Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant
Over the last few weeks I’ve had conversations with more than one writer who had little understanding of what an agent does. Their expectations reminded me about two ways would-be clients (or current clients, for that matter) misconstrue an agent’s role.
An agent isn’t a magic wand
An established author contacted me about representing him. As we discussed the current state of his career, I discovered:
- he never had an agent because he never saw the utility of that relationship
- he had negotiated bad contracts and bad deals for himself
- he had moved to a new publisher despite the top-billing his old publisher had maintained for him
- the new publisher wasn’t promoting his most recent release, and his sales numbers were in serious decline
The author was thinking that, maybe, an agent could get him some marketing bucks for his release and get him out of his multi-book contract. I concluded that said author’s career called for triage. Yet the author had no idea how imperiled he was.
But one thing he did know: An agent could wave a magic wand and make it all better.
Nope. Ain’t going to happen.
Now, we can pull rabbits out of the hat…sometimes. We can rescue careers…sometimes.
Still, we offer no guarantees that we can fix what has gone dreadfully wrong and sometimes has taken years to get as bad as it is. We also can’t resolve problems with a book as it is being produced if the author doesn’t tell us things aren’t going well. If we hear about issues that forecast the book won’t do well only when it’s too late to step in and mend the problem. there will be no magic wands.
An agent isn’t a life preserver to be used only in case of an emergency
A friend recently connected me with an author who had written a book that had best-seller written all over it. But the writer was new to publishing and confused about why she needed an agent. She had, in fact, contacted a publishing house that was wooing her toward a book contract. The author riddled me with questions about what an agent could do for her, and I launched into a round of mini-workshops on what agents do that go way beyond finding a publishing home for a project. I explained that I was pretty certain several publishers would be interested in her project, and that it would be in her best interests to give me a chance to show the project around.
But the writer liked how excited the publishing house she had contacted was. She couldn’t see that she was short-changing herself by not signing with me and giving me free rein to do what agents know how to do: elicit significant interest from a number of publishers and choose the house that has the most enthusiasm for and willingness to invest in a project.
Two days after the writer and I went our separate ways, I received a panicked email saying the publishing house she was so sure was perfect for her had turned down the project. I suspect because she insisted that the book be released in three months, which was another point I had explained to her was seriously off-putting to publishers.
“Take my project to other publishers,” she wrote in her succinct email.
I think she pictured me as a life preserver, and she had just realized she was in a storm-tossed sea.
Nope. Ain’t going to happen.
She already had shown herself incapable of trusting me to take care of her and her project. Once I started to work on her behalf, she was chaotic enough to take over the process from me, once again muddying the waters with unrealistic expectations. I loved her project, but she was impossible to work with. I couldn’t be her life preserver.
The two takeaways I would suggest from this blog post are:
1) Realize your agent can only work with what you give him or her. If you don’t have a stunning project, if you aren’t building your platform, or if you don’t want to concentrate on writing manuscripts that build a brand, you are asking your agent to be a magic wand.
2) Understand that a writer’s unrealistic expectations about the size of an advance, the best way to move his or her career forward, or what a publisher can/should do for a project, put the agent in the role of a life preserver that is called into play only when it’s an emergency. And there will be an emergency; probably more than one.
Let’s turn the tables. What do you wish agents realized writers aren’t?
What do you do to keep realistic expectations of the publishing process? What’s the hardest thing for you to accept?
What are 2 things literary agents can’t do for you? Click to tweet.
What are realistic expectations of a literary agent? Click to tweet.