Monday, June 14, 2010

What It Takes to Be an Agent

I've been pondering this for awhile, so I figured I'd just ask. I've played around with the thought of becoming a literary agent after graduating from college. What I'm wondering is, what does it take to be an agent? Is there a certain personality type that is perfect for agenting and no other would work, or simply the proper motivation/drive to do so. Do you just know you want to be an agent, or is it a sort of trial and error sort of thing.

This is such an interesting question, and while I’m going to make an attempt to answer it, I don’t know if I’m the right person to really give the answer. I think I’m too close to it.

That being said, let’s see what I can do.

I do not believe there is any one personality type to a successful agent, just like there’s not one way to write a successful book. I do however think there is one thing every successful agent needs and that’s passion. Passion not just for reading, but passion for being a part of the process, for new discoveries, and for bringing books to the market.

So often I hear people say that they love to read, therefore they want to be agents. Oh, if only it were that simple. As any of you who have followed agents on Twitter or through blogs have probably come to realize, being an agent is not a 9-5 job. It’s a 9-9 job and then some, and the truth is the reading is such a small part of what we do. In fact, one of the struggles I think all agents face is that when you’re done strategizing with clients, negotiating contracts, talking to editors, submitting proposals, and selling books, there is very little time left for actual reading, and when there is, it isn’t really reading. It’s editing or reading with a critical eye. That’s not the type of reading most people think of when they imagine life as an agent.

After writing that I realized that I haven’t at all answered the question. Oops. Passion isn’t necessarily a personality trait. So what types of traits do I think all or most agents have?

Drive. All agents are essentially entrepreneurs. Even if you work for another agency you more than likely work on commission. That means no one is standing over your shoulder telling you what you need to do today to get the job done. In order to succeed you need to have the drive to spend your nights and your weekends working. There’s no such thing as paid overtime, but if you want to get ahead—and earn a living—you have to commit a lot of extra hours to make it happen. You need to realize that you might be spending eight hours in the office, but it’s also likely you’ll be spending 5-6 hours working at home. It’s this drive that ensures you find the best books and move on them before another agent gets the chance. It’s also this drive that ensures helping your authors become a success. You don’t have the time to work with an author’s manuscript during the day. You’re doing that at night.

A competitive nature. Let’s face it, agents need to be competitive. We’re competing with each other to discover the hottest new authors and we’re competing again with each other to sell our books to editors. I strongly believe this nature—and there are different levels of how competitive we are—helps us to both read quickly and is also driven by our passion.

An eye. This is not something you can learn in school, but I do believe successful agents have a certain eye/intuition for books that will work.

Open-mindedness. You have to be willing and able to read books that you may never have picked up for leisure. An agent can get excited about a book because she sees its marketability and merit, even if it’s not something she personally would’ve picked up at the bookstore.

Perseverance. You’re going to get knocked down a lot in this business. You’ll lose out on potential clients to other agents, you’ll fail to sell books you’ve fallen in love with, and you’ll lose clients who no longer feel it’s a good fit. To be successful you need to know how to get up and brush yourself off, to continue on again.

Patience. Success doesn’t come overnight. The first or second books you submit for your client may get rejection after rejection, but that third book could be a bestseller.

Let me hear from you, though. Many of you have agents and many others have met different agents over the years. While we’re all very different, are there any similar traits you’ve seen among the successful agents you’ve met?

Jessica and Kim

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