15 Things I’ve Learned in 5 Years: Celebrating my 5 Year ‘Agent-versary’

pages-freestockphotosLast year I wrote a post about my “four year agent-versary.” And focused on what I was grateful for.

Last week my friend, and super agent, Katie Shea Boutiller wrote about her 4 years as an agent. Including some great tips about why agents have to be strong editors.

This year I’m celebrating 5 years as an agent! So I’m going to share 15 things I’ve learned over the last 5 years and what I think makes a good agent. It’s a long list. Enjoy!

1. You can’t teach taste. It’s inherent within an agent to know their taste. It’s also our job to know what we’re good at selling and that requires constant reflection and adaptation to the market. Good agents read all the trade news, bestseller lists, and talk to editors about what they’re buying an what’s working. But we know what we think we can sell, that’s our taste.

2. You can learn how to edit. I’m not a trained editor. But I edit my clients’ books. I know you’ve all read about how competitive it is out there for debuts and it’s absolutely true. I am an editorial agent, but I edit from the reader’s perspective. What do they need to know to make it an enjoyable and entertaining experience? Agents put more of their touch on a manuscript than ever before.

3. Sometimes the market will surprise you. Sometimes we think something will sell and it doesn’t. And sometimes we’re not sure if something will sell and it does. It’s a big learning curve that no one will ever figure out. But a good agent is right a few times (or more) a year.

4. Doing right by your client is about more than just the manuscript. Being a good agent is more than executing a sale. It’s being there for the failed drafts, marketing dilemmas, cover design consultations, foreign rights and film agent pitches. Support and a successful book depend on all those other factors. We’re there for all those conversations too.

5. Like parenting, your time is the most valuable thing an agent can give. Clients need attention. They need our dedication. As an agent time is the only thing we can give. Good agents can balance their clients in a way that means all needs are met. There is a limit to the therapy sessions (and reading of draft 7+) that we can do. But we’re present when it counts. (However, make sure you have conversations with your agent about what your needs are!)

6. Professional development (a.k.a. reading published books) will keep you connected to the industry. Reading published books is what keeps our taste in check and reminds us of the quality needed to make it all the way.

7. A successful author is more than the words on the page. Attitude, sense of marketing/publicity, perseverance, willingness to grow–these are the things that need to come with a talented writer. There are many talented writers out there; the ones that set themselves apart are the ones that learn the big picture of this business, adapt, and never give up.

8. An agent goes where they’re needed…and sometimes that’s not at all. We learn when to step back and let an author write, or let them work directly with their editor. We are the scaffolding that’s there to lean on or come back to when it’s time to rebuild.

9. A success story isn’t selling a book, it’s career building and helping our writers find their core audiences for books to come. A long career as an agent (and a writer) is about more than just one book. It’s about the career plan and building a readership, one book at a time. That readership starts with the publishing house and grows from there. It’s an agent’s job to convey that excitement from day 1.

10. Lunches are work. Agents try to be available to our clients all the time, but when we’re out to lunch with an author or editor–that’s work too. Creativity doesn’t happen in a box. Creation happens over interesting conversations and willingness to explore, ask questions and bounce ideas around. I’ve originated a deal for a client based on a conversation with an editor about a gap in their non fiction list.

11. There is not “one way” or a “right way” to do this job. Everyone has different taste, strategy and success stories. There are no guidelines for what “a literary agent” is, really. We all abide by a general code of conduct that was built by what we’ve been doing in this role since the 70s. It’s a relatively new career in the grand scheme of publishing as a business. The AAR has guidelines that most agents follow, but many agents don’t subscribe to them all and that’s okay. But we all need to have our clients’ best interests in mind with each decision.

12. This business is small. (Not surprising!) Yes, authors leave agents and we’ve all heard stories about clients being poached or courting a new agent while they still have their former agent. Reputations get around fast, good or bad. Agents who are respected are known for submitting top quality work to editors they’ve connected with, and negotiating tough but fair.

13. It’s not our job to be friends with editors, but it is our job to be friendly. Remaining professional with editors is an important part of the job. Sometimes we’re in really tough auction situations or an editor loses out on a book. You don’t want the personal to interfere with the professional because there are always more books to come.

14. We care about our client’s books almost as much as they do. We didn’t write them, but we sure get invested in them. We field the rejections and the offers. We see you go through emotional ups and downs. We go through emotional highs and lows too. It’s impossible to be passionate about something but also keep your distance–so what agents do is not keep distance but keep perspective. It gets a bit easier the longer I’m doing this. But the nerves about sending a new project on submission never go away.

15. To get quality projects writers have to know who we are as agents. The reason I started this blog was to give a voice to my taste and expertise. It’s why I go to conferences and teach webinars. I want to see everyone’s great books. I want to be on the top of writers’ submission lists. Here’s my current wishlist, pitch me! Follow me on Tumblr, Instagram and Twitter to see what I’m reading.

Manuscript Wishlist Update: Fall 2015

I haven’t updated everyone on my wishlist in awhile. There have been some recent changes. I am no longer signing up or working on children’s book projects (picture books to YA); I will be focusing my efforts on adult fiction and non fiction.

