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


Anonymous said...

I've had several agents (A-list agents with bestselling clients)that have never sold anything of mine. I'm currently agent-less.

I'll say perserverance is the thing I would most like in an agent and haven't yet found.

Someone who doesn't sign me only to give up after one round of submissions. Someone who doesn't give up after sending a ms four places. Someone who doesn't say "I love this, it is absolutely publishable!" one day only to give up completely because one of their three favorite editors turned it down.

I want an agent that KNOWS THE MARKET!! I'm not interested in the agent loving it -- I'm interested if the agent knows ten EDITORS that might love it.

Also, communication is key. Why sign a writer and then ignore her emails? Why send a sub out and never follow up with the edtior? Why let a ms sit in acquisitions for months on end without demanding an answer on behalf of your client?

I think it's important that you love books, but I think it's more important that you love writers and want to be their advocate. It's selling but it's advocating too, and I think that's forgotten often.

Unknown said...

I am so grateful there are people in the world who can pull off being agents, because I know I couldn't! I have persistence but not the right kind. Agents have to establish relationships with editors so they know what that editor will like, and build up trust so that when a MS lands on the editor's desk from that agent, the editor knows to read it right away. That kind of trust and intuition, while still making sure the writer is the top priority, is a way crazy complex thing to make happen.

(And I've gotten many many rejections over the course of 10 years trying to get published, but agents are getting told no pretty much every single day... it takes an extra-thick skin.)

Anonymous said...

I think an agent needs to be able to make a lot of phone calls. My agent does that, and that's a thing I could never stand to do. She needs to be upbeat and professional and not lose her temper even when people (writers, editors, etc.) are being extremely difficult.

Kate Douglas said...

There are a couple of other things I'd add--the ability to see the "big picture." I tend to be very focused on my work and my career, but I don't always see other options and potential problems. Jessica does, and she has a way of explaining them that doesn't leave me feeling like an idiot for not noticing on my own.

Which leads to another--respect for the process. Writing is hard work--in fact, most of what Jessica lists as important attributes for agents are the same things a writer needs to succeed. There have been times when Jessica has read something I've written and asked for a change I honestly could not make. She doesn't push it--she knows I'll do the best I can within my abilities, but there are occasionally things I don't "see" the same way she does, and she finds another way for me to work it.

A good agent--like a successful author--needs, more than anything, to love what she does. I think you can tell when an agent has lost that spark and the passion that brings everything together. I would suggest that, no matter how desperate you might be to find an agent, that you never, ever "just settle" for one. Find an agent who works for you on all levels--personal and professional. It will make all the difference in your career.

Kate Douglas said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kate Douglas said...

sorry...mine posted twice.

Anonymous said...

What I find interesting is that the traits which make a great agent, also make a great writer.

Passion, drive, competitive nature, open-mindedness (though it's a bit different for writers ... we have to be open minded enough to listen to critiques on our babies), perserverance, and patience.

No wonder it's so important to find an agent that embodies these traits. It makes for a much better working relationship if you're both giving your all to the business.

Janie Bill said...

Agents tend to have larger than life personalities, while at the same time, presenting themselves with humility. They are easy to engage in conversation and still have celebrity appeal.

Love the info. I have wondered what it takes to be an agent. It seems to be an authoritative and saintly position in life.

Marilynn Byerly said...

HONESTY Not just with the money, my former agent was an embezzler, but with all aspects of the business. If the agent doesn't think a book will sell, she should tell the author, not avoid her calls and emails. If the magic is gone, she should release the author from the agency contract so she can go on with her career, not be trapped in professional purgatory.

A BUSINESS PARTNER, NOT A CONTROL FREAK I've seen a number of friends who have been browbeaten and abused by agents who have acted more like abusive husbands than business partners. The relationship should be more of an equal partnership.

A PROFESSIONAL BACKGROUND IN PUBLISHING. An agent should have a background and contacts in publishing, or, if she doesn't, she should work for an agency who will help her develop those connections.

Brittany said...

How do you "become" an agent? How do you create relationships with editors and other people in the business? Do you just open up your own agency like you would a lemonade stand and then try to attract clients? Or do you find other agent friends and ask them what and who they know? I suppose this is what they have agencies for, but...

SmellingThePoop said...

Dare I say, but customer service skills play a role as well. Agents should have the capacity to deal with writers in a way that helps facilitate economic success for both parties. Many agents treat their clients like unwanted step-children, which is weird since it's the author's work that pays the bills.

Unknown said...

Thank you. I'm one of those people who wants to be an agent and I keep learning more about it that just makes me think it's the right thing for me. Thanks for sharing!

Anonymous said...

My dream agent is for life. She will keep her eye on the BIG PICTURE. He loves my work. Great communication skills. Enthusiastic. Becomes my friend and I become her friend.

Rosemary said...

Let's just say one who shows a certain "ferocity" about her work, demands the best of mine, and tells me the truth when I need to hear it.

Laughing at my jokes helps, too. ;>

Debra Lynn Shelton said...

I adore my agent. She has all the traits you mentioned and is a great business person, which is so important. She knows when to leave me alone, and when to nudge me along. She has faith in me and enthusiasm for my writing, and is excited to pitch my ms to a list of editors. I'm truly blessed.

