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On Christopher Columbus’ Illegitimate Son & the World’s Greatest Library

The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books

by Edward Wilson-Lee

Scribner/Simon & Schuster, 2019

Hardcover, 401 pages, $30

A lesson given often in primary schools—perhaps, if later, at the university—is that historical realities can be interpreted for generations in different ways.

Some realities are interpreted as true to their objectivity as possible, even while it remains the case that no historical reality can be known in all its detail and complexity.

Other interpretations of reality will stand untrue to what happened, even if those who receive these interpretations may not know of their untruth, including the one who narrates them.

Certain accounts will be derived from clear, broad, empirical sources, while others will be derived or created from within the imagination of the one who writes any given account.

Caption from the book: The only existing likeness of Hernando Colón, younger and illegitimate child of Columbus, curator of his father’s legacy, and builder of the greatest library of the Renaissance.

Before us, in professor and literature expert Edward Wilson-Lee’s The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books, lies a complex, multi-threaded history, integrated with an entire spectrum of key historical, visual artifacts. He writes of Christopher Columbus, “Admiral of the Ocean Sea,” as well as Columbus’ illegitimate son, Hernando Colón, who lost his father at eighteen and fought for paternal legitimacy “by showing himself to be his father’s son in spirit.” Wilson-Lee writes of the imperial and oceanic politics of the sixteenth century and, against their backdrop, Hernando’s single-minded pursuit to maintain his father’s legacy.

While Hernando was born in 1488, and lived until 1539, Wilson-Lee reports that his “earliest recorded memory is characteristically precise. It was an hour before sunrise on Wednesday, the twenty-fifth of September 1493,” as he and his brother Diego observed the messianic ships upon which their father traveled as conqueror of the Americas.

Exposure to this participation in Columbus’ travels, along with an eclectic combination of experiential and intellectual data, underlay the introduction of Hernando to “a bewildering variety of people and things but also to a world of complex and often contradictory ideas. He would have attended lectures by the great scholars recruited to train the aristocracy at court, probably from an early age…” Intensive cultural exposure of this kind soon manifested in Hernando’s “genius for ordering” books—and thus a race to grow the world’s largest library of written and visual artifacts, then followed by a love—even an obsessive one—for the collection and ordering of artifacts that reveal the stories of the people and places from whom they come; he would be known as a maker of lists.

The making of lists, among an array of other brilliant mental exercises, proved easy for Hernando “in part because [his] mind moved ceaselessly from event to system, from a single thing to a general framework into which it could be fitted.” In his collecting, he demonstrated respect for those who deeply appreciate the systematization of thought and data, of historical information, and thus of artifacts which serve as vehicles for storytelling and knowledge-giving. As a symbolic parallel, one acute example of a deeply-appreciated statue includes that of Moses, “who sets the history of the world and the peoples of Israel in order, telling of their genesis and exodus, compiling their genealogies and the tables of their law: Moses, the maker of lists.” What Hernando did not expect to realize in his work is that ordering requires intense formation on behalf of (i) those who create the categories by which objects are listed, as well as (ii) those who come to understand and apply these categories to their own learning and searching. In a special way, therefore, Catalogue is written for those with sheer adoration for books, libraries, bookstores—for paintings and other visual artifacts, galleries, museums—and prompts the memory of how one came to relate to any of these objects or spaces in the first place.

Caption from the book: Abridged: Thomas More’s Utopian alphabet, designed to convey the perfect language.

Imagine stepping into a library, not knowing beforehand the categories you must know to find the book most appropriate for the question that you have undertaken. Imagine, also, not realizing the way you are conditioned into choosing from the categories that have been given to you by your parents, your teachers, your librarians, and otherwise—and not knowing to think outside of those categories to expand your own research and the pursuit of a new or wider context for the data provided before you. Wilson-Lee writes that, “…once the hierarchies are written into the tools we use to navigate the world, this step [the consciousness and selection of an item from within the pre-imposed hierarchy] becomes even harder to undo. Eventually, in fact, we often forget the hierarchy was imposed in the first place and no longer see anything other than a natural, inevitable, timeless order, from Alpha to Omega.”

