Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Busy Agents and Their Obligations

As I wrote yesterday, the post on Maintaining Enthusiasm garnered many great comments. One of the most interesting and upsetting to me was from a poster named “stressed and confused.” I hate to think that I’m making anyone even more stressed and confused, especially since my hope for this blog is to help clear up many of the misconceptions about this business and explain what it is agents, or at least what it is this agent, does all day. “Stressed and confused” asked:

"Don't have time to even read a query letter?" Pardon me. I know you're busy with your already established clients, but if you don't have time to read a query letter how in the world do you stay in business as an agent? And why not just say "not accepting new clients." I don't get agents and why they are always so busy. Shouldn't part of their busy obligations be to read query letters?

This comment elicited some great responses from readers as well as the team here at BookEnds. I’m going to start with a quote from a fellow publishing professional, someone who has been in the business for years, but has worked “behind the scenes,” in other words, not an acquisitions editor or agent.

I was kind of sympathetic to the commenter's bewilderment, but mostly I was just bewildered myself.

The more comments I see, the more I think A LOT of people out there writing books don't realize they're part of a business. It's like if you were an investment banker, everyone would understand that you're busy and overworked and can't just spend your day chatting about possible stocks, but since you're an agent you should be fun and completely accessible and want to read everything because, hey, books are so fun and not serious business.

And that’s the truth. In any business your primary responsibilities are to do those jobs that bring in money (it’s how we eat, pay the bills, and feed our dogs). If you’re a florist you don’t spend your days giving flower-arranging tips to customers who aren’t buying, and if you’re a photographer you don’t take pictures first as free “samples” in the hopes that possible customers will sign up with you later. So why is it expected that agents should give out editorial advice with every rejection letter and be spending all of their days reading unsolicited queries and proposals?

When I first read this comment my response was to try to make nice, make sure everyone still likes me, and explain that I was exaggerating, but then I thought more about it and the truth is that I don’t have time to read query letters. That’s not what I spend my days doing—it’s what I do when I’m at home, early in the morning or late into the night. In fact, reading submissions and queries is not an obligation at all. It’s something I want to do because I am always looking to find new clients, but it is not part of my daily responsibilities. My obligations are to my clients, those people I have written agreements with. Those people who have signed a contract with BookEnds, entrusting that I will make their careers my primary responsibility.

That doesn’t mean I don’t want to receive queries and new proposals, I just need to explain where an agent’s obligations lie.

So what is it I’m so busy doing? When it comes to reading, my primary responsibility is to my clients. At least once a day I receive something from a client, something I need to give my opinion on. It might be a new proposal we’re going to submit to publishers, a chapter for the book she is currently contracted for but struggling with, an ad she’s put together for one of the trade magazines, an email to an editor, cover copy, or even the full manuscript for the next book. When it comes to things I read, these take priority over unsolicited submissions.

I also have to review contracts and, if things are good, they can come in at a rate of one a week. I am not in the job of simply trafficking material through. My job is to make sure the contract is in the best interest of my client, which means whenever I get a contract from a publisher I need to carefully read it through to make sure that all of our negotiated points have made it in, that there’s nothing else I should be negotiating, and first and foremost that this is a fair contract for the author, my client. If I am negotiating new points or going back on points that were missed, this is a process that could take days.

Daily I talk to editors. I check in to find out the status of submissions, checks, and contracts. I call them to find out what they might be looking for, whether or not they want to see a new project I’m preparing for submission, and to just touch base. After all, one of my primary jobs is to know what is going on in the world of publishing. Isn’t that what you want an agent for, to have the contacts and knowledge that you don’t?

And to not make this too long, I also speak with clients and answer questions and concerns they might have, help edit a proposal before it goes out on submission, research proposals I’m considering for representation, read trade publications and keep updated on the market, review royalty statements for accuracy and keep the financial accounts for my clients, submit and sell books, guide clients on publicity and marketing . . . and the list goes on. I would love if some of the agented authors who read this blog would jump in and add any of those things their agents do for them because I think the one thing that is hard to understand is what an agent does besides sell books to publishers.

