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.

—Jessica

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