Over the course of the book, Wilson-Lee tracks multiple key conceptualizations and historical unfoldings that complete this story which so captured his imagination. In addition to building lists and categorizing libraries, Hernando supported the development of map-making theory, adding “lines of latitude and longitude and then dividing those squares with lines at every mile of each degree. The concept was so new…that Hernando had no name for this kind of grid.” It was later deemed important because the “numbered line implied the world portrayed was in the realm of mathematical proportion, scale, and measurement, and not subject to the blurring effects of human experience.”

Beyond map-making, Hernando supported the development of revolutionary printing models, hunting down international texts to then work “with the great printers of the age to make them available in robust editions.”

Finally, amid dozens of other revolutionary, brilliant contributions which Hernando made to his fields, Wilson-Lee includes Hernando’s fight toward the end of his life over the nature and structure of his father’s reputation—given that, on 27 August 1534, the Spanish courts “issued the Sentencia de las Duenas, stripping the Columbuses not only of their right to the title of viceroy of the Indies but also of any right to a share in the gold other goods of those lands.” For Hernando, the playing field for this debate became the artifacts collected, and it is no surprise that that the questions of Columbus’ international primacy as traveler and discoverer remains today “the focus of many modern biographies: it would not do for the great achievements of a celebrated figure’s life to seem to come from random happenstance…” With this focus and commitment, Hernando’s own contribution, in an implicit way, to theories of history and storytelling becomes manifest.

Of the purpose and structure that underlies The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books, three things can be said: First, the very historical concept here introduces readers into a previously unexplored dimension of an otherwise muchly-studied era. Most persons know Columbus; very few know his illegitimate son, and even less likely is the chance they know this son’s creative project. Second, Wilson-Lee demonstrates himself once more to be a nuanced, visual thinker, with a broad capacity for collecting and integrating layers of historical data in a beautiful narrative about the chosen topics, themes, and time. (Catalogue follows Wilson-Lee’s trade non-fiction debut, Shakespeare in Swahililand, which treats of African leaders who adopted into their lives and culture Shakespearean genius.)

Finally, I note only that, due to its complexity in terms of integration, there is some degree to which the book could have been more efficiently framed to help readers dive into and consume the story. Multiple layers coordinate here—both the historical timeline of Hernando’s life, from a to z, as well as the more broadly conceptual and thematic set of claims that Wilson-Lee argues to about the nature of knowledge, the construction of theories and categories, and the self-selection and discarding of data points. He uses Hernando as a case study to “argue into” these claims. To some extent, a clearer preference for either the historical data of Hernando’s life versus the conceptual claims about the collecting that Hernando undertook would have helped clarify for readers new to some of this form of intellectual study the structure of his integration.

Either way, however, a reader comes away from Catalogue bearing a fleshed-out introduction to an angle of this time period that is oft not included in history books. Beyond it, the intelligence and cleverness of the angle Wilson-Lee chooses to undertake—this single library, the largest of the Renaissance, its prowess now so deeply overtaken by the development of technology and ease-of-transport of written and visual artifacts—helps concretize the uniqueness of both the man and his mission. I highly encourage its reading, completion, and consideration.

I am grateful to the University Bookman for the provision of a copy of this title.

Non-Fiction Proposals & Competitive Titles

One of the most fascinating pieces of working through the non-fiction proposal is the section on competitive and comparative titles–those books already published which are shaping the genre and conversation about an entire spectrum of topics.

Within the trade market, these questions will be treated in one of the most diverse and spontaneous content type ranges possible (some narrative, some how-to, some somewhere in between, and others overlapping in every other way), versus a more academic or political or religious or other treatment–those sub-markets of which the trade model never treats, or treats very rarely.

Here is some feedback with regards to growing out a helpful proposal section on competitive and comparative titles (one of the most fundamental arguments about why your book should, in fact, publish):

[Think approximately 6-15 competitive titles, and an analysis of approximately 100-350 words per title.]

This section compiles the list of comparative and/or competitive titles for this project which you are developing to offer a secondary examination of the book’s need and uniqueness, as measured against books already published and the ways by which those books published have shaped a discipline.

