Wednesday, May 23, 2007

What Does an Agent Do?

I get asked all the time what a literary agent does, and my standard reply is, “I represent authors in the sale of their work to publishers.” That’s usually boring enough to stop the conversation (which is my goal). While I love my work, I get tired of explaining it to laypeople and really tired of getting pitched at every event I go to—weddings, family reunions, dinner parties, and, yes, even funerals.

Unfortunately, this short and conversation-ending answer is too easily believed. The truth is that agents do a heck of a lot more than simply sell an author’s work. An agent is so many things rolled into one it sometimes amazes even me. I’m a salesperson, a marketing director, a publicist, a therapist. I hold hands, give tours, take notes at meetings, edit manuscripts, hail taxis, brainstorm title ideas, and even carry cocktails and purses.

All of this work is why agents are so often behind on submissions, phone calls, and emails. I think that when it comes to struggling authors seeking publication, few look beyond selling the work as the true job of an agent, and few take the many other roles of an agent into consideration when hiring an agent. All of these facets of an agent's personality, and job, are the reason you need to feel a connection with your agent. They are the reason you need to like said agent and, more important, the reason you need to trust the person you’re bringing on to work as part of your team. After all, would you want to let someone you don’t trust carry your purse?

So to bring a little perspective to an agent’s duties, I would like to hear from our agented readers. What does your agent do that’s far outside the realm of what people traditionally think of as an “agent’s job”?


10 comments: said...

I'm thrilled to hear that when I get an agent, I'll get some help with brainstorming a title. Mine fits my novel, but it's less than exciting. I'd love to hear what someone else could come up with.

Bernita said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sally MacKenzie said...

Hey, I don't think you've ever carried my purse, have you, Jessica? And we haven't really done the selling thing yet, since so far--knock on wood--I've had sort of serial contracts, but everything else from negotiating the contracts to guiding me around NYC to being my memory at publisher meetings (and especially acting as therapist!) you've accomplished. Did you have teacher on the list, too? Educating new writers on the mysteries of the publishing business should definitely be there. I'm always amazed when writer pals tell me they are afraid to ask their agent a question--in fact, from my observations, way too many writers are afraid of their agents.

kris said...

Oh, my goodness. The utterly delightful things I never expected to receive from an agent:

1. Neverending belief. Like, the well NEVER runs dry.
2. A date for the Golden Heart ceremony
3. a co-presenter for workshops
4. an incredibly helpful and informative blog!
5. complete honesty, no matter how much it might hurt to deliver the news
6. someone I can laugh with

And, of course, there was that offer to look after my kids when I have to go to Russia ... :-)

Sally MacKenzie said...

Well, the more I thought about it, the more I realize you DO carry my purse--you get all my royalty checks for the books you agented, deduct your 15% and send a new check on to me. So I'd be in real big trouble if I didn't trust you.

This isn't blind trust, of course. I have to be a good businessperson. I go over all my royalty statements and contracts and ask questions--another reason not to be afraid of your agent.

And, regretfully, if the word on the street is to be believed, some agents AREN'T worthy of trust and have not handled their authors' royalties in a businesslike or sometimes even honest way.

Isabelle Santiago said...

This is a great post. I've battled with whether or not to get an agent for a while. This definitely answered my question.

Thanks for all you do Jessica. Don't downplay it. It's that type of support that keep authors going.

Kate Douglas said...

I'm not sure if this comes under the "therapy" title or merely a new one -- saving an author's career, possibly? But on more than one occasion I've been able to unload on my agent rather than saying something in the wrong place at the wrong time that could have gotten me into a lot of trouble. Add to that the handholding/taxi calling/ idea bouncing/etc. and I can't imagine being in this business without my agent. Thank you, Jessica!

loralee said...

I can honestly say that I'm glad to have Kim in my corner for more reasons that the fact that we both like Lyle Lovett. (grinning)

Kim has kept my confidence from lagging (sagging?) when I was down. She knows the goals I've set for myself and encouraged me to follow them. And did I mention she has the patience of a saint when it comes to waiting for my manuscripts? Her professional advice regarding my writing is always right on.

I don't think she's ever carried my purse, but probably would if I asked her to. She's that kind of gal. Thanks, Kim.

Karen MacInerney said...

What does my agent do? She...

a) suggests fabulous ideas to me, which I write up and send back to her, so she can

b) tell me how to make the writing better, after which she

c) contacts scads of editors, sends out the proposal, updates me on the feedback, and negotiates a fabulous deal for me.

At which point you'd think she'd sit back and put her feet up, maybe with a nice glass of champagne, to celebrate a job well done. But wait... there's more!

She then gives me feedback on the work in progress, calls and gives me a boost when I'm ready to give up writing and take up waitressing, answers e-mails at all hours of the day and night, responds quickly to my crazy ideas (and makes suggestions based on what she knows is going on in the market), chases down contracts and checks, and is always, always in my corner.

In case you were wondering, my agent is Jessica.

And I am one very, very, lucky author.

Karen (who is hoping that every writer out there 'clicks' with an agent just as fabulous)

Christine Wells said...

So many things, but one that stands out for me--I live on the other side of the world and Jessica will speak on the phone to me out of business hours (sometimes insanely early in the morning) so that I don't have to stay up all night. As a sleep-deprived mother of two, I deeply appreciate this 'beyond the call' consideration. Thanks, Jessica!