Do You Need an Agent to Publish a Craft Book?: A Chat with Kate McKean

 

agentDo you have a book in you?

If you think you might like to write a craft book, all sorts of questions begin to pop up in your mind.

  • What’s the first step?
  • How do you write a proposal?
  • What kinds of ideas are appealing to publishers?
  • Will you need an agent?

I know that getting started with a craft book idea can feel overwhelming which is why I’ve asked Kate McKean to join me on the blog today. Kate is a literary agent with the Howard Morhaim Literary Agency based in New York. But she’s not just any agent. Kate represents some of the most prominent crafters and craft bloggers you’ll find, including Diane Gilleland, Kim Werker, Heather Mann, Ellen Luckett Baker, Thomas Knauer, Wendi Gratz, Carina
Envoldsen-Harris
, Kelly Rand, Patricia ZapataAllison Hoffman, Project Linus, and Annabel Wrigley. Pretty impressive list! So why have all of these smart, skillful women sought out Kate McKean as an agent? And should you do the same? Let’s find out!

As an aside before we begin I want to mention that Kate is not my agent. In fact, I don’t have an agent. I sold both of my books to publishers myself. But Kate has a lot of wisdom to share, so let’s get to it.

Here’s Kate…

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Kate McKean Headshot
Kate McKean, literary agent. Photo by Bill Wadman.

“If you want to be a craft book author, you have to do several things, in no prescribed order: build a platform, come up with a great book idea, write a book proposal, and research publishers and agents. But first and foremost, I think, you should focus on building a demonstrable platform.

A platform is the proof that when your book hits the shelves there will be enough people who know about you out there to buy it. Your platform cannot come as a result of the book’s publication, and the publisher can only help you so much in building that platform after the fact. Publishers are in the business of finding products to sell that will turn a profit–for you and for them.

Your platform could be a well-trafficked blog. I like to set the benchmark of mid-to-high 5-figure average unique visitors a month. You could be very frequently published in craft magazines, or have an extremely successful online-shop, or get a lot of sudden attention for a project, idea, stunt, or event. The publisher needs to see that you can get to lot of eyeballs so that when it comes time to publicise your book, those fans will already be there ready and waiting with their $20 to buy your book. Your platform needs to be directly related to the subject you want to write about. If you have a general interest craft blog, and want to write about a subject that is maybe 1/10 of your posts, then you need to
demonstrate that your readers particularly care about said subject.

In addition to a platform, you have to have a good book idea. Making pretty things and showing people how to do them is not enough. Your book has to answer a need. You have to envision a person going into a store with a problem or desire that your book will fulfill or solve. You have to give something to the reader that they can’t get anywhere else.

When you have established your platform and have solidified your book concept, it’s time to write a book proposal. There are many ways to do this, but as an agent, I look for a solid visual aesthetic (i.e. professional looking pictures and design), a
well-thought out concept, a demonstrable author platform, and at least one
sample project written out and illustrated to see how well you write tutorials, all tied up in a pretty digital package. Our industry is a visual one so the most important thing is that your book concept and your design aesthetic come through.

Kate McKean's ClientsSome of Kate’s clients’ newest titles.

I may be biased, but I believe craft book authors should find an agent. An agent can help edit, refine, and rework an idea with a client to make it more saleable.  A literary agent works as your advocate in the publishing process. Just like you get a real estate agent to help you find and buy a house, a literary agent helps you find a publisher. She can help you refine your online presence to better attract readers and publishers. She can help you look at the long game to see how books best fit in with your overall career plans.

The best place to find a literary agent, I feel, is Publishers Marketplace. It’s a subscription website, but it is worth the small fee for a month or two of access to the content. You can search their Deals database to see which agents are actively selling books, as reported by the agent or editor, in the craft/how-to genre. You’ll see what other concepts have been successful, and maybe even find that your idea is (or isn’t!) represented. It’s not all the craft books ever sold, but it is a very good representative sample. From that, you can make a list of agents representing craft books, and research them further on their own websites, Twitter, and blog interviews (like this one!).

