Someone asked, “As an agent, what do you expect of your clients? What do you do for your clients?”
1. I expect the authors I represent to write well, be creative, work hard at the craft, meet their deadlines, get along with people, work extremely hard at the marketing side of publishing, be my friend, and be willing to work with me on the “career” side of writing. I figure most of my clients will stay with me for years, and we’ll watch their careers grow and change over time. Part of the “get along with people” aspect means they will be flexible and understand when life intrudes or things take longer than they expect — publishing is a slow business. Sometimes things happen that cause all of us to wait, or to be disappointed, or to shake our heads in wonder. But the expectations are fairly clear, I think. And they don’t always happen. Sometimes I disappoint people. Or they get tired of waiting. But, generally speaking, that’s the big picture.
2. There’s a misunderstanding that there is somehow a “right” relationship between an author and an agent. The fact is, every author is unique. Some need a lot of dialogue; some need little. Some want the agent to read their work; others couldn’t care less if the agent reads it. Some want to bat around ideas; others really don’t want to hear an agent’s respond to their ideas. Some want to go in-depth discussing contracts; others will say “don’t explain the contract to me, just show me where to sign.” So how the business happens will depend on the unique relationship between author and agent. There isn’t one “right” process I’ll have for working with an authors — which is why I’m not going to be the agent for everyone. (You can’t be friends with everyone — sometimes you meet someone, and the two of you just don’t click for some reason.) However, I’d say it’s fair to say an author can expect me to talk about the salability of book ideas, perhaps send new book ideas his or her way, explore the quality of their writing, help with the creation of a good proposal, have editing/publishing relationships the author does not have, be able to sell a manuscript and maximize its value, understand and be able to negotiate contracts, ensure contract compliance, assist in some way in the marketing and sales efforts of the book, and, above all, help map out a workable career plan.
If you’re looking for an agent, think of it as locating a good business partner. You wouldn’t sign up a business partner quickly or on a whim. You probably wouldn’t sign up someone without meeting or at least checking him or her out carefully. So don’t walk into a writers’ conference and expect an agent you’ve just met to want to sign you. Instead, learn to ask good questions: Who do you represent? What books have you successfully represented? How many books have you contracted in the past six months? What publishers were they contracted with? Ask around about the agent, so that you get a feel from authors and editors for the agent’s reputation. You might want to check out “Predators and Editors” and “Writer Beware,” web sites dedicated to protecting authors from unscrupulous agents. There are books on agents (but they’re usually just marketing copy), info on Publishers Marketplace (helpful for seeing who an agent is doing business with), and at least one clearinghouse that tries to stay current on agent information. Be sure to check and see if the agent is a member of AAR, the professional association for literary and film agents.
And a last note: Somebody suggested in a comment recently that an author had announced he “never found an agent who could do any better at the things he could do himself.” That same person also referenced “giving away” 15% of the author’s income.
Um…This type of thinking really misses the point. If you think you’re “giving away” fifteen percent of your author income, you’re probably not ready to work with an agent. I know of very few successful authors who are working without agents. (Yeah, there are a few who work in CBA, or who have had a big success self-publishing… but I know at least a couple of the names often tossed out, and both are getting hosed by their publisher. They’re just too cocky to recognize it.) If you don’t have broad publishing relationships, understand contracts, know how to negotiate, don’t feel comfortable talking about yourself in third person, and aren’t sure about how the industry works, you may not be as secure as you ought to be. Being a successful agent simply requires a different set of skills than those being relied upon by most full-time authors. Every publisher has a team of lawyers and accountants backing them up — who is backing up the unagented author? If this guy never found an agent who could do this stuff better than himself, my guess is that he either didn’t look very hard, or he is misjudging his own abilities.
I used to not be much of an evangelist for agents, but in a society where publishing is getting more legalized, specialized, and difficult, I’m now of the opinion that you’re really going to have to think carefully about an agent if you expect to move forward in your writing career.