Last 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.