Episode 70

Literary Agents and Bestselling Books

We have a lot of news to get through today, including insider information about what makes a bestseller, a review of Amazon KDP’s recent changes, and more. As promised, we’re also discussing literary agents today, the good, the bad, and the ugly. 

Music licensed from Storyblocks:

“More Jam Please” by Raighes Factory

"The Other Funky Shoe" by zoze

"Overtime" by Humans Win

Rosemi Mederos:

If you have plot bunnies coming out of your plot holes, it’s time for a writing break.

We have a lot of news to get through today, including insider information about what makes a bestseller, a review of Amazon KDP’s recent changes, and more. As promised, we’re also discussing literary agents today, the good, the bad, and the ugly.

The Writing Break cafe is open, and with everything we have to discuss today, we will be staying until closing time. Let’s settle into a corner booth, and get into it.

Last autumn I told you about some changes happening with Amazon KDP’s book category selection. Well, more changes have been implemented, and authors I have spoken to seem relatively pleased about them, primarily because it means less time trying to contact customer support.

For starters, there is a new interface for selecting your book’s categories, and the three-category limit is being enforced on all titles, old and new, so if you make changes to a previously published book, you will only be allowed to keep three categories.

You can also now set the minimum and maximum reading ages without having to contact customer service. Most importantly, authors who try to cheat the system by adding their book to less competitive categories that don’t fit their book in an attempt to become a bestseller in that category will find that Amazon will kindly correct your mistake and recategorize your book for you.

The US Book Show took place last month, and it included a panel called Anatomy of a Bestseller. Your girl took notes. First off, the panel moderator was a literary agent, and the panel consisted of four editors, two were from Big Five publishers and two were from independent presses.

So, what makes a bestseller? I thought about making this a separate writing tip segment, but the truth is that the answer hasn’t changed all that much. There is no way to guarantee that a book will be a bestseller. What’s more is that readers are no longer relying on or even caring about publications like the New York Times Book Review. They are turning to other readers for recommendations, which is a great thing if you ask me.

When a book becomes a bestseller it means that many things fell into the right place at the right time. The good news there is that the panelists felt that small and big publishers have the same chance of releasing a bestseller today.

Funny how there were no small press representatives who volunteered to testify to this under oath when the US Department of Justice blocked the Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster merger.

I digress. As far as what authors can do to help market their book, the panelists felt that authors should be clear about how they want to engage with potential readers and do so in a way that feels right. Authenticity shines through, and anything else will be a waste of time that will not result in more book sales. For example, attempting a live stream when you really don’t want to and have no experience in doing so might do more harm than good.

The biggest success maker is and has always been, word of mouth. These days that means a lot of online marketing and social media activity.

Speaking of word of mouth, listen to this. Advance copies of a book titled Three Rivers were sent to some readers in exchange for an honest book review. One reader left a glowing review on Goodreads but said the ending was predictable. Still, she gave Three Rivers 4 out of 5 stars. I think that’s pretty good. The author, however, posted a video on TikTok calling the reviewer a troll and a hater.

Well, that reviewer was informed of this video and changed her 4-star review to a 1-star review. But it didn’t end there. Many more Goodreads users posted 1-star reviews even though they had not received an advance copy and the book was not yet released.

The author deleted the video and apologized, saying she was just kidding, but her publisher, Sourcebooks, announced they will be dropping Three Rivers from their catalog.

The book does sound interesting and being that it’s based on the author’s life, the ending should be a bit predictable. On the other hand, I know a lot of people who think 5 stars should be reserved for masterpieces. And the review was positive. The reader really liked the book. Do not go after your readers like this, please.

Last month Scribe Media, a publishing services firm, laid off its 87-member staff without severance or benefits. They cited “unforeseen business circumstances and faltering business based on unavailability of additional capital.”

Scribe Media’s CEO has stepped down and its assets are being sold off. Chief Experience Officer Meghan McCracken claims that “Operationally, all of our clients are covered, and we are continuing.…We fully anticipate completely resuming normal operations at the same level of employment that we had before.”


Speaking of layoffs, let me catch you up on what’s been happening at New Leaf Media. For a bit of background, New Leaf Literary & Media says it is “a full service management and representation firm that will be with you before and beyond the sale.”

This is an established agency whose representation includes domestic and international book sales as well as film and television. They represent several bestselling authors, including Holly Black, Cassandra Clare, and Veronica Roth. But now New Leaf is under fire after releasing a number of authors and illustrators from the agency. The move has been met with backlash from the literary community, with many criticizing the agency for its handling of the situation.

