Friday, 20 July 2012

My Life as an Agent

Who'd be an agent? You might discover a literary prince or princess, but you'd sure have to kiss a lot of frogs to get there. For every Eureka! moment when you pick up The Best Manuscript in the World Ever, there are months of wading through stuff that's never going to hit the mark. How hard it must be to know that these missives are someone's pride and joy, work that a writer has toiled and bled over (though hopefully not literally). How hard it must be to be the person who walks around with a pin all day, puncturing people's dreams.

It's not a job I could do, that's for sure. Though I could probably handle the functional parts of the role – reading, editing, submitting, meeting with editors, going through contracts etc. – it's the emotional part that would get me. I'd be the sad bleeding-heart guy trapped in the corner behind a pile of manuscripts, because I couldn't bear to let people down without reading their whole book. I'd be the guy sending out pleading emails to editors, asking them to reread the latest draft of a novel that they'd turned down once already. I would be the one taking on authors just because I loved their work, regardless of whether I could actually sell any of it. I would always take the first offer and never, ever, get a book to auction.

Now, none of these things are bad in themselves. In fact, from a client's point of view, I hope I would be a very attentive agent who did his best to please them. But publishing is full of people eager to please and it can create a weird atmosphere at times. Writers can get messed about for months just because an editor feels bad about disappointing them. Marketing people can pussyfoot around, rather than just emailing the cover design that they know an author is going to hate. When this culture comes up against hard business imperatives (such as at an acquisitions meeting), the results can be ugly.

So what does it take to be a successful agent? A thick skin, for sure, but also confidence in your own decisions. An ability to read very, very quickly certainly helps. Being a people-person is important, so you can schmooze with editors and build up a portfolio of their interests, as well as tracking the status of their lists. You need a good assistant whose opinion you trust and a willingness to delegate (actually, this is true of any senior role in business). You need an iron will so you can keep your nerve during protracted contract negotiations. But beyond this, you also need to keep your emotional centre. An agent is not a machine, trawling through millions of words until they find the exact mathematical combination that will make a bestseller. An agent has to connect – body and soul – with a book before they will consider representing it. And then they have to step back from that decision and make a judgement about whether the market will bear that particular book at that particular time.

Agents need a rare and unusual mix of skills, to be hot-headed and cool-minded at the same time. It's true that anyone can call themselves a literary agent, but it's also true that doesn't mean they'll be any good at it. Choose your path wisely.



  1. A cast iron liver probably helps too.

    1. I did once encounter an agent who was drunk at a literary party. I'm not saying who it was, but I did strike them off my mental submissions list!

  2. Great post Nick! Really enjoyed reading it and so true. It is certainly not a job I could do.

  3. Certainly not a job I could do, either. I haven't the ability to negotiate with others, if I liked an ms too much I don't think I'd be able to be pushy enough to get others to read it and like to publish it, and I am not good at communication in person, esp with my Asperger's.