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How To Be Your Own Literary Agent: An Insider's Guide to Getting Your Book Published Revised and Expanded ed. Edition

4.4 out of 5 stars 22 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 004-6442380416
ISBN-10: 0618380418
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Editorial Reviews

About 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.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.


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.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 297 pages
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Comany; Revised and Expanded ed. edition (November 17, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0618380418
  • ISBN-13: 978-0618380411
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.8 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (22 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #825,565 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
The author is an experienced agent sharing his knowledge with a gentle humour. Ok, sometimes not so gentle - the quip about the type of negotiating stance a first-time author should take with their publisher is a real gem.

I read the book cover to cover in one sitting, skimming only the sections on collaborative writing and book packagers, and not only did I learn a lot I also laughed out loud at several observations. Information is so much easier to digest when it's presented in a breezy conversational style.

The book includes a sample publishing contract and several author-friendly clauses which can be substituted for the more usual publisher-friendly versions.

Like another reviewer's copy, my book also looks like a group of preschoolers had a go at it. Corners folded, underlining everywhere, notes in the margins... but that's always the sign of an informative title.

Highly recommended if you're at this stage of the game.
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Format: Paperback
Several days ago I finished reading HOW TO BE YOUR OWN LITERARY AGENT, and my book looks as if its been in a HURRICANE! The cover is battered; the pages are dogeared; and the margins are scribbled in! This book was originally published in 1983 and has undergone two later revisions. But authors, don't read the early editions, though they have a lot of valuable info. in them. Read this latest 2003 revision that has been expanded to add observations about the way the publishing industry has changed including recent electronic advances. The book has chapters on negotiating contracts, how to make the best deals, steps books go through to publication, ongoing publicity before, during, and after the book is published, chain/independent bookstores, the role of agents, taxes, and on and on. This book is written by one of NY's top literary agents who has seen it all in the last 40 years of his career. Richard Curtis writes very well, sometimes humorously, and has covered just about everything. It is not a book about how to plot, flesh out characters, describe settings, etc. This book is about the business of writing books. The only criticism I have is that it does not include an index nor does it go into detail about Amazon.com and Bn.com, or how to track book sales. This is a must book for every writer. I am a reader of historical fiction and highly recommend any Leon Uris novel, the first novels of James Michener, slave narratives written by actual slaves, biographies of historical known and unknown historical figures and fictional young adult novels such as The Diary of a Slave Girl, Ruby Jo and The Journal of Darien Dexter Duff, an Emancipated Slave.
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Format: Paperback
Every aspiring writer should read at least one book on the business aspects of writing and publishing. If you only read one, it should be this one. If you read two or three, this should be one of them. It's a valuable book for all writers, agented or unagented. If you do have an agent, you should have some basic understanding of the contracts your agent sends you and the realities of the publishing industry. You may feel you don't need to understand contracts if you're still trying to make your first sale, but you're going to be presented with a contract even for a magazine sale, and you should have some understanding of what you're signing. And you should understand some things, such as the libel rules, from the time you first start writing. Curtis is a veteran author and agent. For a small price, you get the equivalent of several hours of conversation with a top consultant.
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
I'm quite sure that this was just full of vital information back in 1983(!) (to be fair, it does have some post 2000 updates) when it was first published, but by today's standards its woefully inaccurate and gives advice that's just outdated. He acts like emailed submissions are some strange beast that will never catch on! I'm sad to say it, but buying this was absolutely a mistake -- I can't in good conscious imagine this book would do any kind of justice to the way the market has changed.

I don't recommend this.
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Format: Paperback
I cannot thank Richard Curtis enough for this book. I'm not a reader of self-help books as a rule, but this one I underlined. My publisher - chosen with Curtis' instructions in mind - said he'd never seen a cleaner copy than my manuscript.

When I walked into my attorney's office with the list - Curtis" list - of the things I wanted to see in my contract, my attorney said, "You've been doing your homework!"

Thank you, Mr. Curtis; I'm a fan from the earliest edition, and I just bought 2003's.

A.D. Slade
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When I started out to sell my first book, I bought A LOT of books on agents and the publishing process. In the end, this is the only one I'd say was definitely useful. I spent probably a year querying agents unsuccessfully, and while that process forced me to think a lot more about audience, presentation and the reader's experience, it didn't result in much else except making me desperate and insecure. I eventually pitched an idea to an independent publisher directly, and that resulted in the publication of my first book. It was a GRUELING process and took longer than I would have wanted, but three years from inception to publication is really not bad. *How to Be Your Own Literary Agent* enabled me to feel confident I wasn't making any mistakes when I signed the contract (when I was WRITING the book, well, that was all on my shoulders).

I do think the publishing industry has evolved in a way that it excludes a lot of talented but inexperienced writers. In that respect, I think it's is easier for fiction writers, since there's an enormous community that's all about developing the skills you need to get from where you are to where you want to be. Even though nonfiction is much less competitive (and more lucrative), there's no comparable community dedicated to helping nonfiction writers develop the skills they need to produce an excellent product that publishers and readers will love. If that's the boat you're in, I don't know what to tell you except "Go with God."

Anyways, this is definitely at the top of my Top Ten Publishing Books. If you don't land an agent but are determined to press on, this is certainly a must-own.
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