The hardest thing an agent does

Janet Grant

Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant

What do you think is the hardest part of being an agent? Negotiating contracts? Selling projects? Handling clients’ emotional wipe-outs?

While each of these tasks is a considerable challenge at times, the hardest part of this job is telling the truth. Oh, not, as in avoiding lying to colleagues but as in being a truth-teller in a sea of myths. Online writers’ loops perpetuate myths as fast as rabbits create offspring. Legends regarding get-rich-quick self-publishing ventures, rumors of the death of bookstores or the irrelevance of  physical books find fertile ground on these loops. Because a multi-published author propounds a certain theory, others listen, even though that author has only his or her experience to see the publishing industry from.

Who’s going to tell you the truth? Your agent.

The other day I was talking to a client who asked for some word of encouragement as his career was being bounced around by the ever-shifting currents of publishing. I explained to him that most self-publishing ventures offer little financial reward for the hybrid author; that the majority of books still are sold through bookstores; and that digital sales make up about 25% of all book sales. Suddenly the publishing world looked very different to him from how it did a few minutes before.

While most writers have critique partners, sometimes those people don’t have a bigger perspective to see your work from–and they judge it based on how far it has come, not how far it needs to go. So they encourage you to submit your work or to self-publish it because they deem it ready. But that can be a myth.

Who’s going to tell you the truth about not only whether your manuscript is good but also whether it’s marketable? Your agent.

It’s one thing to tell the truth when the news is good, but it’s quite another to deliver bad news. It takes a commitment to truth-telling to inform an established author that her latest manuscript isn’t strong enough to keep her reputation untarnished. And, therefore, that the agent won’t be submitting it potential new publishers.

Or to say that an author’s latest idea won’t work because it’s trying to stretch a genre in a direction the genre’s readers don’t want it to go.

Or that the trajectory of sales numbers has created a problem for an author, and a plan must be put in place to change the momentum.

Or that the author isn’t strategically using social media and needs to apply stronger filters on what is being shared.

Or that the agent can’t shop a reworked proposal because, after it was sent out to every possible publisher, the writer got a brainstorm and has revamped the project.

If your agent won’t tell you truth, who will?

In what other ways do you want your agent (or future agent) to tell you the truth? Does it surprise you that truth-telling is a challenging part of being an attentive agent?

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44 Comments

  • Methinks your topic applies to more than publishing, Janet. Your phrase, “based on how far it has come, not how far it needs to go,” relates just as well to my Christian walk. It brings to mind the “reproof, correction and instruction in righteousness” of 2 Timothy 3:16 and calls for a God’s eye view. That’s a big thought to go along with my Monday morning coffee. Thank you.

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      I hadn’t thought about that phrase applying to us spiritually as well, but it certainly does. Thanks for reminding all of us of that truth.

    • Excellent connection between these two thoughts, Shirlee. Inspiring and thought-provoking. Thanks.

    • Dear Janet: Years before I opened my tea room, I was an interior designer with a big fashionable department store. It was my job to tell people things their friends might not tell them or might not know. It was why I was there. Sometimes it was little things like that permanent plant needed to go to the basement or curb or bigger things. Not only did I design a room for them I had to guide them on how to maintain it. Occasionally I had to begin the process of their new room by suggesting a cleaning crew come in first.

      What I am saying is in your position you are there to do the hard part, the sticky part and the part that will ultimately make your writers have better products and sell better. This is why you are there. This is your job. No one likes tough news but tough news in a nice package is not too terrible…and it is always necessary.

      I belong to, and enjoy, my writers group. But often I challenge if it isn’t the blind leading the blind. And the friendlier everyone is, the harder it is to be frank. After all, we are still all amateurs,even our published writers. And we are writers. Writers leading writers. Your position is critical. It is a step back point of view. It is a serious involvement with the industry point of view. It is a sales point of view. And this could go on and on. It is, in a word, a professional point of view. One we want and need.

      • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

        Jacqueline, I feel fortified by your words. Thank you so much for expressing the importance of what an agent can and should do for her clients.
        Regarding writers’ groups, they can be the delusional leading the delusional, but fortunately, if everyone can put on his or her reader hat, good insights can be offered. If not, the group becomes an emotional support group rather than a critique group.

  • Janet, I don’t have an agent. But I do have an editor. And I couldn’t be more thankful to have one. We all make mistakes. I take comfort knowing when I submit an article, there is an extra set of eyes.

    Walking into a particularly Christian bookstore through the holidays is very special. I know things change with time … ex: been having so many tell me that cursive is not being taught in schools anymore. And I say, “What?” I don’t understand. There is something special about being able to sign your name. Similarly, I will always cherish holding a book in my hand versus a kindle. Just me. And I pray traditional books and bookstores never fade.

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Every generation can hum a bar of “Times, they are a changin’,” but I can we should sing several choruses with vigor. Even within your one paragraph, the list is pretty astounding.

  • I wonder if there’s a corollary to the ‘hardest thing’ – telling the hard truths in an encouraging way.

    When I was an academic, I had to work with students who had a passionate interest in engineering, and no talent for math. Telling them that there was a serious problem – but that there was a way through it – could be tough.

    Generally, they turned off after the ‘problem’ part, and I had to break through a wall of dismay.

    The important thing in delivering a hard truth is that the focus has to be on the recipient – when “I’m telling a hard truth because I need to be true to ME” is operative, it’s often just an exercise in egotism.

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Andrew, yes, delivering the hard news encased in encouragement is the key. It’s one thing to just concentrate on the problem; it’s quite another to offer direction to correct the problem.

    • Andrew, That’s an excellent suggestion. I live near Seattle where the Seahawks are having a record winning season. Their coach is known for having an excellent relationship with his players. In an interview yesterday, one of the stars of the team was asked how the coach maintains those relationships even when players have to be disciplined. The answer matched your suggestion — he tells the truth in an encouraging way, always pointing the way the player and the team need to go, not how badly they have messed up.

  • Good morning, Janet.
    One thing I hold very dear is a person’s ability to speak the truth in love. Telling someone that they are not gifted at something to which they’ve given months and years of their life takes a level of grace that is almost physical.
    I refuse to become a Simon Cowell to someone. I am beyond thankful that I’m blessed with an agent, and that she is rather skilled at talking me down off whatever ledge I’ve delivered myself to, and knows exactly what to say to make me, umm, see the light.
    The truth, in life as well as our chosen field, is often wrapped in disappointment, so hearing it cushioned in kindness often makes the difference between a bite of chocolate, or a visit to See’s with a shopping cart and an IV of insulin.

    My dear agent should have “therapist” in her offical title. I wonder if she fills her coffee mug and sighs when she sees my name in her email line-up? Or, you know, maybe not? Maybe she just copies and pastes those words of brilliance into her file “stuff to quote when I hand Jennifer her Pulitzer”. Yeah, that’s totally it.

  • Jeanne T says:

    I agree with Jennifer. Speaking the truth can be difficult because of the delicacy needed to share it in a way that doesn’t decimate the hearer. I can completely understand why this is one of the most difficult aspects of your job as an agent.

    When I come to the place of being represented by an agent, I definitely want the truth spoken to me…as gently as possible, of course. Gentleness and forthrightness can go hand in hand when there’s a good rapport between two people.

  • I think it must be hard for agents to give rejections, and yet that is exactly what I want them to give me! I had an agent who gave me none of my rejections until the end of six months–and then, none of the notes from publishers were included (assuming there were any). I totally appreciate an agent who gives me the entire rejection email, so I can make notes of anything I can or want to change. Also, it just helps me move forward as an author. We can start figuring out the next book or the next step in our career plans. I have so much respect for agents who can bring authors the bad news and yet point out the good things about the rejections, encouraging us not to give up.

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Heather, sometimes the rejections contain no insights regarding the turn-down. Agents also receive the “it’s just not a good fit” messages, which are of zero help. But I always pass along editors’ responses (sometimes not the exact words because the editor was blunt in his or her assessment, but certainly the insights that would be helpful).

