK writers who are interested in querying American agents, and occasionally from Australian writers looking for agents in the US or the UK. Sometimes these writers feel they've exhausted agent possibilities in their own countries, and are looking for fresh options overseas. Sometimes they think that as long as the agent is interested in their market or genre, one agent is as good as another, no matter where in the world the agent is located.

Unfortunately, that's not the case. Agents generally focus their selling efforts in their own countries, where they know the market and are easily able to maintain the contacts and business connections a successful agent needs. For overseas sales, they use co-agents who have similar connections and contacts in those countries. A British agent won't try to sell to American publishers himself; he'll send the ms. to his co-agent in the US, and that agent, who knows American editors and what they're looking for, will submit it out.

However, it’s usually only once a book has been published and has picked up some momentum--good sales, excellent reviews, media interest--that it becomes a viable candidate for foreign sales. Your agent, therefore, will concentrate on selling your book for first-time publication before he starts thinking about foreign and/or other subrights--and since he’ll be doing that in his own country, your book needs to be a good fit for that market. Books with American characters in American settings usually aren't suitable for first sale in the UK, just as books with British characters in British settings usually aren't suitable for first sale in the US. It's tough enough for any book to find a readership; it's even tougher when the subject matter may not resonate with with the prospective audience. That's certainly how publishers see it.

Note that the statements in the previous paragraph are qualified by "usually" and "generally speaking." Obviously, there are exceptions. You read about them in the trade press: the hot manuscript put out to bid simutaneously in the US, UK, and Germany; the blockbuster that took the Frankfurt Book Fair by storm and sold rights in thirteen countries before the fair was finished. This kind of thing, however, is rare, and it’s a whole lot more likely that your book is not suitable for this kind of treatment than that it is. There are also books that by their nature are less culture-specific: historical epics, for example, or science fiction and fantasy, or thrillers that take their characters around the world. For those books, it's feasible to approach an agent in another country if you’ve researched the agent and feel he or she would be perfect for the book. But if your work is culture-specific--if you're an American writer who has written a detective novel set in Chicago, or a British writer who has penned a literary novel set in Glasgow--you're best off seeking an agent in your own country, who will market to appropriate publishers there.

This brings me to a "beware." If an American agent tells you he can sell your book in Britain as easily as in the US, or if a British agent encourages you to believe he can sell "anywhere" because he has contacts all over the world, be wary: it may be a sign of inexperience (the agent doesn't know the way things work) or of fraud (he doesn't care where you come from as long as you pay his fee--a late, unlamented example of this is the notorious Christopher Hill). Experienced, reputable agents target their own domestic markets first--and so should you.

15 comments:

Christine said...

I would say, based on the recent trend in Children and YA fantasy literature, that British (or even other countries of origin) setting and characters do sell well in the American market.

Besides the spate of imports that are doing well, books like HERE, THERE BE DRAGONS, written by an American with an almost exclusive British cast (before the fantasy begins, of course) is a prime example.
Not that this is a hard and fast rule - great writing, as usual, trumps everything.

Shawn James said...

A couple of months ago an agent (who will remain nameless) tried to tell me that the editors in New York and London Markets were the same and. She also tried to tell me that editors in both markets were looking for the same types of material. I knew this was bunk, because both markets were different. American authors need to have good sales in America to get picked up in a secondary market like the U.K., or France. A lot of authors have no idea that foriegn rights are secondary rights and this is a secondary market. The same goes for TV rights, movie rights, Toys and such.

Thankfully for me, she passed on me. It didn't cost me anything(I e-mailed only a couple of pages)_but I'm glad I didn't get involved with such an incompetent agent. From her response, it was clear had no sense of the market or the industry.

I'm still shopping the manuscript around, but the adage is true- No agent is better than an incompetent one.

JanW said...

OK, then what does an American writer who co-writes with two Australians and lives in Australia do with a story set in Chicago and South Africa?

Sadly, there aren't enough Australian agents to begin with and the Australian market size and number of books published annually is low.

Does that mean the book is doomed before we even get started with subbing it?

Jan

Bernita said...

Janm that's much the same case in Canada.
There may be two dozen legitimate agencues in the entire country - and they usually rep only literary fiction.

Steve Malley said...

Hi janw,

I'm a Yank in NZ writing thrillers in a Kiwi setting. Your question resonated.

You're not doomed. The small size of the Oz market can work in your favour. An agent isn't nearly as necessary there to get serious consideration from an editor.

And your geography needn't limit you either. I have an agent in NYC (Anne Hawkins at JHA Lit) who didn't bat an eye at my location or the book's setting. She just stresses the keywords 'international thriller'.

Write it. A market will follow.

December Quinn said...