Provide the title of the book, the author’s name, the publisher, and the year of publication, in this form: Medicating Hypertension by Samuel Man, MD (Rowman & Littlefield, 2012) [TITLE by AUTHOR (PUBLISHER, YEAR OF PUBLICATION)]. This is standard industry format for the bibliographical listing of published books.

Your citation should be two-fold. In the first section, give a positive, thesis-level explanation of what the comparative/competitive title is about. Don’t summarize the argument, but give the argument as it is (i.e., “In this book, the author argues that the economy is a codified institution of persons who have collectively gathered to engage in financial transactions, and one key dimension of understanding the institution itself is understanding the persons who build it,” rather than “In this book, the author gives an account of economic infrastructures.” The latter tells the reader nothing about the structure of the actual argument).

Then, provide a targeted analysis of similarities and differences between the book proposed here and the book listed as competitive. Analyses should include concise, targeted sentences, indicating the author’s awareness of the field and his/her capacity to place the proposal within it. This analysis should flow directly from and be contextualized within the section on the book’s need and uniqueness—once a gap in the field is identified, and this book meets it, how does the book compare to those books already out there? In what ways does this book do similar work, and exactly on which points and on what kind of content and research does this book differ?

Books should also cover a small diversity of ‘angles’ of comparison. This includes topic (for example, ‘other books about pornography consumption’), treatment approach (for example, ‘other books written in letter format’), feel/style (for example, ‘other books written in a comic voice, or written as a lighthearted-for-the-coffee-table-read consumption’), etc. The goal is to contextualize the book’s uniqueness and to aid the marketing plan, with the uniqueness by topic/content the most urgent of all the priorities.

Let me know of any questions here–how I might be helpful in helping to shape your own conversation, as proposed to publishers, about conversations that need to be had culturally, socially, politically, and otherwise; those conversations to which you, as a non-fiction writer, may so deeply want to contribute.

GEARBREAKERS Acquired by Executive Producer Aaron Magnani

I am thrilled to announce that the screen rights for my debut novel, GEARBREAKERS (Feiwel & Friends/Macmillan), have been acquired by producer Aaron Magnani! It’s the first small step of a lot of bigger steps, but my heart grows ever so much fuller whenever I meet someone who shows a passion for this project I […]

GEARBREAKERS Acquired by Executive Producer Aaron Magnani — Zoe Hana Mikuta | YA Science Fiction & Fantasy Author

Be sure to follow Zoe’s blog! The news is brilliant and exciting.

GEARBREAKERS was the second novel I sold upon returning to agenting, and the first one to go on to be acquired by a producer for potential screen adaptation. Cross your fingers!

All rights for Zoe’s projects are now being handled by D4EO and friends. Check out her young genius and utter magnificence.

New Interview: Darling Axe

I had the privilege of completing a new interview, this time with the folks over at Darling Axe. See the full interview here.

5) Are there any recent changes or trends in the publishing industry that you think authors should know about?

To be honest, I think the more interesting questions here are: What hasn’t the publishing industry done yet? What are we missing here? There exists a lot of innovation in terms of technology and marketing that would foster an even more deeply solvent industry that is being untapped, and the reason is that most authors and editors and publishers and agents are raised by the industry only; they are not necessarily raised in innovative corporate or non-profit infrastructures, or infrastructures that are striving to excel at understanding or reaching people as they are in their experience.

On Publishing as a Form of Value Investment

value investment (n): a form of investment in which those who invest select companies’ stocks or other forms of financial receptacles that are either undervalued objectively on the market or have a yet-undiscovered or yet-unactivated potential, both relative to the potential as understood by investors

Value fund managers look for companies that have fallen out of favor but still have good fundamentals. The value group may also include stocks of new companies that have yet to be recognized by investors.

(from this post on Merrill’s website)

As an example:

Say you have a human person who identifies a need, and then the mind model or conceptualization for the product that can meet the need.

