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!
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.