I think agenting, like writing, is a calling in a lot of respects. You really have to want it bad. ;-)

Mira said...

My dream agent knows how very special I really am, and tells me that ALL THE TIME. They don't mind catering to my constant need for reassurance, because they appreciate my brilliance as a writer and understand the artistic temperment.

Besides, of all their clients, they like me the best.

However, they do have a life outside our relationship. Although they probably hope I will call each and every day - and race to the phone when I do - they give me the space I need to write independently.

They feed me compliments and cookies (oatmeal raisin). But most important, they are always congnizant of the fact that they are so very lucky to have me as their client.

And they also have many of the excellent qualities listed in this interesting post.

You did ask what our ideal agent is, right? Because I'm keeping it real.

Sammy said...

I'm an intern at another agency, and we were actually talking about this today. I think a really important part of being an agent is being able to handle rejection.

I think authors tend to forget that agents get rejected, too. All the time, in fact. They get passed over for another agent, an editor turns them down, etc. Authors aren't the only people who get turned away, and in that sense I think it's important for an agent to be able to accept and handle rejection well.

Also, professionalism. Agents need to be able to present themselves well. As much as an author is selling their book, an agent is selling themselves. They want to represent you, and to do that, they need to have a good reputation. Nobody wants to sign with an agent who is known to be lazy or has a bad temper or leads their client on. Impressions are important, there's no denying it.

And honestly, agents need to love what they do. I was afraid, before I began my internship, that my desire to be a agent might be completely wrong. As it turns out, I've decided this is EXACTLY where I want to be. I think it takes someone special to be an agent, and when I see how excited everyone in the office gets over a potential client, it really makes me smile and go, "Yeah. This is what being an agent is about."

Unknown said...

Just wanted to say, as a writer aspiring to publish, thank you for this post. It's important to remember, especially as the queries come back rejected, that agents struggle with their side of the business as much as we struggle to produce quality work we love.

Jess Anastasi said...

I already knew that agents worked hard, but I guess I just didn't comprehend the reality of that, of the long hours and many different aspects there are to deal with. I'm glad I read this post because even though I would have always been appreciate of my agent, now I have a better understanding of what she'll really be doing for me and all her clients. It actually makes me feel like I should be working harder than the few hours I put in every other day, makes me look slack in comparison!

Janet Bolin said...

A sense of humor probably helps, too.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

A competitive, good eyed, open minded, patient professional, with drive, to love my book and pimp my future.
15% commission offered plus a weekly 1-800-FLOWER delivery along and with one pound of Godiva 'G' Chocolate per month.
Any takers?
For those who are allergic or diabetic substitutions can be made.

Anna Banks said...

Patience. Agents must have patience to deal with newbies, to deal with rude people, to wade through the slush. Plus, the whole process of publishing is a lengthy one. Patience.

Lucy said...

Blogger Brittany said...

How do you "become" an agent? How do you create relationships with editors and other people in the business? Do you just open up your own agency like you would a lemonade stand and then try to attract clients? Or do you find other agent friends and ask them what and who they know? I suppose this is what they have agencies for, but...

12:58 PM, June 14, 2010


When people try to open an agency the way they would a lemonade stand, the result is usually a)failure, or b)resorting to unethical practices in order to stay afloat. These types of "agents" are nearly always disasters. Never, ever sign with one. Publishers do not want to work with an agent who knows nothing about the business. Not unless they are a vanity publisher looking for kickbacks or some other questionable profit.

That said: the best way to become an agent is to spend some years either working for one or more publishers (and moving up through the ranks, hopefully), or to start as an intern for a legitimate, experienced agency or agent, and learn the business there. For example, if you were to get one or more agency internships, you might be able to use that experience to get a job as an agency assistant, and eventually work your way up to agenting. But you must learn the business from someone who knows it.

For a more complete breakdown of the hazards experienced (and caused) by "lemonade stand agents" go to Writer Beware

and scroll down to "Amateur, Marginal, and Incompetent Agents."

Hope this helps to answer your question. :-)


Kimberly Kincaid said...

I am constantly overwhelmed by how staggering an agent's job is, and this just hammers it home. Wow.

And I thought being a writer was hard!

I love the concept that successful agents are (or can be) different types of agents, just as it is with writers. There are hallmarks that should be met (strong knowledge of the industry, for example), but everyone brings her own "flavor", if you will, to the table. I'm not currently agented, but I'd like to hope that when I find the right agent for me and my work, that she'd be my barometer of sorts, just setting the feeling for the track I'm on.

Very insightful- a nice look at the other side and how much goes on that we writers may or may not see.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

An observation:
My children's teachers, who were also parents, almost always seemed to be better teachers, particularly when relating to the stresses related to the demands of the student within a family structure.
Having said that,are agents who have actually written a book, and been through the process, better agents?
Having said that, I realize you don't have to suffer the illness to cure it but...

Steven Till said...

I'm curious, out of all the daily tasks you do as an agent, what do you enjoy the most and what do you enjoy the least?

Rachelle said...

Jessica, this post was dead-on! Thanks for writing it.