I’ll share one company which I follow on Twitter, to which I gave a shout-out, given that great thriller or speculative writers might find something very interesting for themselves in this company’s work, if their plot development depends in any shape or form on cool IT or tech developments that have never been treated before in fiction: Axon produces technology to help protect the lives of police officers and others working within the public safety realm. (Check out the video on this page. Isn’t this the coolest?)

Using Axon as a purely theoretical example–I do not know the details of Axon’s own strategic planning or history, in terms of conceptualization-to-patent-to-product-development–this can be said: Before someone thought about the time that it takes a police officer to identify a person who observed a crime, to taking notes in an interview, to transcribing those notes for their own chief, to then moving on the transcription–a product did not exist that could aide police officers in saving this time.

Then someone figured the genius idea out, and then Axon moved on the concrete product development, and then it had to launch its own public stocks, and then people had to identify those stocks, and then invest in them. Before these stocks took on some form of public urgency, though–and certainly before the product was ever developed–the value of the product and thus of the stock was undervalued; by value, here, we mean its financial weight relative to other stocks on the market (it’s valued less than it ought to be, given the definition above). A good value investor, in doing his/her research, will identify products of this kind.

Find the newest, coolest need; respond to it; invest in it; and then watch your investment return significantly greater funds than investment in a product that meets a need that isn’t really a need.

Besides this form of dynamic financial value, measured at the level of the stock, there is also the value of the product or company understood in its human or aesthetic sense–the value met, in a personal way, of a product developed and used. It’s an interesting matrix, to think about both the value of the stock as it is, financially, and also the value of the product in human terms.


A long time ago, during my undergrad, I took a course in international development, and one of the questions treated in the course was micro-financing. I was fascinated, also, given that it made sense–both on paper and in experience, given huge case studies abroad–for an investor to pay $250 for a sewing machine, and give a woman a sewing machine, so that with apt sewing skills, she could maximize the value of the $250 over time with the development and sale of her own products (and the investment serving as a sort of guarantor of that kind of value-maximization over time), than to just give her $250.

Shocking, isn’t it, what a basic “mind model” distinction between pure funds and product value, in one form or another contingent on funds, can do to investors–as well as to the creation and maintenance of healthy infrastructure, over time?

If you think about it, book publishing is sort of like this–or could be like this, if writers, agents, editors, publishers, and investors in the book publishing realm thought about their own work with this kind of an acute sensibility and analysis of the kind of product being pitched. This applies, in a particular way, to non-fiction, especially non-fiction that is built and ordered toward the development and maintenance of longevity in infrastructure–a good book about tobacco as a public health concern will aide federal and state governments in responding to these public health concerns in actuality, beyond the theory about the issue and the theory about the necessary public health response contained within the book.

The book is both a product of theory as it is a product that opens up a demand–an undervalued need, say, before the book is published–among readers across the world.

One way to think about agenting on the non-fiction end is this: A primary underlying task involves sifting through huge quantities of research of diverse kinds (financial, creative, regional, personal, and more) to place the highest-quality products, unique in their content, before publishing houses for purchase, given the model above. The research is key to finding holes in published products. Why has the whole planet, for example, never published a book about some of the world’s most key, individual historical icons? You might be surprised about the depravity in biographies.

I, for example, with regards to the development of proposals from the ground up for non-fiction books, help academics sift through large quantities of data and their own research to shape an argument for popular/trade publication (think your big five publishing houses: Penguin Random House, Simon & Schuster, etc.). Buy this, because it is genius, and it needs to be published; it fits a need, and it creates an experience, and it moves readers over time to remain committed to a product and an imprint, to an idea and to a conversation.

[Read: At its heart, agenting and publishing in this way is a project of ‘long-term, value-only investment’ applied to a different form of creative work. I spend time with ‘companies’ (books) to place before ‘analysts’ (editors, publishers) to maximize authors’ returns (royalties, post-advance earnout) over time. Fun, isn’t it–what it does to the mind?]

So much more could be said, but this is one of the reasons why I came back to book publishing. Really good books, fiction and non-fiction both, have a huge potential to save the world–good fiction aides culture, creates minds and hearts in a vision of humanity and the good; genius non-fiction helps us understand the structures we create and adopt, and helps us also run a thousand miles in the direction of change that brings true joy, and freedom, collaboration and acute responses, and moves those with minds and hearts for good conversation into those exact conversations.

