Q12: Understanding Agenting

(This question is part of a larger subseries called Perpetual WIPs: Literary Agents. For the remaining questions, see here.)

What do you wish more people understood about the job of an agent?

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A good agent should be an author’s business partner. That should be the aim of a querying writer, to find a partner. We’re not gatekeepers, or a means to an end, or beta readers. A good agent should have the knowledge to move your career forward and be ready and able for the bumps ahead. And yes, there are bad agents out there, just as there are bad people in any kind of business venture. The important thing to remember is that the power is in your hands. Choose wisely.

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It’s often awesome and glamorous and fun, and I’m always glad to go to work in the morning. I love my job. But it’s also fairly unending. I read submissions in my “free time”: nights and weekends. That’s also when I do most of my editing. And all of my market research (you know, reading actual books). At least the work I’m taking home is something I like to do anyway! It could be financial spreadsheets, and then I would be miserable. But it’s still work – and time-consuming work at that! (I do love it, though: no question.)

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We don’t just read queries all day. We don’t even read manuscripts all day. If I ever have time for either of those things during office hours, I consider it a luxury.

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We’re just people who happen to have a very specific set of skills and knowledge base.  Our job title does not automatically make us gods OR scumbags.  This business IS subjective, we DO listen to our guts and we don’t actually enjoy telling people no.

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How many other things we do! Once you have a client list, reading submissions and queries is the least important part of what we do, which is why it can take agents so very long to get back to you. Not only am I reading client projects (WIPS, things under contract, revisions), I’m negotiating contracts, sending stuff out on submission, handling foreign rights and dramatic inquiries, figuring out royalty statements, mailing checks, doing 1099s, editing manuscripts, holding hands/talking clients through the occasional crisis of confidence, assisting in the author’s promotions, making meetings with editors, returning phone calls– there are a hundred things I have to do before I can get to something I’ve requested.

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That it is not easy. Some people think once you sign with an agent you will have a book contract overnight and it’s often a very slow process. Publishing in general is very slow (though it’s moving faster with ebook publishers, traditional presses are still slow as the wind). It is frustrating for agents too, how slow it is! Trust me on that.

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We really love books and authors, and we are really trying to help authors, not hurt them. I think most people do know this on some level… but it is easy to forget when you are feeling knocked-down or disappointed about the business.

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Most of us only get to do our reading on nights and weekends! Traditional business hours are for the business end of things. Agenting is a 24/7 job, and we do it because we love it.

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Being an agent is more than simply selecting saleable projects and then trying to sell them. It’s really about advocating on behalf of authors, and seeing that they are fairly compensated for their work.  It’s about managing an author’s entire career.  Writing books is a full-time job, and getting paid for writing books is another full-time job.  As an author you can’t do both jobs and hope to be successful at either.  Most of my time is spent handling the business of writers so that they can make writing their business.

I don’t spend most of my day look for new talented authors.  I don’t really have much time to read at all at work.  In fact most of my reading is done outside the office. Searching for new clients is mostly done off the clock, so to speak.  In actuality there is no clock.  I have my submissions box on my iPhone, and when I’m not at work I’m reading it compulsively, I read submissions on the bus, in line at the bank, in bed before I fall asleep, on weekends, on vacations.  That’s when I don’t have full manuscripts to consider.  I can’t remember the last published book I read “for pleasure” and not market research.  It’s not all bad, though, because I get to read the best books that are going to be published next year, or in the next two years, as well as all the best books that may never be published.

When I’m at work I’m working on behalf of my clients. That means coordinating efforts between authors and editors, corresponding with contracts and royalties departments, corresponding with subsidiary rights agents, book and film scouts, and publicists, doing client accounting, filing tax forms, and updating databases of client information.  Occasionally, I am reviewing clients’ manuscripts and providing comments.  Occasionally I am setting time aside to research for an upcoming submission.  It’s all that necessary work that goes into making a book into a best-seller. It doesn’t spring fully-formed from an author’s head with BEST SELLER written on it, and we all just clear a path to the New York Times Book section.  More often than not it takes a lot of heartbreak and hard work on the part of the author, agent, and editor to forge success from the fires of failure.

I think a lot of focus is put on the agent as tastemaker, but it’s actually the least important part of being an agent.  I like to think my taste is excellent but, objectively speaking, I’m probably about as likely to pick the best books out of the slush as any dedicated reader would be. There are probably readers out there more voracious than even I am, and they could probably pick great works from my slush pile too.  What I guess I’m saying is that picking the next best-seller isn’t necessarily a skill set, whereas knowing how to manage an author’s career so that they can be successful and grow into a best-seller is.  That’s what being an agent is about, more than anything.

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That we aren’t gatekeepers sitting on a throne of bones fashioned from slush wading authors. That sometimes rejection means we just didn’t connect to the book, not that the book is bad and deserves no place on the market. That it isn’t all lunches and galas, we work our asses off and that we love our clients like they were made from our own ribs.

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That we can’t shine shit.

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2 thoughts on “Q12: Understanding Agenting”

  1. Wow! Thanks for letting us know a little more about the daily life of an agent! I have some agents with pages and one with a full right now and have been obsessively checking my email. This post helped me to understand just how busy those agents are and gave me a fresh perspective on the industry. Makes me want to send a huge THANK YOU when I do hear back, good or bad.

  2. Loved the answers here. Thanks for sharing a window into the agent’s world!

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