When an agent reads the ‘slush pile’ (which is what we call all the unsolicited proposals we receive), she’s on the lookout for stuff she likes and can sell. In craft, it can help to find an agent who crafts herself, though it’s not a necessity. It does help, though, if the agent understands about seam allowances, and binding off, and dropped stitches just so you feel like you’re speaking the same language. I don’t personally quilt, but I’ve sold several quilting books. I have, however, spent some time behind a sewing machine, so I understand the mechanics. You can decide if that is important to you as an author, or not.

Book BarnImage by Chilli Head on Flickr.

When an agent finds a proposal or author she likes and thinks could write a good book, she will get in touch with them. They may exchange a few emails and set up a time to talk. Agents like to talk to authors on the phone sometimes to get a feel for them personally, and to basically make sure the author isn’t a raging looney. The author takes the time to make sure of that with the agent, too! The author and agent should be comfortable speaking and working together, because both hope it will be a long and profitable relationship.

If everyone is on the same page, and agrees to join forces, the agent and author work together to revise the proposal. That may include editing the written text, retaking photos, making or drawing new projects, or even revising the book concept. Then the agent shares the proposal with publishers! The agent handles that,and keeps the author posted along the way. Hopefully there is a book deal at the end of that road.

Book deals are hard won and confusing–and it’s a literary agent’s primary job to make that road understandable and beneficial to the author. A literary agent makes sure that the terms of the book deal are in the best interest of the author to the fullest possible extent. The agent can’t force or demand a publisher to hand over more cash, better terms, or guaranteed marketing plans. But the agent can and will fight for fairness, industry standard terms, and the best terms possible for that book.

Write In JournalImage by Walt Stoneburner on Flickr.

It is flattering to be offered a book deal. But it is a business deal first and foremost, not a gold star. My clients have chosen to turn down book deals, with my blessing, because the terms were unreasonable, even after protracted negotiations. Sometimes it just doesn’t work out. Just like you don’t take a first offer on your house because you’re “flattered” someone offered–you don’t have to take a book deal just because someone likes your work.

Very few people are getting rich on craft books–or any books for that matter. Not agents, not publishers, and not authors. The whole publishing industry is built around the model that the big names sell enough books to fund projects by lesser known authors, even if the publisher does not earn back their initial investment. (If your book does not earn back the amount of your advance, you do not owe the publisher the money back. Publishers are taking a true financial risk on your book.)

But a book can be a part of a crafter’s career that leads to bigger things. It can spread brand awareness in bookstores, and through promotions, events, and reviews. It can lead to more blog readers which can lead to more ad revenue. It can be that thing that sits on your table that you can point to and say: ‘I did that. I am
the author of that.’ Many crafters want that validation, that feather in their
cap. And that’s ok, even if the ‘hourly wage’ paid to create a book is very small. (Do not calculate the hourly wage your advance translates to. It is not a fun number to know.)

Editing is messy. #book #writingImage by Tammy Strobel on Flickr.

Literary agents take a commission of 15% of all money earned through the book. That is industry standard. That includes 15% of the advance and any royalties, if your craft book is made into kits or calendars, or if HGTV wants to make a TV show out of your book concept. But remember, agents don’t get paid unless and until they sell your book. Many agents (like me) work on commission only, so they may work with a client for years before they are paid for their advice, skill, or labor.

It may be painful to pay a commission, just like it is with a real estate agent or a lawyer’s retainer, but in the end, your are receiving their expertise and knowledge in exchange for that commission. Being a literary agent is not a way to make a quick buck.

Book Kate McKean Sold
A sampling of titles Kate McKean has sold.

Once you get a book deal, an agent will step in when there’s a problem. The agent can be the tough guy, the bad cop, the heavy, so that the author can have a purely editorial relationship with her editor. I’ve had very heated conversations with editors about everything from contract terms to illustrator choices, and then gone out to lunch with them a day later as if nothing just happened. It’s business, and
we can treat it that way. It’s harder for the author not to take it personally, because her book is her baby.

Agents aren’t magic. Agents cannot guarantee success. But agents can give you a fighting chance in a crowded market. A literary agent can be a trusted ally, friend, partner, and sounding board. An agent can be your biggest cheerleader. I love being a literary agent because it allows me to work with authors of many different genres and from all walks of life on one of my favorite things in the world: books. That’s what it boils down to: working on things I love with people I like working with. I feel that the same applies to my clients.