  • I can see how difficult that would be, Janet. But it’s like friendship. A good friend will tell you the truth in a way you can hear it. Because you trust your friends, she is in a place where she can speak the truth more effectively than someone who doesn’t know you. An agent, hopefully, is close enough with her clients that she can speak the truth with kindness and be trustworthy of a good listen…even when it’s hard.

  • Jaime Wright says:

    On the flip side, the hardest thing I believe we as writers need to do is be open to hearing truth. Our perspectives are warped by falling in love with our characters or stories and holding them so tight we refuse to or cannot hear the words being said to us. My prayer with my stories is the same as I speak over my little mini-me’s everyday … “Lord, may I hold them with with open hands that You might take them where You will–which is the safest grip for them to fall into.”

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Jaime, you’re so right. I’ve had the experience of telling a client why I don’t believe his or her latest project will find a publishing home. Sometimes clients ask me to “just send it out to see.” That route does neither the author’s nor the agent’s reputation any good. I really, really, really do have a better sense of the market (considering the hundreds of proposals I submit every year and the multiple conversations I have with editors throughout the year), not to mention emotional distance from the manuscript. I love it when a client will listen to me and believe me. It saves both of us a lot of agony.

      • Ah yes, emotional distance from a manuscript. Something we, as writers, do not possess in spades. This, along with a full measure competence and discernment, is another reason I hope to work with an agent.

    • I love this insight… success in publishing is a function of humility. The humility to learn, the humility to respect processes, the humility to receive correction, the humility to be edited, critiqued, reviewed, rejected… and to keep pressing on.
      Thank you, Janet, for the tough love.
      And thank you, Jaime, for the insightful post.

      • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

        Bill, humility seems at odds with how the world views authors, doesn’t it? And yet, without humility, it’s very difficult to succeed–unless you come to the task already famous.

      • Humility doesn’t mean thinking you’re no good. It means knowing your place. Honest praises from our critique group friends as well as honest criticisms and rejections can all help us develop humility if we’re willing to let them.

  • Truth-telling is just a difficult part of life, because so many people want to cruise along in their rosy-colored, everything’s-fine haze. I appreciate that you see a need to tell the truth and that you do it with such grace and tact. This blog post is a case in point. You list many great reasons to seek a top-notch agent. Thank you, Janet, and have a wonderful Thanksgiving!

  • Amanda Dykes says:

    Janet, what a great post. Thank you! It brings to mind the words of Proverbs 27:6- “Wounds from a friend can be trusted.”

    The gift of an honest agent, one who pours her heart into her clients and therefore will “speak the truth in love”…and agent like that is a treasure indeed. I’m so thankful for each of you at Books and Such and the commitment you have to build honest, valuable relationships. What a gift you all are!

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Thanks, Amanda. I know most agents WANT to be truth-tellers, but it can be hard to work up the courage to do so. The temptation is just not to wade into those troubled waters.

  • Thank you, Janet for your honesty. I am so grateful to the Books and Such Agency. I read your blogs with an eagerness to learn and grow.

    I treasure my relationship with my agent and value her wisdom and gentle ability to tell the truth in love. There is a responsibility for a client to accept, discuss, and be truthful in return. It’s a two-way street.

    Have a blessed Thanksgiving!

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Kathy, that’s a good point about honesty being a two-way street. If I’m not interacting with my clients in ways they think I should, or if I’m not taking some action on their behalf, I want them to open a dialogue with me about my shortcomings. Nicely, of course. :-)

  • The truth, especially when it’s bad news, can be disappointing, but it’s exactly what I want to hear. When a friend reads my manuscript, it’s not helpful at all if they say, “It’s good. I like it.” I want to know what they didn’t like, what needs to be changed, what I can improve on.

    If there’s food on my face, I don’t want to walk around looking like a slob. I want someone to tell me.

