Author's Spotlight:  Allison Brennan

Dyanne: This month Iím pleased to have in my authorís spotlight, Allison Brennan, New York Times and USA Today bestseller. Just a look at Allisonís bio and youíll see her schedule is pretty full. Still she made time to grant this interview.

A lot of authors and aspiring have problems approaching agents and even those with agents are unsure how the relationship should work. Granted, Allison is one person and her answers are her opinion, but I found her information on the author/agent relationship to be such that I do believe writers at all stages will benefit from this interview.

New York Times and USA Today bestseller Allison Brennan is the author of fourteen novels and four short stories. A former consultant in the California State Legislature, she lives in Northern California with her husband Dan and their five children.

An only child, Allison entertained herself on rainy days by both reading and making up her own stories. Thinking she had to have a "real" job after dropping out of college, Allison worked in the California State Legislature as a consultant, married Dan Brennan in 1993, and they subsequently had five children and made their home outside Sacramento.

But Allison never stopped writing. In fact, she began over 100 books that she never finished. After turning 30, then giving birth to her third child, Allison decided to actively pursue a career in writing. Committing herself to write a book from beginning to end, she wrote five complete novels before selling The Prey in 2004. Two years later it was released and nudged the New York Times list at #33. The first four manuscripts have been destroyed and will never see the light of day.

With her first book Allison's publisher asked if she could write two books connected in some way to The Prey. Since that book was already written and in production, plot options were limited. During the copyediting stage, she tweaked the backstory of her heroine so that she had two friends from the FBI Academy, and they became the heroines of The Hunt and The Kill. Her "Predator Trilogy" was the first of four loosely connected romantic thriller trilogies. Each story is a complete work with a separate hero, heroine, and villain with some recurring characters that can be read individually or in order.

Crime fiction, mysteries, and romantic suspense have always been Allison's favorites, so it's no surprise that her romantic thrillers have a dark suspense edge. Reviewers have called her books "terrifying," "mesmerizing," "fast-paced," "pulse-pounding," "wonderfully complex," "layered," and "a master of suspense - tops in the genre."

Allison's research shelf is filled with numerous true crime and research books, such as 65 Ways to Kill Your Victim in Print, Practical Homicide Investigation, Book of Poisons, and Tales from the Morgue. Her favorite research trips included a tour of the Sacramento County Morgue - complete with autopsy - and her eight week FBI Citizens Academy course, where she competed at the gun range and won a much coveted award by the SWAT commander: the "My Characters Shoot Better!" award. All of this has been supplemented by trips to Quantico, interviews with law enforcement officials nationwide, and conversations with experts of all kinds in fields of forensics and technology.

Crime fiction is not Allison's only interest. Growing up, she immersed herself into the more supernatural worlds of Stephen King, Dean Koontz and John Saul, reading horrific suspense, unable to put the page-turning - and rather terrifying--books aside. Before she even sold her first book, she came up with a series based on the Seven Deadly Sins - as demons released from Hell by an evil occult seeking the key to eternal mortality. After the initial success with her Predator Trilogy, Allison put the Seven Deadly Sins idea aside to pursue the crime and suspense genre exclusively. Nearly seven years after the original idea for a supernatural saga however, she finally launched her Seven Deadly Sins series in early 2010 with Original Sin. Now, her crime research books share wall space with quite different research material, from The Black Arts to An Exorcist Tells His Story; Lilith's Cave to The Encyclopedia of Hell.

The first two supernatural thrillers in her Seven Deadly Sins series--Original Sin and Carnal Sin--are available now. They are contemporary and grounded in the world as it is today, with the exception that the Seven Deadly Sins are incarnate demons who, when they touch someone, that individual loses his conscience and acts on his personal worst sin - to deadly results. Forensics and police investigations also plays an important part in the series so while the series is definitely paranormal, it's grounded in criminal procedure.

Allison continues to write her trademark romantic thrillers. In early 2011, she'll launch a series starring Lucy Kincaid, a favorite character from her No Evil trilogy. The stories will tackle complex and current issues in law enforcement through the eyes of Lucy, an FBI recruit; her brother Patrick, a computer genius who's recovering from a two year coma; and Sean Rogan, a private security expert. expected release dates, LOVE ME DEATH 12/28/2010 and KISS ME, KILL ME 2/22/2011.

Writing three books a year is more than a full-time job, and so is raising five kids, but Allison believes life is too short to be bored. When she's not writing, she's reading, playing video games, watching old movies or new television shows, driving to or attending volleyball / basketball / football / soccer games, and on occasion even makes it to the gym where she enjoys people-watching more than the exercise.

