Friday, August 6, 2010

“A” is for Agent: Learn the inside scoop from an agent

On August 5, I interviewed Sam Hiyate, literary agent and CEO of The Rights Factory. He was kind to offer some insights into this business. Hiyate started as a book publisher and editor of a literary magazine. He did it for ten years. However, he felt he was at the wrong side of the chain. So when he became an agent, he said, “It wasn’t a big transition, really.”

Being an agent is not as stressful as some people may think. “I wouldn’t call it stressful because I enjoy what I’m doing,” he said. Hiyate added that he can manage his workload, phone calls, e-mails, and his schedule. However, the unpredictability of the business keeps him on his toes. The economy is a good example. A couple of years ago, they had a lot of deals with American authors but once the recession hit, Hiyate and his team had to redesign their market. “A good business is able to change plans accordingly. Instead of representing just books, we turned our focus to foreign rights, TV, film and books that could work in film and TV,” he explained.

Since the inception of The Rights Factory in 2004, Hiyate has worked with approximately fifty authors which most of them are established clients. The bond he developed with his authors transitioned to friendship. “In more than half of the cases, I become friends with the authors because we work and socialize together,” Hiyate said. Networking is a key factor for both the agent and the author. He explained that, “I throw a lot of parties for my authors because I want a strong community where all writers meet and get to know each other. Editors sometimes attend these parties as well as publishers and some book deals come out as a result.”

Speaking of publishers, Hiyate works equally with the Davids and Goliaths of the publishing industry. He told me, “In the US we’ve worked with Knopf which is owned by Random House. We’ve also worked with Grand Central Publishing which used to be Warner Books. In Canada we work with Penguin, HarperCollins, and Random. And internationally, we’ve worked with publishers from twenty countries.”

Writers love to translate their ideas into stories but are oblivious to what percentage of their book sales translates into earnings and expenses. Well, Hiyate clarify that for me. Agents take 15% for domestic deals (North America is considered domestic market). 20% for International deals (UK and China). And the percentage for films is between 10 and 20. This is standard for most agents.

Signing contracts and book deals is just one side of Hiyate’s job. As an agent, he also offers valuable advice to his authors. He said, “We offer advice all the time. We are their career managers.” Pay heed fellow writers as he opened the Holy Grail of Advice for writers:

CDB: What do you look for in a writer?

SH: Somebody that can take criticism and somebody that I like, that I feel I can be friends with later on.

CDB: What do you look for in a book?

SH: For fiction, two things: great writing and great story telling. I look for people who can do both. Some writers are great story tellers but are not good writers and some writers can write extremely well but cannot tell a good story. I also look for a book with a commercial side, one that would appeal to a great market including one with international appeal and possibly film rights. We might say no to a great Canadian novel due to lack of salability.

CDB: What’s your pet peeve?

SH: I don’t like it when authors tell me they have another agent, or the book will make us millionaires (it’s up to me to make the money). I don’t like it when they change from an existing agent and say ‘my agent hated the book, can you help me?’

CDB: What genre do you think sells the most in Canada?

SH: I think in Canada literary fiction is a major market. In Non-fiction anything that has to do with psychology or current affairs, and entertaining books. Poetry is very hard to make any money.

CDB: Give me three top reasons why you stop reading a manuscript that has been submitted?

SH: 1) I don’t care about the characters. I want to see them succeed whether it is a memoir or a narrative. 2) I don’t care for novel that has not enough plot to keep me interested. There has to be some complexity in the story for me to continue turning the page. It has to be engaging. 3) I don’t care for the writing. It can’t be cliché. It has to have some rhythm and it has to be polished. I also have a preference when it’s a first person narrative. I feel it’s more personal and what they’re saying it’s truer.

CDB: What advice would you give to an emerging writer who wants to publish his/her book?

SH: The biggest advice is not to submit until they’re sure it’s their best copy. After they have done a lot of editing paying attention to writing, characters, and plot (story line). I encourage people to take writing classes or to go for an MFA.

CDB: Sam, thank you so much for taking time out of your busy schedule.

SH: No problem. It was a pleasure.

If you want to learn more about Sam Hiyate and his agency, check out The Rights Factory or you can follow them via Facebook.


  1. Claudia, thank you so much for posting this. We need to hear what agents (especially Canadian) have to say. His advice was right on, especially about the author being able to take criticism. It's one of the hardest things about being an author and agents know the field more than we do. Your blog is so informative. Keep up the great work!

  2. Thanks Claudia, that was a great interview. It's always so helpful to have this kind of inside information about an agent.

  3. @Laura,
    Ciao Laura, thank you for being a loyal reader ;)
    I'm glad you liked the interview. I learned so much from Sam. He was really nice and helpful. So now I'm passing along that knowledge to my readers. ;)

    WOW! that was fast! I thought you were on vacation. Thank you for your kind words.
    Talk to you soon!

  4. Hi Claudia

    Thanks for dropping by My Writing Prompt. Molly says hi. :)

    Write Every Day!

  5. Hi Mac,
    First, say hi back to Molly, she's a doll. Can you tell I'm a dog lover? ;)
    Welcome to my neighbourhood! And in regards to your other comment about using my tips, I'm absolutely flattered that you find them useful enough to post in your blog. Be my guest and, I know you know the rules when credit is due ;)
    Please drop by again. I'll come by your block to say hello to Molly.

  6. Guest blogger. I could see that on my business card. I'll rack (or is it wrack) my brain on the perfect post. :O)

  7. Thanks for sharing it, this is full of good advices and it's good to know an agent's opinions. Nice to read that fiction sells well in Canada.

  8. Great interview. Its always valuable to hear from those in the industry.

  9. @Donna,
    Welcome to my neck of the woods ;)
    I'm glad you likedthe interview.
    We'll be chatting on each other's blog.

    I'm happy to hear you like my blog and that you can relate to my latest post ;)
    I'll be checking out your coffee goodies recipes.
    Thank you for joining my community!
    Happy baking!

  10. Great interview Claudia. It’s nice to see what agents and editors are looking for and what annoys them.