The controversy began on May 12, when New Leaf announced that it had parted ways with agent Jordan Hamessley. New Leaf says it was an amicable parting, and Hamessley says it was not. In a mass email to Hamessley's clients, the agency said that it would no longer be representing them. The email also stated that the agency would be contacting the clients to discuss their future representation options.

Hamessley's clients were shocked and disappointed by the news, especially those who had works under submission. Some of them took to social media to express their frustration, accusing the agency of dropping them without warning. Others said that they felt betrayed by the agency, which they had previously considered to be a supportive and nurturing environment. They’re with you before and beyond the sale, remember?

The Authors Guild got involved on behalf of the authors affected by Hammesley’s departure. They met with New Leaf to discuss the agency's plan to manage the transition for those authors. The Guild said that while unforeseen events do occur, New Leaf should have assigned the writers to other agents instead of simply dropping them. The Guild says it will continue to monitor the situation, while New Leaf said in a statement that it "made the decision in the best interests of our clients and the agency." They also claim that they have "provided generous severance packages" to the clients who were released.

This fiasco leads us nicely into today’s writing tip, which is about literary agents. But first, I’m going to get another cup of coffee. Let me know if you want anything, and I’ll meet you on the Overthinking Couch.

The incident at New Leaf Media has raised questions about the way that literary agencies operate and the level of support that they offer their clients. Authors might not like to admit it, but this kind of thing happens all the time. The New Leaf Media incident made the news because of how many authors were dropped at once and how many of them were willing to talk about it publicly.

Over the past few weeks we’ve reviewed three book publishing models: self-publishing, hybrid publishing, and traditional publishing. For the most part, traditional publishers demand that your manuscript be submitted by a literary agent. But why?

A literary agent helps the publisher, the author, and your work. Publishing staff do not have enough time to read and properly evaluate every manuscript out there, so ideally literary agents will select and submit only the best manuscripts. This is, of course, a completely subjective process, so do not get too discouraged if you’ve been rejected by a literary agent.

Let’s say you’ve gone through the excruciating process of querying agent after agent and you finally find a literary agent who wants to represent you. What will this clever person with immaculate taste in books actually do for you?

Negotiate. A good agent will work hard to get the best possible deal for their authors. Items that are negotiated include an advance, the author’s royalty rate, and the publisher’s marketing plans for the book.

And, finally, a literary agent helps your work by ensuring that the manuscript they’re submitting is an original work, a marketable work, and a well-written work.

How do literary agents get paid? Reputable literary agents do not charge any upfront fees, but they do charge commission. The commission rate is usually 15%.

You’ll increase your chances of landing an agent if you take the time to review agent websites and online profiles so that you query agents who would be a good fit for you, your work, and your career. This is a subjective process as well, and it’s up to you who you query. It is also a discouraging process, and patience is a must.

Just like hybrid publishers, not all literary agents are created equal, and they do not all operate in the same way. For example, some are much better communicators than others, and some are better at business than others. They also tend to operate quite differently. Some might try to submit your work to publishers without actually signing you on as a client. Some might want you to pay for an outsider to edit your proposal, and some might send your proposal off without editing it.

If you’re not really sure if a literary agent is a good idea, think about a real estate agent when you want to buy or sell a home. They do a lot for you…if they’re good. They know what can be negotiated. They know the market. They have all this information that would take you a long time to figure out on your own, and yet some of them are not great and some of them are really bad. And sometimes you don’t know it until you’ve sold or you’ve bought.

When we look at the recent debacle at New Leaf Media, it’s clear that there are no guarantees in the literary agent selection process. You can do all the research and land a great agent who works at a reputable agency, and something can still go haywire. It can be a stressful part of publishing if you want to go the traditional publishing route. I want you to be ready for that and to understand that some things will be beyond your control, as if you need me to tell you that.

Break’s over. Until next time, remember, you deserved this break.

If you would like us to visit your favorite independent bookstore, feature your favorite independent author (even if it’s you), or discuss something you’re overthinking about, please email me at podcast@writingbreak.com.

Thank you for making space in your mind for The Muse today.

Writing Break is hosted by America’s Editor and produced by Allon Media with technical direction by Gus Aviles. Visit us at writingbreak.com or contact us at podcast@writingbreak.com.

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Rosemi Mederos


Rosemi is the founder of America's Editor, a book editing company.