Welcome, Allison.

The thing that appear to be on most authors and aspiring authors mind when looking for an agent is, when and for how much will this agent sell my manuscript? Do you believe that to be the primary function of an agent?

Allison: The sale is only a small portion of what an agent does or should do for their clients. Iíll list a few points.

  1. Negotiations. Even after the sale, an agent can (and should) negotiate better terms across the board. Publishing contracts are very complex and they ALWAYS benefit the publisher. Negotiations should level that playing field. Rights (audio, e-rights, film, foreign, book club, etc.), payouts (how the money for the book(s) is distributed to you and at what points of the contract--on signing, proposal, delivery, publication, etc.), option clauses, deadlines, etc. I couldn't even begin to tell you all the points, and I'm fairly contract savvy. But some of the changes I've seen in my contracts I would never have known to ask for--changing words here and there, changing percentages, all have a huge affect on not only this contract, but future contracts with that publisher.

  2. Advocate. Your agent is your advocate at all points of the publishing process. Many authors don't even know what to ask their publisher for or when--i.e. when they have a marketing plan, print run, orders, sell-in, sell-sheets, etc.) They can help smooth the way when you get a bad cover, when your cover copy is wrong--but your editor says it's too late to change (it rarely is), helping you get author quotes for your book, working through problems.

  3. Career-planning. A good agent should help you build your career and get you to where you want to go. You should be able to trust them on what you're doing that's right, and what you're doing that's wrong. Should you really write that science fiction soap opera or the historical mystery when your contemporary werewolf stories are doing so well? Should you write under a pen name? Should you take more money, or less money with a house that has a better strategy to publish you?

I can't possibly go through all the reasons why you should have an agent. Selling the book is the EASY part.

Dyanne:  Knowing that all situations and all author/agent relationships will differ have you in your experience noticed any telling signs of when an author should start making a change?

Allison: A lot of the signs are dependent on individual careers. What one author should look for might be different than another. Stagnant (flat) or falling careers CAN be a sign, but that means talking with your agent and regrouping and seeing if maybe there is something you both can do to change the path. An indifferent agent, or an agent who isn't engaged in finding solutions (whether it's with your current publisher or looking for another house; whether it's marketing or genre or what) is an agent who isn't focused on your career and that may be a signal to walk. 

Lack of communication is another sign. For me, this is a biggie--I need my agent to be accessible and respond in a timely manner. "Timely" is not "instant"--and it depends on the situation. If it's urgent, I expect a quick response. If it's not urgent, a couple days is fine. If they're researching something for me, I don't push. Follow-up is important, because agents are busy and sometimes things slip through the cracks. That's okay. But if this is consistent--if everything seems to be "slipping through the cracks" it's time to consider if you're on your agents radar.

How fast they read and what type of editorial they're providing is another potential stumbling block. Authors shouldn't expect overnight reads (though that can happen), but if an agent has your new manuscript and you are a client, two weeks is more than enough time unless the agent tells you they're behind or have other projects and it'll take, say, four weeks. This is where communication comes in. ASK. If you're scared to ask your agent when to expect them to read, you're not being a professional author. NO author should be scared of their agent. Period. Ask, get an answer, then follow-up if your agent doesn't meet their commitment. If the inability to do what they promise is a repeated occurrence, then you need a sit down with the agent.

It goes without saying that anything fiduciary is an immediate red-flag. Royalties/advances should be made on-time, accounting should be open, you should know of all offers and have the opportunity to accept or reject (with the agent's input, of course. You should trust your agent to give you good advice.)

Dyanne:  Allison, as you know most authors are a little afraid that if they sever ties with their agent they may never find another. Any helpful tips on how to sever the relationship with a really nice( as a person) agent but one who isn't do much to help you advance your career?

Allison: You'll get different answers depending on who you talk to. There is no one RIGHT way, but there are definite wrong ways. The most important thing is to be professional and don't burn bridges.

* Send a certified letter. Make it short and to the point. Reference your agency agreement, if you have one, and thank them. Don't put in all the reasons why, you don't have to apologize, keep it short and sweet and above all professional. If you have a complex career (i.e. a lot of rights that have been exploited, contracts in the works, etc) ask for a list of all pending projects. If you have a new agent, you can ask that they send the information to both you and your new agent. 

* Calling. Some authors say don't call because it can be an emotional time for you and/or the agent and one or both of you may say things you'll regret. But follow-up with the certified letter.