In a nutshell, not having time to read queries doesn’t mean that I don’t want to take on new clients. It just means that I have a busy day and that while I’d like to have time to sit and read I don’t, which is why I work seven days a week and why you’ll often hear from me on a Saturday or Sunday.

I hope this helps clarify a little about why an agent is so busy and helps you understand that it’s not just something to say while we’re lying on the couch reading books and eating chocolates.



Anonymous said...

Sports agents don't spend all of their time at sporting events looking for new clients. Real estate agents don't spend all of their time cruising neighborhoods and looking for new houses to sell. Yes, recruiting and searching for new clients is part of the job, but if these agents don't give the majority of their focus to their existing clients, they go out of business. Why should a literary agent be any different?

And why would you want to be represented by someone who always has their eye on the next big thing rather than on your career (which they are SUPPOSED to be representing)? How would you feel if you finally found an agent and that agent couldn't take your calls or focus on building your career because they were too busy reading query letters? Is that what everyone would consider fair?

Kate Douglas said...

I'll jump in on something Jessica didn't add to the list of what she does, and it's not necessarily an obligation but I sure appreciate it. She listens to me whine. Always patiently and with excellent suggestions, but I would imagine I'm not the only one of her clients who occasionally needs serious hand-holding, and not once has she made me feel as if I was not the only client BookEnds has. When I'm angry or upset, Jessica lets me vent and then she helps me find a better direction for whatever is bugging me...point being, I think you can add "Therapist for neurotic authors" to the list of obligations!

Cole Reising said...

Jessica - I had to smile while reading this - I'm a stay at home mother, writing on the side. Apparently you get the same kind of flack for your job that I get about mine. I mean I must have oodles of time to sit around, sit on the couch and watch tv all day while eating chocolate! ;) Kids aren't consuming work at all! At least that would seem to be the general theory despite everyone supposedly 'knowing' that taking care of kids is a job. :)

So I totally sympathize --- and know better and appreciate it when someone like you takes the time to even consider non-published authors. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Just to say, even us unagented writers know what an amazing job you all do -- and we appreciate it! That's why I'm trying to find an agent ;) Thank you for the information, and for all the hard work!

Anonymous said...

Another thing that Jessica forgot to mention is all of the daily responsibilities she and Jacky share as business owners. There's accounting issues, correspondence, marketing and legal matters that come with the role of any entrepreneur....

Anonymous said...

Anonymous said: Real estate agents don't spend all of their time cruising neighborhoods and looking for new houses to sell.

Actually, all of them do. Real estate agents make money in only one of two was: selling a house, and helping a client buy a house. If they constantly didn't look for new inventory or new clientele, they'd be out of work.

Jessica -- the original poster you quoted in your blog post wasn't asking you why you weren't nice or why you weren't dispensing free advice. He/she is asking you why you don't have time for new customer acquisition (i.e., read query letters). Correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't that a part of any business? It doesn't matter how busy a business is -- if they don't constantly engage in new client acquisition and rely only on existing clients, the business will stagnate. Unless of course they are happy with where their business is now and don't want to acquire new sources of revenue.

I do understand that there is a huge difference between a literary agency and, say a graphic design firm. It's an agent's market. Graphic design houses must actively pursue clients and actually spend money on promos/advertising/etc., whereas agents can pick and choose their clients. Right?

Anonymous said...

I don't think the question is - at least for me- whether or not you're busy. That seems very very obvious. The question is why you and others continue to request queries when you don't have the time to respond to them. I queried one of you in June. No reply. It was a professional query as was the writing. I'm not at all saying it was to your taste- just that it wasn't a throwaway. I'm not waiting for a reply, that's not the purpose of this post. I only wonder why agents say they're open for new material when they don't have time to deal with it. Of course it's a business. In my business, when I get overwhelmed with work, I stop taking new clients- even at the risk that I'll miss "the next big one".