I’ll leave these musings here.

On The Link Between Queries, Pitches & Contracts

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:

  1. What is a query letter from author to agent?
  2. What is a query/pitch letter from agent to editor?

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.

On Deals

Q. What, exactly, is at the foundation of ‘a book deal’?


A. When a literary agent licenses a project (sells it) or projects (sells them) to a publishing house, this transaction (the Word .docx manuscript for the novel or non-fiction proposal in exchange for the financial advance, money paid upfront for the right to publish and distribute the content in any given territory or sets of territories) is considered a ‘deal.’

Once the deal is negotiated and the book sold, the financial advance must be ‘earned out’ (enough book copies sold to return to the publisher the money paid upfront) before the author ever earns royalties. Money that isn’t earned out, however, never needs to be returned to the publisher, unless the contract so stipulates it (depending on the circumstances); it is paid out in its chosen proportion as an intentional investment in the project, and an intrinsic endorsement of its quality and potential.

It is industry standard that the agency takes a 15% cut on any of the earnings involved, from advance to royalties, for base or domestic sales.

With some variance, this cut is anywhere from 15-25% on the negotiation of international/foreign and subsidiary rights, pending the use of a secondary agent or other, diverse factors; there exists a greater scope of difference on this secondary cut than there is in the preceding, domestic one.

It is also industry standard that an agent takes no money from an author until a deal is made; all the hours involved in preparation will, thus, go unpaid until this deal confirmation. A model like this one helps protect against financial abuse of the author, on one hand, and respects the entrepreneurial dimension to agenting, on the other. It is the case, however, that most agents will not seriously engage deeper developmental or editorial work until the agency agreement is confirmed, to protect the agent also from being abused in time–and, in a far more positive, brilliant way, to commit the agent and writer to conceptual collaboration and business partnership.

In multi-book deals, the author and publisher may agree on terms for book projects that have yet to be developed, or are negotiated based on just a proposal for fiction projects (a partial manuscript with a synopsis, rather than the entire book). The same goes for authors with a ‘backlist’ (a history of successfully published titles).

It is also the case that, in some models, an author may not be paid an upfront financial advance but will earn money just on a royalty structure alone; while more rare, this model is not necessarily less beneficial or profitable to the author and, by extension, his/her agent, given that the royalty structure may be and often is different across different deals.

How are deals announced? And how are those announcements structured?

Deals made by literary agents on behalf of their authors are reported on the database PublishersMarketplace. Not all agents report deals, and not all deals are reported. On the most part, however, this is the most comprehensive database of publishing negotiations available.

[Note: Publishing is a slow business. One of my writers and I (and the same may go for other agents) may spend time to prepare a manuscript for submission; it is not atypical for me to sign genius writers who need some tightening with their craft. Following preparation, submission windows can be months’ long, given that editors receive many submissions from agents, need to read entire proposals and manuscripts, and need to walk through the entirety of a multi-tiered acquisitions process before an offer is extended. This acquisitions process often includes getting second reads and reader reports, a profit-and-loss (P&L) and sales analysis, and vision-casting for the marketing and publicity capacity and potential at any individual imprint.

On the other hand, sometimes, given the right circumstances, an editor may read even overnight or during the day–and an acquisitions process can be pushed forward. It may be, but is not necessarily, a reflection on the quality and potential of the manuscript–sometimes it’s as simple as the perfect agent-editor mix, with an editor who has nothing else on their plate.

Once an offer is made and extended, the contract negotiation window can take weeks to months. The deal involved may be announced either once confirmed or once the contract is fully signed, pending the publisher’s preference. Once deals are announced, approximately 9-24 months might pass before the book is published and available for purchase. During this window of time, the publishing house works to lay out the manuscript for its published aesthetic, design a cover, determine a marketing/publicity plan, prepare bookstores for the book’s publication, and more.

