The Many Roles of An Agent

Being a literary agent is a job that requires you to play a lot of roles. One of the reasons I love being an agent is because I think it’s a profession that calls on all of the skills that I most excel at — I feel like I am being put to my best use. When I speak to potential clients, many of them are new to the publishing industry and are not exactly sure what a literary agent does. Below, I’ve outlined the many roles that an agent must play to represent their clients. As you’ll see, we agents are the wearers of many hats!

caps for sale

Genre Expert: For an agent to represent a genre, that means they have read tons and tons in that genre–they know what’s great writing, what’s bad writing and what’s so so writing. They know the old stuff and the new stuff.

Talent Scout: Agents are reading submissions all of the time, evaluating them for quality and for that “It” factor. Agents also go after clients that they read about, hear about, encounter in some way or another, either randomly or deliberately.

Trendspotter: Agents stay on top of what trends are in the genres they represent, by reading through deal listings, reading industry news, observing the market, staying on top of what is in the cultural zeitgeist, talking with other people in the field.

Idea Conceiver: Sometimes agents come up with ideas that they think would work really well in the market, and they have one of their clients execute the idea. These ideas come from being genre experts and trendspotters.

Editor: Before a manuscript is submitted, an agent helps a client get their manuscript or proposal into tip-top shape. As I like to describe it: an author gets their manuscript into good shape, an agent helps the author get it into great shape, and an editor at a publishing house helps the author get it into excellent shape — and then it’s ready for publication. Sometimes the editorial process at the agency level can take months, with several back and forths.

Networker: Agents pound the pavement hard when it comes to networking with editors. Getting to know editors means an agent will have a better understanding of their acquisition interests, which means the agent will do a better, more precise job at submitting manuscripts, and increase the potential for their clients’ manuscripts to land a great home. This means an agent is always making phone calls, sending emails, attending conferences, having meetings, coffee, drinks, meals, etc. with editors.

Matchmaker: When a manuscript is ready to submit, an agent submits to editors based on their knowledge of their editorial needs and interests. It needs to be a good match to proceed in the process– think of agents as literary yentas.

Negotiator: Once an offer is made, contracts become involved and an agent advocates on behalf of their client to try and sweeten the deal as best they can. Knowledge of common industry contract clauses, the market for advances for books of this nature, standard royalty rates, and legal expectations are a must. Some agents were lawyers (like me!), which is helpful in this role, but not necessary to be a fierce advocate for a client.

Publicist: Maintaining good media contacts and contacts with publicists and speakers bureaus to help support a client once their book is out is helpful, as an author should never solely count on the publisher for publicity support.

Firefighter: Sometimes things go wrong–in the editorial process, in the publicity process, in the production process–really, things can go wrong at any point in the process. Agents must help their clients get through these hoops, sometimes having to mediate between them and the publisher. You gotta be tough to play this role.

Therapist: Writing is so personal — a client’s book is their baby. Sometimes things can get quite emotional during the writing, editing, or other process. A good agent is also a good listener, a good advisor and knows when to give some tough love if they need to.

As you can see, being an agent isn’t just submitting manuscripts and negotiating contracts–there’s a lot we have to be good at to best represent our clients!

Interested in knowing what I’m looking for? Check out my most recent manuscript wish list.



Got the Super Tuesday blues like I do? Here’s a ray a sunshine for you!

Dario cover

Happy pub day to DARIO AND THE WHALE, a picture book by my client, the wonderful Cheryl Lawton Malone, illustrated by the talented Bistra Masseva, and published by Albert Whitman & Co.

Cheryl was one of my earliest clients and she makes her beautiful debut with this book about a lonely boy who befriends a whale on the Cape Cod shore. I love Cheryl’s soft, lyrical style–you can tell she is a poet! I also love how this book is from the perspective of a Brazilian boy, an immigrant who speaks Portuguese, the son of a seasonal, migrant worker. Dario feels lonely because of the cultural and language differences, and because he finds himself in a new place where he doesn’t know anyone. His story parallels that of the whale, who is also only in Cape Cod for the season. Simply put, it’s a beautiful story.

