Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Starting an Agency

I get a lot of questions about how to start a literary agency and it’s taken a long time for me to come up with an answer. What intrigues me about the question is that there seems to be an implied easy answer, that one with no publishing experience can simply set up shop one day and call herself an agent.

My number-one piece of advice to starting an agency is to get some experience. Find an entry-level position with either an established agency or a publishing house, learn not just the ins and outs of the office but learn and understand the difference between a good book and a marketable book, and of course learn and understand publishing contracts.

I think the biggest trick to becoming an agent is not the contract. Anyone can take a legal course and learn publishing contracts or negotiation strategies. The biggest trick to success as an agent is learning how to judge and sell books, and I didn’t learn that from a book. I learned how to really find marketable books by sitting in editorial meetings and presenting books to colleagues. I had to listen as they more or less ripped apart the books I liked and told others that they did not see it as publishable. I also had the opportunity to read books that others thought were publishable and present my opinion, as well as listen to the opinions of others.

Being an agent is not like being a doctor. I don’t hold people’s lives in my hands. I do however hold their careers, hopes, and dreams, and assuming that just anyone can do that is assuming a lot.



Anonymous said...

Want to trade?

I do not doubt that being an agent is a hard job. You probably make people unhappy or upset regularly. You have to make decisions based on professional knowledge and stick by your guns. You probably get more crazy email in an hour than I get in a day.

You might even have editors call you up just to yell at you. I wouldn't know. I get the impression that being an agent can be a tough racket.

That said, you don't work 12 hour shifts on your feet taking care of ungrateful, angry people and their families. You don't have to call someone at 2 am and get chewed out for calling them, regardless of whether or not you were right to call.

You think being an agent is tough? Try being a nurse in an ICU.

Imagine that on your way home from work, all you can think is, "Thank God, none of my patients died last night." Or the much worse, "Why did my patient die? What did we miss? What could we have done differently?"

Please don't tell me that agenting is hard. Nursing is hard. Everything else is merely difficult or specialized.

Bowman said...

Wait...I can't mass produce agents and agencies?

*stops training hogs to reject queries*

Anonymous said...

What intrigues me about the question is that there seems to be an implied easy answer, that one with no publishing experience can simply set up shop one day and call herself an agent.


Now there's a frightening thought.

I'm still in the process of researching which agents I want to query and I always feel better (if it's a small agency or an agent working independently) to see that they've spent time with another agency or a publishing house.

I see it a bit like earning one's stripes. It may not be easy but the experience and contacts one develops provide a stronger foundation for future success.

Anonymous said...

I, for one, have never assumed that just anyone can be an agent. In fact, I can't imagine doing it for even a day. I couldn't handle the pressure or the responsibility or the hours and hours of work, and I'd have trouble having to put publishable before "good". That last part is what interested me most about this post. I'm assuming publishable means that it's likely to sell well enough that a publisher, who is in business, will make money from it rather than lose it. It is clearer to me now (in this economic downturn) how very fragile businesses are, how they can be forced to close their doors in a matter of weeks if their sales (and financing) aren't there. I've always (I can admit this since I'm anonymous) resented publisher's and agent's expecting writers not only to write but to have business sense and be able to market their own product. So many of us do not possess that sort of talent or, if we do, simply have no interest in that aspect of the business. But I'm starting to get it. The publishers can't AFFORD to do it all themselves and if we don't help to sell our own products, they will go out of business.
I may be rambling a bit off the topic but the point I'm trying to make is that, even though I am one of the writers who may never be published again, I admire what you do, appreciate it and thank you. And the fact that you write this blog on top of all the other things you have to do just amazes me. So, thank you, Jessica.

Stacia said...

Anon 1, I think the point Jessica was making was that her job has difficulties but she would never claim it's as difficult or important as being a doctor or an ICU nurse.

That's what I got from it, anyway. My mom is an ER nurse, so I'm very familiar with everything you said in your comment, and I'm equally sensitive to those who imply nursing is an easy job or that nurses don't so anything but what docs tell them...but I didn't see any disrespect at all in the post, and I'm sure none was meant.


Anonymous said...

Jessica: Well said. And that's why you are as successful as you are and why you will become even more successful. I don't say this in an effort to toady up. It's simply an unbiased observation.
There is as much art to agenting, I think, as there is business acumen. You have both in spades.

Anonymous said...

@anon above: If you read the post more carefully, I think the point Jessica was making is that her job *isn't* comparable to nursing, and I feel you are getting distracted by semantics here. There are other jobs that are hard in their own ways--some even as hard as nursing, and I could give you a long list--but MY point is that your treating this post as if Jessica is disparaging your profession by talking about the difficulties and challenges of being an agent does you no credit.

Anonymous said...