* Email. Email is okay, again short and professional, but follow-up with a certified letter.

You may want to consult a literary attorney on how to handle some of the complex issues of termination and protect your rights. Your new agent will also likely contact your old agent, another reason to not burn bridges.

Some people have said that the author-agent relationship is like marriage without sex. The books youíve worked on together are your children, because you will be bound together for years through those books (your agent will generally continue to be paid 15% on all contracts sheís negotiated.)

One more point: some authors will tell you to find another agent before you sever ties; other authors will tell you to sever ties first. This is a personal issue and one youíll have to decide on your own.

Dyanne:  Are there certain things that an agent should do for their client, send out more than one ms at a time if the author has them available,  keep the author abreast of what the markets are calling for?

Allison: Again, this is really dependent on each individual career and the goals of the writer which should be developed with the agent and writer together as a team. But communication is essential, so if the author is expecting the agent to go out with more than one manuscript, the author must discuss these expectations with their agent and know and agree to whatever strategy they create. As far as markets, I never believe in writing to the market. I believe in writing what you love in a marketable way.

Dyanne:  There are lots of things that authors donít understand about the publishing industry. Some believe itís their agents duty to keep them in the know. Considering that agents get 15% should they be able to explain royalty statements or should the author look for an intellectual properties attorney.

Allison: Every author needs to learn how to read a royalty statement. You donít need an attorney for this. If you have questions, call your publishers accounting department. There are as many different royalty statements as there are publishers, some better than others. If you donít understand it, and your agent doesnít understand it, then your agent should get the answers for you from your editor or the publisher. You shouldnít have to pay extra for that.

Dyanne:   How necessary to you think agents are to an author's career?

Allison: If you are writing commercial fiction and want to be published by a print house, I believe that agents are essential and necessary. There are so many more things an agent does than negotiate the deal. They exploit rights youíve retained, and work with the publisher to make sure they exploit rights theyíve retained. They should know the publication process and be instrumental in managing the publication of each of your books. For example, they should know what to ask for and when, be able to work with your editor to get information about co-op, marketing, reviews, arcs, print runs, cover art, etc. If you have a problem with a cover, youíll want your agent to play the bad guy. If youíre not getting paid in a timely manner, youíll want your agent to go to bat for you. If youíre having a conflict with your editor, you want your agent to mediate. Your agent is your business partner---or, rather, your business manager because youíve hired them and they get a commission on what they sell for you.

I would not venture into this business without an agent. They should protect you and help build your career.

Dyanne:  Allison, this question kind of goes with an earlier about ways for authors to sever the author/agent relationship. Why do you think authors have such a fear of terminating their relationships with agents?

Allison: Because they donít know if theyíll be able to get another agent. Because the grass is not always greener. Because they donít know if theyíre cutting ties for the right reasons. Because theyíre scared.

Dyanne: Any words of encouragement to the authors out there who are in the middle of starting over, doing their own submissions, looking for another agent?

Allison: I have talked to a lot of authors who have severed ties with their agent. It is never easy. It comes after a lot of inner turmoil and angst. Finding a new agent is never easy, even if youíre a major NYT bestselling author. Youíll always wonder if youíve made the right decision, both to terminate and in selecting a new agent. But in your gut youíll know if you did the right thing. Trust your instincts. This is your career and you need to take responsibility for it. Every publisher and every agent has many other authors they work with. You are one of many to them. Yes, you are important, and yes, they want to succeed with you. But ultimately, you are one of many and thus are the most important person in the author-publisher-agent team.

Seeking advice from people you trust is important, but can never replace your instincts. Listen, but make your own decision based on your needs and your career goals, then stand by it. Admit when you make a mistake and move on. Do not cast blame because blame is rarely in order. If there is a disconnect or failure, itís rarely one personís fault. So donít focus on the past, focus on the present and the future and keep writing, because we are not writers if we donít write.

Dyanne: Allison, thank you for all of the candid information. Iím sure anyone reading this will be helped by your answers.

With all of the agent stuff out of the way, what are your plans for the foreseeable future?

Allison: Iím launching a new series with fan favorite Lucy Kincaid in the starring role. LOVE ME TO DEATH comes out in January 2011 and KISS ME, KILL ME comes out in March 2011. The third book in Lucyís series is tentatively scheduled for fall 2011.

Dyanne: Where can your fans reach you?

Allison: On my website, www.allisonbrennan.com, I have a contact form that comes directly to me.

Dyanne: Once again Iíd like to thank Allison Brennan. Visit her website and learn more about her backlist.

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