The Scoop on Agents

by Lisa Ekus
Since 2000, The Lisa Ekus Group has been offering personalized, detail-oriented literary services to veteran authors and newcomers (read first-time authors) alike. Our agency represents more than 175 authors and has successfully guided more than 350 books into print.

So, what does an agent do and do you need one?

Here’s what usually happens: You’ve got a GREAT cookbook idea, have put together an outline, and believe there’s no other book like it on the market. You excitedly send material to a publisher, and eight to ten weeks later you get a form letter stating that the publisher reviews submissions only from a literary agent. That’s if you get an answer at all …

So how do you find an agent, and why do you need one? The Literary Market Place directory is a great place to start researching. Other resources include talking to your colleagues who have been published to ask who their agents are and whether they might provide an introduction (we pay closer attention to those authors referred to us by current clients and professional colleagues). Read the acknowledgment pages of cookbooks, where almost all authors thank their agents and editors. Network within industry groups such as IACP, WCR and BlogHer.

Why an Agent?

Simply put, the literary agent’s role is to represent you, your book, and your best interests. Your agent is the first person to truly understand what makes your idea and vision of your book special, convey that message to the appropriate editor, and eventually sell your book to a publisher. Agents know the players, the field, the ins, the outs. By having representation, it tells an editor that you and your idea have already been vetted by a professional who thinks enough of you and your book project to “take you on.” Agents offer third-party endorsement and respect within the industry. They partner with you to help your vision become a book reality.

Agents should have a thorough knowledge of the industry, editors and publishing houses, as well as key trends in the culinary marketplace. Advice, recommendations, inspiration, and consolation are also necessary components of a strong author-agent relationship. (I think of myself as a combination pitch woman, negotiator, and mother — which includes nurturing and nagging!) Find the person you work best with, someone who is accessible, responsive, and reliable, and, most of all, someone you trust.

Agents also:

• Provide constructive advice when analyzing prospective works, proposals, and manuscripts
• Match clients with editors who are looking for specific projects
• Analyze industry trends, in order to approach the most appropriate publishers
• Consult on the “readiness” of each proposal, providing suggestions for revision based on feedback we receive from editors
• Create a plan and timeline for proposal submission
• Negotiate publishing contracts to reflect the best possible terms and conditions, with respect to rights, royalties, options, copyrights, style, format, promotion, publicity, and advertising
• Sell sub-rights as applicable
• Respond promptly and reliably through the entire publishing process
• Believe in each and every client we represent

Note: Some agencies also represent Client Branding and Talent deals as well (we are one of them).

How to gauge if an agent is interested in your work? Send a one page overview letter (we prefer to be approached online at with the subject line “Proposal Submission).” Include a one to two paragraph summary of your concept, your credentials, your platform/brand, how you found our agency and a link to your website (yes we will “check you out” and so will any editor interested who receives your proposal. So, make sure your website is professional, thorough and up-to-date). If we are interested, we will then ask to see your full proposal. Do not send the proposal unless, and until, it is complete (at least in your opinion) and ready to be read and reviewed. You rarely get a second chance to make a first impression.

We review inquiries within three to four weeks of receiving them, and turn down more than 80% of what we receive. Why? If it’s a good idea and a well-written proposal, but we don’t personally like it, we’ll reject it (nicely). The material must also be well written, well presented, and interesting to us. Sometimes it’s a good proposal, but a conflict with another client and project we are already representing. In that case we may offer some other agent recommendations. Alas, often we receive proposals that are incomplete, not well researched, about a subject that’s been done to death, or even illiterate. Those are easy to reject. Do your homework — know what your competition is, do a marketing and PR summary, have a full list of the recipe titles and a reasonable representational sample of actual and fully tested recipes. And, spell check and proof your material numerous times. We recommend getting a fresh pair of eyes to do a final read/review.

Crafting Your Proposal

If we are intrigued with a concept and feel it’s viable in the marketplace, we will then work with an author to do any tweaks or rewrites to create a solid proposal package. This often includes collateral material that helps support your position (article clippings, press releases, a press kit, or a link to recent video/media appearances). The bottom line: This is a partnership. Your agent should work with you to produce the best possible package to interest a publisher. This can take a few weeks, months, or over a year.

