enny Bent was born in New York City but grew up in Harrisonburg Virginia in a house full of books where she spent many lazy afternoons reading in a sunny window seat. Jenny went on to England to get a BA/MA with first class honors from Cambridge University.
After graduation, she worked in magazines, bookselling, and agenting, most recently at Trident Media Group, before founding The Bent Agency in 2009. In a career spanning 15 years, Jenny Bent has made a practice of making bestsellers—either by spotting new talent or developing careers for multi-published authors. Her list is varied and includes commercial fiction and nonfiction, literary fiction, and memoir. All the books she represents speak to the heart in some way: they are linked by genuine emotion, inspiration, and great writing and storytelling.
She now lives in Brooklyn in an apartment full of books, and while there are not quite so many lazy reading afternoons, she still manages to fit one in now and then.
WOW: Welcome to WOW!, Jenny. We’re thrilled to be chatting with you today. Let’s start at the beginning. How did you come to be an agent? What made you decide to start your own agency, The Bent Agency?
Jenny: I decided to become an agent while still in college. I wanted to be in publishing and I felt I would do better in a more independent and entrepreneurial field. Turns out I was right!
In terms of starting my own agency, that was always my goal. After many years in the business working for other people, the time seemed right to me. It’s been wonderful and empowering to have my own shop, with my own name on the door.
WOW: What genres does your agency handle?
Jenny: I handle fiction, both commercial and literary. In terms of nonfiction, I do memoir, and limited lifestyle by female authors. I also represent some very prominent female humor writers and I just took on my first new humor writer in about ten years.
Foreign and audio deals are a very important part of my new business as you can see from the four deals I did last month:
-- LuAnn McLane’s novel The Cricket Creek Baseball in a three-book deal.
-- The Thai rights to Sandra Hill’s Viking Heat.
-- The audio rights to Laura Kindred and Alexandra Lydon's Worst Laid Plans, a compilation of real-life, first-person accounts of terrible sex.
-- The debut of Elle Jasper with The Dark Ink Chronicles in a three-book deal.
WOW: I see that two of your sales were three-book deals. Eek! I’m still plugging away on novel number one. Do agents (and publishers) want writers with one completed book and another one "in the works"?
Jenny: Absolutely. It’s pretty much essential. They want an author for the long haul, not just one book. And these days, they want to release them pretty close together because the thinking is that this is the best way to build an author.
“A good agent will be your guide and your protector every step of the way.”
WOW: So, does every writer need an agent to sell her book and help “build” her career?
Jenny: Most of the major houses don’t accept unsolicited manuscripts, so you need an agent just to get through the door. A good agent will be your guide and your protector every step of the way.
If you are approaching smaller houses you probably don’t need an agent as much, but I would then recommend that you use a publishing attorney to negotiate the contract.
But basically, an agent handles your submission, negotiates your contract, sells your foreign, audio, and film rights, makes sure you have a good cover, makes sure publicity and promotion are happening correctly, keeps on top of your sales figures, makes sure you get paid in a timely manner, and interprets your royalty statements.
And that’s actually just a fraction of what an agent does. The beauty of an agent is that he/she doesn’t get paid unless you do. So your goals and motivations are always the same.
WOW: Could you walk us through how an agent submits an author’s proposal to editors at publishing houses?
1. Write pitch letter.
2. Call editors and pitch project. It’s helpful to compare the book to other successful books to help them place it. You want to go to editors that you know specialize in this particular kind of book and that you know will do a good job editing and advocating the book in house.
3. Wait for responses. This part can be tricky because you want to figure out how to handle the situation: do you want to do an auction or let things play out?
4. If there is one offer or multiple offers, again, you need to know how to create the best possible financial situation for the author.
5. Once a deal is made, you move into negotiating terms and then the contract.
WOW: What if you’re already at Step 5—without an agent. Can agents still get you a better deal, even that late in the game?
Jenny: If you’ve already accepted the basic terms of the deal, an agent can’t help with that. An agent can help you get a much, much better contract, with terms that will affect you down the line, such as your option clause and your out-of-print clause. And an agent can help you sell foreign rights and film rights, which can put a lot of additional income in your pocket. It’s almost impossible for an author to sell those rights on their own.
WOW: Well, we all agree that having an agent is a good idea. So tell us how. Basically, there are three ways to approach an agent: another author recommends you, you pitch at a conference, or you send a query into the vast slush pile. How do you find most of the writers you take on as clients?
Jenny: I find a great many clients through slush. I’ve taken on two already and sold one. (I haven’t submitted the other.) In fact, that’s probably the number one way that I get new clients.
“What almost always gets my attention is when an author references an author I represent...”