I met Cheryl over two years ago in a coffee shop in Newton, MA where she lives (I happened to be in town). I signed her on as a client based on a different book. When she showed me DARIO, I knew we had something very special. And now it’s here in our hands! Below is a little interview I did with Cheryl.

Cheryl Lawton Malone

Cheryl Lawton Malone

What inspired you to write DARIO AND THE WHALE?

DARIO was inspired by a true-life experience – I spent the month of April, 2011 at the Norman Mailer Writer’s Colony in Provincetown, MA finishing a YA murder mystery. The wonderful people who run that program let me bring my dog, Chief. On our last day, I took him for a walk on Race Point Beach very early in the morning. April is the month when whales of all kinds, including the North Atlantic right whale, migrate through the Cape. You can see their tails and spouts in the distance. Chief and I were walking when we heard a whoosh about fifteen feet off shore. It was a whale! In shock, I stopped. Chief barked. And the juvenile right whale raised its head out of the water. He looked right AT US, as if he was just as curious as we were. Those few seconds—as we three connected—inspired me to write about a boy who meets a whale and a whale who meets a boy. I share the experience with readers in the author’s note at the back of the book.

What was your favorite part about writing your manuscript?

Learning about North Atlantic right whales. There are less than 300 – 500 left in the world. In the nineteenth century, whalers nicknamed them the “right” whales to hunt because they swam so slowly. I also enjoyed crafting a story from two different points of view—Dario’s and the whale’s. I worked hard to write Dario’s side of the story, and even harder to keep the whale true to his authentic whale self. 

What was your least favorite part about writing your manuscript?

The uncertainty that came with writing draft after draft after draft, not knowing if DARIO would resonate with anyone. I even tried a nonfiction version of DARIO, which my saintly and patient writing group reviewed, and liked, sort of. In the end, of course, the journey was worth it.

Where and when do you write?

It’s a bit embarrassing to admit but my best writing time is very early in the morning, after my husband goes to work, and my dogs are still sleeping, after I’ve made a cup of coffee and slipped back into bed in pajamas. No phones. No internet. No email. Just writing. Typically, I write 5 pages of a WIP per day or some corresponding amount for pbs. Around 9:00AM, the dogs need to go out, and my day starts. As a professional writer (no longer wearing pajamas), I move to my home office where I attack whatever needs to be done, including the balance of daily pages not completed in the pajama phase. If a scene or a twist isn’t working, I’ll take my dogs out for a long walk or I’ll head to a coffee shop.

What was the most surprising part about the editorial process?

I’d heard stories about how unresponsive publishers were to new writers and writers in general. When Wendy McClure and Albert Whitman asked for my opinion on the preliminary art in DARIO, I was thrilled.  

Who are some writers who inspire your work?

There are so many. For picture books: Jane Yoland, Jon Klassen, Kevin Henkes, Maira Kalman, Marla Frazee, Mo Willems, and David Elliott to name a few. For MG: Jeanne Birdsall, Rebecca Stead, Karen Hesse, Pam Muñoz Ryan and a new favorite Kwame Alexander. I also read YA and adult, but the list would never end. 

What advice can you give to aspiring children’s book writers?

Write! Write in the morning. Write at night. Write on your lunch hour. Write while your kids are at the dentist. Write when your house is asleep. When you’re not writing, read widely in your genre. Also, notwithstanding the burning need to get published, a writer needs to hone her craft. So take classes, go to kid lit meet ups, join writing groups online and in person, attend conferences. Get to know your local writing community. Participate in your local writing community. These are the resources that will help you through the long cold winter of rejection. In yoga, they define ‘stealing’ to include wanting something before you have prepared for it. I think there is much truth in that concept.