Q. What, exactly, is the relationship between queries, agents’ pitch letters to editors, and the contract that follows?
A. The query introduces the book to an agent. The pitch letter introduces the book to an editor and publisher. The contract finalizes the sale.
See these posts, which have already done the work to put this into foundational context, from former literary agent Nathan Bransford:
Beyond Nathan’s wonderful posts, note that most writers cannot secure an agent without a solid query letter, which prompts the manuscript request and then an offer of representation to secure the writer as a client at the agency. Once an offer of representation between a writer and an agent is confirmed, that writer confirms agency representation status with a legally-binding agency agreement, and that agent can represent the writer before publishers/imprints with their editors.
An agent and an author can (and ought to) engage in systematic conversations about the nature of this relationship before the agency agreement is confirmed, given that, in signing it, the author confirms a formal, legal relationship for the duration of their career (or project-by-project, pending the structure of the agency agreement).
A query letter will almost always be the first encounter between a writer and an agent, and given that agents will read 5,000-20,000 or so queries over the course of the year, the letter has to stand out beyond belief in order to capture an agent’s imagination. Beyond the query, the manuscript itself, and where a non-fiction writer is querying also (many will come to the agency without querying, in that they often have a platform or expertise that surpasses the query trenches), the proposal, will also have to shatter the agent. An agent must be persuaded s/he can sell a project before s/he proceeds with its submission.
For a record of public query letter vetting, check out literary agent Janet Reid’s excellent blog, QueryShark.
Some clients will come to the agent without querying: through conferences, conversations begun by the agent or the writer, an agent’s active research and pitching to authors potential book ideas or projects, or otherwise. Especially with non-fiction projects, an idea may be pitched and conversations had before a proposal and an agency agreement are formalized, given that certain academics, experts, or otherwise may have never considered trade publication and sought it out.
One of my own agenting loves and strategies, of a kind, is this kind of non-fiction proposal development, given that I read broadly in the deeper academic or non-trade sphere (dissertations, journals, magazines of a more academic orientation, and otherwise), often encounter life-changing and mind-altering ideas and theory, and find much of it deeply relevant to the greater public sphere. This kind of brainstorming and development work is almost always the purview of the literary agent, even if certain editors do elect to pay close attention to news/social media/publishing outlets, to experts, and/or to writers, to then chase after potential projects.
It’s much harder to find a writer and pitch a novel, even if it does happen sometimes, as agents and editors pull novelists-to-be from the screenwriting or short story trenches; novels are harder to build from the ground up, are far more interiorly and existentially demanding, and the practice of craft manifests itself differently from more academic or factual writing. Memoirs are an exception.
When submitting a book, an agent will often include a solid pitch letter to the editors to whom s/he submits (even if one is not intrinsically required at this stage, in this degree of complexity, given the nature of relationships built over time between editors and agents). It is almost impossible for writers to place a project, let alone to place it brilliantly, without an agent.
A healthy submission — the right project, to the right editor, from the right agent — will then result in a sale, and open up the incipient contract negotiation. When confirmed, and signed, this contract legally binds the author to the publisher.
Thus agents become, and have always been, essential for the management of all the stages of the publication and career-building process: project submission and placement, contract negotiation [there is a need for fluency in the legal dimension, which is given/taught by the industry and mentors; contracts are not mere legal frameworks to protect the author, however, but are also tools of adapting to the industry, fundamentally contingent they are upon the book publishing market as a whole, from publishing models to distribution models (i.e., the royalty hierarchies for different publication forms, from trade hardcover, to trade paperback, to mass market paperback, to electronic, to audio, and more)*], marketing support, career management, and more. The vast majority of authors do not have, nor do they want, the business capacities to agent well for themselves.
*What is the nature of this distinction?
Standard contract language between two parties, to protect the interests of both parties, will be ‘transactional language’ here, identifying the nature of the two parties, the nature of the transaction, and the nature of the obligations due to one party versus another. Here a good contracts lawyer can help review/vet the contract (note: a good contracts lawyer), even though the best agents will be operating at a contracts lawyer’s capacity, if not beyond it; the work of literary agents, in this dimension, is supremely intelligent and demanding work.
Besides a kind of transactional protection, however, the publishing agreement puts forth and guarantees a market-based framework for this particular form/type of product (a book). Inserted into the agreement is not just language that negotiates the transaction between the Author and the Publisher, as two key contractual parties, but also between the Author v. Publisher v. Marketplace, in that the Publisher is going to be publishing within and responding to a Marketplace which he cannot control.
(To be particular, with examples:
A standard contract might mediate a simple transaction between two parties. For example: when you pay me $250k, I will sign over the rights to my house to you. This transaction can be and often is made independent of the state of the housing market, and the necessity of or the desire for this form of transaction often transcends or precedes the state of the market. If the housing market is poor, the house will sell for less, but it will still sell, and on the other hand, if the housing market is strong, the house will sell for more, but once the sale is made, the transaction is completed. If it sells again in another 25 years, the sale will be negotiated in an entirely different negotiation, with an independent set of contractual terms.
In book publishing, the publishing agreement does not only mediate this simple form of transaction; it also mediates the Publisher’s responsibility to the Author before the entire, ever-changing Marketplace, over the duration of the existence of the book in that Marketplace, across different forms of publication and distribution.
While contract language does, where appropriately negotiated, account for changes in industry standards, what it often does not do is protect against such large potential institutional changes that the entire contract base would need to be re-negotiated, to account for the marketplace infrastructure which will now affect the potential of the author and said book project. Systematically, ever-more-so, authors find it more viable to self-publish, for example, or to publish with smaller or medium-sized publishers that have perfected more sustainable marketing, digital advertising, and distribution models; if we understand your traditional publisher to be the publisher that sets the standard for the nature and quality of publication, no longer do ‘traditional publishers’ own all of the turf, nor do they necessarily consistently excel at the quality of publication. This is the space for agents to be innovative responders to the movements and limitations of publishers before them.
As another, fun little thought, to help put this into context: There are something like 3.5k+ companies with publicly traded stocks on the stock market. I’ve done some basic research here, so take this with some form of a grain of salt, and as merely a conceptual tool, but: Given that the nature of the products on the stock market is so broad and diverse, it is its own project to not only mediate the contract for funds invested between the Investor/Hedge Fund and Company, as example parties, but to also account for the type of Marketplace within which every kind of product is sold, beyond the time frame to which funds are committed as subject to changes at the level of the stock market.
To invest in tech is not the same thing as to invest in organic, hand-made soap, a sprinkle of cinnamon tossed in; in other words, beyond acknowledging that the marketplace for these things does and can change, it could also be possible and wise for investors to push for/pre-determine the outlets by which a product is sold and the medium by which it is produced. As far as I can tell, not all — if not very few — boilerplate contracts between investors and companies that are on the receiving end of this investment include this latter kind of structured contractual language, helping to shape and negotiate the state of the sub-industry for the product developed by any said company.)
Terms with regards to royalties, forms of publication, distribution models, publication discounts, and others are all subject to change — to a change beyond the immediate agency of the publisher who puts the product into the marketplace in the first place. Here, a hard knowledge of different infrastructural pieces within the industry, the degree to which they are subject to change, and otherwise, is fundamental to the highest quality of contract negotiation for authors.