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.

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The author/agent ratio

How agents spend their working day is a bit confusing for many authors. There is the impression that we read all day long, when in fact the reading we do is on the weekends and evenings. What we do during the week involved managing submissions for new work and managing relationships between editors, and clients who have deals in place including contract negotiation.

The reality is that our days are busy, time sensitive, and based on priority. (For more on what we do see this post on agent skills and the typical day of an agent.) You are one client to an agent with many clients that have varying needs. In many authors’ minds the ratio is 1:1 and you are always on your agents’ agenda. In reality, we manage many clients and it’s unrealistic to assume that.

However, we’ll always be there when you need us (see priority above), we’ll always be there to manage issues and problems that come up, but our other clients might be having issues that need problem solving as well so we do a balancing act of all this, plus doing deals.  Continue reading The author/agent ratio

Agents and authors have more in common than you might think…

I know you writers think that agents have a pretty great gig. And we do! We do it because we love finding emerging writers and developing their career while sharing their work with the world. However, there are parts of our job that not all writers are aware of and I share some here:

  • We get rejected too! We manage the careers for multiple clients and if you think getting passes from editors for your book is tough think about us: we love all our clients’ books and get passes for the majority of them until we find a home.
  • If you think writing a query letter is difficult, we write pitch letters for all our clients’ projects. We do our research, tailor them to each editor, carefully proofread and re-read to make sure we nailed the hook, and send them out with nerves just like you do as writers.
  • Like non fiction writers sending proposals to agents, agents write proposals for our clients to send to editors. Now it varies how much we assist in this process, but often I’ve written 85% of client proposals to get them up to industry standards. If you think all that research is tough, we do the exact same thing: overview, author bio, your market, a marketing plan, comparative titles, and sample material. Continue reading Agents and authors have more in common than you might think…

Trust: Can you hand over control?

Trust. Seems like a simple concept, but so much of what we as agents do requires complete and utter trust from our authors. You might not understand all the moves we make, or why we have to be the voice of the industry sometimes, but our job is to communicate our actions as best as we can while requiring trust from our clients that we are making the best decisions for them and their career.

Our job is to advise you, with your best interests in mind, and consulting you on those decisions, but when you sign on with an agent you have to go through the check list of everything you want in an agent, and the ‘agent qualities’ they possess, and see if you can rely on them and work with this person through all the ups and downs.

Continue reading Trust: Can you hand over control?