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.

 

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Happy Pub Day to DARIO AND THE WHALE

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.

A little plug for my Hugo House class

I am very excited to be teaching a class at Seattle’s wonderful community writing center, Hugo House, on Saturday, February 20th. The class is called Legal Concepts Writers Need to Know.

I think one of the most important ways for a writer to position themselves for success is to acquire information about the publishing industry and the way it works. I know that anything dealing with law and contracts can be intimidating to a non-lawyer, but just getting a little bit of knowledge about legal concepts and issues that are relevant to writers during and after the writing process goes a long way–and can help protect you from an unpleasant or unexpected situation.

Prior to being an agent, I was a litigator in NYC (seems like ages ago!). With a law degree under my belt, four years of law practice, and a current career as a literary agent, I’ve got lots of insight on what legal concepts are important to writers. Here are some questions I am going to be answering in this course, which will be broken down in four sections (one for each hour of fun!)

COPYRIGHT LAW

  • What is copyright law? How is it different from trademark and patent? What does a copyright protect?
  • How do I get copyright protection for my work? Do I have to file for a copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office?
  • What is fair use of another’s work? Can I excerpt someone else’s work? Can I use a quote in my epigraph?

PERMISSIONS & PRIVACY

  • What are best practices for seeking permission for photos and other visual materials? Song lyrics and quotes? Recipes?
  • What does a good release form contain?
  • Can I use a real life person as a character in my book?

AGENT CONTRACTS

  • What makes a fair agency agreement?  What clauses and terms should I expect to see? And what the heck do they mean?

PUBLISHING CONTRACTS

  • What makes a fair publishing agreement? What are red flags?
  • What’s the deal with subsidiary rights and licensing?
  • Is this a fair self-publishing contract?

And many more!

Seattle writers, does this sound interesting to you? Or does this sound relevant to you? If so, register! Let’s spend four hours on a Saturday together! I promise I will make all of this information fun, informative and accessible! Link to register is here.

Wisdom nugget for writers: Be an expert in your genre!

I have tons of advice for writers, but if I only had one piece of advice to give, one that I think could make the most impact, it would be this: Whatever genre you write in, make sure you are an expert in that genre. What do I mean by this? I mean that you’ve read tons of books in the genre that you write in. Not just ten or twenty books, but one hundred or two hundred plus books.  This advice applies no matter if you are a true crime writer, a picture book writer, a memoirist or a middle grade novel writer–whatever kind of writer you are!  I think knowing your genre is important because it helps you become a better writer of that particular genre because you’ve seen how it’s been done really well (or conversely, really badly or just okay). You not only know what bar you have to reach with your own writing, you also become familiar with trends and archetypes of the genre. In children’s literature, it helps clue you in on things like tone and vocabulary  and themes that are appropriate for the age group you are writing for.

Some writers worry that reading other books while they are writing will overly influence their own writing. Personally, I think it’s okay to be inspired or influenced by other writers and stories–there’s plenty of evidence of that happening in all art forms.

I think it’s particularly important that you read as many books in your genre as possible that have been published in the last two years. This is important because I think it helps give you a sense of what publishers and readers for looking for right now and the state of the current market. So often, I receive queries (particularly for picture books) that seem to be from another time. The kind of book that might have worked in the fifties or the nineties, but isn’t representative of what the current marketplace is for a picture book or a middle grade or young adult novel. The picture book of our youth is different from the picture book of today. The middle grade novel of our youth is different from the middle grade novel of today. The young adult novel of our youth is different from the young adult novel of today. Of course, write what’s in your heart, but if you keep in mind considerations of the current marketplace you are better positioned for success.

So get reading!

Hello, writers!

Hi, everyone! Happy new year! My name is Clelia Gore and I am a kid lit agent at the Seattle-based agency, Martin Literary Management. One of my professional goals of 2016 is to create a place for talented writers to get to know me better and also a place where I can provide my best advice to writers hoping to make their big break. The publishing industry is a fiercely competitive one, with many gatekeepers, and I truly believe that writers who equip themselves with knowledge about how the publishing industry works are better positioned for success than those who focus solely on writing. I will be posting advice or musings related to writing and publishing and also updating my manuscript wish list, letting you know what kind of manuscripts and clients I am looking for at the moment.  The first of these posts are coming soon!