Yes, as an American living in the UK, but may not stay here forever, I'm still writing US-set books with Americans in them and querying US agents.

I just mention my nationality and dreams of home in my queries.

Victoria Strauss said...

I would say, based on the recent trend in Children and YA fantasy literature, that British (or even other countries of origin) setting and characters do sell well in the American market.

Very true. But such imports typically sell first in their authors' home countries, and come over here only after they've been published there.

The main point I'm trying to make is that agents typically sell first in their own domestic markets. So if you're querying an agent--no matter where he or she is--your work needs to be salable in that market. If you've written an international thriller that has an American protagonist but is set mainly in Sri Lanka and Paris, you've largely uncoupled yourself from the culture-specific issue, and can probably approach a UK agent as reasonably as a US one (although there are other reasons to stay in your own country, such as the convenience of not having to deal with expensive long distance telephone calls and overseas delivery). But if you've written a domestic drama set in Ohio, it really is not very likely that a UK publisher will be interested--not, at least, before the book finds a US home and gets stellar reviews.

Those of you who've mentioned the Canadian and Australian markets have a point, which I missed addressing in my original post. Given the relative smallness of those markets, I can see why writers would rather look to bigger markets in other countries. Again, though, your agent will be selling in his or her home country, so you need to figure out where your book will best fit. Reading recently published books in your genre published in your country of choice would be a good first step.

Anonymous said...

I don't know where the link is, but I read that Jodi Picoult had given up trying to sell her first book because agents in the US shunned the difficult subject matter in the book. Miss Snark has mentioned several times that topics involving abuse, dead children (or dogs) are out of bounds for many agents.

I believe Jodi's initial sales were all in the UK and I'm not sure, but I think she had (or has) a UK agent.

Any thoughts on this?

Anonymous said...

Hi Victoria -

Unrelated to the present subject, you should check out a comment on Charlotte Gusay that was just posted on Miss Snark's website under her posting about "author pages on Publisher's Marketplace."

Victoria Strauss said...

I believe Jodi's initial sales were all in the UK and I'm not sure, but I think she had (or has) a UK agent.

This is an interesting question, so I did some research. I found an interview in which Ms. Picoult said it took her two years to find an agent (Laura Gross of Phoenix, AZ) and took the agent just three months to sell her first novel--that's a pretty quick sale. It was published by Faber & Faber, a UK publisher that was then just entering the US market. So it was first published in the USA.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for clearing up the confusion on Jodi. I couldn't remember the details - you are amazing!

adrienne said...

Sometimes though a writer is writing for a different market than their home market. Many Canadians who write more commercial fiction do better to find American agents because the market in Canada has a much more literary bent (I know w publisher who had already published a book of an author's and refused to publish the next one because it wasn't 'Canadian' enough).

I am Canadian, but a huge anglophile. While living in the UK I wrote an MG set in england (well it never actually states it's in england, but let's be honest, it was). So I got a UK agent. When I met with my editor she was shocked to learn I was Canadian because what everyone at the house had felt was that the book was so "quintessentially british".

So there are exceptions to the rule. Which Victoria already mentioned. Just thought I'd offer a concrete example though.

Catja (green_knight) said...

In the Fantasy/SF market it is not uncommon for British writers to sell to the US first, so that is maybe the exception.

AJ said...

I know an American writer who got a contract for his first fantasy novel & following (I don't remember whether it was a two- or three-book deal) with a major UK publisher. I don't know the sum of the details, but I know he's considered hot stuff.

This may not be a usual case, and his work is more 'British-ish' in tone than the average American author's. Just referencing it as a data point. Not giving details largely because I'm not sure of them and can also give you the name and a contact location if you email me (lux foofoofoo at chaosbutterfly foofoofoo dot foofoofoo net, I am taking no chances with the spammers!) -- more reliable to hear from the horse's mouth.

declanconner.com said...

I must be a strange specimen for an author. I am British, but I write all my thrillers set in America, using American terms and punctuation etc. To top that off, I live in Brazil, so looking for agents here is out of the question.

A few years ago I was up against not only the problem of which country to send queries to agents, but also I was trying to have published a compilation of short thrillers set in America. Of course, no one considers shorts viable, so it was a no win situation. In the end I self-published and strangely enough, the compilation hit the top 10 for its category on Amazon UK for 7 months. (Remember, the 12 stories were set in America.)
In later full length works, I tried submitting to UK agents, but after a few saying I would be better off trying for an American agent, I gave up and self-published again.

I am now in the process of querying yet another thriller book, this time to American agents, but I get the impression that living in Brazil and not being available for book signings etc, that even if my work was good enough to find favor, I doubt they would take me on.

I can only hope I am proven wrong.