Tuesday, October 21, 2008

An Agent's Responsibility

How much responsibility does an agent bear for a book not selling? Is a good agent - like a good query letter - simply responsible for getting the manuscript read? Are there different levels of editorial contacts that agents might have - junior vs senior - with more or less power? I guess what I'm trying to understand is whether who your agent is - provided they truly have contacts - really makes a difference in whether or not you get published.

These are a lot of great questions with a lot of answers. I’m going to try my best to answer all of these as clearly as possible because I think this is a really interesting topic. We talk all of the time about big agencies versus boutique agencies and “big name” agents versus those who are lesser known. And of course I’m always encouraging readers to consider those agents who have recently opened up shop and are hungry for clients. But how much responsibility does an agent bear for the sale of the book, or a book that doesn’t sell?

The truth is that the answer to that question is of course “it depends,” and I’d love to hear, anonymously of course, from some agented authors who’ve had different experiences with this. A good agent’s job is to get your work read by not just any editor, but hopefully the right editor. Is the agent solely responsible if the book doesn’t sell? Well, that’s something only you can determine. Did the agent seem aggressive in getting your book out? Do you feel that the agent had an effective plan, and if you asked your agent about the choices she was making could she give you honest feedback? For example, when making a submission plan there are certain editors I would prefer not to submit to and don’t submit to unless I absolutely have to. Why? Ultimately I don’t feel they are the best advocates for their authors. I also know different editors within different houses. I know some things about their personal interests as well as their reading preferences and I also know something about the style of writing and voice they often gravitate toward. I know the editors who like the same style of writing that I do and I know those that don’t. So when putting together a submission plan I’m not just considering which houses I think would be the best fit, but which editors.

Do the titles "junior" or "senior" come into play when making those decisions? Yes and no. They do in the sense that the longer an editor has been with a house and/or the more experience she has often the more pull or power she has within a house, but not always. I’ve known Senior Editors with little to no power and Assistant Editors with impressive lists and pull within a house. Does experience equal editorial advice? Not at all. When evaluating which editors to choose I think of my client and what I think she needs from an editor, I think of the book and what level I think it has potential to be within a house. Not all books should be judged the same way. Some are bigger books and should go to editors who can make them such, while others aren’t, even though the author eventually might be.

I think that at the end of the day your agent and an editor can be the very best of friends and have very similar interests, but your book has to be able to sell itself, and frankly, that’s what you want. Because even if your agent is powerful enough to convince an editor to buy it, no one is powerful enough to trick enough readers into buying the published book to make it a success. For example, maybe I know that Editor B is desperate for the exact type of women’s fiction I just read. Maybe Women’s Fiction X isn’t that great, but I know I can get her to buy it. Do I offer representation just to sell a book? Well I don’t. Because I don’t think it’s the best deal for the author. Just because I can sell a book doesn’t mean I can build a career, and building careers is my ultimate goal. Selling a book is a thrilling event for an author and for an agent, but you want it to be the start of your career, not one thrilling moment. In that case you don’t want an agent who can “convince” editors to buy a book. You want an agent who has the contacts you need to find the right editor to launch your career with.