To see what a proposal should include, go to—this is our Proposal Guidelines for what we expect to see in every proposal submission. It should answer 90% or better of what a publisher/editor will want and need to know. Think of your proposal as the skeleton upon which you will “flesh out” your actual book. Often the proposal is the hardest part of the process. You have to have thoroughly thought out everything about your book, including the overview, the specifics of what your book will cover, and the look, size and feel of what you envision.

Early on in the process of choosing and being chosen by an  agent, think hard about how you want to be communicated with on the status of your book project. Do your style and needs match up with your prospective agent? Do you want to know about every submission until there is an acceptance? Do you want to read every rejection letter (there will be many) or none? How much time can/will your agent be able to give you and how much will you need? Is there a fit or will one or both of you feel frustrated? Think of this as a long-term and mutually beneficial relationship. Establishing communication styles early on is very important.

Once your proposal is accepted by an agency, they will create a list of editors and publishers whom they feel are good candidates to buy your book. The proposal will be e-submitted, usually as a multiple submission to anywhere from 6 to 10 or more publishers, with a “response by x” date indicated. Your agent will keep you informed of the responses according to your agreed upon strategy. Sometimes if an editor has questions, a call is arranged for the author to talk directly with an editor. This can be very useful to both the editor and author to ensure a shared vision. This level of communication may or may not lead to an offer being made, but is always worth doing if possible. If a proposal receives similar negative feedback from many houses, your agent may suggest a revision before taking it out to additional houses.

You Have a Publisher: Now What?

Once a proposal is accepted by a publisher, negotiations begin. Most new authors come to realize that an agent is there to negotiate both the broad and the finer points of their contracts. As an author, you want your relationship with your editor to be as positive as possible. Contracts are best left to a third party. Think of it as the division between the creative (you and your editor) and the business (your editor and your agent) side. An agent is your buffer, but also your advocate, always looking for more: more advance money, more public relations and marketing, more design input, more photographs, and so on. Your agent is also your reality check as to what’s reasonable and possible to expect and accept. Communication with your agent is KEY. You need to trust your agent and know they act 100% on your behalf. They cannot and should not agree to any contract terms without your approval. As a novice author, you cannot demand all your rights, a six figure advance, and a 30-city author tour—your agent will help educate you as to what is realistic and what is not.

Your agent will review the whole contract and consider questions like:

• What is the advance? Are there any bonus clauses?
• What about royalties and the splits on subsidiary rights sales?
• What kind of discount will an author/chef receive on buying their book from the publisher for retail sales (applicable if they have a retail operation or restaurant, for instance)?
• Will there be an option clause for your next book, and what will it cover?
• What about electronic rights?
These are just a few of the many issues covered by contracts.

After a preliminary discussion about an author’s preferences, the agent goes back to the publisher with requests. Each publisher has certain clauses they will not change (called boiler plates), but most are flexible within reason. It’s a give and take, and a good agent knows where to give and when to take (push). Remember, your agent works for you and should be communicating regularly and often through the negotiation process. Authors have the final say on what we accept or reject. We will confer with our clients throughout the process, as well as when we believe we have obtained the best possible deal. Once a deal is set, on average it takes two to three months from verbal agreement to signed contracts and the receipt of the first advance check. All of these are factors to consider, discuss, and negotiate. A good agent will then work with you and on your behalf through all stages of the publishing process, not just the sale and contract negotiation. They are your advocate for all issues and (reasonable) concerns for the life of your book (as long as it is in print).

What Does It Cost?

An agent works on a commission basis. The norm for books is 15% of all earnings on the book for the life of that book. This includes any subsidiary rights like excerpts, translations, TV, audio and movie rights, and merchandising. Anything that an agent negotiates on your behalf for your book garners them 15% of the gross proceeds. If an agent works to sell your book and does not, you owe them nothing (note: some agents charge minimally for out of pocket office expenses such as telephone, mailings, etc.). This is both a faith-based and talent-driven business relationship.

Remember, it takes only two yeses to become a published author: One from an agent and one from a publisher.

The Lisa Ekus Group is a full member of the Association of Author Representatives.