Kate McKean has been a literary agent with the Howard Morhaim Literary Agency for the past seven years. Before starting her publishing career, she earned her master’s degree in fiction writing at the University of Southern Mississippi.

You can find many books by her clients available for sale here. She crochets, embroiders, and is excited to get her sewing machine fixed very soon. Kate will be teaching workshops about publishing at Sewing Summit this fall and you can find her on twitter and on Tumblr.

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Have a question about writing a craft book and getting an agent? Anything you’d like to hear more about? Write a comment and Kate or I will respond. Thank you!

Comments

  1. says

    HI Cinti–Yes, I do! It doesn’t necessarily matter where you live, as long as you have the internet. You may have to ship finished projects to the US, though, which can be expensive. That cost is the author’s responsibility. But overall, it doesn’t matter where you live.

  2. Amanda Carestio says

    I’m a craft book editor with Lark Books. Here’s my perspective on things (some of which Kate has already touched on above): Agents know what publishers are looking for, they know the field (other books in the marketplace), and they can help authors create proposals that will be attention grabbing, will answer the questions that publishers need answered, and will have that magical hook, front and center. For these reasons, I like working with agents: I trust their knowledge of the field and, if they’ve sent me something, I know that they really believe in it. They definitely negotiate hard for their authors (which is usually a quite civil process!) and they can help navigate the legal language of author contracts. They can also work to help promote the book once it’s published. However, if you feel comfortable creating a stellar proposal, negotiating for yourself, reading and assessing a contract, and you have an excellent platform, you might consider going it alone. Or trying that first and then working with an agent if that doesn’t prove fruitful.

  3. says

    Totally agree! (Hi Amanda!)
    Do consider, though, an agent can’t really resend a proposal to an editor who’s already rejected it. Unless it’s completely, completely, completely and totally revised and different. Editors (and agents) don’t like to read and consider the same thing twice. DO you agree, Amanda?
    But if you feel confident going it alone, you can totally find success.

  4. Amanda Carestio says

    Kate – yes, I do agree, absolutely! We don’t want to see the same thing again. So yes, a proposal would need to be altered and revised in some considerable way before it’s resubmitted.

  5. says

    Having not used an agent before (in either craft publishing or textile design), I found this article very interesting. I think that having someone in your corner who believes in your idea and knows the ins and outs of the industry would be incredibly helpful (and reassuring!). Having been through the proposal process not only for craft books, but also (in a former career) for academic journals and conferences, I can attest to how crucial the fit between an author and publisher is. I think that is one of the most important things to research when crafting a proposal, and having an agent to help you through that process–if you weren’t comfortable going it alone–would probably be very helpful. When it comes to negotiating a contract I think having an adviser who knew the industry standards would also be extremely helpful. The terms of my contract all seemed fair to me, but I don’t have the kind of specialist knowledge that a seasoned agent or a lawyer would have.
    That said, and to echo Amanda’s comment above, it is possible to have a proposal accepted without an agent’s help. I guess it comes down to whether you want to do the research legwork yourself or pay for someone else (with considerable industry knowledge) to do it for you–either choice is valid and subject to personal preference. I also think that publishers will recognize if your idea is original and salable enough to invest in, even without vetting from an agent. So if you have a fantastic idea, it may be a good idea to test the waters yourself before hiring someone. In my experience, acquisition editors are also very happy to provide feedback on proposal ideas, which gives potential authors the chance to tweak their ideas before submitting the formal proposal.
    Thank you so much for the fascinating post and discussion!

  6. says

    Just to throw in my two cents – Kate is my agent (Hi, Kate!) and I asked her to represent me AFTER I already had an offer from a publisher. They came to me with a new imprint and asked me to pitch them some ideas. I did, and we worked through my favorite until it was a full proposal that they wanted. So why bring in an agent after making the sale? Publishing contracts are a bunch of legal gobbledygook. Kate helped me understand what I was signing. She negotiated a better deal for me. I wanted to do all the photography (and get paid for that work) and Kate negotiated that part too. And when I finish my next proposal – Kate will be in my corner for that, too. Having an agent is worth every penny.