Nevertheless, I certainly admire your agency and wish you well. I'm just puzzled. But there are worse things in life!

Anonymous said...

I somewhat can understand. I'm a book reviewer and I have currently two boxes full of books, three in my to-read pile. These are all books I have requested for various publishers. Up until last week, I had two filing cabinet drawers filled of books that publishers had just randomly sent me. Sometimes I get those random packages, read the press release and think, sounds interesting and they get reviewed. Most of the time, though, it gets tossed into the 'nah' pile.

I also don't get a chance to read at work, I have two whole other jobs at the newspaper, reviewing is a lot further down on the list. So I'm reading in the mornings when kids are at school or late at night when they're asleep. And on weekends, I'm spending tie with the kids, and writing my own novels.

So I can understand the different levels of interest and the time factor in queries/partials. I don't want to tell the publishers to stop sending me books because something great that I otherwise wouldn't read might come across my desk. It's the end of September, and I have reviews written for the whole next month. But if something that I think people have to read comes by, I'll make room for it.

Maybe it's a similar reasoning with the agents, I don't know. Maybe they should close up for queries until they get caught up, I don't know that either. I have a feeling, much like me, "caught up" is just never going to happen totally for them.

The agent pet peeve I have is those that want exclusive submissions, even for queries. For a query? If you're most likely going to say no, why?? I can understand for full manuscripts, but especially for queries and even for partials??

Anonymous said...

Of course real estate agents spend time looking for new properties and researching the market, but they don't spend ALL of their time doing that. They have an obligation to serve their existing clients and that should be their first priority. Besides, real estate agents are only a reference point.

We aspiring authors need to cut agents and editors a little slack. They are incredibly busy people who wear many hats, and I have to assume that they do their best to respond to our queries as quickly as they can. It's not like they deliberately make us wait for the sheer perverse pleasure of it. I would rather be able to submit my query and wait a bit longer for a response than to have agents start saying they aren't accepting queries at all.

Also, if you don't get a response to your query, send a polite letter asking about it. Maybe it got lost. Maybe the reply never made it to you for some reason. It happens. And if you care enough to submit, you should care enough to follow through.

Anonymous said...

"There was only one catch. And that was Catch-22."

So... I can't be your client because you are too busy taking care of your clients.

Okey dokey. Do you pack your lunch or walk to work?

Anonymous said...

As a writer, I appreciate you and other agents taking the time to read our queries, even if it takes you a while to get to them.

Please don't let the whining of some bloggers drive you to stop accepting queries.

Linda Maye Adams said...

I attended a writing conference, and one of the agents gave me an eye opening statement about the deluge of queries.

She receives over 250 a week.

That's 1,000 queries in one month.

And then the agent gets listed in a writing magazine top ten, and the number of queries received probably doubles or triples for several months.

No wonder everyone is struggling to keep up!

Unknown said...

wow, what a fifty fifty split. I agree with "it's a business". You as a writer are also one. Or, well you can be if you sole proprietorship yourself. If you really truly treat writing as a business, you understand that writing time is sacred. It makes you money and everything else gets squeezed into the rest of the time--like bathroom cleaning. Anyone who think me cleaning the bathroom takes precedence over my clean bathroom needs to get a clue. I'll do it, I need a clean bathroom, but it's not as important as writing. So why people would think you need to put them and their queries first makes me wonder if they've got to professionalism yet.

Unknown said...

yes, I meant over my writing. Sheesh, early morning posting.

Anonymous said...

Before I started querying, I decided to give agents the benefit of the doubt. Getting crabby about the process only takes valuable energy away from writing. I sent snail letters to about 20 agents and there's only one I never heard from.

BookEnds (Jacky) responded to my query in about a month. And when I received an offer of representation, she read my full ms over the weekend. I also know of several writers who signed with the agency in the past year. Suggesting that this agency doesn't have time to read queries is silly.

The entire publishing industry moves slowly. And the waiting doesn't end when you get an agent. As writers, it's easy to feel like we have no control over anything. But we do. Our writing.