Currently Seeking:

  • Smart Book Club Fiction
  • Women’s Fiction
  • Upmarket Adult Fiction
  • Commercial Adult Fiction
  • Literary Mystery & Thrillers
  • Historical Fiction
  • Contemporary Romance
  • Pop Science and Pop Psychology
  • Cookbooks
  • Unique Memoirs
  • Lifestyle Non-Fiction: health, nutrition, relationships, parenting, lifestyle
  • Narrative Non-Fiction
  • Platform Based Non-Fiction: must have demonstrable expertise and a quantifiable market

Currently NOT Seeking:

  • Picture Books
  • Middle Grade
  • Young Adult
  • Science Fiction
  • Fantasy
  • Poetry
  • Screenplays

Some of my top recent reads:

  • The Admissions by Meg Mitchell Moore
  • The Underwriting by Michelle Miller
  • Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll
  • The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
  • Everybody Rise by Stephanie Clifford
  • A Window Opens by Elisabeth Egan
  • Bennington Girls are Easy by Charlotte Silver
  • Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff
  • Friendship by Emily Gould
  • Days of Awe by Lauren Fox
  • Among the Ten Thousand Things by Julia Pierpoint
  • So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson
  • I’ll Drink To That by Betty Halbreich
  • The Long Hello by Cathie Borrie

Please send your material with my name and your book title in the subject heading to query(at)psliterary(dot)com.

“The Call” Reversed: What agents like to know about potential authors

contract signingAuthors are usually busy studying up for “the call” (an agent reaching out via phone to offer representation) when they know it’s on the horizon. It’s an exciting time for authors and agents! Resources are everywhere and there are many great guides to “the call” including these:

However, what about the flip side? What do agents like to know about writers when we offer?

What agents like to know about potential fiction authors:

  • What are you working on next?
  • How long does it take you to write a draft?
  • Who are some of your favorite authors?
  • What kind of support are you looking for?
  • What has been your path to publishing? Agented before? Published before?
  • How do you workshop your work? Critique group?
  • Where do your ideas come from?
  • What is your day job? And what does your writing schedule look like?
  • What are some of your career goals and expectations?
  • How many other agents are looking at the manuscript?
  • Do my editorial notes match your vision for the book?
  • How do you feel about social media?

Why I want to know these things:

This is a sample of some of the questions I like to know answers to when I’m getting to know a potential author. Some of the most important things are that we share the same vision for this book and your career, and that we have similar taste in books we read for fun. I like to know that writers have a strong work ethic and a writing group they work with so I’m not the sole provider of feedback. I want to know about your publishing history even if it’s not clean and tidy–often it isn’t. I like to know your patterns like how fast you write and when you write, plus the best time to get in contact with you.

Is it about the answers?

You don’t need “perfect” answers to these questions. It’s nothing you can study for. At the end of the day we want to work with writers who we get along with, whose work we love and feel passionate about, who have a career path that we feel we can assist in, and who trust us.

That call is about both of us deciding we’re a fit. Just because you get an offer doesn’t mean you have to take it. 

Q: What have you been asked on “the call” or hope to be asked?

Further reading:

7 ways to make yourself an easy author to work with

5 Real Reasons Agents Are So Darn Picky

I think some of you swear when you say that line to yourself, but I’m keeping it PG on the blog. Really, why are we so #&$%(&-ing picky?

It’s not only the volume, but that has something to do with it.

We’re picky because we have to be. We wouldn’t be able to stay in business unless we were choosy about everything we signed up. So here’s the truth if you’re still wondering what happens at agents’ desks…

5 Reasons Agents Are Picky

1. Because editors are.

All we hear from editors is how much they have to read, how passionate they have to be in their editorial and acquisitions meetings, how much marketing and sales has a say in the books, and how they have to have a clear vision for projects they take on. So guess what, agents have adopted all those criteria too. It’s true, in this internet age the most important thing is being able to make projects stand out amongst all forms of media. So we’re looking for super special things.

2. Because the recession happened.

I wish we were still in 90s publishing when debuts got $250,000 advances. (Yes, I think we all do.) But the reason publishers don’t give out those advances anymore is because they looked at the books during the recession and thought, Hey, most of these books aren’t earning out. So why are we paying them that much? As much as I’m sad debut fiction doesn’t get that kind of up-front financial support I’m glad that publishers are thinking about royalties, authors earning out, and helping authors plan for a sustainable career–not a blockbuster model.

3. Because we care about the big picture, not the small one.

Good agents aren’t thinking next month or this year when we sign up a client. We’re thinking 5 years from now. We are thinking about all the wonderful things you’re going to do in the long run and how your career is going to grow with our support and guidance. If we thought about the short term we’d be more spontaneous and have more authors–when really it’s important for agents to dedicate our time to current authors on our roster and give them all our attention.

4. Because it’s a business.

Most agents I know are lovely, friendly, wonderful book-loving people that I enjoy spending time with always. But when it gets down to business we are tough cookies. Yes, we are creative individuals too, but when we put our agent hats on it’s all business and that means making choices that people don’t always love. Agents have made peace with that a long time ago. (You wouldn’t be able to dream up the things that get written to us in the horrible slush pile responses.) You don’t want an agent that doesn’t treat this like a business. So that’s why it’s worth the wait for the right agent. We’re picky because we invest our time. We’re not publishers so we can’t woo you with money–our time is all we have to give. And we’re serious about who we give it to.

5. Because being an agent in today’s market is demanding.

This job has never been easy. But the role of the agent has changed. We now have to be fully equipped with knowledge we never thought we’d need to have: consumer insights, meta data, marketing, publicity, social media, ebook technology and much more. If we can’t consult our clients on these things then we’re not doing our job. So it requires agents to have more industry awareness than ever before. Agents’ sole jobs used to be talent spotting and management. Now it’s managing on a more intimate level because publishers have gotten busier too.

With knowledge comes power! Some of you might know this already–but the industry changes daily–and agents have to stay on their toes!