  7. says

    Thank you for writing this article! Writing a book for my craft is something that I’d like to work towards. I only started making stuffed animals this January, so I don’t have much of an audience. I’d like to find a niche that I can really appeal to, but I don’t know what the demand of the market is. I just can’t imagine, for myself, needing a pattern to make something, so I don’t know what the people are looking for. I feel like if I just stay true to myself, it’ll turn out right. Thanks again for the article!

  8. says

    I think you are totally on the right track with your thinking. I’ve found that the more you make and the more you share, the more you learn about what people are interested in, and what they need. I also look closely at what’s happening in the industry as a whole. Reading and observing, asking questions and talking with people about what they find to be difficult is all really helpful in formulating a great book idea.

  9. says

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Casey. I’ve also found that reaching out to other designers who have published books can be tremendously helpful. I’ve spoken with more than a dozen authors and aspiring authors over the phone about the details of their contracts. Through these talks I’ve learned what various publishers are offering, what is and isn’t negotiable, and how much, exactly, is reasonable to ask for.

  10. says

    I didn’t have an agent when I wrote my first six books. I worked in the crochet industry at that time, and gained a lot of experience with editors and publishers to the extent that I felt comfortable both pitching and negotiating on my own. It’s when I had an idea for a book far outside that niche that I was introduced to Kate, and this book I’m working on now wouldn’t have happened without her. Not only did she push me to revise my initial, flimsy idea into a far better one, she then went and sold it. Her feedback and advocacy during that process was invaluable, and to be honest, part of my motivation as I now revise my book is to prove her right.

  11. says

    Full disclosure here: I’m a huge fan of Kate, who has helped me in every single way she listed in this post, and many more. I know she’s put in way more time on my behalf than could possibly be compensated by her fee. I count myself blessed to be able to work with her, and I’m so glad Abby invited her to share her honest thoughts here.
    I feel like, while book editors are well-meaning, the publishing industry is a complicated one, and constantly battling careening market forces. As Kate, said, it’s not personal, it’s just business – and business in a rapidly-transforming era. As Wendi said, it’s incredibly helpful to have someone with industry expertise in your corner, representing your interests. I wouldn’t attempt to sell a book without an agent – without Kate specifically!

  12. says

    Thank you, Diane, for these thoughts. I think it’s really good to hear from Kate’s clients who have successfully sold craft books, in your case multiple craft books. The industry certainly is in flux and I can imagine that having an expert working on your behalf would certainly be beneficial.

  13. says

    This article has been really informative, thank you. I am just starting to formulate a book idea having been designing creatures for many years now. When you say that you need to build up a platform can that be done without a Blog? I have a successful Etsy shop and Facebook page and large following but have never got my head around a Blog.

  14. says

    Gosh, I somehow stumbled on this post via Twitter, and it is making me SO happy about my very recent decision to work with Kate. I sold my first book on my own, and I just recently decided to work with Kate to sell my second. We’ve only just begun the process of working together, but I’m already recognizing how valuable and helpful she will be. Thanks for posting such fabulous content, Abby!

    • says

      That’s awesome on a number of fronts. First, yay for second books! And second, yay for Kate! Best of luck to both of you on this new project.

  15. says

    Wow…this article could not have come at a better time. I have been considering writing a book forever and a few recent events have me convinced that the time is now. I was ready to go it alone, but I ran into a friend (a published author) who convinced me that procuring an agent would be my best move by far. He already had me convinced, but I was very intimidated by the word “agent”. Reading this article, Kate’s own words in particular, has helped me to see that agents are friends in the process and I shouldn’t be intimidated at all. I’d better to get to work! Thanks again! :)

  16. says

    I am interested in doing a Counted Cross-Stitch Book ‘Inspirational Counted Cross-Stitch by Internationally renowned needle artist ‘Sandi Phipps’ title could change

    I have created and sold over Two million products. Known worldwide for over 30 years.

    Would you care to look at my website and get an idea of whom I am and see if you may have an interest in representing me?
    The site is old and out of date, but you can get an idea.
    my phone; (719-447-51550 Colorado Springs Co Thank You Sandi

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