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Phil, I think most of want to hear what others don’t like in our manuscripts. Or at least we think that’s what we want–until we receive it. That introduces us to all sorts of thoughts and feelings we didn’t realize we possessed until that moment.

  • We’ve become such an opinion-based society, that this blog–including this post–are as refreshing as water from an artesian spring!

    Impulse opinion. Reactionary opinion. What-I-wish-were-true-so-I’m-going-to-believe-it-and-preach-it opinion. Sigh.

    “Claiming to be wise, they show themselves as fools,” reads Romans 1:22, talking about those whose reasoning is pointless, and specifically those who ignore foundational truths in favor of the trend of public opinion.

    I’m so grateful for this forum that isn’t afraid of debate, but, even when expressing an opinion, notes it as such. And the Books & Such opinions are studied, hard-earned, and dripping with wisdom!

    We who follow this blog are richly blessed.

    We who are part of the Books & Such family are doubly blessed.

    Thank you for not being afraid to tell us the truth.

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Cynthia, our society is indeed opinion-based rather than fact-oriented. That is one of the results of the power we lend to all bloggers and all those who propound opinions in social media. We render them authorities simply because their fingers clack away on keys. Discernment is sadly lacking among readers.

  • Debbie Erickson says:

    I, too, enjoy receiving your newsletter, and gain much from it. However, I’m a yet-to-be-published children’s author and I wish you had an agent that specialized in children’s books.

    Thanks for this post, Janet.

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Debbie, sadly, it’s very difficult for an agent to make a living representing children’s authors. I personally love children’s books and find them unendingly delightful.

  • It doesn’t surprise me that truth-telling is a challenging part of being an attentive, and may I add, successful agent. I imagine confrontation would be a bit easier for certain personalities, and more gut-wrenching for others. Since the B&S agents talk often about a writing career, then I would think your clients trust your big picture view of the industry.

    I would want my future agent to tell me where changes need to be made in my writing, but also where an about-face is needed. If they see potential for me to move in another direction, a direction that they believe would fulfill a need in the reader or in the publishing industry, I hope I’d be willing to trust them and the Lord’s leading through them.

    Have a great holiday Janet!

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Jenni, the Books & Such agents, who are all about encouraging our clients, constantly have to remind ourselves that withholding our insights from a client isn’t doing that client one iota of a favor. We fall in the “gut-wrenching” category when it comes to pointing out what could be painful course corrections. But we know the only way forward is by telling the truth as gently as possible.

  • Tricia Goyer says:

    I totally understand this! Just today I had to tell a new friend that the book he paid to have ghost-written wasn’t up to par to submit to an agent. I had to tell another friend that she needed to slow down on the self-publishing trajectory that she’s on because a book is more than a collection of blog posts. I encouraged her to hire a editor that can provide feedback on content, not just on grammar and spelling.

    It’s hard to tell the truth but it saves a lot of heartache and rejection in the end … I hope my friends understand that! :)

    I’m also glad for all the TRUTH you’ve shared with me over the years, even though I didn’t want to hear it!

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Tricia, you exemplify someone who tells the truth in love. And you’ve always received the truths I shared with you with an open heart. Fortunately, I’ve had lots of opportunity to deliver good news to you as well as hard truths over our 11 years of working together.

  • Hi Janet,
    You remind us of a most basic principle of growth: be honest with yourself and others. It’s so fundamental that it is overlooked as a “given”.
    When you begin with that premise, in your own life or your professional career, you will save yourself a lot of time and heartache. Thanks, Janet for the reminder.

  • Anne Love says:

    I wouldn’t want anything other than the truth. Even when it hurts. It’s amazing when knowing the truth, even when it’s a rejection–really brings things into sharp focus. It provides some sort of line to push up against. And, knowing the efforts on both sides, the writer’s and the agent’s, have been bathed in prayer, even if it’s a rejection there’s a peace the immediately follows the initial pain of disappointment. You just take a breath, and get back at it like my son said, “Mom, just walk it off, just walk it off and get back at it.” :)

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