WOW: How can we get pulled out of the slush pile and placed on the “submit” pile?
Jenny: Be concise but don’t be dry: try to let your writing voice come through.
Something that’s very important is adhering to submission guidelines—that seems obvious, but some writers forget to check these for each individual agency (you can find them on the agency website) and it can definitely hurt you if don’t follow the instructions.
It’s hard to give tips on query letters because what works for one agent often doesn’t work for another. Every time I’m on a panel on this topic with other agents, we always seem to disagree on this. But I can say that I’ve definitely taken on projects recently where the letter wasn’t perfect. It had some of the elements I respond to however, and that was enough. So it’s perhaps good to know that a letter doesn’t have to be 100% perfect in everyway to get an agent’s attention.
What almost always gets my attention is when an author references an author I represent, tells me how much they love said author (flattery gets you everywhere!), and tells me that they think I will like their work because it is similar. Then there’s a paragraph of description of the book, a paragraph telling me about them, and then the first ten pages of the book in the body of the e-mail.
- It’s good to reference writers whose books are similar to yours—it gives the agent a frame of reference. Just don’t pick really huge names because it comes across as hubris.
- If you can provide quotes for the book by published authors, that gets an agents attention. (I’ve seen a few of these recently.)
- If you’ve studied with well-know authors or attended prestigious writers conferences, this is good to note.
WOW: How important are writer recommendations? And a little dirt… Do people ever lie about recommendations?
Jenny: People massage the truth about recommendations and it’s a huge turn off because I always contact the person who they say is recommending, so it’s very easy to get busted.
But a genuine recommendation from a writer certainly helps and it doesn’t really matter what kind of book; although, if the genres are the same or close, that’s probably better. Other agents might respond differently however.
WOW: How important is it for an author to have an existing platform, and what do you look for?
Jenny: In terms of fiction, it helps to have fancy credentials: a prestigious MFA, time spent studying with a prestigious writer, quotes from published writers, etc. Having said that, I have certainly sold books by authors who have none of that.
For nonfiction (not including memoir) that is self-help, cooking, lifestyle, that kind of thing, it is essential to have a very large platform.
WOW: Do you see any specific trends developing in the industry right now?
Jenny: The one thing that has been happening is that advances are down, particularly for repeat authors. A new author comes to the table with a clean slate, so publishers will still take a chance on that. But if your sales figures aren’t as strong as they could be, you’ll definitely see that reflected in the advance these days.
WOW: Well that’s good news for those of us with a debut book! If, through some wonderful combination of luck and skill, an agent decides they want a writer as a client, the first reaction is "An agent wants me! Yes! Yes! Yes!" But how does a writer decide if an agent is right for them?
Jenny: First, you should talk on the phone with the agent and make sure that there’s a personality fit. You should ask very specific questions about revisions they may ask you to make, when they will get you notes on those revisions, and what the submission strategy would be. Check on commission percentages just to make sure they’re in line with industry standards. Anything higher than 15% for domestic and 25% for foreign isn’t standard. The Association of Authors Representatives (AAR) has a very good list of questions to ask an agent who has offered representation at http://www.aaronline.org/mc/page.do?sitePageId=10336#3.
WOW: Celia Rivenbark speaks very highly of you! What are some keys to maintaining a great author/agent relationship?
Jenny: Well, I love my job. And I feel like it’s really a privilege to work with writers whose work I whole-heartedly admire. That probably comes through in my author/agent relationships. I try to be responsive to clients and I try to always anticipate what I can be doing for them. And finally, to quote Tyra Banks (tee hee), “Don’t mess with a girl’s money.” My first priority to my authors is making sure they get contracts and money on time—this is their career, their livelihood and making them wait for money is unacceptable.
WOW: Thank you, Jenny, for taking time to chat with us today! It’s been such a pleasure. Do you have any parting words of wisdom for our readers?
Jenny: This sounds trite, but you cannot give up and you cannot stop believing in yourself. So many incredibly successful writers spent years and years trying to break into this business and you should take inspiration from how hard they worked and how they never stopped trying. That, and brush up on online promotion—increasingly it is essential for publishing success, both for published and unpublished authors.
Jodi M. Webb lives in Pottsville, Pennsylvania with her husband and three children. She has written hundreds of articles for publications such as The History Magazine, Pennsylvania Magazine, and Christian Science Monitor. She has also contributed to anthologies on baseball, gardening, pop culture, married life and the military. Pennsylvania Trivia (Blue Bike Books), a book she co-authored, was released in September 2008. In her spare time, she works on her first novel—the story of a group of women on the homefront during World War II.
Jodi is also WOW! Women On Writing’s Blog Tour Manager. You can email her at: jodi[at]wow-womenonwriting[dot]com.