After a deal announcement, the title may and the content of a book will change during its editorial window, prior to publication: In the case of novels and memoirs, editors provide editorial feedback immediately, edits are made, and the novels go into copyediting and final production. In the case of non-fiction projects, the manuscript must first be completed in full, once the proposal is accepted/purchased; editors tend to be intimately involved in the final development stages here, per the academic-styled argument that justifies the book’s development and placement.]

Deal announcements will include, with some degree of variance, the following information (note that, if a deal doesn’t include a certain detail, it doesn’t mean that the detail isn’t ‘present’ or ‘important’–there are many reasons for publishers and agents to not disclose all details in public, at any given time):

  • the author of the book;
  • some descriptor about the author’s expertise and/or his/her history of publications, where applicable;
  • the title of the book sold;
  • the description of the book sold;
  • the editor who acquires the book;
  • the imprint for which the book is acquired;
  • the number of books involved in the book deal (deals can be negotiated for single or multiple titles, pending the circumstances; it is usually the case that only the first is completed, where fiction is involved, and it is rare for non-fiction to sell in multiple-book deals);
  • the particular form of the submission or sale, where applicable:
    • exclusive submission: an agent sends the project to only one editor/imprint–usually on a very limited timeline, such as 2-3 weeks, before the project goes out wider–and the imprint chooses to buy it, which is indicative of the relationship the agent has with this editor and/or a strong degree of certainty that the editor would be interested in the project and the imprint will be able to extend an offer proportionate to the value of the project, given the lack of editorial competition; -OR-
    • at auction: an editor/imprint makes an/the first offer, additional imprints follow with offers and interest, and the imprints proceed to bid on the project (in different formats) until the agent and author select the best offer, for the winning imprint to take the project (side note: just because an auction isn’t reported doesn’t mean that one didn’t happen, and just because an auction didn’t happen doesn’t mean that multiple houses weren’t interested–there are other, more informal ways of mediating the interest of multiple imprints); -OR-
    • in a pre-empt: when an auction is set-up, one editor/imprint can provide, prior to the formal start of the auction day/time, such a high or quality offer that the auction never actually unfolds; if an imprint ‘wins’ the auction in this way, it is considered a pre-empt(ive) offer to/win before the auction itself
  • the financial advance for the book(s) (the advance will be paid out according to a complex payout schedule that includes, for example, a cut at contract signing, another at manuscript delivery, and a final cut upon publication, all per individual book; where multiple books are purchased, the advance will be split across multiple books, and a sizable advance for three books–as one example–might then be paid out in full over several years);
  • the intended publication date/season;
  • the agent who negotiated the deal;
  • the agency for which this agent works; and/or
  • the territory(ies) to which rights for any given project are licensed.

Potential (Base) Territories: There is always diversity in these options (technically, every individual territory can be included in or excluded from a contract), but these are the standard territory frameworks within which agents place projects

  • World [domestic (USA & Canada) English, worldwide English, & international/translation rights are licensed to the domestic publisher; the publisher manages all secondary placements in international territories via its own internal foreign rights department, where one exists]; -OR-
  • World English [domestic & worldwide English rights are licensed to the domestic publisher, often with some variance in the UK/New Zealand/Australia territories; international/translation rights are retained by the agent in order to manage at the agency level, often with the support of a foreign rights agent & licensing agencies in foreign territories]; -OR-
  • North America [domestic English rights are licensed to the domestic publisher, while worldwide English & international/translation rights are retained by the agent in order to manage at the agency level, often with the support of a foreign rights agent & licensing agencies in foreign territories]

Additional Territories & Subsidiary Rights: International/Translation (almost every country around the world has domestic, translated publication outlets, though not all are viable marketplaces for projects placed domestically, and the degree to which any given project can or will sell in any territory is subject to the individual territory’s economy; see one listing of the potential territories here); AudioFilm/TV; Electronic; Anthology/Serial Rights; and more

Records of Financial Advances: Not all publishers and agents elect to break financial advance information, for a diversity of reasons, but where included, the financial information is included according to this legend, available on PublishersMarketplace–

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You can find an ever-updated record of the deals I’ve negotiated here.