I really doubt anyone without publishing or editorial experience would simply "open shop" and expect legit writers to sign up? Writers can market themselves for that matter. But what we really look for is not only an agent with contacts and publishing savvy, we want someone who likes and appreciates our work, who "gets" us and our material. I look for courtesy, professionalism, respect, EX communication skills and a reasonable turn-around time, not an agent who only deals in formulated replies or the wisdom of a college intern to handle potential clients or most of his or her business. In fact, it seems a good agent must learn the ropes just as we writers do!

Anonymous said...

I really doubt anyone without publishing or editorial experience would simply "open shop" and expect legit writers to sign up?

Happens every day. I know of one that's been in business for over two years, not a single sale.

Anonymous said...

Could you describe the difference between a good book and a marketable book? I have an idea, but ...


Kate Douglas said...

"I really doubt anyone without publishing or editorial experience would simply "open shop" and expect legit writers to sign up?"

Actually, this is a huge problem, and there are probably more scam artists out there than real agents. The ranks of writers who have been sucked in by unscrupulous "agents" are legion. Always do your homework before you query, and ALWAYS read a contract thoroughly--and understand it completely--before you sign.

Anonymous said...

Yes, an "agent" tried to market a friend's book for a year but it only consisted of mailing out query letters that the writer could've done herself. No takers, no sales. How many serious writers fall for faux agents like that? You can't just slap together a letterhead and call yourself an agent, just like writers can't learn their craft overnight.

Anonymous said...

Anon 11:32:

I think a serious writer who does their homework is less likely to be taken in, but I'm still sure it happens - especially for writers outside of major centers.

I suspect, though, that for every unpublished writer who has done their homework, there are two more who have a dream or a thought and are simply pushing blindly ahead. Some people, when chasing a dream, check their common sense at the door.

Stacia said...

What Kathleen said. It's very easy to be taken in by some of these agencies--at least, the ones that aren't actually scams, but are just bad/inexperienced agents. They go to cons and workshops; they take pitch appointments (a lot of writers assume this means they've been vetted, but that's not always the case). They look legit. They have warnings on their websites about paying agents and adhere to AAR standards.

They look and act legit in every way, because they are. They're just ineffective. They don't have the experience to pick sellable mss, they don't have the connections to sell what they do have, and they don't know enough about agenting in general to be able to guide their writers with any degree of skill or accuracy. I think there are quite a few writers who don't realize how much work being an agent actually entails, and how much connections and reputations matter. They think that because their agent worked in marketing for several years and studied a lot of publishing contracts that means they're capable of agenting; they think all agenting really is, is submitting mss.

And to a writer who's just sending out queries to any agency they see listed, without checking sales...who listen to friends repped by that agency, or make their #1 concern whether or not an agent is "nice" and "clicks with them" instead of worrying about that later and checking sales records before they query... It's very easy to be dazzled by the word "agent" and not think about everything that entails.

This is just how it looks to me, judging by some of the people I'm aware of who've signed with ineffective agencies. It seems they think an agent is an agent is an agent, and as long as they're not charging fees it means they're legitimate and capable. And sadly that is not the case.

Anonymous said...

Everyone talks about these "ineffective" agents but it'd be nice if people would actually name names and relate their experiences to help writers still seeking representation.
How about sharing both good and bad experiences w/ the rest of us so we'll be better informed? There are a few websites that are very helpful so that's a good start. Any feedback?

BookEnds, A Literary Agency said...

Anonymous--you should check out and writers beware. Both are great resources for talking about ineffective agents.

T. M. Hunter said...

Sounds much like when someone slaps together the first draft of their first novel ever, and asks "Now, how do I get it published?"

Anonymous said...

"Anyone can take a legal course and learn publishing contracts or negotiation strategies."

And here I thought my law degree was a pretty big deal...

Interesting post, though.

Venus Vaughn said...

Lots of panties twisted up in these replies.

Anon 8:42 she didn't say anyone can get a law degree, she said anyone can get take a course in publishing contracts. And you know what? Anyone can.

When I got my masters I learned that it doesn't take exceptional intelligence to get an advanced degree it take opportunity and motivation. A few folks get kicked out - but that's a different story.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Jessica--yes, those sites are helpful but only give you limited info (query/ms response time, etc). I'd like to know more about how agents treat their writers and how long it takes them to sell their books. How closely do they work w/ their clients--do they keep in touch and commnunicate or is the writer left on their own, out of the loop? Does the agent treat the writer with courtesy and respect or just as a meal ticket/writing factory, anxious to move on to the next sale?
We want to be privy to all the nitty-gritty details that make some agents not just good, but great. Thanks for the input!

Stacia said...

Anon 2:46, that's another way places like the AW Water Cooler can be helpful. If you register for an account you can PM members; lots of us say in the agent threads who we're repped by, and almost everyone is willing to share just the type of info you're looking for on our agents privately.

I've gotten several PMs about my agent over the last year or so and will gladly answer any questions at all, and most writers I know feel the same.